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DJ Spooky Interview

Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) and William Burdette

Noise From the Street: Introducing, Interviewing, Amateuring (Will Burdette)

            Before I pass the mic to DJ Spooky, let me introduce myself. I am not an MC or a DJ. I am not “from the streets.” I am from some streets, but they were mostly quiet, tree-lined suburban streets. Thinking about street cred, or my lack thereof, I’m reminded of the “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which Chris Rock, performing as Nat X, interviews Kevin Bacon, who is impersonating Vanilla Ice:

Nat X: So you’re saying you’re from the streets?

Vanilla Ice: Word to your mother.

Nat X: What street? Sesame Street?

I deploy this reference to suggest that I come to the idea of remixing from the outside. Were I to position myself as a DJ, I would come off worse than a hip-hop collaboration between Joaquin Phoenix and Dee Dee Ramone (RIP). I come to remixing late. And I think this characterizes how many of us who teach writing have come to remixing. The CCCC theme was “remix” in 2010, but it has been three decades since Grandmaster Flash released “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” on Sugar Hill Records in 1981 (Flash). I was not even cognizant of rap, hip-hop, remixing (or much of anything) in 1981. I was slightly more cognizant when, 20 years ago, Public Enemy collaborated with Anthrax to recompose their song “Bring Tha Noise.” That song was hard to ignore. Although Public Enemy released the song first on their album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” on Def Jam in 1988, the new, collaborative version of the song was reissued on “Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black” (Def Jam) by Public Enemy and “Attack of the Killer B’s” (Megaforce) by Anthrax in 1991. So perhaps I didn’t come to remixing late. Perhaps remixing came to me, just in time, in the form of confusion.

            I remember my 15-year-old brain being confused by the fact that a rap group would collaborate with a metal group. I thought those were two distinct genres. I thought they had two distinct audiences, marketing, and distribution streams. In retrospect, I realize that they had two distinct audiences first because of geographical situatedness and later because of marketing. There was nothing permanent about those boundaries. They were at best arbitrary and at worst driven by a capitalistic compulsion to market off-the-rack identities to consumers. But genres, the song demonstrates, are changeable. “Bring Tha Noize” was a kind of shock-and-awe tactic used by the two bands to overwhelm the system. “Bring Tha Noize” was a sonic explosion. It blew holes in the neat categories that kept this genre separate from that one. The effect is similar to William S. Burroughs saying, in First Thought Best Thought, “There’s no line between music and poetry. I mean all these arbitrary lines really, in fact, don’t exist.”

            Noise can disorient us and destabilize our systems. But it is not just this explosive, destabilizing effect that is significant. The noise can be instructive. In The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, Garret Keizer writes “I am not so much interested in what noise causes as in what noise announces. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there’s noise, there’s often a complex of social, economic, and environmental disadvantages, the eradication of any one of which would likely reduce the effects of the others” (35). The flipside of that is also true. The introduction of social, economic, and environmental changes can create noise that acts as a feedback loop, introducing more social, economic, and environmental changes. “Bring Tha Noise” introduced rap to metal fans, and vice versa, breaking down social barriers. But what are we announcing when we bring the noise to academia, a traditionally quiet space? And more importantly, what can we learn from noise?

            I think the first thing we, “the teachers,” can learn from noise is how to be amateurs. We are used to reading quietly. We may have experience with poetry or reading literature aloud or oral interpretation. But most of us do not have much experience with audio recording. In the accompanying audio piece, Paul Miller reminds me, as I interview him that “the recorder is going to pick it all up.” He was referring to the siren, the jack hammer, the high heels clicking on marble floors, the voices, and our conversation. We chose the interview spot because it was a beautiful day and we wanted to be outside. It was a usually quiet courtyard with a zen-style garden, path, and fountain. It is walled-off from the street and the bustle of the university. But it was not quiet the day I interviewed Miller. I could have insisted that we find a quiet place inside. I could have brought professional mics for the interview and placed them in such a way as to not pick up so much ambient noise. But I decided to roll with the situation rather than attempt to change it. Then a pang of fear hit me as I heard the siren. I was going to blow the biggest interview of my not-yet-existent career. Then I relaxed. That siren was teaching me something.

            Later, I remembered an article in CCC by Jenny Edbauer Rice. She writes about how she learned proper mic placement by improper mic placement “When I listened to my tape that night, however, I discovered why proper microphone placement is crucial. The two interviewees sounded like they were a mile away from the microphone, and the room noise almost overpowered the women’s quiet voices” (“Rhetoric’s Mechanics”). The acoustic effects of improper mic placement actually altered the reception of the story. Rice writes, “the recording delivered a cold, distant sound that undercut the story’s power.” She learned from the room noise. “From that day forward, I never failed to hold the microphone much closer to speakers,” she wrote. When it comes to audio recording, we learn to position mics away from noise. We learn to listen for it, in order to avoid it. We learn technical details from noise. But noise still interrupts us, and we might learn to welcome such interruptions because they help us navigate our world. A siren signals a breach in the normal flow of life. It pleads with us to stop and acknowledge a state of emergency, something that requires immediate attention. In my interview with Miller, the siren required me to admit that I was an amateur.

            So what? In For the Love of It: Amateuring And Its Rivals, Wayne Booth cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “evidence” that being amateurs can raise our spirits: 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, for example, did a careful survey of how people feel about the time they spend, monitoring their feelings throughout the day, including how they feel after watching TV for a considerable stretch, in contrast to how they feel when amateuring. A large proportion reported their lowest level of spirits after passive watching. (157)

Booth spends much of the book—which he clearly sees as an amateur undertaking compared with his serious books on literary criticism—writing about his lifelong love of learning the cello. He uses Csikszentmihalyi to urge us to get in the game, to go with the flow, to not just exist as passive spectators. Amateuring will make you feel better than just listening. Often, when he got into the finer details of his love for chamber music, Booth lost me. But he won me back by quoting from Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter and arguing with John Cage in a taxi. He did not win me back by identifying with Cobain and Cage. Quite the contrary. Cobain’s quote felt tacked on, and I found myself siding with Cage in the argument over novelty vs. tradition in music. But in these spots, as well as others in the book, Booth reaches. Colloquially, we might say someone is “reaching” when they are concocting rhetoric that their ethos can’t cash. But Booth’s reaching here is endearing, as if he is reaching out. It’s the playful reach of the amateur.

            I mentioned “a playful associative logic” in the accompanying interview with Miller because it seems necessary to announce that what emerged from the interview was not a transparent work of rationality. The siren had cut through all that. I had to chop up and alter the audio in ways that I would not have done if I was trying to present a straight interview. And as I chopped up the audio, certain parts—like the parts about dreaming—jumped out at me. I realized I could create a piece that was about learning from noise and incoherence. In its opacity, the piece thus taught me not only technical lessons but philosophical lessons as well. Rationality can be useful. It has power. But it can be disrupted by noise, by rhythms. As Diane Davis writes in Breaking Up [At] Totality, “If human reason is rendered powerless in the face of polymorphously perverse ‘rhythms,’ which echo out of the ‘noise’ of physis (non/rational) rather than all the melodies of nomos (rational), then the (saving) power of rationality and, therefore, human agency becomes suspect” (23). If rhythm can short circuit the rational, then the rational, for all its power, cannot save us. We might as well play along. As Miller says in the interview, “better to play than to be bored.”

Works Cited

Biarchy. Strength In Numbers. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2011. <‌download.htm>.

Booth, Wayne. For the Love of It: Amateuring And Its Rivals. Chichago: U of Chicago P, 1999. Print.

Burroughs, William S. “William S. Burroughs.” First Thought Best Thought. Sounds True, 2002. MP3 file.

“The Dark Side with Nat X.”  Saturday Night Live. NBC. 19 Feb. 1991. YouTube. Web. 24 Feb. 2011. <‌watch?v=T7JuXRWiWE8>.

Davis, D Diane. Breaking up (at) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 2000. Print.

Grandmaster Flash, and David Ritz. The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash, My Life, My Beats. New York: Broadway-Random House, 2008. Google eBooks. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.

HASTAC. Online posting. Feel the Noise. HASTAC, 6 Nov. 2010. Web. 13 Jan. 2011. <‌forums/‌hastac-scholars-discussions/‌feel-noise>.

Keizer, Garret. The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. New York: Public Affairs-Perseus, 2010. Print.

Miller, Paul. Rhythm Science. Illus. COMA. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. Print.

Miller, Paul D. Personal interview. 13 Oct. 2010.

Plato. Phaedrus . The Internet Classics Archive. MIT, 1994. Web. 24 Feb. 2011. <‌Plato/‌phaedrus.html>.

Public Enemy. “Bring Tha Noize (With Anthrax).” The Best of Public Enemy. Universal, 2001. MP3 file.

Rice, Jenny Edbauer. “Rhetoric’s Mechanics: Retooling the Equipment of Writing Production.” College Composition and Communication 60.2 (2008): 366-388. Literature Online. Web. 13 Jan. 2011. <‌openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion-us&rft_id=xri:lion:ft:abell:R04106804:0>.

I’m indebted to my colleague Lydia French for planting this idea in my head when a bunch of us gathered to drink coffee and chat with Miller. French mentioned how “sound...folds the air, it bends the air, so it changes the memory of the atmosphere around us,” and she alluded to “the traumatic memory shift of something like a siren wailing” that makes us gasp and leaves “silence in the wake of that memory.” This comment about the siren primed me to hear the siren in a new, more productive, way.   

A shout out to Nathan Kreuter for the recommendation and the ongoing conversations about this book. The idea behind this line, if not the exact wording, was his.


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DJ Spooky Interview

Transcription: Kevin Psonak


Will Burdette (narrating): Hi there. I'm Will Burdette. I'm an assistant director at the Digital

Writing & Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. I recently sat down with Paul

Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid to talk about connections between sound and writing.

In Plato's Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates says that writing preserves a solemn silence but Miller

reminds us that phonograph means "sound writing." For Miller, what it comes down to is

basically, editing, whether you're writing with pencil and paper or an audio recorder, you're still

filtering your world. 

Miller: We're always selectively editing the environment around us anyway. And we're always

ignoring--choosing to ignore. I'm sitting here talking to you but I'm ignoring the brick wall

behind you. I'm focusing on your glasses and your eyes, or there's a drill and a siren goes by that

we sort of filter, but the recorder's going to pick it all up--everything.

[A siren sounds in the background.]

Burdette (interviewing): The noise is everywhere. It's punctuating our conversation. 

Miller: It's an open, reasonably transparent medium, but the human ear and the human eye can

only engage a very small amount of spectrum. We can only hear a certain very tiny sliver of

frequencies, and the human eye doesn't see certain light spectrum and sub-light spectrum, so

we're seeing the universe in these tiny little slits in the doors of perception. We're playing with

very narrow bandwidth. Better to play than to be bored. 


Burdette (narrating): The notion of play is going to be important here because for the next five

minutes or so the type of logic that we're going to be using is a playful associative logic. I don't

think we're abandoning persuasion. I think we're trying to sound out a new kind of rhetoric that

accounts for all the non-rational persuasion we use in everyday life. 


Miller: I tend to find I get a lot of work done in my dreams, and I'll think things through. I'll be

able to have deep structural processes where I get my work done, literally. Dreaming is never

something that's passive for me. 


William S. Burroughs: Just a few points about dreams here. 

Burdette (narrating): This is William S. Burroughs, the source of Spooky's aka, "that

Subliminal Kid."

Burroughs: Recent experiments have demonstrated that if an animal is prevented from

dreaming by waking it whenever rapid eye movements and characteristic brainwaves indicate

that the animal is dreaming, he will soon show all the symptoms of sleeplessness, becomes

irritable, anxious, disoriented, and ten days of dream deprivation leads to convulsions and death.

One of the most important facts to have been established about REM sleep and dreams is that

they appear to be essential to our health and well-being, so vital in fact, that dreams obstinately

resist elimination. Dreaming is a biologic necessity for all warm-blooded animals, and dreams

can be seen as the prototype for artistic expression and creative thought. The part played by

dreams in writing and painting is well-documented, and mathematicians and chemists have

found the solutions to formulae in dreams.


Burdette (narrating): OK, so, you might be thinking that dreams, like writing, require a certain

amount of silence, but Miller says that silence is artificial. We create silence. There's nothing

natural about it.


Burdette (interviewing): What do you do? What kind of spaces do you put yourself in in order

to find yourself in silence and how do you bring it back into your work.

Miller: The eerily precise answer is I don't. I have to make the space, so sound is always

present. Even in the Arctic or Antarctica you're followed by not only the sound of your beating

heart, the blood pulsing through your veins, but the sound and rhythm of your breath. Silence is

the most artificial thing we can think about, so you can't really pull out of sound generation as a

human being. I'd love to see a little bit more of a creative approach to how people filter media.


Burroughs: Art is an elaboration of the dream process and, far from being a superfluous luxury,

it is necessary for the continuation of human life. No people so far contacted are without some

form of artistic expression. When Plato banned poets in his republic he may have been

unwittingly advocating a program of extermination. The dream voices can be contacted at any



[Miller performs: "You know"]


Miller: It's like reaching into the core of what it means to be human by turning the brain inside

out and turning the nervous system into the internet. We're creatures of this notion of collecting.

There is meaning around us at every level, and it's incredible. I mean the archive for us now is

richer and stranger than any in history.


Burdette (narrating): We have this huge archive of sound at our disposal, so the question is

what are we going to do with it? As we begin to write with sound, what happens to our notions

of authenticity, our own words? How does it change what it means to write?


Burroughs: Look, listen, and transcribe, and forget about being original. It is simply necessary

to put aside defensive mechanisms. The best writing is achieved in an egoless state. The writer's

defensive, limited ego, his very own words, is his least interesting source.


[Remix: "Your dreams have been fulfilled"]


Burdette (narrating): Special thanks to Biarchy for the music. You can listen to their tunes,

download some songs, or watch some of their videos at Additional thanks to Paul

Miller, Diane Davis, Hampton Finger, Stephanie Stickney, Sean McCarthy, Lauren Nahas, and

Justin Tremel. Google DJ Spooky and DWRL to find more audio and video from Paul Miller's

visit to the University of Texas at Austin. 



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