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Ghosts of the Past 

DJ Spooky remixes the inflammatory film classic Birth of a Nation By Sam chennault

Strictly speaking, Paul D. Miller is a hip-hop DJ. Known largely as DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, Miller has released a handful of celebrated albums, toured the globe, and collaborated with members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Ultramagnetic MC pioneer Kool Keith, and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, among others. But beyond that, Miller is a cultural scavenger, trolling through the dredges of pop culture for hidden meanings and subtexts. He's a Situationist with a turntable who's made a career out of manipulating media.

Miller's current project is a "remix" of D.W. Griffith's seminal silent film from 1915, The Birth of a Nation, a race-baiting spin on the Reconstruction-era South. In a live multimedia performance called DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation, Miller rescores and re-edits the film on the spot. He replaces the film's original soundtrack with ambient textures, funky hip-hop breaks and tough drum 'n' bass, providing an air of menace that perfectly compliments the disturbingly creepy film. He applies the same mixmaster techniques to the images, isolating scenes and even focusing in on specific elements within scenes to emphasize the film's racist subtexts.

Based on the play The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation offers a skewed view of life in the post-Civil War South. In this topsy-turvy world, the white man finds himself under siege by infidels, carpetbagger opportunists and sex-starved, newly freed blacks. In response to these circumstances, the main character organizes a mass of disillusioned white Southerners to form a secret vigilante group that comes to be known as the Ku Klux Klan.

Because of the movie's warped view of history and politics, it was banned in several cities, caused a riot at its Boston premiere, and was decried by the then-fledgling NAACP. But, at the same time, The Birth of a Nation was hailed as a cinematic masterpiece, because it introduced several filmmaking techniques that are now taken for granted: subtitles, color sequences (made with tinted filters), outdoor and nighttime shots, and fade-outs between scenes. President Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House - an unprecedented occurrence - and said the film's innovative storytelling was like "writing history with lightning."

Birth's influence spread in other, more unfortunate ways, however. In the decade following its release, Klan membership soared. The group used it as a recruiting tool, and would continue doing so for the next half-century.

Miller thinks The Birth of a Nation has contemporary relevance. "I look at [it] as a metaphor for a lot of issues that are going on right now," Miller says. "Part of it is the ease that people are manipulated by propaganda. The film marks the beginning of using mass media as a propaganda tool. You would think that it would be over, that this kind of manipulation is very 20th century. But it's only gotten deeper and weirder."

Using methods that he developed as a hip-hop DJ, Miller dissects the film with a real-time video editing method that splices and dices the film. Miller hopes his performance piece will inspire people to more deeply consider the media images and messages around them. "Rebirth of a Nation is about giving people the tools to think about media and politics outside of the box," Miller says. "I want to figure out a way to show people that we are seeing very specific messages and very environmentally coded responses in our media landscape. [But] by fragmenting and cutting things up, you can use a very lyrical and poetic way of breaking things apart and seeing through the lines and codes."

While each performance is improvisational, there is a common theme running throughout the project: America is a country that runs on fear of the proverbial Other. It doesn't matter whether we define this Other as the carpetbaggers and free blacks of Griffith's movie or the Arab and homosexuals of our time; the rhetoric and the strategies of hate and oppression remain largely the same. "America has an economy and culture of fear," Miller says. "We went from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Same budget, different wars."

Music@CreativeLoafing.Com

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