Space Music: Space Mixes with DJ Food

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED July 1, 2010
Kev knows space music. (Photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith) Kev knows space music. (Photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)

If anyone knows his way around some space music it’s NinjaTune artist Strictly Kev, aka DJ Food. As a resident DJ, he’s been dropping cosmic noise, robotic bleeps and alien hip-hop on Solid Steel Radio Show listeners for 17 years. The man weaves sonic tapestries and, if you haven’t heard Kev take to the decks, then I highly recommend you check out his SoundCloud page.

Kev recently took time away from his busy schedule to chat with me about his use of space and sci-fi sounds, his philosophy behind crafting a mix and the work of other star-gazing DJs. I have to admit, I was very excited to hear him thumbing through his legendary album collection on the other end of the line.

ROBERT LAMB: I suppose we should start by discussing the use of space and sci-fi related tunes and samples in your own work. Tell me a little about your space mixes and the thought process behind them.

STRICTLY KEV: Well, I did a space mix back in the late ’90s called ‘Dark Star Mix‘ and it sort of became a classic on Solid Steel for one reason or another. I’m not quite sure. It wasn’t particularly full of space songs, but there was a lot of space-related spoken word at one point. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I’ve always been into sci-fi and use that in my work. One of the earliest mixes I used that stuff in was one of the ‘Blech‘ mixes for WARP. I did a promotional cassette mix for them once, which was peppered with “Dark Star” soundtrack samples — lots of the computer talking and such throughout as a sort of running theme. I also used stuff form Coldcut’s ‘Journeys by DJ‘ mix, ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ and things like that.

But basically my own take on music is I want to make psychedelic space music. That’s essentially what I’m trying to make when you hear a DJ Food record these days. I like music that takes you away. I like music that transports you somewhere else.

Handmade Autobot package for the limited edition mix “Remember The Future?” (Strictly Kev/DJ Food)

I did a mix on robots a couple of years ago when the first Transformers film came out. It was based entirely on robot songs and it was prefaced with a little cutup transformers-related intro with lots of samples from the original cartoon and stuff like that and mostly hip-hop songs. Then rest of the hour was sort of vintage sci-fi robot songs — lots of material from the ’60s and ’70s, pre-Star Wars stuff from when robots were kind of big tin objects or iron boxes.

So there was a lot of stuff about the electronic brain, ‘Music for Robots,’ ‘Mechanical Man’ and things like that from the time when space and everyone’s vision of the future was flying cars and jetpacks and things like that .I’m quite fond of that era of sci-fi in music in particularly, not the imagery necessarily, but sonically I find it fascinating. People were trying to make the sound of the future with new electronic instruments and hadn’t really gotten a handle on how to do it. Most of the songs turned out to be novelty records, but they’re very interesting.

Are there any particular gems that you either find yourself going back to again and again or that you notice other artists sampling frequently?

I usually come back to ‘Music for Robots‘ by Forrest J. Ackerman. He died recently. He was a specialist in sci-fi and horror, and he made an album called ‘Music for Robots’ in the ’60s at some point, which was basically him narrating the history of sci-fi and horror. There’s a whole passage where he gets into a time machine and goes off into the future and meets a robot and he goes through the whole history of Asimov’s law of robotics and things like that and then travels backward and forward in time and that is brilliant mix tape stuff. It’s just so great and it’s a brilliant bridge between songs. And the spoken word is immaculate. It’s perfectly recorded and completely barren of any music. Then the B-side of the album is a complete 20 minute piece for electronics which has been sampled copiously by myself and Coldcut and many other people. Because it’s just early music on crack almost. This is what Ackerman and his sound engineer imagined music for robots would sound like. So that’s a big favorite.

Now, you’ve worked with audio video mixes as well, correct? Tell me about ‘Now, Look & Listen.’ There was some space imagery in that as well, right?

Screens from the “Now, Look & Listen” AV mix. (SolidSteel)

There’s lots of that. DK and I were looking for a theme for that mix, and we wanted it to really revolve around space. Obviously there would be certain things that wouldn’t necessarily always tally up, but that was the running theme. It starts off with a satellite in space revolving with our logo on it, and there’s a dialogue between an astronaut and his base. He’s floating and he’s coming into orbit around this ringed planet and he’s talking about this flat transparent disc and it’s revolving at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and you slowly realize that he’s basically a needle on a record tonearm and he’s about to touch down on the record. He’s ‘descending slowly into the groove’ and when he touches down, that’s when the mix starts.

And we commissioned a little animation to go with this which I storyboarded and we cut together with various other little clips that we found. That’s always a great start to something like that because it’s a fantastic piece of spoken word and then from then on there’s a lot of stuff to do with space. There’s ‘Planet Rock,’ Afrika Bambaataa and a lot of space imagery and videos with a space theme. There’s a Common track featuring Pharrell where Pharrell’s basically a robot and there’s lots of very futuristic imagery. Later on when we get into drum and bass, we fit in a lot of manga and CGI robot fights to complement the music — very high energy, lots of explosions and crashing and buildups and things like that.

We wanted to use things like the Charles and Ray Eames film ‘Powers of 10‘ to link between certain parts where we’re going into inner space as well as outer space. The film starts off with a family having a picnic somewhere in Chicago and then the camera zooms out, up into the air and away from them and each increment of measurement is a 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 10 and you basically zoom away from the Earth into space and out into the galaxy and then you zoom back in and you basically keep going into the guys hand, into the molecules and atoms of his body. It’s a fanatically simple film but it was made for IBM back in the ’60s or ’70s and it’s become a classic. Things like that really help to bridge visually between tracks. We went from a video of a group playing in a bar, and then zoomed out of there into space and put in a load of ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ footage — quite obvious corny stuff like that.

We were very conscious when we were video mixing. We wanted to visually link between the songs as much as we wanted to sonically link because there’s nothing worse than jumping form one kind of visual style, like a black and white Disney cartoon, into a full color CGI thing from last month. It doesn’t really work visually. So we were very conscience of trying to bridge gaps visually as well and space was the unifying theme.

If I remember correctly, this one also has some Sun-Ra thrown in?

Yes, at the end. Obviously, ‘Space is the Place.’ It’s a brilliant outro track and lots of the visuals kind of led into that. DK wants to do a kind of space jazz mix, which we’ll probably kick off with that track. So that’s a little teaser of what’s to come.

What about in other mixes by other DJs? Do any other space-related mixes really stand out to you?

The unlicenced “Star Wars Breakbeats” album by New Yorks Suckadelic. (Suckadelic)

I’ve got one here actually that I’ve just dug out by Fred Elaouf, who’s a French DJ also known as Oof. He did a really good space mix called ‘La Biennale Takes a Trip,’ and it’s a selection made out of 3,000 tracks supposedly. It has to do with space and psychedelia and it has a fantastic sleeve with the moon on it. Lots of Jean-Jacques Perrey, Dick Hyman, Gong, Add N To X, Moondog, White Noise… It’s not exclusively focused on space, but it’s very psychedelic and trippy.

I’ve got another CD here and it’s not really strictly a mix. It’s ‘Star Wars Breakbeats.’ It’s an album by this guy from New York called Suckadelic who basically now makes toys which are bootlegs of Star Wars figures, but they’re kind of jazzed and pimped up versions of Boba Fett in fluorescent pink and he makes them in limited runs of 25 and such. How he’s never been pulled up by George Lucas I’ll never know. He made this album back in the ’90s and it’s just kind of very basic trip-hoppy breakbeat songs, but completely peppered with Star Wars samples all the way through. He released it as a very limited edition CD, which a friend of mine managed to get for me from New York when she was living over there. It’s quite a curio now, but I’m sure you can find it online somewhere. I mean, it’s not even that brilliant, but it’s just one of the first things that came out that dared to sample Star Wars heavily, more than just the off snatch. It was so blatant — there was no way it could ever get released commercially. Star Wars is a massive influence, but I try to steer away from it in my own work because it’s so overdone, so overplayed in terms of sampling. But I’m sure there are some good Star Wars-related mixes out there.

Do you find that older sci-fi films make for better sampling, or are new films also a good source?

Strictly Kev, right, and DK concentrate on the mix at hand . (Photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith)

I couldn’t tell you really because I err toward the older films constantly because of the whole sampling thing. You have to be careful. You don’t want to sample anything too obvious. I mean you don’t want to get caught, but you also want to sample some stuff that’s pretty obscure so that no one else has heard it. As soon as people start to identify things, they lose a little bit of their magic and mystery.

I gravitate toward a lot of that older stuff, partially because the voices have a particular resonance and sound that I like and which isn’t really present in today’s recordings. That’s not to say there aren’t people that I wouldn’t’ sample today, but the older stuff has a particular type of tone. People like Ken Nordine*, who I’ve sampled and worked with before, have a very particular kind of tambour to their voice and that’s something that I really look for. In a lot of spoken word, I’m looking for the tone and the enunciation more than what they’re actually saying a lot of the time. Obviously it’s great to get somebody saying something really crazy, but a lot of spoken word can be just as effective talking about something completely abstract. It’s the way that it’s said that will make people remember it.

Things to come
So there you have it — space music wisdom from one of the world’s top DJs. If you’re wondering what Kev’s been up to of late, he’s been hard at work designing the book “Ninja Tune: 20 Years of Beats & Pieces” and the “Ninja Tune XX Box Set,” both celebrating NinjaTune’s 20th anniversary. He’ll also unveil a special AV mix to commemorate the release. Under the DJ Food moniker, Kev plans to release a third EP and, in 2011, a new album. For a taste of his most recent work, check out his EPs “One Man’s Weird is Another Man’s World” and “The Shape of Things that Hum.”

* A lot of the links in this article go to info about the relevant artists, but this one is especially nice as its NPR audio of “How Do We Know When Now Is?”  by Ken Nordine.

About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.

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