We were beyond excited to have Baltimore producer and DJ Spen coming to grace our 5 Mag 11 year anniversary. We’d been trying to get him for a long time. His list of accolades is ridiculous, not to mention his work with the Basement Boys, as part of the Muthafunkaz with Karizma and his own music with multiple labels.
In this interview he tells us about what makes a good producer, his philosophy behind his fabulous turntablist sets and what technology can never replace from the human DJ.
Spen, it’s been a while since we spoke and I can’t keep up with all the stuff you’ve been doing.
Well I’m doing Quantize Recordings, which is really a label group. It has other labels under it such as UnQuantize, Koji Records and four others. When people think of DJ Spen they think of a soulful, Housey, Gospel kind of thing. That’s what you’ll find in Quantize all day long. UnQuantize is where it’s kind of undone – we get to be Techy, Afro, Minimal, extreme Jazzy, all kinds of things. If you were to listen to five different releases they could all be completely different.
Who does the A&R for it?
Myself and Thommy Davis, we pretty much executive A&R everything.
Most of the demos we’re getting are just amazing dudes in their bedrooms. The bad thing is that some of them will come up with something good but can’t duplicate it to save their lives.
Does that get overwhelming for you? Over here at 5 Mag we got to a point when we were receiving over 500 submissions a month and looking for gold was like a needle in a haystack. Do you find it to be the same case with you?
That’s interesting. The state of music in general is at a kind of exciting point in the sense that most of the demos we’re getting are just amazing dudes in their bedrooms. It’s not like they’re going into a major studio and spending massive amounts of money to record something. A lot of the stuff that we’ve been getting that has been good has been kind of grassroots. The bad thing is that a lot of times some of these younger cats will come up with something good, but then they can’t duplicate it to save their lives. They can’t come up with something to follow up.
That’s the ongoing issue… Back when we sort of started with this whole thing, there was an education process that had to come with it. You had to know how to run a piece of outboard equipment and then this would have to go into the studio guy, and then the studio guy would mix it down, then there’s the tape involved, and then there’s the process where you take the tape and ship that off to the mastering guy, the mastering guy takes that and presses the record, then that has to come back to you, you approve it, it goes to a distributor, the distributor puts it out, that goes to the records stores, then boom! It was a process. Now, it’s “Let’s make a record in our bedrooms, let’s send it to iTunes, and they’ll put it up.”
It’s all about making sure that you’re happy doing what you’re doing. I don’t think God would put somebody on this planet to do something they weren’t happy doing.
I’ll be honest with you, when we did “Girl You Know it’s True” (for Milli Vanilli), we broke this amazing record but no one wanted to give us a chance after that. Then after that happened I was involved with the Basement Boys when they did the whole Crystal Waters thing (“Gypsy Woman”)… A big record but wow! We had a really hard time coming behind it!
Continuing on that vein, our readers always love hearing advice from seasoned veterans like yourself that have put in so much work both from the old way and the new way (so to speak) of production. What can you share? What can help someone get on the road to being a quality producer?
I would say is the main thing you have to do is follow your heart and your instincts. God has given everyone an instinct, and if you follow it, you’ll be successful. It’s not about going out and trying to make all the money in the world or trying to make the biggest hit in the world, it’s not about trying to be number one or the top of anything. It’s about making sure that you’re happy doing what you’re doing. I don’t think God would put somebody on this planet to do something they weren’t happy doing. The likelihood that you have millions of people on this planet doing jobs that they don’t like – that should be looked at. My thing is for anybody trying to do music production: at the end of the day if you’re following your heart, you’ll be alright. And yeah there’s going to be disappointments, and yeah there are going to be people that will tell you that your stuff is bad, but all of that goes along the lines of improving what you do.
Are you an avid believer of learning an instrument?
I took a piano class in college, it helped me out a lot just to be able to get around the keyboard and know a little bit about what I’m talking about, even though I couldn’t really play like that. It helped. Everything now revolves around the keyboard. If you can learn that, you can do anything.
Now let’s go to your DJing. I still have yet to see how you work all the tricks when you do your DJ sets that I’ve heard so much about.
The way that I approach it is from a Hip-Hop standpoint, because I started out as a Hip-Hop DJ. So I do a lot of mixing within records, a lot of tricks within records. But the main thing with me and anything I try to do on the mixology tip (and sometimes it can be an utter fail), is to maintain a solid rhythm. That’s the most important thing. A lot of the Hip-Hop guys are more concerned with how well you can trick out a record… but taking that and moving it over to the dance field, it’s about people dancing! So you have to have a consistent, kind of fluid method of programming.
So what are your thoughts on technology aiding the technique of DJing?
It’s crazy. I mean whoever thought that back in the typewriter days that you would be able to type something and then it will automatically correct what you wrote? It’s the same thing now. You can mix in a record and you have the ability to have this thing mix in for you what you want it to mix. It’s the same difference. So if you can think it, there’s probably a way for it to be done. Like mixing three records all together at one time and not having to worry about it, because the computer will do it for you!
So are you ok with people using a computer to help them mix?
I have kind of mixed feelings about it because of the fact that I have a foundation in it. But at the end of the day – even if there’s a guy who can say he can play three records at a time, he can’t play three records the way I can because I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years! I’ve been mixing since I was 13 and I’m 48 years old now. There are some things they’ve probably never thought of that I’ve had to do the hard way that people never even think about. It’s still about the more you know.
I mean imagine somebody trying to mix something like some old 1975 Afro-drum record, and the computer can’t even read it right because it’s got all these different fluctuations in rhythm and stuff… I can do that! I’ve actually played the record by itself, most of these guys can’t do that! They’re used to the computer doing it for them.
What are your thoughts on the cycle of music? I really miss Soulful being in.
It will definitely come back. It might not be called Soulful when it does. When they had the Motown sound, that gave way to the soulful sound of the ’70s, which gave way to Funk, Funk and Soul gave way to Disco, Disco kind of gave way to this weird electronic thing, which gave way to House.
And all the while Hip-Hop was bubbling up under that. Now Hip-hop is dead. You know people will tell you that House is dead but House ain’t gonna go anywhere. It’s just broken down into different genres.
And I think that when Soulful actually does come back, it will come back under a different name. I guess calling it something new makes the new generation feel like it’s theirs, even though it’s really not. It’s something that has been around forever.
Spen has an album coming out from UK artist David Anthony “I Don’t Know Why I Feel This Way” to be released in September. He’s also releasing a John Morales compilation featuring a lot of Quantize Recordings material.
Originally published in 5 Magazine Issue #136 featuring DJ Spen, Phil Kieran, Mateo & Matos, a DJ’s guide to music streaming and more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full access to everything House Music for just $1 an issue!