DJ Spinna: The 5 Magazine Interview

With roots firmly grounded in Funk, Soul, Jazz and everything in between, Spinna is one of the elite few who has been able to cross multiple genres of the musical palette with success. From the early ’90s his work as a DJ, producer and remixer in the Hip-hop world was everywhere, his resume boasting collaborations with everyone from Pharoahe Monch, Mos Def, Guru, Gangstarr and De La Soul. As an emcee in New York at that time, a Spinna beat was a legitimizing must.

But it was his magic reworking of the R&B hit of “Days Like This” featuring vocalist Shaun Escoffrey that made the dance music world take notice. He went on to put out 2 albums “From Here to There” and “InterGalactic Soul”, as well as creating a House-dedicated label called Wonderwax in 2003. From the latter came soulful classics from the likes of Rich Medina, Lady Alma and Blaze. His versatility is dumbfounding, a work ethic giving homage to the past mixed with fervor for the future.

One of his biggest contributions in the past several years are his parties (with longtime friend producer/DJ Bobbito Garcia) dedicated to Stevie Wonder: The Wonder-Full parties have become so hot that they have traveled to multiple cities in the U.S. and beyond.

When deciding on a headlining DJ for 5 Magazine’s two year anniversary last August, I without hesitation said “Spinna!” From the moment he played his first record to his last, he kept everyone in the room dancing and asking for more.

Can you give us a brief background on your roots?

I was into music at a very early age. I played records at three years old, I had a little portable record player. I would play whatever records were in the house that my father brought home. That ranged anywhere from Latin to Soul to Jazz to Funk. My family’s from Panama, so I definitely have the Latin and Caribbean roots.

The actual DJing part came up in around ’81/’82. The first time I ever went into a recording studio was in ’85. I started out mainly on the Hiphop side of things, you know, making beats. I was in several groups in the past, and I started really taking it seriously in ’91. The record that I can say put me on the map was recorded in late ’94, a party record called “Everybody Bounce”. It was the first record that I had made fresh out of college, when I decided I wasn’t going to do the regular 9 to 5 thing. I definitely wanted to pursue a career in music, I knew that was my destiny.

So it was that record that really just set everything off.

Absolutely. Because it was a record that was played in the clubs, it was a huge party anthem. And it kinda crossed genres because people who were into club as well as Hiphop music played the record because it was a party record, a breakbeat record. That was my big break, I was able to take that record and get more work.

Who did you pass it on to?

Funkmaster Flex played the record every week, people actually thought he made it! That’s how big it was.

I was reading in an interview that you and Bobbito did, and you said that Hiphop got boring for you after a while. Around what time was that and what exactly about the genre of Hiphop dulled you?

I’m a b-boy, I’m born and raised on the grassroots elements of what makes Hiphop what it is…from breakdancing (because I used to pop), all my friends were graffiti writers, obviously the DJing aspect. I just became very disappointed with the way things were going. This was after a three year period of me spitting out hit after hit on the underground. I became like an underground icon in the Hiphop scene. For a while I was the guy that everybody came to, and I felt like I burned myself out. I got really tired of it.

On the House side of things I’ve been into House music since ’85, already being a DJ and rocking local parties in my neighborhood, listening to the radio, people like Tony Humphries. I’ve been a fan but on the production side I’ve never felt confident enough to make that kind of music until like ’98.

Was that with “Days Like This”?

“Days Like This” was maybe the 3rd or 4th thing that I had done. That definitely solidified my name in the House community and it came to me as a remix job. My managers were approached by the label Oyster Music and I was given the original song. It was an R&B record with a video and everything. I think if you go online you may be able to find it. The song was already out and Shaun Escoffrey was already established in the soul scene in the UK. I did the remix and I had no idea that it was going to go where it did!

I had a residency for 2 years around that time the song came out, and that song was the theme of our night! Everyone always wanted to hear it. With so many people feeling that way, that’s like a big responsibility on your part…

Yeah well you’re only good as your last record.

Do you feel like have to keep playing that song?

Well I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to play that record anymore, I feel like it’s become such a cliché. But I do even to this day get approached to play it at a gig. And I’m like, “Okay!” [laughs]

To crossover different genres of music and get equal respect from its fans is really very impressive. How do you think you’ve managed to do it? There are haters out there who get mad when you crossover and don’t allow you to grow.

I never understood people who are close-minded or narrow-minded in that aspect, because music is universal and good music is good music. If we didn’t have Soul, Jazz, R&B, there wouldn’t be House, because really House music is just sped up R&B. It was a lot of tracks, but a lot of those tracks were still based on elements of soul. So for me, I just look at it as a big picture. Especially when it comes to rocking a party, who wants to go to a club and hear the same thing all night? You can’t really tell a story that way.

Is that how you would characterize your sets?

Yeah! Even if I’m doing primarily a House-based set, you gotta throw a few classics in there, maybe a few disco records, at the end of the night if you could peak them out then drop the tempo down. You know that’s how you’re letting people know how you really feel and creating a beginning/middle/end. That’s how I look at a party, you can’t just bang them all night, people will get tired!

Do you sometimes feel obligated when you’re in Chicago to bang it harder? Or to play classics from Chicago because some people are stuck on that?

I tend to do me, and when I do me I often play Chicago records anyway. I may play some records that are a little on the harder side but not all night. That’s just not my style.

Do you find that going into different styles, especially when you started gravitating towards House music did you find that it of alienated your Hiphop peers?

Well I know for sure that my Hiphop peers are questioning my whereabouts… what happened to me or why I switched over. But there’s also another side that I feel traveled the same path. Because if you’re in the same frame of mind that I’m in, if you’re from the same period that I’m from as far as Hiphop, same age group, there’s no way that you could like 100% what’s going on in the Hiphop world now. A lot of my contemporaries don’t listen to the radio, they hardly buy records and they’re all in search of something different. So a lot of the same people took the same path that I did by listening to other things, which for me is cool because if I make an album such as the ones that I’ve made, they can get into it. It’s not cookie-cutter, it’s crossing genres a little bit, it’s still based on soul. You get a little bit of everything. A little bit of dance, Hiphop, future soul, broken beat. I’m making music for people that are like-minded. It doesn’t always work on the retail side because people don’t know how to market stuff like that, but I know there’s an audience for it.

If someone were to ask you to describe “Intergalactic Soul” in one sentence, what would you tell them?

Futuristic Soul. Everything on that album is still soul-based. It’s sort of like listening to a Soul to Soul record. I also look at it like a Nuyorican Soul record without the latin stuff.

How long did it take you to make such an intricate album?

Three years. I took my time with it.

I was telling you that I love that song “Butterfly Girl”, it’s so beautiful, everyone that hears it loves it. It speaks to a lot of women and I was wondering what inspired you to write that.

The person who played keys on that is the same guy (Tickla) who played on “Days Like This”. I wrote the song, Eric Roberson wrote the lyrics. When I came up with the track with Tickla, I knew Eric Roberson was the one. “Change For Me” was one of my all time favorite songs ever, and it was still getting played when at that point. He does speak to a lot of women with his songs and I like making songs for the ladies because ladies buy records! Men don’t buy records, ladies buy records. Dudes file share more. And that song, I get a lot of hits on MySpace from women that tell me that that song speaks to them and thank you for making it.

Tell me about the Wonder-Full parties.

We started doing the parties back in ’99, we started out really small and then it just grew! By the time we turned around and realized how big it was, Stevie Wonder showed up! He was on tour last year, and then we found out about the New York show at Madison Square Garden. We only do the party once a year in New York to make it something to look forward to. People drive and fly in from all over the place. When we found out the concert was happening, we got the venue, the party happened.

Did you know he was going to come?

We were hoping that he was going to come. A lot of his people were there, some of his family members were there and I knew that right after the concert he had gone out to dinner and we were just waiting, waiting, waiting. At one point I gave up hope. He showed up at 4 in the morning!

I saw a picture of you DJing onstage with Stevie, was it that same night?

He called me a few weeks after the party telling me he wanted to have me onstage with him, playing beats out of my drum machine to accompany him on his keyboard. He’s called me before, but I’m usually not around. And Doug E. Fresh actually jumped onstage, I didn’t even know he was going to be there. So me, Doug E. and Stevie onstage!

That is amazing. Somewhere in your blog I read you called him “a walking heart.” Being onstage with him, having him at your party, what is the biggest impression he left you? Does he really have that energy that people talk about?

Yes! Throughout the whole night there was an aura in the party that is inexplicable. I can’t even explain how I felt, but there was an air. There’s something about him that’s magnetic. I had met him once before that night and I spoke a couple of times but after that night…I felt complete. We’ve been doing this party for so long and all I’ve really ever wanted was for him to experience it.

He got onstage and he spoke to the crowd, he made me feel like he’s a people’s person for sure. And he really cares about people… and life… and love. He’s a very sincere individual, and definitely speaks from the heart.

We always do a party in New York around his birthday, which is in May. After that we take the party on the road, wherever we can. We’ve done it in LA, San Francisco, Philly, Japan, we’ve done it in Amsterdam.

Are you still active with your WonderWax label?

Yes, I know it’s been dormant for a year or two but I’m currently working on the next release. It’s a track called “You Should Be Loving Me” and the vocalist is OvaSoul 7. And I’m restructuring things because of the changes that have transpired with the music industry. I was fighting the digital world for a while but there’s no way around it and vinyl is not selling as much as it used to. I’m planning on keeping things consistent, putting out tracks every two months.

I’m kinda curious, you’re constantly evolving, and you migrate between different genres seamlessly. Do you think you’ll ever move on to House tracks without vocals?

That’s exactly what I’m doing! [laughs] I want to do tracks, I’m going into techy stuff, that’s the kind of stuff I’m trying to make this year because you gotta move with the times.

I’m still so stubborn! Every time I hear the word tech, I still cringe!

Well it depends on how it’s done! I’m going to do it the soulful way. You can be soulful and techy at the same time. You still got to have the chord progressions, it’s all about the sound.

Well if anyone can pull it off it’s you! With all your successes, what style of music are you getting most booked to play for?

Wow, that’s a good question. Definitely more for the Househeads. I just came home from Japan, I was there for three weeks and I did do a few gigs that were kind of across the board where they wanted to hear both. But even at those Hiphop sets they want to hear the classics, they want to hear ’90s. Because right now the way I look at Hiphop is if you play a lot of the new stuff, it’s going to be a young crowd. And the people that come to hear me is not necessarily 21, or 18… they’re like 28 and up.

What else do we have to look forward to?

This year I want to accomplish a full-length dance album, which will be the first I’ve done. I get asked for it a lot, so I think it’s the perfect time!