Getting behind the groove . . .
With DJ Spen.
“ Inspirational dance music is a way that people find freedom…”
“ Inspirational dance music is a way that people find freedom…”
BTG: Welcome along DJ Spen. We're going to spend a little bit of time getting behind the groove, but before we do, perhaps you could give us a little introduction to yourself?
SPEN: Hello, my name is DJ Spen. I am the owner, operator, and CEO of Quantize Recordings Incorporated. I am also a producer, and I am also a DJ. I've been deejaying since ‘82. I'm also songwriter, have written quite a few different songs, for quite a few different artists, including Crystal Waters, Ultra Nate, etc. I have done quite a few things, but that's in a nutshell who I am.
BTG: So where are you right now and how does your day look?
Spen: Well, I'm working on finishing off ‘Love Sensation’. I'm doing the grueling kind of paperwork stuff behind putting a record out officially, but basically, had been working with my partner Tommy Davis, and a musician friend of ours, Michele Chiavarini, to pull together a re-work of the dance classic ‘Love sensation’ the original of which was recorded by Loleatta Holloway. So we've re-done it, and we have a plethora of great mixes that we've pulled together from ourselves, a friend of ours, John Morales, who's also a legend in what he does, Ralphi Rosario, and newcomer Soulful Edge out of the UK. Yeah, what my day looks like today is finishing that!
BTG: You've already segway’d right into what was going to be my first question, which was, tell us a little bit about that project. So yeah, I've got it down as 1983 Loleatta Holloway love sensation?
Spen: The original version came on her album, which I believe was called love sensation. I believe that was '79, and it was written and composed by Dan Hartman, and it took off from the album and Salsoul commissioned some remixes for it. The '83 version was probably one that really made it huge in dance music.
BTG: What an amazing piece of source’ material for you to be working with! and you say, there is going to be Ralphi Rozario on the remix there? I love Ralphi Rosario and bought a lot of his music historically!
Spen: So do I, and he's an exceptional producer. Sometimes you can give people a project, and you are worried about, like, which way is this going to go… but what he's done with this, man is really, really great work, couldn't have expected anything better from the likes of a legend like him.
So be on the lookout for that coming next week on the 19th of October. (Release here)
BTG: We've just been talking about some classic source material there and a brilliant new remix project, but I would really like to just reflect a little bit on a massive, massive back catalog of timeless, deep, soulful house music, in a career that spans decades from you. Can you take us back a little bit to where you, and how you discovered house music, or where that came into your life?
Spen: Well, here's the thing, most people just don’t really have an understanding of what the root of house music is… and the root of house music is disco bottom line, and I was basically what you would call a disco baby. When disco was at its height, I was around 10 years old, and I was just discovering different sounds, and I grew up in a house where my parents were heavy into the gospel sound. My older brother was into Soul and R&B, and then I had my other brother who was just, wild man… He liked all of the Hendrix, and the Funkadelic, and Aerosmith. So I had a lot of music going on, and I hit 10 years old and this disco sound, man, we started hearing it on the radio and everybody was doing it man… from the Rolling Stones, to the Jackson Five. It was like, what is this? I was like completely immersed in it. When the original house stuff started coming around out of Chicago in like '83, '84, man, it was a natural thing for me to be into it, because I could see that they were doing cool stuff and sampling things out of the disco era, so that's how I sort of got into it from that standpoint.
BTG: So talk to me a little about Baltimore, Jasper Street, your parent’s basement. Is this where things began to take shape in terms of production for you?
Spen: Yes. I guess the parent’s basement is first. I mean, we were doing hip hop stuff at that time. I was in this group called the Numarx, with a friend of mine named Kevin Liles, he was president at Def Jam for a while, and he's running 300 productions and the 300 record label right now. It was him, myself, a guy names Wayne Mallory, Darryl Mims and cool Rod… So we started this group called the Numarx, and we did quite a few shows and radio appearances with some of the things projects we were doing, but our biggest claim to fame was that we wrote, performed and released, Girl You Know It’s True, which was covered soon after by Milli Vanilli, in about '86, '87 right around in there. So we were into that kind of thing, like really heavy… and the house thing, well that was just something that I was sort of deejaying and playing around with at the time, until I ran into the Basement Boys, through a friend of mine, Thommy Davis, who I still work with to this day.
We were working on what a Numarx record that was kind of a hip hop thing, and the Basement boys were kind of bubbling under. At the time I said to them, "Well look, it would be good if you guys could do a remix on our next record". So they came through with a remix of it and they killed it! That was a record called, ‘Do It Good’. Then literally right after that, I hear this record Ladadee-dow-dow (Crystal Waters – Gypsy Woman) down in their basement and I was like, "Yo, what in the world is that!?!"
BTG: Wow! Fantastic.
Spen: and the rest is history. I started working with them doing some song writing for Ultra Nate, Crystal Waters, Mass Order, those guys, until we developed Basement Boys Records out that, which led into 1995. We done ‘A Feeling’
BTG: Ha! Perfect segue into the next part of this story for me… So my first introduction to you, is '95, and it's Jasper street company, A feeling, right?
BTG: My personal experience was Black Market Records, Soho London, I bought the record on Azuli Records, the label itself was actually owned, I believe, by the guy that owned Black Market at the time. That record frequented my sets a lot back then. Seriously grooved out, it was the absolute pinnacle kind of style of that time, with that gospel style coming through there in the vocal and that bass line… absolutely killer!, a solid example of this solid vein of music coming out of the US at that time. I was listening to Smack Productions, Mood II Swing, all these kind of artists, and it was absolutely one of those tracks. I still got my copy today, in the green Azuli sleeve…. It's all there!
Spen: Haha.. yeah!
BTG: So tell me a bit about the making of that track?? What can you remember about that time? The equipment, the environment. Where were you, how did it come to be?
Spen: Well at the time Basement Boys had a facility which was on Jasper Street, in Baltimore city. It was a time where I would wake up every morning, go to work, and help them make records, write records, and help co-produce records.I remember it was one of these situations where I was like, "Okay, I want to try and do a production on of my own". They had just started the record label, I think the first record that they put out on the label was by Sticky People (Maurice Fulton), which was a producer that I was working with at the time. So I said, "Well, I'm going to try my hand at it!". One-day man, I had just had the run at a big room, a SSL board, tape machine, Akai equipment, the SP1200, the keyboard player, all that kinda stuff.
I started pulling together what I was doing with a guy named Thomas Fruity Roberts who is still part of prominent part of Jasper Street Company and everything that they do now. We just sat down man, and came up with the track.
BTG: Haha.. just like that…?!
Spen: Yea, we came up with the track. We just came up with it because we were in a flow back then. Back then, everyday, Monday through Friday, we went to the studio, and we were doing something. If it wasn't working on something for Crystal Waters album, or Ultra Nate album, now, we were doing remixes for like Michael Jackson, or Diana Ross, or, I mean, it was crazy haha!
That was the kind of stuff that was going on back then, it was just nuts! This was one of those times, I think Teddy and Jay had left to go out of town or something and I just had the room. So I decided I’m going to work!
The Big Record at that time, which a lot of people probably didn't realise that the was the kind of style that I was going after, was Voice of Freedom (Voices in my mind) by Masters at Work, and they had Michael Whtford and India and man, I can't even remember who else they had on that record, but they had all these different singers. I was like, "I want to do a record like that". I want the record to feel kind of loose, I don't want to have versus, and all that stuff and I just what have fun doing it. So I pulled in 10 vocalists, just people from around, and just said, "Go into studio and sing what you feel!, whatever you feel". I said. "Go into studio and sing whatever you feel". I said, "Okay".
BTG: I'm absolutely loving this…. because, what did I use to play succinctly right next to that track…? Voice of Freedom (Voices in my mind)!
Spen: Yea man… Mad, mad, mad props to Kenny & Louie, for the work that they were doing back then, it was just stunning! … Sickening, sickening work, and I don't know, man… I think I just listened to voice of freedom so much that it just blew my dang gone mind! … So I said, "Well, I want to do something like it".
BTG: Brilliant… well, it's really interesting to hear the story of that track, so, thank you so much for that.
Spen: Yes, I don't think I've ever told that story. You're the first person to really ask it. This is the interesting stuff!
BTG: It’s the track man, it’s the track!! Thank you so much for that. . .
BTG: OK so, since then, soulful danceable solid house music. It has always been a really, really strong formula for you… Genres do tend to kind of wax and wane, but the soulful house music scene, it has never faded. Maybe it grows in strength, or reduces slightly in strength, but it never fades…
Spen: I completely agree with you.
BTG: But what seems so amazing to me, is that I find at this moment, it seems particularly strong and prevalent. You've got promotions like, the Glitterbox, which are solid examples of huge promotions killing it right now. I'm seeing lots of activity from, Nervous Records and Kingstreet Records among others... But it feels like there's a real resurgence in strength of danceable, soulful house. So where is this coming from?
Spen: I don't know man… All I can tell you is that, music is a cycle, and for as long as I've been listening to music since a little kid, I've watched music that I thought was kind of over, kind of make a resurgence in a different kind of a way of course, and I'm watching the same thing happen, all over again. It dies out a little, but does not necessarily die. Most music just kind of goes a little bit underground, until somebody does something within a certain genre, a certain style that makes everybody's eyes go back to it again.
Soul music is always prevalent, especially during times of struggle, like when you have like racial divides, and that sort of thing. In the late '60s, and early '70s it was kind of crazy. Albums like Marvin Gaye's, What's Going On, are born of that kind of stuff. N.W.A's albums and Public Enemy albums, they born out of that kind of thing. Situations where people need to be aware of certain things, but it always happens, it comes back in cycles. I think right now, what's going on in dance music, is that people are really looking for ways, not to be depressed, and inspirational dance music especially is a way that people find freedom.
Nothing better than listening to some of the records that we're doing now, and really catching the emotion and the passion of what's going on with the singers, and the music and that kind of thing. Which is why, Glitter Box, in my opinion, is happening in the way that this happening now, because people miss what's happening in music musically!
The music is the thing that I think we've gotten away from. We were going into the kind of deep house thing, where people are making music in their bedrooms, and I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with that. There are plenty of good tracks come kind of this movement that are kind of minimal, but now the music is getting a lot more complex again. It's reminding me of the disco era. It really reminded me of that late '70s kind of thing that's happening again in late 2000, the late 2000 teens, I guess.
BTG: Great, OK let's move on a little bit then talk about your contributions through Quantize Recordings which was born around 2012, and has since released… well, I couldn't even keep up with the excessive releases, we're into 200 plus, right, from what I can see?!
BTG: Firstly, massive congratulations! That is some serious effort, and the simple question is, how does running a label on that scale fit into such an already busy schedule for you, of producing and performing?
Spen: This is not easy hahaha! It's not easy. It's tough work. All I really wanted to be, was this guy who could sit in the studio, and make music, and put it out there. Then I was really dependent on other means for the business to work. Like most musicians and DJs, and guys that create, all we want to do is create, but I think what happened was, God thrust me into the position of being a president and a CEO, because I didn't like the way certain things were being run, and what I wanted to do was to change a lot of that.
We have quite a few issues from being thrust into something like this, but it is also an awakening to say, "Oh, so that's why that record label did that. I didn't realize that this thing would be so hard to do!". So I'm learning some things as I go with the desire to want to be a good home for people that want to release nice soulful, across the board, good dance music.
We have Quantize, We have UnQuantize. So we're doing everything from the hardest of the hard to the easiest of the easy record. Some really soulful stuff, some really deep stuff. I guess the link, the main factor that drives it all, is that it has got to be danceable. Whether it is a slow tempo or fast tempo, we do dance music!
BTG: Well it all appears to be going just fine!
BTG: So let’s talk a little about live performances…. I'm really interested in your relationship with Karizma. You guys seem to be a bit of a Tour de Force with your compilations, productions and this live sets popping up all over the place. You've worked on releases since around '99? Tell us a little bit about how that came to be, and what that spark is, you guys have together?
Spen: Karizma and I've been working together probably since '97. He was a guy I met, at the time when I was in Basement Boys. He was the guy around town that was really making some noise. The thing about Karizma that still remains is that, he's such a different type of a guy. I think part of his driving force was to see a lot of the elements of hip hop be transformed, or used within what's going on with the soulful dance music.
What he really brought to the game, and I think what he ended up doing by changing the game, was to introduce a real serious, almost break dancers type element into dance music. I mean, it was just like he was a force to be reckoned with. He was just so different. Some things that we've done together are very reflective of that. One thing that comes to my mind is we did a remix for Angie Stone on record that she did called Brotha. Everything about that record, especially with reference to the drum patterns and stuff, he was prominent with the creation of. Working with him on that was just, man, it is like, we were night and day man. It's kind of always been like that, but I think we've always had a respect for each other.
And now, when we go out and do DJ sets together, it’s crazy, Karizma and I, we'll go like off on this tangent… We never practice it, we never rehearsed it, and next thing, we're up on stage and creating like crazy stuff and it happens every single time! I never know what he's going to do. He never knows what I'm going to do, and by the time it's over. Sometimes man, it’s a rocky road haha…, but at the end of it, it's hysterical. It's crazy. People just love it, you know, I'm very kind of thankful to be a part of team like that. I think it might be more exciting for us than it is for people who want to stay and see, because I just never know what's going to happen! Haha
BTG: Haha, love it! …. OK, The next one actually is a little bit more of a serious question, but let's just see how it goes…..
With music production so incredibly accessible these days, with the labels and producers pouring out into what can seem like an incredibly saturated social media lead industry. What are your thoughts on the state of the nation in terms of independent music, and people getting into it? Has there never been an easier, better time for people to be more involved, or is it becoming increasingly difficult to get your music heard amid all this virtual insanity?
Spen: A little bit of everything. First of all, it's never been this easy. In order for me to have made a record back in the day, took a lot of hours, and a lot of work, and a lot of dedication. Making a record back in the day was not an easy feat. I mean, you had to have some equipment. You had to have a lot of time, you had to have some kind of an engineer. You needed somebody who knew his way around the studio to teach you. You had to learn from all these things.
The other thing that was really crazy that just does not exist now, is back in the day after you made a record, you had to get it pressed up. Well, you had to take it to a record label, and it had to be pressed and mastered, and all of these certain things in order to get a record to sound like you want it to sound. All that's gone, man, haha! shoot… you can just make a record right now with a program! You can master it yourself, and if you know what you want your to record to sound like, you skip all of those important steps…. and in a way, all those steps in my mind, are essential to know how to create a record.
. . .Which is why you hear a lot of guys now come up with something that's a massive hit, and they can’t follow it! It's one thing to say that you make a record and it’s lucky that you've made it. It’s a whole other thing to that you made a record and you then make a career out of making music, because you're that invested in what you're doing. Seeing that you have just poured yourself into it y’know,
Put it this way… Quincy Jones doesn't become Quincy Jones without a process, a loooooooooong process, and I think what's happening now is that there is no respect for the process anymore. Everybody wants everything overnight, and that's not how it works. Most cases that I've seen come with a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of stress, a lot of emotional turmoil. It's a lot, man. It's a lot.
BTG: I think there's some pretty wise words there and I completely agree. There's so much in there about longevity and commitment. I think it's really interesting to hear the views of people like yourself, so thank you so much for that.
Spen: Very welcome.
BTG: So, If you were to dig into the vault of your mind, can you dig out a pinnacle track that you would say defines you, or your style, or what you love?
Spen: Oh, man. I think Jasper Street Company records, man, for sure. If I had to pick one in particular, my favourite one would probably have to be between, well, Till I Found You, and Another Day. Those are probably the two. The reason I say that, Till I Found you is basically all live instrumentation, and also having involved with doing some of the keyboard work was exceptional on that too.
Spen: Yea. It was kind of my first time working with a live horn section and arranging them, which was no easy task, man, no easy task at all haha!. The final result, man, it was amazing.
BTG: What does the rest of this week look like for you? Where are you going to be tomorrow?
Spen: Haha.. Back here in front of this computer, probably! I'm working with Teddy Douglas quite a bit these days on a new Jasper Street company album that's coming out on Nervous Records. The first single from that project, which is, My Soul as a Witness, will be out this weekend (mid oct 2018), and we're going to be looking at going out with the album sometime real soon after that. There is going to be quite a few things on this album that are going to be really, really nice!
BTG: Fantastic stuff, we’ll be listening and looking out for that then for sure!. … DJ Spen, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to us and please… keep on doing what you keep on doing!
Spen: Your welcome man, I most certainly will. Thank you.
This interview was brought to you by me, Alex Rose for Behind the Groove.