Setting the levels with DJ Spen

On the evolution of technology, originality and the challenge of extra large voices

Spen: DJ, producer, legend.

Streaming a live set during the COVID-19 pandemic and rising unrest, you need all the euphoria you can get.

Thumbing through my Rekordbox collection for inspiration, when I arrived at DJ Spen‘s remix of Underground Ministries’ I Shall Not Be Moved my search was over.

This was far from my first Spen play, however, as he’s been a go to producer for me and countless other DJs for decades. As well as a body of house productions dating back to the eighties and The Basement Boys, his Quantize Recordings label has become the hallmark of quality.

What’s the secret of his success? I thought I’d at least try and find out…

A lot going on at the moment – how have you been keeping?

It’s interesting, man, just trying to do what it is that we do and not even trying [since] we’re blessed to able do what we do almost without skipping a beat. It’s becoming more apparent to me that where technology is is hard for a lot of DJs. In the beginning it was hard for me making the switch from vinyl to CDs and then from CDs to MP3s and now you’re going from DJing in front of people to basically DJing in front of a wall in your room! It’s not really that much different from a production point of view. From a human standing, the things that are going on [following the death of George Floyd]… I mean these are really necessary things that need to happen to bring public awareness to police brutality and racism and these kinds of things. What’s even more interesting is that in music, even through the sixties and the early seventies, you had a lot of racially motivated things going on. Music was one of the ways that people were able to kind of accept and understand some things that were going on and I think that’s happening very prevalently today. This whole thing sort of blindsided people but I don’t think these things are happening by mistake, I think these things are necessary.

Some say there’s too many house remixes and not enough originality now yet most of your releases are new material – how do you do it?

It’s hard especially now, I mean you’re looking at a situation where there’s not a lot of monetary resources in music. The classic thing with music [was], especially coming out of the sixties where nobody was making any money out of music really, the seventies came around and there was the money making potential, then in the eighties, I mean forget about it! Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson and the like were just huge artists that made it possible for people to make millions doing music and then all of a sudden here comes the MP3 that lessened everybody’s value. Every single person’s value. It levelled the playing field. Because there are less resources it’s harder and harder to create original material. It just is, especially original material of a certain quality but, we’ve just been blessed man. I think a big part of it is that we’ve been around for so long whereas a lot of the newer artists would find it hard to figure out who to get or how to get an artist and the process. We’ve gone from the process of actually recording things to tape, to actual tape! And because we came from that school, all of the things that we’ve learned through the process, sitting in front of a computer now sort of takes all of that information and builds on it to turn it into being a producer now. I think it’s about the experience.

You’ve got a vast amount of collaborations under your belt dating back to the Basement Boys, what are your most memorable ones?

Ann Nesby for sure. The first time we worked with Ann Nesby and we did Praising His Name I was completely blown away. I mean we had written the song, we sent it to her then she came to the studio and she was sick! I didn’t think she was going to come to the session! She trooped through it, she made it to the session and we didn’t know what we were going to get but we had everything set up. She did that song in one take! And when I say she did it in one take, it was actually two takes but the first take she did we underestimated the power of her voice and we had everything set too loud and we had to tell her to go back and do it again and bring all the levels down [laughs] because she just blew everything completely out with the power of her voice. But man, that two take record, nothing more nothing less and that was it.

And who would DJ Spen’s tips be for ones to watch then?

[Laughs] Ones to watch! Aaron K Gray definitely. We’ve worked a lot with Tasha LaRae. She’s done so much work with us because she’s so multi-talented it’s crazy. She’s phenomenal, just phenomenal. Carla Prather, I really like her, a really strong, deep hardcore voice and she knows how to use it. Just to step out of genre a little bit, I mean she’s not up and coming but I think she’s amazing is Ariana Grande with what she’s able to do. Her voice is incredible, not that I necessarily love the material but what she’s able to do vocally is phenomenal work.

Give us some reasons to be cheerful then – what should we be looking out for from you then?

We’ve just finished Thommy Davis‘s album – it’s a great piece of work. Five of the songs on it are brand new. It’s got Stairway to Heaven on it, Barbara Tucker‘s Think is on it, so there’s quite a few biggies that are on it amongst these newer tracks. One of them is a remake of Hot Shot, the Karen Young disco track, there’s also a remake of the O’Jays Darling Darling Baby which is featuring another phenomenal vocalist that we’ve worked with named Randy Roberts, there’s a Love To The World kind of remake and of course Tasha LaRae’s on it, Aaron K Gray’s on it. It’s a whole family affair album, it’s good. It’s very good and we just hope the rest of the world feels the same.

I’m sure they will! Thanks for your time, and all the best of luck!

You’re welcome man!

Published by Martin

Geek, DJ, runner, family man.