We interview Baltimorean dance music legend, DJ Spen, who has been contributing to the House scene for several decades and certainly shows no sign of slowing down any time soon! Amidst running his two successful labels Quantize & Unquantize, upholding studio commitments and a busy online streaming schedule, he’s about to release his hugely anticipated new long player, ’Soulful Storm’.
6AM checks in with one of the busiest men in House to find out more…
Read on for our exclusive interview with DJ Spen
Who or what first turned you on to Djing and producing music?
There was a group in Baltimore called the AP Crew and I used to look up to them. They were very much influenced by the New York scene. I would hear them on the local radio stations and wanted to do what they were doing.
Who did you listen to growing up and do they influence your productions at all today?
I listened to a little bit of everything as a kid (and still do really). I grew up in a family where church was central to everything we did. My mother and her sisters were part of a gospel group that toured locally. James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, and Edwin Hawkins were huge influences. Gospel was something I always heard and is still a big influence for me today. I also have two older brothers who exposed me to 60s and 70s rock, funk and soul – Jimi Hendrix, Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, MFSB, Curtis Mayfield, Led Zeplin and so on.. And then of course, I listened to what the rest of the kids my age were listening to, which was hip hop – Jazzy Jeff, Run DMC, Whodini, Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash, De La Soul, and Marley Marl were all huge influences. All of that influences my productions today.
You gained much early success in the 80’s and 90’s working with The Basement Boys and Jasper Street Company, please tell us a little about your history with the guys and the success of the Baltimore House sound.
I started with Basement Boys while I was still with the Numarx, which was a hip hop group. Basement Boys had remixed one of our hip hop records called ‘Do It Good’ and the next thing I knew, DJs like Tony Humphries were playing that version of the song and it was getting more attention than our version. That really intrigued me to explore what was going on in the world of house music. I came on board helping with song writing and pre-production on Ultra Nate’, Crystal Waters and Mass Order’s albums. From songwriting and pre-production, I moved into my first full production project after the development of Basement Boys Records in 1995. The rest is history! Working with Karizma as my studio partner, we developed quite a few successful records during that time.
Fast forward to more recent times, you have been running Quantize Recordings and Unquantize labels since 2012 with Thommy Davis and Kelly Spencer. What have been your biggest highlights on the labels so far?
Working with John Morales has been one of the biggest highlights because he produced some of my favorite all time records. Working with artists like Jocelyn Brown, Joi Caldwell, Ann Nesby, Sheila Ford, and Tracy Hamlin has just been an amazing opportunity for me to work with vocalists of their caliber. Overall, just being able to sustain the labels and help launch the careers of some up and coming producers has been a really good feeling. We wanted new producers to be able to use the label as a springboard and seeing that happen is really fulfilling.
Running 2 popular labels with a high output, you must get mobbed with demos for A&R consideration. What are the essential credentials for a Quantize signing, what gets you musically excited and how important is nurturing new talent for you?
We are constantly evolving in terms of our demos process. We get at least 100 submissions a month and then my team (including myself) easily get another 100 emails each month from friends and associates. It’s crazy! We currently have about 6 months of material that we have signed. Helping new talent has always been at the core of what we do and that will not change. However, we have had to become a little more discerning when reviewing demos. We don’t have time or the resources to “fix” or fine tune every demo. So a song must have a strong foundation when we receive it. It can’t just be a good idea (and believe me we get a lot of those that we wish we could take). We listen to demos with an ear for something different, but we will always stick to our soulful roots. For instance, we received a really interesting hip hop song. I loved it from the moment I heard it and, in my mind, I could hear a house remix on it. Some of the team did not agree but in the end, we signed it and will be releasing it soon. I get excited by stretching just a little and we plan to keep doing that.
So let’s talk about your brand new artist album ’Soulful Storm’, what treats can we expect to hear across the release and are you pleased with the results?
‘Soulful Storm’ has been a long time in the making and some of the songs have been floating around in my head for long while. The album brings together different soulful house sounds, from smooth, underground, Gospel, Disco and Afro, and features some brand new collaborative productions and a selection of classic cover versions. There’s really something here for everyone to enjoy. I’m really pleased with the way it all came together, not always the way I planned, but the end result was perfect.
What’s your favourite track from the album and why?
That is an unfair question. It’s like asking which of my children is my favorite. If forced to pick, I would have to say ‘You Are My Friend’. I had that song rolling around in my head for so many years and could never get it recorded in the same way I was hearing it. I literally tried recording it about 5 or 6 times and I never liked it. When I shared the song with Michelle John – with me singing as a rough demo, she went into the studio and smashed the vocal. I mean she really brought it to life in the same way I was hearing it. That song means a lot to me!
There are so many exciting guest artists and collaborators on the release, most of who’m have released on your labels already, so is it somewhat a Quantize family affair? Let’s have a roll call…
Yes! I love to collaborate so this has definitely been a family affair! For this project, there are some artists I have worked with a lot and some newcomers. Of course, there’s Sheila Ford, and we are definitely like family at this point, as we have worked together for so long. Few singers can scat like Sheila! Tasha LaRae, formerly of Arrested Development, is another vocalist I work with a lot. Her tone and delivery on ‘Wish I Didn’t Miss You’ are perfect. Tasha also co-wrote ‘I Got the Love’, which David Morales really conceptualized, in terms of the track. Chicago’s Carla Prather was perfect for the song and brought a phenomenal old school soul and gospel flavor. Working together with Crystal Waters again on ‘Party People’ was such a joy. I had not worked with her in a while and it really came together so well. I mentioned Michelle John earlier and she was another new vocalist I worked with. Then there is the legendary Fonda Rae, who I was excited to work with for the first time as I love her sweet and saucy lyrical style. There are only two male singers on the project; Cornell CC Carter, who has an incredible vocal range and did a fantastic job on ‘Head to the Sky’; and Brandon Yancey who delivers really smooth R&B vocals on ‘Sumthin Sumthin’. In terms of vocalists, last but not least, there’s Monique Bingham and Roland Clark, who are both amazing artists in their own right and perfectly gelled so well together on ’The End Of It All’.
Other than the vocalists, I used a really talented and trusted group of musicians. Gary Hudgins (former P-Funk musician), is a keyboardist I have worked with for years. He is a master at creating the soulful/disco music elements and was involved as either a musician or co-producer of several tracks. Multi-instrumentalist Michele Chiavarini (known for his work with the Sunburst Band) is an exceptional musician and neither ‘Keep Your Head To The Sky’ or ‘Nobody But You” would have turned out as good without him. Reelsoul, whose underground finesse is second to none, did the keyboards on ‘End Of It All’ and ‘I Got The Love’. There’s creative producer, Soulfuledge, who I worked with on ‘Goin Home (To See My Savior)’. Bass player Barry Woodley delivered some really smooth work for ‘Sumthin Sumthin’ and ‘Mr. Melody’. Killer trumpet player, Scott Baylis, who creates most of the amazing horn arrangements for my projects. And lastly, the very talented Quantize associate producer, MicFreak, came up with the concept for ‘Party People’. The world will definitely be hearing a lot more from him soon!
One of the most powerful songs on the album is your collaboration with Monique Bingham & Roland Clark on ‘The End Of It All’, please tell us about the inspiration behind it.
Turn on the news. Everything that is happening in the world right now is the basis for that song. Monique conceptualized the idea from the songwriting standpoint. Reelsoul and I built the track around her soul stirring vocals. The vocals were just so deep that they gave us the roadmap of where to take the music. I don’t know anyone who can listen to that song and not feel something.
‘Soulful Storm’ also features several cover of classic songs, including Natalie Cole’s ‘Mister Melody’, Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘Keep Your Head To The Sky’, Maxwell’s ‘Sumthin Sumthin’, and Angie Stone’s ‘Wish I Didn’t Miss You’. What made you choose those tracks to cover, do they have a special significance to you and were they hard to put together?
They are all songs that I really love. I have always loved the delivery and the musicianship on ‘Mr Melody’. It’s such a happy song and I needed that lightness and happiness to balance out some of the heavier songs on the album. It was the most difficult song to put together as it has lot of different elements, and trying to pull it all together during COVID was a frustrating process at times. It probably would have come together much easier had we all been in the studio together., but we worked wit the horn player, bass player and everyone remotely. It was hard work, but also why I love it so much. ‘Keep Your Head To The Sky’ has always had a special place in my heart since I was a kid. I have wanted to cover it for some time, but the challenge was finding the right vocalist. When I first heard Cornell C.C. Carter sing, I knew he was perfect!
As a popular DJ who is usually holding down a busy tour schedule, how have you used the down time creatively and how have you managed to stay connected with your fans during the pandemic?
What is down time? In the beginning I had no set up to be a virtual DJ and no one in my house was used to working at home, or being there full time. I did my first virtual DJ Set “The Pandemic Praise Party” – honestly I fought it, but my wife said people need this! I began streaming at least once a week and started hosting other DJs on my channels. It was crazy to start with and I went from knowing nothing about live streaming or even remotely interested in it, to knowing a lot about it. I’ve had a great opportunity to focus on being creative, without having to rush off to catch a flight and I’ve made some improvements in terms of running the label as well. The biggest gain has been connecting with fans in a really unique way, I love that. I am actually more connected than before, chatting with fans via video and email. There is also a whole new audience we are reaching – people who have never heard the kind of music we make and people who would NEVER step foot in a club or festival and that is a good thing!
What do you miss most about touring and are you looking forward to getting straight back out there once the pandemic ends, or will you be looking to do things differently?
As much as I have connected with the people in a new way, I miss seeing them in person. I miss their reactions to the music and watching them on the dancefloor. I will get back out there as soon as I am absolutely confident that it is safe. I know a lot of people believe in conspiracy theories and have minimized the seriousness of this pandemic. But I am not playing around. I have friends who have lost loves ones. People I know personally have died or still have long term effects as a result of the virus. So, for as much as I want to get back out, I have to think of my safety and that of my family. But believe me, once the numbers have dropped significantly, the vaccine has been widely disseminated, and the risks have been greatly minimized, I am on that plane so fast!
What’s next for DJ Spen?
Well, I have two follow up albums coming. One will be a gospel/inspirational focused album and the other will be house. ‘Soulful Storm’ focused on the Soul and now I want to explore and stretch a bit.