Will Sumsuch talks to DJ Spinna about Jigmastas, Hip Hop, House, Stevie and “the strategic removal of consciousness and spirituality from the music by the industry.”
A true DJ’s DJ, and one of the few artists to successfully maintain genuine respect in both House and Hip Hop circles, DJ Spinna is above all a music lover. Anyone who’s ever heard him play, listened to his music, or chatted to him in a record store will surely attest to that.
Prolific as a producer/remixer and almost constantly on tour, last year’s Sound Beyond Stars compilation reminded us all just how many great House records the man has lent his unique, soulful sound to over the years. His ’90s hip hop duo Jigmastas has recently seen a reissue of their seminal album Grassroots with brand new material slated for release next year. His love of Stevie Wonder led to tribute parties in New York, which in turn led to a close friendship which he earnestly describes as “my biggest achievement.”
Catching up with him during a rare day off in London, I wanted to get a sense of Spinna’s musical journey, to understand how he’s able to rise above genre-boxes so effortlessly, and try to find out what makes him tick. Passionate beyond belief and brimming with positivity, Spinna’s energy is infectious, his knowledge inspiring without ever being condescending. Without a doubt one of the realest guys in the business (or as Jigmastas partner Kriminul would say, “beyond real, baby”), our conversation follows in pretty much unedited form:
There’s a huge level of musicality to your productions – do you play an instrument?
I play a little keys and I’ve taken up several instruments as a kid – violin, clarinet and piano, but I don’t consider myself a virtuoso player… Yet. That’s a long term goal. I hear music in colors, I work these colors out myself or by bringing in serious musicians to get my point across. I definitely have an ear.
Is there a specific record, artist or DJ you heard in your youth that made you think “I want to do THAT”?
As a young person I was highly influenced by the Jackson 5. I dreamt of being a drummer in a band. As I got older I started getting heavily in Stevie Wonder’s music. As a producer, arranger and musician he was far more advanced sonically than the average artist. I loved his use of electronics and synthesisers in R&B. Obviously Hip Hop as a culture was something I couldn’t avoid. All the early recordings on Enjoy, SugarHill, Tuff City, and Def Jam were big influences but when Marley Marl, Ced G, and Bomb Squad started mutilating samples as part of their production it was Game Over. That was the defining moment for me.
I also have to credit early House productions by people like Larry Heard, Kerri Chandler, Timmy Regisford and Boyd Jarvis, Marshall Jefferson, Paul Simpson, Blaze and Masters at Work as my heroes of that genre. DJs that inspired me earlier on were Grandmaster Flash, Ted Currier, Tee Scott, DXT (formerly DST), Tony Humphries, Merlin Bob, Timmy Regisford, and of course Larry Levan.
Playing all over the planet, do you find you’re able to play whatever you feel like (from funk to disco to hip hop to house), or do venues often require a specific sound from you? Do you ever encounter resistance to your eclecticism?
My sets are always dictated by the people and the party. Obviously if I’m booked for a House gig I’m not going to do an all hip hop set, and visa versa. There are times more often than not when I can play an open format to a diverse crowd. I only get resistance from people that are close minded, super commercial, or super hardcore hip hop fanatics that can’t listen to anything else, but those are rare occasions. I try to remain conscious of what the crowd wants without compromising my own integrity.
There seem to be fewer and fewer DJs around who are open to blending many genres in their sets. Why do you think things have gotten so much more conservative in clubland?
It has everything to do with the way music is being micro marketed from the top to the bottom. When I was growing up, black radio played everything and MTV (once they allowed black artists on their roster) was also quite diverse. In clubland in the ’80s and early ’90s you would hear a plethora of genres from Hip Hop and R&B to House, Electro, Reggae and Dance Classics, even some Punk Rock.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “DJs are left with two options: either cater to the commercial masses or play for those that are open minded.” [/quote]
The music industry dismantled diversity in the late ’90s and now we have Pop music as the focus. Consumers have been dumbed down due to this lack of diversity. For the most part, in clubs, they only want to hear what they’ve already have been exposed to. We do have internet mediums via YouTube, iTunes, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, Spotify etc. that give the average consumer options but those platforms individualize the listener, which is another issue. People don’t go out to hear new artists or groundbreaking music anymore.
As a result of all this, DJs are left with two options: either cater to the commercial masses or play for those that are open minded. Club operations are affected because nowadays most venues are business driven rather than music or talent driven. It’s all about how much money is made at the bar. It’s hard for clubs to operate with a healthy medium. Dancers love music and they don’t want to get drunk! When money is the main objective, the DJ takes the fall.
It’s less of an issue on the underground scene which is why it will always thrive. It may not be the cash cow of nightlife, but you can always guarantee soul satisfaction.
Do you see “purists” as a negative influence in terms of musical innovation and creativity?
Depends on what you mean by purist. If this pertains to a purist approach to making music, I don’t see that as a detriment. In some ways I’m a purist in my own approach. I believe it’s needed for balance. You can still be pure and innovative at the same time. A great example of this is when Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Donald Byrd decided to incorporate electronics into their sound. They faced criticism but it kept jazz music progressive. Bitches Brew for example was Miles Davis’s first gold record. Donald Byrd was called a sellout by jazz purists when he released the Black Byrd album in 1973, but that album sold one million copies and was the biggest selling release for Blue Note at that time.
How does your approach (in terms of production and composition) differ when making hip hop vs House music?
My approach to hip hop focuses heavily on samples. Every so often I’ll make a beat with no samples but the hard melodic funkiness will always be prominent. With House, I rarely use any samples besides the drum sounds. There’s more composition, arrangements and live musicianship involved. But for both genres it’s got to be funky and soulful.
Since Jigmastas, you’ve become much more known for your House production. What prompted you to revisit the project?
Frankly, the Jigmastas project was never abandoned 100%. We slowed down with output but we never stopped recording. I never stopped making hip hop beats and I’ve been working sporadically over the years with a lot of Hip Hop artists. We decided in the last few years that the timing is right for us to come back out.
The Hip Hop climate is changing and we feel there’s a gap to be filled. There’s an audience that are now older with families and jobs that are not with the stuff getting played on commercial radio. They miss the lyricism and musicality in the beats. We still have a lot to say and I have tons of beats to unearth before we can say it’s done. Also, there’s a new breed of young Hip Hoppers all over the globe that are studying underground’s past and emulating the sound of the 90’s. It’s come full circle.
Do you feel like your years of making House records has brought a fresh perspective to producing the new Jigmastas material?
It’s really hard to say. I try to take fresh approaches to both genres. If anything they influence each other.
Back in the day, it seems like there was a lot more crossover and respect between hip hop and House. When do you feel that changed and why?
It changed in the early ’90s due to a few reasons. It became uncool in the Hip Hop world to dance and be free. The tempo of Hip Hop slowed down immensely. Things got smoked & thugged out, it got real. A lot of street references in the music didn’t resonate with the free spirit that House music conveyed.
There was also the strategic removal of consciousness and spirituality from the music by the industry. People that were into both genres were heavily into groups like Public Enemy, KRS-One and the whole Native Tongue movement.
As I mentioned earlier it also had to do with clubland. The music industry got rid of their Dance departments and commercial Hip Hop became the hot commodity. It’s what the record labels pushed. House Music went back to the underground in the mid-’90s while bigger venues focused more on the revenues from the “urban” arena. I’m speaking from experience because I’ve played both House and Hip Hop in clubs since the late ’80s and I witnessed the change firsthand. I felt the brunt of the shift.
I actually think things have flipped tremendously. The generation gap is closing. House and EDM is now cool amongst the younger generation and it’s also reflecting the kind of music that is being made from Pop to Rap music. Unfortunately for Hip Hop, clubland abandoned most “urban” events and are capitalising again on Dance music. On radio, the sound of authentic House Music is slowly starting to creep into the mainstream. Recently we’ve had big hits with Jennifer Hudson and R Kelly’s “It’s your World” produced by Terry Hunter, and Louie Vega’s “Dance” by The Winans, both getting commercial airplay. Disclosure are making waves on Pop and Urban Adult Contemporary radio which in a sense helps the situation more than hurts it. The gap is being bridged again. Music goes in cycles, it will surely turn around.
Was there a specific moment, record or DJ that turned you onto House music?
I’m a Disco baby so the evolution was inevitable for me. I grew into it naturally from my surroundings. I had older friends that used to go the House clubs that schooled me, but I would say the most influential DJ was Larry Levan. I got into the Paradise Garage as a teen and my world forever changed. Plus, my introduction to House was during a time when the hottest jams got played on commercial radio. Raze – Break 4 Love, Ten City, Adeva, Coloniel Abrams, all of these artists got played on radio during the daytime. In New York, a lot of records were being sold and it was accessible.
Your “Wonderfull” Stevie Wonder tribute events have famously led to a close friendship with the great man. What does this friendship mean to you, both personally and in musical terms? What have you learned from getting to know him?
This relationship means everything to me. It’s by far my biggest achievement and I feel blessed to call him family. On a personal level he reinforces the notion to remain humble and loving in everything you do in life. He just might be the most kindest and giving person you could ever know. He’s also extremely diligent. I don’t think he sleeps much. His wheels are always turning and he stays on the go. I can relate to that. Yet, he doesn’t take any shorts. He controls his world even in blindness which makes him a superhero in my eyes.
Musically, he’s influenced me before I even met him, before the tribute parties. My use of Fender Rhodes and Moog baselines are easily attributed to him. Most of my conversations with him are not even music related. He’s serious in his mission to change the world. He’s always questioning humanity’s plights and asks what can be done to make a difference. He tells me all the time we have to change this world, we can do it. That in itself is something to cherish. It makes me realise that music is just a small part of existing.
One thing you said on Facebook really hit home with me: “Music is powerful. If you present it from a loving place it will reward you.” It seems that your musical journey and spiritual journey are intertwined. What lessons have you learned from your life in music?
I learned that by standing your ground in good music, and remaining true to yourself is the biggest reward you can self obtain as an artist/DJ. Too many people succumb to extremely low negative music vibrations driven by corporate interests with bad agendas to maintain a certain level of success. Music reflects who you are and what you create or play out reverberates off of you to your audience. You can either use that power for good, or use it for other reasons and feel really empty at the end of day. Music is the only thing that unites people unconditionally. That’s music power, that is LOVE! Stevie’s music has been saying this forever. That’s my biggest lesson.
What’s coming next for you?
I’m currently in the studio working with a young guitar prodigy Marcus Machado, he’s definitely one to watch! There will be a new Jigmastas album dropping early next year on BBE/Beyond Real, as well as my other side project SPOX PHD with MC Oxygen. On the House side of things, expect a new House album with features from Shaun Escoffery, Angela Johnson, Mike City and Zaki Ibrahim to name a few.
What are you listening to at the moment? In terms of new artists and labels, who do you like?
As of this year I’ve enjoyed new releases by Hiatus Kaiyote, Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes, Avery Sunshine, The Internet, Jarrod Lawson, and Seven Davis Jr.
Finally, I have to ask: what does the city of Chicago mean to you?
Chicago represents Soul! So many greats have come out of Chicago from Minnie Ripperton, Earth Wind & Fire, Curtis Mayfield and Chaka Khan, to the purveyors of the House music genre like Ron Hardy, Lil Louis, Adonis, Jesse Saunders, Larry Heard, Joe Smooth etc. Soul Train started in Chicago before it moved to California. I always loved the sound coming out of labels like Brunswick and Chess/Cadet records. I learned about so many records were big Chicago classics, from steppers, to rare Disco and Jazz Funk, many of which went under the radar in New York. It’s a true testament to how deep Chi-town gets.