The hottest producer in the underground hasn’t made a record in more than ten years. There’s an old line that comes up in Hollywood that the most in-demand screenwriter of the moment is William Shakespeare – a man whose birth predates film, the studio system and even the United States of America.
So it is with Spencer Kincy.
The backstory here is long, but to discard all nuance for brevity: Spencer Kincy (aka Gemini) was one of the most prolific and innovative Chicago producers and DJs in the 1990s, releasing by my count more than 200 tracks. His staggering output culminated in three gorgeous albums at the close of the decade: In Neutral (Distance), In & Out of Fog and Lights (Peacefrog) and the often overlooked The Music Hall (Cyclo). And then he disappeared. Rumors spread of a breakdown in San Francisco, abandoning music altogether and living a precarious existence on the streets.
In February 2009, I received a series of gigantic zip files from an anonymous source containing a few mixes and much of Spencer Kincy’s discography. The only identifying marks were cryptic “riddles” that taken individually and together made no sense. I wrote a story based on this, which was more of a tribute to the genius of Gemini than one drawing any conclusions.
Then, after the story was published and using a tip and borrowed access to the PACER database system, I tracked down Spencer Kincy to an SRO hotel in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Though I haven’t been able to confirm his location in the past year, it seems likely he’s still in the area – and still in the same state. The moment was fairly painful for a longtime admirer; suffice to say that Spencer was not in any mind to DJ or make music and seems to care little about either. In his paranoid state, over the course of 18 months he filed lawsuits against a several dozen public officials and government agencies including the CIA, FBI and the Defense Department claiming persecution, to the point that the US District Court took the rare step of enjoining him from filing any more. I’ve spoken to several dozen people who knew Spencer closely; all have offered to help but the few that have managed to communicate this have been rebuffed.
It’s a sad story, but that’s the story as it is today. And it’s a heartless statement, but a true one: For Spencer Kincy’s recordings, if not the man, business is booming.
There is now a veritable cottage industry built up around Spencer Kincy. Spencer himself has no part in it.
At the time, it was impossible to find anything from Spencer save on the re-sale market, but since we published that story in April 2009 there has been a real renaissance underway. Re-issues have come out in full force, starting with the digital release of In Neutral in June 2009, followed by Fog and Lights and some old EPs, including A Moment of Insanity (Planet E) and Shadowland (Distance). Robsoul licensed several tracks from Cyclo; Cyclo themselves re-issued Rhythm & Constellations in June 2011. That same month, Craig Richards licensed “At The Party” for Vol. 58 of the Fabric mix series (Note: This is actually “The Sound”, not “At The Party” as promo tracklistings and some retail sites still indicate. Thanks to Lata de Zinc in the comments for the tip.)
This isn’t just a rehash of old records. There is real evidence that Spencer’s music is inspiring an entirely new generation, even if he’d find that influence unrecognizable. In February 2012, bass music DJ Ben UFO told Resident Advisor how one of the Gemini mixes sent to me in those zip files (which I subsequently posted here) affected him:
“A few years ago, Nick Craddock linked me to these cassette rips of a Spencer Kincy set at a night in Chicago called Deep In The Flowers [Ed Note: This is incorrect; Deep In The Flowers was in Dallas.] Hearing those for the first time completely changed my perspective on how house music was ‘supposed’ to be mixed. … I can’t overstate the impact that set had on my DJing.”
Three years later, it really does feel like a man unfairly cut out of history has been pasted back in. But who’s doing it, and how it’s being done, is what’s troubling me.
Being mentioned in 1-sheets and quoted for my writings on Spencer gives me mixed emotions. Every time another Gemini track is re-issued, strange people start asking questions I can’t possibly answer. And with them are a group of hucksters trying to make a buck by, for instance, carving Spencer’s name on a 303 with a paperclip (misspelled, of course). And there’s the troubling question of why: many more people, after all, know the details of Van Gogh’s tortured life than can describe any of his paintings.
I think most people would agree that there’s a fairly thick line between “celebrating the music” and “exploiting someone who can probably not defend himself.” Is Spencer being paid for all of these re-issues? The evidence I have suggests a mixed bag. More than a year ago I heard from the man in charge of collecting royalties for Spencer’s publishing; he indicated that only a handful have contacted him. I don’t want to cast a cloud over any specific re-issue – I’ve no knowledge of what contracts were signed 15 years ago. But for some of these, you wonder if it’s like those cheap copies of Huckleberry Finn in every bookstore: it’s pretty easy to publish great literature when you no longer have that pesky author to worry about.
Put another way: rather than spark renewed interest in Gemini, I’m wondering if I may have instead declared an open season for unscrupulous people to cheat Spencer Kincy.
People may argue (and they’re not totally wrong) that prior to this renaissance, Spencer’s records were available only in used record bins. Every year, fewer and fewer were circulating. Does that make willful infringement acceptable? Is writing this article exploiting him as well?
This is an industry with a long history of, basically, theft. From the early ’80s – when Chicago producers had tracks stolen and pressed without their knowledge – to bootlegs, white labels and unlicensed mixes, even the most conscientious music maker has stared at that line. But this, I think, is a unique situation. With Spencer’s name back in the public zone, it’s fairly easy for an up-and-coming DJ, producer or label to throw that same name around for “street cred”, or re-press his tracks illegally in the name of the “greater good”, or lift his basslines or hooks to “pay tribute”. When I called out the latter, I was dubbed a “hater.” Was I right? If not: who, if anyone, should say something about this? Does the fact that Spencer Kincy is a real person no longer matter at all?
This isn’t an easy situation. And if dance music’s track record of appalling trendiness is any guide, we’re likely to see a lot more Gemini in the coming years – whatever that may mean for Spencer Kincy.
Many thanks to Communicator for reading a copy of this article before going to print. Opinions, for better or worse, belong to the author, not him.
Our complete archive of stories, interviews, reviews and DJ mixes: Spencer Kincy.