FOR FOUR YEARS I’ve been chasing a ghost, and his name is Spencer Kincy.
I’ve been told by some people to leave the ghost alone, while others have all but berated me for not pursuing him harder. This story is almost certainly going to make some of them mad and some of them happy, and probably many more who knew nothing of the details very sad. I expect I’m going to get hate mail from people who will read nothing more than the title and ask how dare I write about this. At this point, I don’t have any choice.
But let me start at the beginning.
Spencer Kincy was giant in Chicago’s House Music revival – part of the second wave of younger DJs and producers that took the music of the early 1980s, rubbed it up and dropped it in places like 500 West Cermak, Medusa’s and the Vault. A lot of people who are now superstars of the scene – Mark Farina, Sneak, Derrick Carter, and dozens of others – were a part of that movement, too. Spencer released a number of tracks on Relief, Planet E, Cajual, Peace Frog – labels representing the classics of that era – and he usually recorded under the name Gemini.
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And as gritty, as grimy, as jarring and noisy as his productions could be, he could also make them sing. His collaboration with JT Donaldson, the Duality EP, wasn’t just a play on his DJ name. A track like “Changing Times” was deep, controlled, almost gentle, presaging some Deep House currents by nearly a decade. And he could follow it up with a jarring track of completely abstract sounds – a thunder that would shake the 16 inch reinforced concrete walls of a warehouse. He could work with live musicians or filter a disco loop, pound it into the ground and make it more inspirational than any gospel choir, as he did on “Stand Up” (Relief). The output was eclectic, and sometimes it missed its mark, but he always pushed the envelope forward.
At one point, he had four full length albums in stores – two, In and Out of the Fog and Lights and Imagine-A-Nation – released at about the same time on two different labels. That isn’t so rare today, but at the time it was almost unheard of.
But I don’t think any of those recordings captured the genius of Gemini behind the decks. As a DJ, he operated in his own space – I’m sure he could play for a room, and sometimes did, but the unrestrained madness of a Spencer Kincy DJ set had to be heard over several hours to appreciate. He could blend a sleazy disco track into hard acid, downtempo into a punishing Armani track, jazz into Detroit techno and so on. It wasn’t technically brilliant or tricky, but the selection was exquisite. He cued up a record and let it rip – almost like he was rolling a tire downhill, aware of the general direction it was going but unsure of just where it might end up.
It might not have been for everyone, but Spencer had a pretty devoted following. And a number of figures from that era still list him as an influence, even as they’re guessing, just like I have been, what happened to him.
BY 1997, CHICAGO’S loft heroes had come a long way from the nitrous tanks and sweaty bricks of Milwaukee Avenue and were headlining clubs around the world. Prior to a DJ set in Ireland, a local publication called Hot Press titled their write-up on Spencer “A STAR IS BORN!” The painfully ironic subtitle:
As Long As Gemini is on the Case, House Music Will Never Die.
But Gemini is nowhere to be found.
For many years, there have been rumors circulating about what happened to Spencer. He made a well-publicized move to the Bay Area prior to 2000, giving Chicago – or at least some people in the industry back home – a kiss-off with the acrid track “Swimmin’ Wit’ Sharks”. And so far as anyone knows what happened, that’s when something went terribly, terribly wrong.
Gemini was back in Chicago not long after, minus his studio equipment, his DJ gear, or any visible means of support. To the few he encountered, he didn’t seem himself. He cut almost all ties, even with people who had known him for years. On one occasion when he was recognized, he vowed revenge on a couple of well-known Chicago House Music producers who he claimed had stolen his music from a laptop. At the time, according to someone who talked with him, he was panhandling – staying in an SRO when he had a good day, a shelter when he didn’t.
What had gone wrong? Spencer was still giving interviews as late as 2001, but within a year or two, it all ended. No more tracks, no more gigs, and lifelong friends worried that something was seriously wrong. They couldn’t do more than worry: most of them have never seen him again.
THAT’S WHERE THE story went cold. There’s been some speculation in the foreign press about Spencer – the half-assed “Where Are They Now?” stories that the British music press especially seems to delight in – but few have come up with any answers.
Informing the world that Spencer is in a bad way isn’t the point of this article. And you have to understand one thing, and I understand it very clearly: people loved Spencer. Years later, that loyalty is still strong.
And that’s where things stood until now.
Someone – I don’t know who – has been sending me enormous files containing just about all of Gemini’s tracks, mixes, and a handful of photographs. I don’t think any of these tracks are unreleased – at least judging by the file names, all have been out for years. The sets too seem to have been circulating for awhile.
In other words: it’s proof of nothing.
Sometimes a cryptic message was included with the files. “If u listen in order, you’ll find out where,” one read. All were sent via a remailer service – no reply is possible. The person sending this undoubtedly had that intention in mind.
Again: proof of nothing. Creepy, but proof of nothing.
But whether this is from a devout fan, a prankster or – a longshot – from Spencer himself, someone really wants this story to be written. And so do I. Because going through these tracks, through Spencer’s entire catalog or at least a huge part of it, made me appreciate, for the first time in years, what an amazing talent he was. Scattered throughout his back catalog, amid many tracks that evoke the era they were created in, are brilliant gems that have never been equaled. Many are so unique that I don’t think anyone would get it in their mind to try to copy them. (Note: For what it’s worth, one of Spencer’s closest friends suggested after reading this story in the print edition of 5 Magazine that this sounds “just like something Spencer would do.” Sadly, I haven’t heard from the mystery man since the last file – a giant, multi-gigabyte zip with about four dozen tracks, mixes and photos – arrived.)
Take “Festival”, released as track A2 on the 1994 U Know How I Feel EP on Relief. The drum programming on this track is utterly spellbinding. It builds without the slightest change in tempo – almost as if it’s getting louder and louder. Rather than just a crush of BPMs leading up to a peak, there’s an actual progression.
Producers have won Grammys without figuring that out.
Or 1997’s “Freefall” from the In and Out of Fog and Lights LP on Peace Frog. Within 5:35, this deep track relates a sentiment of utter tranquility. “Don’t Stop” from the brilliant Tangled Thoughts EP (Relief, 1994) does about the same, toying with the long, looping jazz riff that you can hear in many productions from Chicago from that era.
Or the title track from 1995’s A Moment of Insanity EP (Planet E), with that rabid, dirty beat. His productions, viewed as a whole, are so much like his sets: going softer than many dared to go, and going much harder than just about any dared to go. Simple jack tracks? Try “Blast Me”. Weird proto-minimal techno? Try “On This Planet”. Heavy groove? “What You’re Gonna Do?” Deep and jazzy? “Freefall”. We could go on…
Most if not all of these tracks are out of print, and having been made in the decade prior to the very existence of the MP3, some will not see the light of day again. I don’t know that any of them were “hits” by the standards of the industry of the time, but you certainly couldn’t go anywhere in Chicago without hearing Derrick, Sneak, Mark, Lego, Gene, Jevon, Diz, Johnny or the other DJs beating them. And so many of them have a timelessness – a little piece of eternity stuck like some bit of wax between the grooves.
That’s why I wanted to write this story. Someone, somewhere down the line is going to discover all of this again and the songs are going to be worth more than the rare artifacts of a bygone era that they’re worth now. Hopefully, Spencer will be there to see it.
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