US house icon DJ Spen (aka Sean Spencer) began his illustrious career in the mid-’80s and has since carved a brilliant and vibrant career for himself in the world of dance. He’s worked with and remixed some of the biggest names in dance music Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Everything But The Girl, Crystal Waters, David Morales and Barbara Tucker, to name just a few and he also runs his successful labels, Quantize Recordings and Unquantize. DMC checks in for a natter with the Baltimore legend as he releases his highly anticipated new artist album ’Soulful Storm’, featuring some of the best soulful house artists on the planet…!
A huge welcome to DMCWORLD Spen, where on planet earth are you and how’s life in 2021?
Thanks for having me! I am at home in Baltimore and 2021 is treating me well so far!
What is the best piece of new music you have heard recently?
Honestly, there is so much good music out there right now. At the moment I am loving a song from Terry Hunter’s label called “Higher” by Julius Jordan featuring Tree. That song really gets me every time. Besides being a really happy song, the vocals, musicianship and overall production are just stellar.
So let’s start right at the beginning when a young DJ Spen got into spinning and making Hip Hop, please tell us about the early days of your music career…
Music has always been a part of my life. I started DJing and imitating the sounds I was hearing on the radio coming out of New York. I got my break at 13 years old, doing mix tapes for a local radio station in Baltimore. From there, I started DJing locally with a crew. We opened for some of the bigger hip hop acts like LL Cool J and Run DMC when they came to town. Then that got us in to production and we recorded a few projects. Eventually I started working as an on air personality and mix show DJ.
Do you still dabble with Hip Hop at all now?
No, I really don’t dabble much in hip hop anymore. I’m not really into the sound of the new stuff. Hip hop did shape me as a DJ, so some of that shows through with my style of DJng. I still mess around with disco breaks and that kind of thing.
Also around this time you wrote the hit song ‘Girl You Know It’s True’, which was later covered by Milli Vanilli, now there by hangs a tale, do tell!..
The crew that I mentioned earlier was the Numarx. We wrote and recorded the song with a producer named Bill Pettaway. It had some small success here in the States and locally but a bit more success in Europe. Eventually a producer in Germany heard it and decided it would be a good cover project for Milli Vanilli. We didn’t know until people in Baltimore started hearing about it on the radio and told us. So yeah, it’s a little surprising to hear your little song all over the radio being performed by someone else.
Numarx – Girl You Know It's True (1987)
You later moved on into house music and joined the Basement Boys in the early 90’s – what were some of your highlights of that period?
Working as a songwriter and pre-producer while they were working on songs for Crystal Waters, Ultra Nate and Mass Order was amazing. It was truly one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had. Watching the techniques of different engineers and producers and learning how to work with singers was invaluable. That foundation of watching records being made from beginning to end was like being in producer school.
You’ve worked with so many artists over the years, and your own discography is immense, which 3 tracks are your personal favourites?
It is so hard to choose but 3 of my favorites are ‘The Way You Love Me’ featuring Marc Evans; ‘Another Day’ Jasper Street Company, and ‘You Are My Friend’ featuring Michelle John.
Ron Hall & The Muthafunkaz feat. Marc Evans - The Way You Love Me (Original) [Full Length] 2006
Moving on to new collaborations, you’ve just released your second artist album ‘Soulful Storm’, which features a plethora of exciting artists and legends, please tell us a bit about who was involved in the giant project?
I got a chance to collaborate with some amazing artists on the project. Gary Hudgins is a musician that I trust and work with a lot. It was obvious to me that he would be a big part of the album, so he worked on 4 or 5 of the tracks. I have worked with Tasha LaRae and Sheila Ford quite a bit as well and definitely wanted them featured. Tasha is not only a featured vocalist but did writing on two of the tracks. My relationship with Sheila goes way back and she definitely delivered on ‘Mr Melody’. It was my first time working with Fonda Rae, which was just a dream come true as I have always been a fan. It was also my first time working with Michelle John and she was simply amazing. Other new talent included Brandon Yancey out of Baltimore. People are really loving his vocals on ‘Sumthin Sumthin’. I was honored to work with David Morales as he is a good friend and obviously a true legend. I was really pleased with the song we did with Carla Prather from Chicago. Working with Jovonn on the album title track was a pleasure and probably the one that came together the fastest. It was also my first time working with Monique Bingham and it was really nice working on ‘The End Of It All’, a socially conscious piece with both her and Roland Clarke. Monique’s performance was stellar and Roland’s spoken word just took the song over the top, I still feel strong emotions when I listen to it. Crystal Waters is Crystal Waters. What more can I say? She can work with any label, so having her doing ‘Party People’ was a real honour. I co-produced that with Micfreak who really laid the foundation for the song and I am honored to have him as an associate producer at the label. Cornell CC Carter’s vocal delivery on ‘Keep Your Head To The Sky’ was perfect and it was a song I have always wanted to do. Other artists involved were Reelsoul and Soulfuledge, who are producers that I often work with. So the album definitely included a huge cast of characters.
DJ Spen & Gary Hudgins Feat.Brandon Yancey - Sumthin' Sumthin (LP Mix)
How long did the album take to make and did you face many obstacles because of the Covid-19 situation?
I am used to working on the road and not being able to be in the room with other producers. Before COVID-19 I did a lot of sending parts of songs back and forth, sharing music files, and giving feedback over the phone or FaceTime. But I did miss being in the studio and giving direction to the vocalists and musicians in person. Some of the songs were a little more difficult and required a lot more virtual collaboration than others. But overall, this group made it easy. They are all consummate professionals and for the most part, COVID-19 did not delay us much at all. I had started a few bits and pieces of the album before the pandemic – mainly vocal recordings, but I pulled the majority of the album together in about 8 months. I could even say that COVID-19 made me focus more, because I was still and not being pulled in as many different directions as usual.
Your singles and remixes output has been high over the past few years, what inspired you to make another album and what did you gain or learn from the experience?
It has always been in the plan, but honestly, it took a backseat to running the label and helping people realize their dreams of releasing music. It really gave me a lot of personal satisfaction to work on the album and finish it. I learned that even in the most restricted of circumstances that I can still be creative.
Please walk us through a typical DJ Spen production process?
My productions always start with beats. Depending on the idea, I move to working with a musician to come up with a basic keyboard structure . From that point, if the project requires vocals, I collaborate with a songwriter and/or a singer to come up with the basic song structure. Once we’ve constructed the song, I move to recording the artist. From there I record the various live music elements – horns, bass, guitars, strings, etc. Then I go straight to the mixing process, making sure all the elements work well together. I finish off with post production – finalizing and mastering the song.
You’ve been busy running your Quantize Recordings and Unquantize labels for a number of years now, what havebeen your most successful / highlight releases?
Our most downloaded song has been ‘Wish I Didn’t Miss You’. It was really great working with Tasha LaRae and John Morales on that project. I have had several highlight moments, but two of the biggest were working with Barbara Tucker on ‘Think (About It)’, which hit number 1 on the Billboard dance chart and working with Crystal Waters on ‘Party People’.
Tasha LaRae & DJ Spen - Wish I Didn't Miss You
And how do you see things moving musically for the labels in the future?
I see the labels continuing to produce the highest quality of dance music. From underground to possibly getting more into mainstream. We will continue to try to help up and coming producers and artists and we will always be a dance music label.
You’re busy hosting several different online live stream shows every week, please tell us about those.
That has been quite unexpected. I do a weekly show that focuses on gospel house which has really inspired others and myself. It has become sort of a family and my wife is involved. We have been at it every week for over a year now. I also do a stream the First Friday of every month, which is focused mainly on soulful house. I have done a couple virtual festivals, one in the spring called Quantize Quarantine Weekender and one for my birthday Studio 52. Back in January we started live streaming an A&R show twice a month where we review demos with my team (and sometimes with guest DJs). It’s been a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. Live streaming is a whole new world and I really had to adapt and earn quickly.
How valuable have they been to the brand and will you continue to broadcast them after the pandemic ends?
They have really helped me to connect to my fans and supporters in a way I would not have before. So that has been good. In some way, I think I will continue. Obviously my travel schedule is going to change things, but I do want to keep as much of that connection as possible.
We come to raid your record collection, which embarrassing record do you chuck out the window before we arrive?
Numarx Buss It – the first record I ever recorded. The production was horrible. As artists we didn’t have any control over the production and it’s definitely not worthy of anyone’s collection, but I keep it as a reminder of how far I have come.
What record makes you say ‘damn, I wish I made that’?
Marshall Jefferson ‘House Music Anthem’ – it’s a timeless record that will be around forever.
Marshall Jefferson - Move Your Body - House Music Anthem
Name 5 new soulful records that we need to listen to this week.
Ron Hall – Talk To God ‘Bout It
Boon and Josh Arise – All Eyes On Me
Conway Kasey – Hard to Love; Teddy Douglas and Byron Stingily – We Belong Together
Sean McCabe and Mike City – Do That.
And finally, what else have you got coming up in 2021 that you can tell us about?
Believe it or not, I have another album coming. I want to give a proper nod to my gospel roots so I am working on a full gospel/inspirational house LP.
DJ Spen ‘Soulful Storm’ Album is out now on Quantize Recordings