Producer's Corner: DJ Spinna

posted June 26, 2009 12:00:00 AM CDT | 10 comments

There are very few producers who have a discography as vast as New Yorks DJ Spinna. As revered in House and Rare Groove music as he is in Hip Hop, the Brooklyn deejay's history dates back to when Hip Hop was embedded in the parks and on the blocks. With his July offering, Sonic Smash, featuring the crme de la crme of the underground it is apparent that Spinna is back to reengage himself with the Hip Hop crowd of today.

With acclaimed early work with Eminem, igniting underground mainstays like The Jigmastas and Poly Rhythm Addicts and compiling releases like Funk Rock and Wonder Wrote It, Spinna could stay in the past. Still, the man who helped J-Live make a classic album and remixed Donald Byrd is quick to compare new-schoolers like Homeboy Sandman and others to some of the biggest stars of his generation.

When you have the history and the passion that this authentic and symphonic mainstay has, why wouldnt you want to move forward with the masses? Talking the past, the present and the future, DJ Spinna spits his version of what Hip Hop is about today.

HipHopDX: The Jigmastas reunion track "New York" is one of the strongest on Sonic Smash. How was it picking up with guys after so long and was recording with them the same as before?
DJ Spinna:
For one thing we have never stopped recording for the past nine years since Infectious came out. We are working on a new album actually, and every year we say its coming out next year, but hopefully we will be able to get it out top of 2010 as we are getting closer to the finish line. As far as chemistry goes, [Kriminul] and I are friends before we are partners in the group. We have known each other for a long time, so we are brothers. We started Jigmastas in 1991, but we have been friends since 1984; so that chemistry will always be there.

DX: Talking about putting out this album as Jigamastas, does timing play a major role for you?
DJ Spinna:
Well I think it is important because you can flood the market but certain releases will be unnoticed; but when you spread yourself out you will be more than likely be recognized for your work. For me, I am a multi-genre producer who has spread himself out over all kinds of production and I think for me, its time now to go back to my roots with the Hip Hop thing, as I miss it personally. Thats me in the forefront, and there is a whole new generation of Hip-Hop now. There are producers and beat-makers that I feel I should be a part of and be recognized as someone who has contributed to the history and the scene and who was once a name-stake. I want my name to become a household name in the world of Hip Hop goes as far as producers go, along with the legendary ones. I have been off the scene for a long time; I mean I never stopped making beats and have done stuff sporadically for people throughout the years, but I havent been putting out a lot of Hip Hop stuff for a long time. I want to get back into that zone just to be relevant.

DX: Returning to Hip-Hop right now though with it being such a new day, how are you finding that?
DJ Spinna:
Honestly, what took me out of it and made me step away was when things started to change after the big underground movement of the mid-to-late '90s, when mainstream Hip Hop started sounding different. What we were doing for the most part was mainstream in the '90s. It was the boom-bap that was selling. You had platinum-selling artists making those records and suddenly the sound changed. For a while I was being quite a hater on the new sound, but I had to bring myself to grips with the new generation and I just wasnt a fan of the direction it was going, especially commercial radio. Now we are in the 2000s, we are in a whole other sound with the southern Hip Hop being at the forefront.

I do find it to be challenging to the point of being relevant in the overall picture but at the same time I think the underground or what is considered underground is resurgence. You have artists like Redman and Method Man [click to view] coming out with a new album and they are not compromising their thing. Ghostface [click to read] has never disappeared.

DX: Do you believe that many of those artists from the "golden era" of Hip Hop have actually stayed true to their craft?
DJ Spinna:
For the most part, yes. There are some that have conformed to the sound that have become commercially viable; whatever is hot on the radio, they try to emulate that to sell records. It is a business at the end of the day.

You do have those who have tried to stay true to the boom-bap or real Hip Hop and continued the legacy by putting out what is considered quality by most. I just want to be a part of that movement. There are a lot of records that are coming out this year alone that I am really appreciative of and I feel it is a good time, going back to the timing again.

DX: There are those certain labels that have maintained the standard of Hip Hop they release such as Duck Down
DJ Spinna:
The corporations have a lot to do with it because they are the ones in control and there is no reason why whats considered underground now cant be in the mix and filtered in with everything else that is playing on the radio. Its not like a lot of us have compromised what we have done. The guys who have been in the game for a long time, we recognize what the realness is and we just want to see the scene flourish and not die.

We care about the culture and that is one of the main reasons I am still doing it; because I love Hip Hop and I care about it. Its in me, part of my upbringing, been there since day one and embraced it from the early recordings. I did a little break dancing and the graffiti thing and I think everyone else who is doing it, it is a part of them too. We dont want to sell our selves out.

DX: Talking about corporations, you have worked with so many labels during your history, looking back and then where you are today, what would you say are the major differences?
DJ Spinna:
Now, they dont know what to do. The music industry has become quite viral and Internet-based and before there was some sort of artist development. Where as now it is about "How many units you can Soundscan in the first week?" and "What kind of following do you already have before we sign you?" You have people like Kid Cudi who have a pretty big record and then there is Drake. These guys have no deals but I am sure there are bidding wars for them. Now it is about what the artists can do for themselves and the labels are almost secondary.

The artist is a powerhouse on their own and the label is there just to push them, whereas back in the day, the artist was more unknown and they needed the label to do work for them. Now we have so many resources with the Internet that we can even pretty much establish our own situation and move forward. I think that is why the underground has the potential to be kind of like Rawkus was back in the day. There is the potential to push things forward. The fans are now in control. We dont necessarily need corporate dollars to make things happen a major way as everything is word of mouth.

DX: Has the internet deaded the major corporatons?
DJ Spinna:
Definitely, as it has left the industry struggling. But it is economical too as when an album is out its available on line immediately. You have people blogging all the new stuff. Labels dont make money from the artists anymore. Labels like Universal, Def Jam etc. are doing 360 deals where they dip into your pockets from shows and anything you get on your own, they want a piece of that. They recognize that records arent selling like they used to and that it is a totally different thing now.

I think they will be obsolete in the next few years. I think it is going to be corporations or brands sponsoring and taking on the role of labels and funding projects.

DX: You have a selection of both emcees from the '90s and then from the present on Sonic Smash, what are the differences or even the similarities between them?
DJ Spinna:
I think the underground has always been the place where you have progressive thinking emcees who push the boundaries. You know Homeboy Sandman [click to read], he is unique. [Laughs] He is not your average emcee. He gives me the same kind of energy that Eminem gave me back in the day, as far as what he talks about, how he talks about it while having all this energy. He is self-contained and just does his thing. That reminds me of how it used to be back in '97 and '98. He is very personable, you know he is one of those guys that if there was venues in New York where underground Hip Hop events were happening; hed be there. He would be the one to jump on stage and buss a freestyle at any given point; hes one of those guys.

Its almost like he is coming out in the wrong era. [Laughs] He should have been out 12 years ago, he would have had a major deal by now just based on his following and his potential. I see a lot of similarities with the emcees now and then from back in the day. I just think they have to work a bit harder to get known. Before it was more physical, you could go to a party, you could buy a record, you could hustle a mixtape outside Fat Beats in New York City. Now there are very few places that you can go to showcase your talent. Back in the day, there was so many places, it really is a different time and then a lot of it is online.

DX: Do you think these guys can learn from each other too?
DJ Spinna:
I think the new school look up to the old school when it comes to lyrics and content as the older guys paved the way. But now it is a different ball game as to how you put yourself out there and I think the old school emcees can learn from these guys how to get yourself out there. Before it may have been a little harder as they had to rely on getting a record deal and getting the right record budgets and marketing plans, where as now everything is internet based.

Basically, as far as measures of getting themselves heard they might not be familiar with using the Internet, so find someone who is connected to work with all these different Hip Hop outlets that are available out there. I remember before we got any situation with a record label we were funding everything ourselves and we had to buy the reel-to-reel tapes which were already expensive, book our own studio time and cut demos and hope that a label might be interested and that was it. Besides any little local shows you might do, that was the only way of getting yourself out there. Now you dont really have to spend too much money, you can cut demos at your own leisure and just try to get it out there on the Internet and spread it out that way.

DX: You have worked on a couple of compilations such as the BBE Funk Rock one; how effective do you think these are?
DJ Spinna:
They are very effective as like any compilation in general they are just tools for spreading knowledge of music. The songs that are being used on them generate some sort of interest in whatever the sound is. A lot of these records used are not even familiar to the labels. I did Funk Rock with BBE and it had records that people werent too familiar with; so when it came out they were critically acclaimed especially in Europe, because of BBEs distribution. Anywhere I travel, I get acclaim for those projects. They are quite useful in terms of spreading musical knowledge all over the place. Especially in the vinyl era for the deejays. When we didnt want to carry to too much music those compilations helped out because there was so much music on them. You could eliminate carrying too many records by just having one of these compilations.

DX: Were there any difficulties you faced in putting them together?
DJ Spinna:
I guess the main constraint was probably clearance, picking a record that was hard to get clearance from the majors for. You know how majors are, they either have no clue about their catalogue or they are really tough on granting the license to clear the music. For example, anything from Warner Music, Elektra or Atlantic are always hard to clear. So a lot of times when making these comps they are the tracks that dont get cleared at all or are real tough to get.

DX: One of my fave mixtapes ever is that Wonder Wrote It which you and Bobbito did, have that in constant rotation in my Zune and my Ipod. Do you feel mixtapes are more forward thinking as opposed to nostalgic these days?
DJ Spinna:
Well, mixtapes are not what they used to be. For one, they are not even tapes, they are CDs and I guess the name transcended to the digital format as mix CD just doesnt sound good. [Laughs] The mixtape used to be a deejay-orientated thing; but now it has become a tool for artists to promote themselves. They are making these mixtapes that are more like demos or albums and putting promotions on them, giving them out at parties, liquor stores everywhere. I cant count how many mixtapes I have collected over the last six years from unknown artists, "Check me out I just want to be heard," or "You see my e mail address on there, my number;" its become a more a promotional marketing album where as back in the day it was about the deejay. Them showing their skills and giving it out to people who just wanted good music, basically a compilation in the mixed format. I am not sure how effective it is now because there are so many of them out there, I would expect people pay more attention to the big name artists.

DX: What would be your favorite mixtapes?
DJ Spinna:
One of the most recent ones I am listening to is DJ Top Spin from Seattle. He took instrumentals from Jay Dee and Waajeed [click to read] and blended them with Hip Hop and R&B acapellas and they go so well. It sounds like the tracks were meant to be with the acapellas as a lot of the time when deejays do this, they dont match, and the singer is not in key or totally out of pitch with the track. So that is the one that is in rotation right now. I actually played a couple of tracks from this compilation at parties and people have walked up to me and asked who did the tracks.

When it comes to the originators, Kid Capri [click to read], [DJ Clue] are the ones who put it on the map, the pioneers of the thing, the ones who brought it to life. Clues mixtapes were the first ones of the commercial aspect as he was endorsed by Puffy and that was how Puffy got a lot of his Bad Boy releases to the streets. It has had its history but its watered down now. Kid Capri had this tape 52 Beats where he is cutting up all the classic break beats on one tape and you dont find too many guys doing that these days.

DX: Now Sonic Smash is out later this month and yet there is already a Sonic Smash II in the works I believe. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
DJ Spinna:
Well I have Masta Ace [click to read] and Tanya Morgan [click to read] on there and then there are a few guys on my wish list that I am not too sure if I should put out there. Jay Electronica is on my wish list and we have spoke about him being on there. He is definitely one of the guys I am going after.

DX: What is it about him that makes you want to work with him?
DJ Spinna:
He is really witty, gully and his wordplay is crazy. He just has that thing that reminds me of Nasty Nas when he first came out.

Photographs by Robert Adam Mayer.

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