Baltimore house icon DJ Spen has upheld a career in music for decades, wowing crowds around the globe with his special blend of soulful, disco, and gospel music. From the early days with the legendary Basement Boys and Jasper Street Co., putting his own stamp on releases from Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, to the launch of his Quantize Recordings and Unquantize labels, Spen’s musical output is impressive as it is vast.
As he releases his highly anticipated new ‘Soulful Storm’ album, we grabbed Spen for a catch-up to find out all about it.
Electronic Groove: Hi, Spen, thanks for your time today. How is 2021 treating you so far?
DJ Spen: So far, so good, you know I hear a lot of people complaining about 2020 and 2021. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a lot of really crazy things happen. I mean the world is just off with the Coronavirus, and politics, and social justice issues. But at the end of the day, I have to say that I am really thankful to have my health and that my family is Ok. And I am still doing what I love to do. So honestly, I am grateful.
EG: You’ve just released your exciting new album ‘Soulful Storm’, please tell us a little about the release and what we can expect to hear?
DJ Spen: ‘Soulful Storm’ has been a long time in the making. Some of the songs have been floating around in my head for quite some time. One song in particular, ‘You Are My Friend’ is really the anchor track for the album. I tried recording it several times over about 5 years or so and it never came out how I wanted it until I met Michelle John. She literally nailed the vocals, which everyone has been raving about. That experience kinds of sums up the entire album – everything just came together in a really perfect way. The concept was about bringing together different soulful house music sounds – smooth, underground, inspirational, and even blues. Even the story of how the name for the album was one of those perfect accidents. I asked Danny Bench, a graphic artist who I work with regularly, to conceptualize a new logo for me, and I wanted a storm. My entire team hated that idea. I love superheroes, graffiti, and that kind of stuff. So when Danny came up with my storm logo he and my wife had the idea for me to start using the hashtag soulful storm, which I loved for an album name. But it really is very descriptive of the project itself. So you can definitely expect to hear a little of everything on the album.
EG: As someone who has sustained a successful career in music for so long, how comes you’re only releasing your second artist album now and how does ‘Soulful Storm’ differ from your previous ‘Transitions’ album?
DJ Spen: Album projects really take a lot of thought and planning, which I find difficult to do while running record labels and working as a producer. A lot of the music we create is not really meant to be a part of one complete body of work, because the market is really singles driven. Still, Quantize has released several album projects in the past few years and I have put a lot of time and energy into bringing those to life. I have been planning to release this album for almost two years, but lockdown definitely gave me the focus to finish it and pull it all together. ‘Transitions’ was really my first feature album as an artist. I had done compilations and of course many singles and remixes. That project signaled a transition in my career as an artist and a producer. They are both collaborative efforts, but with ‘Soulful Storm’, it was more about focusing on the different elements of soul music. Later (likely this year), I plan to focus on gospel and release a gospel house album.
EG: You’ve got quite a large cast of artists involved in ‘Soulful Storm’, who features on the project and what did they bring to the table?
DJ Spen: That is kind of a signature of my work as I truly love to collaborate with people. I start out with a strong vision for what I want and I don’t lose sight of that, but I love sharing my vision with other artists and hearing their interpretation of that vision. For this project, I worked with several vocalists. I mentioned Michelle John earlier and her beautiful work on ‘You Are My Friend.’ I was really excited to work with the legendary vocalist Fonda Rae, who brings a sweet and saucy lyrical style. She has a really quirky and unique creative personality that shines through in her music. Of course, there’s Sheila Ford, who I work with a lot, who has an amazing classically trained voice. But what she does with her jazzy vocal, I call it vocal acrobatics and very few singers can do what she does. Tasha LaRae, formerly of Arrested Development, is another vocalist I work with frequently. Her tone and delivery on ‘Wish I Didn’t Miss You’ is just sheer perfection. Tasha also co-wrote ‘I Got The Love’, which David Morales really conceptualized, in terms of the track. I came up with the song in my head and asked her to help me. I immediately thought that Carla Prather, from Chicago, had the perfect voice for the song. She brings that heavy-duty old-school soul and gospel flavor, and what she did for the song was phenomenal.
It was really wonderful to work with Crystal Waters on ‘Party People’ as I had not worked with her in so long and the song just came together in such an amazing way. Working with Monique Bingham and Roland Clark on ‘The End Of It All’ was amazing. Monique’s vocal delivery is really just soul-stirring and Roland is truly one of those rare talents, he’s a dope producer and songwriter and everything he touches is gold! The way those two fit perfectly together on that track blew my mind. There are only two male singers on the project. The first is Cornell CC Carter, who I first heard sing at a gig I did in Croatia. He did a cover of the Delphonics song ‘La La La Means I Love You’ that blew me away. I thought his falsetto was remarkable, and ‘Head to the Sky’ just bloomed from there. Then there is Brandon Yancey out of Baltimore. It was nice to have a hometown singer on the project, but also a fresh male voice. Brandon has really smooth R&B vocals, which I love. I am looking forward to working with him more.
“With ‘Soulful Storm’, it was more about focusing on the
different elements of soul music”
EG: You also worked with your old cohort from the Basement Boys days, Crystal Waters, on the single ‘Party People’, which featured a remix from Carl Cox & Eric Powell. What was it like working together with Crystal again after all these years and are you pleased with how the single turned out?
DJ Spen: Crystal is definitely a rare creative talent and a legend. I was so pleased with how the song turned out. Micfreak did an amazing job developing the track and we all worked really well together. Sometimes you have to let Crystal go think about the music and not try to put her into a box. The end result is always really good! It amazes me that people are still discovering the record. We discussed whether to hold putting it out, given the global pandemic, but it’s just a happy song. I still smile as soon as I hear the first few chords.
EG: The album also features an exciting selection of cover versions, including Natalie Cole’s ‘Mister Melody’, Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘Keep Your Head To The Sky’, and Angie Stone’s ‘Wish I Didn’t Miss You’, among other. How did you go about choosing which songs to cover and putting your own stamp on them?
DJ Spen: The songs that I picked for covers were songs I have always wanted to do. They are songs I love and it was just about finding the perfect singers to bring out my vision of the songs. I am really pleased with all of them.
EG: Which track on the album was the biggest labour of love to make?
DJ Spen: Probably ‘Mr Melody’, because recording it during COVID-19 was difficult. It probably would have come together much easier had we all been in the studio together. We came up with the track, then worked with the horn player, bass player, and everyone remotely. That particular track had a lot of different elements, and pulling it all together was a pretty intense and sometimes a frustrating process. Gary Hudgins (former P-funk musician) is a keyboard player I work with a lot and he was really instrumental in helping to bring all those parts together to create a smooth and cohesive sound.
EG: How long did the album take to make and how did you overcome any obstacles presented by the Covid pandemic?
DJ Spen: Except for ‘You Are My Friend’, the project took less than a year. Overall things were a bit slower, as I had to work logistics out virtually with vocalists, co-producers, etc. Fortunately, many of the people I work with were able to find creative solutions. When I say it was the perfect storm, I am not kidding. Things just came together – often in the most unexpected ways.
“I say stay encouraged and don’t give up”
EG: How are things going with your Quantize Recordings and Unquantize labels and what have you got lined up for 2021 that you can tell us about?
DJ Spen: Things are going well with the labels, we are still releasing two projects every week, and we have been doing that for a few years now. Music is something that people will always love, so there is always that demand. We have been fortunate to help a lot of new and up and coming producers launch their careers and that has been nice to see them branching out on other labels and bringing new projects out. That is a big motivator for us. We want to offer a platform and springboard for producers. I plan to release quite a few singles myself with remixes as well. Up next will likely be ‘Nobody But You’, ‘Mr. Melody’ and believe it or not, ‘Goin Home (To See My Savior)’. We recently released a David Morales remix package of ‘I Got The Love’. There will also be a vinyl release of ‘Soulful Storm’ for Record Store Day.
EG: You’ve been busy throughout the pandemic and have really embraced online streaming with regular shows and an online festival. Has it been a valuable experience for you as an artist and the Quantize brand and what have you learned from the process?
DJ Spen: Honestly, I never imagined I would be doing any of this and did not even DJ at home before the pandemic. I had a setup that I used to listen to demos and test out the songs I produced. I was flying back home from the UK with my wife with a stop in LA right before everything shut down in the States. Everything was closing in our area, and of course, the travel restrictions had begun. My wife looked at me and said “you will have to live stream”. It is hard to believe that was almost a year ago. I literally entered a world that was foreign to me and learned a new language, I learned so much. It was tough and frustrating in the beginning and there are still moments now when technology fails, but overall it has been rewarding for me and the label. We have been able to connect with fans in a really unique way, and I love that. There is also a whole new audience we are reaching – people who have never heard the kind of music we make and people who would NEVER step foot in a club or festival. Some of them are now our regulars and that has been amazing. I think the biggest lesson from all this is to be flexible.
EG: As an original pioneer of Soulful House, how has the scene changed over the years and how do you see it progressing in the future?
DJ Spen: The biggest change has been technology. When we first started, we used computers for synching analog gear and doing automation on multi-channel boards. Today all of that can be done on a laptop. From DJing to producing, technology has made it so that people who don’t even understand the basic foundations of musicianship can stumble upon something pretty decent. Even though that may happen, the likelihood of someone without that foundation being able to sustain that level of creativity is pretty small. We are currently seeing the return of some real musicianship with the use of live strings, horns, etc. which I really like. I think that music being a cycle, like everything else, we will see the return of some really good music of all kinds that is really inspirational and soulful in its own right. Younger talent are really incorporating some of these elements into their music and it’s really refreshing. For the first time in a long time, I am excited to see where music is going.
EG: With almost 40 years contributing to the house music scene, what pearls of wisdom do you have to share about sustaining such a fruitful career and how do you keep yourself musically motivated?
DJ Spen: FOLLOW YOUR HEART. If a person is even thinking about venturing into music, it has to be their passion. It cannot be about money or fame or anything other than the love of their music. With very few exceptions, most people in the house music scene have struggled at one point or another. A person has to be willing to struggle. Success does not happen overnight, you really just have to be laser focused and for those who are, I say stay encouraged and don’t give up. For those who are wavering, I say really do some self examining and decide what you want. If you’re not willing to struggle and put your all into it, then maybe now is not the time.
DJ Spen ‘Soulful Storm’ Album will be released on Traxsource promo February 12th / Full release February 26th, 2021 on Quantize Recordings. Grab your copy here.