“My Role as a DJ is as a Conduit”: An Interview With DJ Spinna

Sam Ribakoff talks with DJ Spinna about his musical heroes, being a touring musician and a father, and the early days of DJ'ing.
By    July 18, 2016

There may never have been a time when this country was “great,” but New York City in the late ’70s was definitely an amazing moment. The three chord raucousness of CBGB’s punk scene morphed into a downtown New Wave/No Wave scene inspired by experimental music, dance music, jazz, and the downtown art scene of Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. In the outer boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, the culture of, and around, hip hop was forming, growing, and spreading at the same time. New York is a big city though, separated not only by geography, but along racial, ethnic, and class lines, and it took cultural ambassadors like Fab Five Freddy and Malcolm McMcLaren to get white punks to listen to hip hop, and to get black and brown hip hop kids into the art and music industry.

Soon, Debbie Harry of the punk band Blondie was trying to rap; The Clash was getting played by B-boys; The Sugarhill Gang was selling out record stores; The Supreme Team was joining forces with Malcolm McLaren; and Melle Mel sampled a Liquid Liquid song for a hip hop record. Some form of cultural dialogue across race and class lines had undoubtedly been sparked. There were the interactions between the hip hop and punk scenes, but another style of music going on at the same time in New York arguably did even more to bridge boundaries—dance music, specifically the kind of dance music that Larry Levan played at Paradise Garage. Levan mixed disco, soul, funk, jazz, rock, and early hip hop records seamlessly and created the groundwork, the sound and aesthetic, of house music, and arguably all electronic dance music made after.

This eclectic music brought a diverse mix of people from all over the city, from the black and gay communities that created and sustained disco, to straight and white New Yorkers who were attracted to the sound. DJ Spinna grew up in Brooklyn during this time in the late ’70s and ’80s, ingesting all of these new cultural and musical styles around him, eventually becoming the go to DJ of ’90s underground New York hip hop, working with everybody from Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli, and later on becoming a producer and remixer with a BBE title under his belt. He produced and remixed De La Soul, The Jigmastas, and the Polyrhythm Addicts, adding a hip hop flair and aesthetic to his house tracks, and a house soul to his hip hop tracks. After almost 30 years in the music business, Spinna is still ridiculously busy, still traveling around the world, records in hand, still remixing and doing production work.

He’s added “maker of tribute compilations” to his CV, releasing a compilation of Stevie Wonder rare cuts and covers, called DJ Spinna Presents: The Wonder of Stevie Vol 3. But Spinna insists, his first role is as a father to his kids, who I hear by his side as I talk to him over the phone while he walks from his home to his studio, to Mr. Complex of Polyrhythm Addicts’ house on a sweltering New York summer’s day. —Sam Ribakoff

You’re a very busy man, what’s an average day like for you?

DJ Spinna: The first thing is that I’m a family man. it’s not always revolving around music. I’m married with two kids, two little girls, and a large percentage of my day is being a dad. Sometimes music comes secondary. An average day is me taking my kids to school, doing some errands, and maybe getting some music in production wise for a couple hours, and then resume being a father. Sometimes jumping on a plane to do weekend gigs. It’s pretty hectic. I’m obligated to be a good father, but also live up to my standards of being the best producer, musician, DJ, that I can. There’s always a battle with time.

Do your kids understand what you do?

DJ Spinna: They understand, but it’s always hard when I have to leave. It’s like “yeah, we understand, but so what? You’re our dad and we still want you around.” They’ve been around me at gigs, so they know what I do, but being on planes and traveling for a weekend, or a week if I have to, it’s rough for them.

Do you have them listen to the music that you listen to, or do you let them listen to whatever they want?

DJ Spinna: I try, it’s hard, my older one understands soul and funk and classic hip hop, my younger one is in her current pop mode, I don’t really let them listen to current ratchet hip hop much, or at all, because I just don’t listen to it. I mean, I listened to music that my parents were into, I understand that it happens for every generation, you know?

I just try to let them understand the foundation of the music they’re listening too. If they like pop, they gotta understand Michael [Jackson] and Prince. If they like hip hop, they gotta understand the Native Tongues movement, and even older stuff like P.E. [Public Enemy] and “Rapper’s Delight,” they gotta understand where everything came from, even if they don’t like it. They do like some stuff, some old school things, but I can’t kill them with it, they’re like, “alright daddy, let’s put that Ariana Grande back on real quick.”

Did your parents push music onto you?

DJ Spinna: They didn’t push, my parents nurtured me. If my dad had it his way I would have become a baseball player. He was heavily into sports but I wasn’t, so he didn’t understand how I got involved with this music thing so heavily, he especially didn’t understand how you could make a living from it. Towards the end of his life, God rest his soul, some of the strives that I made, especially him seeing Bad 25, the Spike Lee Michael Jackson documentary I was in, play on TV on Thanksgiving night, we watched it together, he didn’t say much, but I know watching me, his son, on TV must have meant something to him. My parents were old school in the sense that they were like “go to school, get out, get a job.” I did the school thing, but never worked a job in my life after I graduated. I went right into music, and that was the end.

If Wikipedia tells me right, you were born in ’73?

DJ Spinna: Nah, that’s a lie, I was born in ’71, but if you want to go with ’73 that’s only a couple of years.

No! Those are a few important years, because in the late ’70s that’s when hip hop sort of came out to the world. Even though you were only a child then, can you tell me what life was like before and after hip hop came into being?

DJ Spinna: Good question. It was kind of a cultural thing, in New York and Brooklyn. We got to hear it in the streets before it was ever recorded. There were a lot of impactful things happening, like block parties. Graffiti had been around way before anything in the late ’60s and early ’70s. B-boying came a little later. I aspired to be a DJ through hip hop and prior, in the mid ’70s, by watching older guys do it on the block or at basement parties. It was just a way of life, you know? It was just part of us.

A lot of us grumpy old men know because we know how it started, it really was special because you couldn’t get it no other way for a long time, and then it just blew up. After, let’s put it like this, I’d been trying to make records since I was 13 or 14 years old. I was inspired by people like Cold Crush and Spoonie Gee, and even Trevor Horn. When World Famous Supreme Team came out with “Buffalo Gals” and you heard scratching on the record, that really blew me away, because you didn’t hear much of that back then.

And then “Sucker MC’s” came out and Jam Master Jay did the rub during DMC’s verse, that one scratch was like “oh my God!” I mean, you just didn’t hear it back then. Also, speaking of the World Famous Supreme Team, they used to do a radio show that aired at like 2 Am in the middle of the week, and it started in the late 70’s, until they blew up when “Hey DJ” and “Buffalo Gals” came out, but that was a ritual for a lot of people, tuning into that show. That’s the first time a lot of us heard classic breakbeats, they were just cutting up. It was raw. There was nothing else like that on the air. Again, these were all just special moments that raised the nation of hip hop if you will.

When I think of that time, the early ’80s and late ’70s in New York, that’s one of my favorite time periods in music because it seems like there was so much overlap and mixing of all the music scenes in New York. Like the jazz scene, the punk scene, the house scene, and hip hop, and downtown art. Was there that much movability and interaction or is that exaggerated?

DJ Spinna: Absolutely. Everything influenced each other. I Was too young to be at CBGBs or hangout downtown when all of that was happening, but you could clearly hear it on the radio and on the records that were made. You know, Blondie’s “Rapture” was big in three scenes: in the punk scene, in the hip hop scene, and in the club scene. You know the The Clash’s “Radio Clash” was a big B-Boy record, there were certain records that cross pollinated between scenes, with, you know, birthed groups like the Beastie Boys. You heard it, even if you weren’t on the scene per say. It was in the air. You definitely felt that something new was happening. It was fresh and energetic, and electric. You couldn’t say it was whack, at the time it was so new that people were just embracing it for what it was. It was just that young New York, rebellious energy.

I read in another interview that you did that you were into house music since ’85, how did you even hear house music so young?

DJ Spinna: It sounds crazy, but I always had older people around me. I was one of the youngest in my crew of guys that I came up with, and they got into it, and that got me into it. Also, that’s another genre of music that was kind of around us, it was in the air, it was big. It was underground, but there were records that managed to cross over into mainstream radio. You heard it, it wasn’t like some thing that came out of nowhere, it evolved from disco, and I’m a disco kid, and all disco is sped up soul music. They call music disco’s revenge because they tried to kill disco off in ’79 [The “disco sucks” demolition night when thousands of, mostly white, people burned disco records in a huge bonfire at Comiskey Park in Chicago before a White Sox game], house music became the way for people to express themselves all over again.

It was sonically a little different, but it all came from a foundation of soul and disco music. And then I got a chance to experience the Paradise Garage [the legendary New York dance music club where house music evangelist Larry Levan DJ’ed] when I was 16 years old. They didn’t serve liquor, so I was able to get in as a member. It was magical for me, that was probably my first real club experience. I got to hear the best sound system, and the best DJ in the world, which was Larry Levan. Also, Larry played hip hop in the club.

Really? I didn’t know that.

DJ Spinna: Yes! He played Kurtis Blow, and if I’m not mistaken, Sugar Hill [Gang] played at the club. What people fail to realize, those genres: punk, disco, soul, hip hop, those were records that Larry Levan was responsible for getting sampled by hip hop producers later. For example, “Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner, sampled by De La Soul, for the “Buddy” remix. One of many records that sampled “Heartbeat.” We all mixed and mingled, the styles of music and culture, that was just New York.

Yeah, because when you started remixing stuff, especially hip hop records, you brought in a lot of that soulful house sound.

DJ Spinna: Yeah, when I got into the music industry, you know, actually making music, hip hop was definitely my first way in, but when things were starting to get a bit redundant towards the late ’90s, early 2000s, I was really heavily involved with the underground, you know like Rawkus Records and other labels, that’s when the sales started plummeting because everybody and their mother started getting home studios man, and people started making records who should not have been making records. Those flooded the market and sales plummeted. I wasn’t getting too much work, and I really wasn’t feeling the mainstream music at the time, so I started traveling and hearing what was going on all over the world. I saw how big house music was and Nu-Jazz, and other genres, and I said to myself “I gotta mess around with this.”

My first house music release wasn’t until ’99, and the one that blew up for me was a remix for a track by Shaun Escoffery called “Days Like These,” and that took off and became an anthem globally, and that gave me the encouragement to go into it harder. But before all that, I had been friends with Kenny Dope, and I had been hanging out with him in the studio and seeing how he put records together, he told me that when you do house take the hip hop approach, sample your drums, make your kicks and snares hard, and follow that template, and you’ll see you stand out, compared to other house dudes who are using drum machine stock sounds from a [Roland TR] 909, or a 808. Those were words that really encouraged me to get into it.

Do you ever just sit back and think about how much wealth was, and is, being created by hip hop and house music, music started by black and brown kids with nothing, in the poorest neighborhoods in the country?

DJ Spinna: Yeah! But that’s happened with so many genres. Rock, jazz, even country. It’s crazy.

Now I see that you’re putting on a lot of tribute nights for Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Michael Jackson. What was the decision behind getting into that?

DJ Spinna: First, just honoring the legends. Initially, I was doing this while both Prince and Michael were alive, so the idea was really just to honor their legacy, and give them life, and have people celebrate and never forgot.

Initially this was because at one time, when they were both alive, they weren’t releasing a lot of music, you know, the output wasn’t really there, and I just wanted to remind everybody that those artists were there. It paid off because I met Prince, and he was thankful, I can now count Stevie Wonder as a personal friend, I wish I got to meet Michael before he passed though. I met most of his brothers though, and I know Michael appreciates it in spirit. He’s watching, I know he’s watching.

What did Prince meant to you?

DJ Spinna: Wow! He, to me, represented the ultimate musician who ushered in a whole sound that we weren’t used to. He was just utterly unique, in his representation, in his songwriting, in his production, in his building an empire with his Paisley Park imprint, he did it all. He basically redefined music ownership, battling the music industry, and becoming autonomous.

He was experimental, and just daring. That’s what inspires me and the music that I make. I’ve always had the mindset to think out the box and make music that people aren’t used to hearing, and stretched their minds a little bit. And you know, Prince and Michael were very influenced by Stevie in regards to owning their own masters and other things. My role as a DJ is as a conduit, I’m just reaffirming what they had to say all over the world, and presenting it in a way that people can dance to.

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