DJ Spen: How I DJ, The Best Clubs and More
Baltimore’s DJ Spen began his career at the age of 13, producing mix shows for WEBB AM and then later on working at various other FM radio stations. Down the line as he became entrenched in making music, his talents lead him to the Basement Boys in 1989, with the formation of The Basement Boys record label and Jasper Street Company in 1994. From there he gained consistent commercial and dancefloor success, and became an in-demand remix producer creating remixes for some of clubland’s biggest names, such as Diana Ross, Everything but the Girl, Ann Nesby, Shaun Escoffery and others. With the formation of Code Red Recordings, Quantize Recordings, Spiritually Sound and The MuthaFunkaz group Spen’s career soared to new heights.
In the present day, with a career now spanning of more than 20 years, Spen is still in high demand in the remix and production realm, as well as being one of the most sought-after U.S. DJs. He can be found jetting off to gigs at some of the premier clubs around the world and plays regularly in the UK, as well as France, Italy, Japan, and Australia.
Are you more of a DJ or Producer — or one and the same?
I am pretty much one and the same, although these days I am more of a producer. I started out as a Hip-Hop DJ, which helped to shape who I am as a producer in many ways.
Describe what makes a good DJ in three or four words.
Look at the crowd!!!!!
Who or what inspired you to become a DJ?
The music started it. I loved tracks that had disco breaks as a kid. I was constantly looking for ways to make breaks longer with my old tape deck. I used the pause button to catch parts of the songs and make them as long as I wanted them to be. Eventually, I got pretty good at it. Once I heard tapes from Baltimore Legends Wayne Davis, Thommy Davis, Teddy Douglas and the A.P. Crew, I was immediately blown away!!! My pause button tape deck couldn’t do any of that. Once I started the quest to find out what they were doing and how they were doing it, my mission was to become a DJ.
When did you know you wanted to be a DJ?
Around the fall of 1982. I put a mix together and begged my mom to take me to a local AM station WEBB that was at the forefront of breaking Hip-Hop in Baltimore. I gave it to the program director who seemed not to be interested at all in the tape I’d given him, but the next day my mix was on the radio. That was the beginning.
Who to you is/was “The Dj’s DJ”.
• Was… Jazzy Jeff, Cash Money & Tony Humphries.
• Is… Louie Vega, Dimitri From Paris, Karizma, Grant Nelson & Terrance Parker.
Describe your main and preferred DJ set-up.
4 CDJ 2000s Nexus and either a Pioneer 900 Nexus or in a Club that has a killer system and a Urei or Bozak mixer. The rotary mixers have a superior sound quality compared to the Pioneer, but the Pioneer works better with systems that are not that great.
Do you use a laptop? If so, what platform/program?
Why do you choose this way of playing?
The CDJs give me an old skool turntable feel. I can look up at the floor easily which would be a bit harder to do with a laptop (in my opinion). Furthermore, there is less to troubleshoot when things like power outages occur with a CDJ setup.
Any special, unique, crazy things on your rider?
Black towels!!!!! I tend to be a pretty active DJ and all everyone wants to bring me is white towels to wipe my sweat off. This looks like I have white spots all over me when I am DJing. Black towels match a black man better….:)!
Beverage of choice while playing?
Water, cranberry juice, or orange juice.
Favorite country/club/city to play? (feel free to name one of each)
• Country: Italy
• City: Tokyo
• Club: Amate Raxi
Do you Sync, What’s your view on this? Has it leveled the playing field for the better or worse?
I don’t use sync. Part of the reason is that I play loads of old tracks that existed before automation existed. There are programs that will kinda allow you to go through each measure of a track and put it on a “grid”, but many times it takes away from the sound quality of the track. That being said, I have never had a desire to use the sync controls on CDJs. It can be challenging when you play on systems that sound horrible, but that is all a part of what makes DJing fun. Figuring out what to do on the fly.
The sync button has definitely made things easier for anyone to be a DJ, but programming is a bit more important. You have to know when and what to play. I guess when you have a sync feature, a part of the thinking process is eliminated!!! Doesn’t sound like fun to me :).
Any DJ Controllers?
Favorite or “go-to” EFXs while playing?
Reverb, delay, & isolation.
Read the crowd or just pound it out?
Read the crowd first, and then pound it out hardcore!!!!
Big festivals or intimate clubs?
Intimate clubs!!!!! Festivals are fine but there is always a disconnect between you and the crowd. Unless it’s a Daft Punk styled massive performance, intimate clubs are far better and acoustically too. My favorite example of this is when The Zanzibar in New Jersey was open. The system in there surrounded the room. There was not one space that was devoid of sound. Festivals are normally just loud with sound coming at you from one direction.
Ever miss the CDs or Vinyl days?
Nope. There is so much you can do on CDJs that I could only imagine back in vinyl days. The only thing I miss about vinyl is warm sound.
How do you maintain your music library?
I have everything on hard drives. Backed up 3, sometimes 4 times depending on what it is.
AIFF, Wavs or MP3 — Why? Is there a difference?
Wavs!!! Usually 24 bit Wavs when I can get them. Wavs carry more top-end and low-end frequencies that mp3s don’t. On a nice system, the difference is shocking.
Any tips for young aspiring DJs?
Make sure that you love what you do!!! If you don’t love it, there is no need to do it. It’s a tough business for people who do this for real, so I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone who was in it for anything but the LOVE of it!!!
Do you do any of the Obligatory DJ Poses?
Yes! Some of them carry over from my Hip-Hop days. We didn’t smile a lot back then… :).
How do you combat the “Everyone is a DJ” mentality?
I don’t. I truly believe the work you do will speak for you. Anyone who has ever tried to belittle what I do in any way has always had a change of heart after experiencing what I do. The music speaks, so I don’t have to.