steve spacek: an afropunk dj mix
By Sound Check
February 28, 2020
To understand the dance-music community’s regard for Steve Spacek as one of the quietly legendary figures on the beat-music landscape, one had to pay attention to many things at once. The long, diverse career of the London-born, Australia-residing singer/producer/DJ originally named Steve White, has effortlessly combined ’90s electronic dub atmospheres, alternative and soul songwriting explorations, leftfield hip-hop collaborations, bass-heavy pilgrimages into African music, and joyful club bangers. And we’re happy that the exclusive mix he made for AFROPUNK includes all of the above.
That last style is what he’s doing right now. If it’s not apparent from the title, Spacek’s newest album, Houses, returns him to one of his musical loves: the Chicago- and Detroit-style house music which invaded England in the late 1980s as part of the rave and acid house revolution in sound. But of course, Spacek being Spacek, there’s a lot more to what he brings on both the album, and the accompanying mix — and how he got there. Steve was kind enough to help break down the roots of his DJ journey, and of the music he’s making now.
Great mix, Steve. Tell us a little bit about how you chose the tracks? I recognize a few of these as yours. But there’s also a few older West African tunes that you bring in and out of the mix. What are those?
Why thank you! Most of the tracks for this mix were chosen from a bunch of tracks that I am currently working on. ‘Spose you could call them demos — or better still, works in progress. The West African cuts are my reups, basically edits that I chop up, or add a sub-bass to, so that I can drop them in a mix of more up-to-date fare, and they still make sense or are in context. To me, most of the the music coming out of West Africa, along with many other parts of that continent, are the great-grandparents of a lot of modern dance music. That very idea was what fueled the Africa Hi-tech record (93 Million Miles) Mark Pritchard and myself did for Warp all those years back. Just always aiming to show lineage within the music, whether across an album, live or on a recorded DJ set. There is so much old music that is timeless, and it’s nice to drop them in amongst all the new shiz.
How did you discover DJing as an artform? Growing up in London in the ‘80s and ‘90s, who were the models? The great nights? The kind of sounds that turned you out?
I suppose when I started raving back in the day, you of course had DJs using two decks and a mixer to rock a crowd. But there was also the original selectors — usually from reggae soundsystems — that could rock a dance with just one deck. Tunes would get played until the very end of the track, even the fade out! Then you would hear the needle get lifted off the wax. and the crackles and pops would stop for a short while, so the DJ could grab the next piece of wax to play. You’d hear the tone arm being handled before the needle was lowered onto the record, and the pre-crackle would kick in before the sound from the recording started. Those were the days, when peeps were patient enough to appreciate such practices. The ears could have nice little rest before the next bass-line would land on your chest!
So, real early days for me would have been soundsystems — not so much in clubs, but moreso at someone’s house. Would be a birthday celebration, a christening or wedding reception, unfortunately even the odd funeral. This would have been around the ‘70s/early ‘80s. The club thing started for me properly during the ‘80s when I was still at school! There were a good few local spots when I was growing up, like Saxon Tavern, which was a large pub over in deepest southeast London, almost next to my secondary school. Other spots like Kisses night spot, again in SE London on Peckham High Street. The last time I was there would’ve been for a soundclash. I think it would’ve been Saxon Sound, Coxsone and Sir Lloyd. (Saxon Sound being one of the biggest and best in those days. Mans like Tippa Irie, Smiley Culture (RIP!) and Dennis Rowe. Hope I spelt all their names correct!) Them mans deserve the respect for the influence they had on myself and on loads of my peers and contemporaries. I grew up only a couple of streets from them boys over in Brockley. Those were the days when everything was simple and fun.
In terms of radio, I was listening to Greg Edwards, who had a great soul show on Capital radio called “Soul Spectrum.” This was on Friday nights and would often have a section where they went live on location to a spot called The Lyceum, in The Strand (Central London). That was always fun, seeing as they would have some amazing American soul or funk artist in town sharing the love. Also on radio and on the reggae tip was Tony Williamson London Radio. He would always have famous artists over from Jamaica. Last off, can’t talk about this stuff without mentioning the great David Rodigan, BRRRAAAP BRRRAAAP!! He too had a show on Capital Radio. Back then, and from what I remember, it was mainly them three repping music of Black origin on air within the London area. This was way before pirate radio kicked in. That’s a whole other ting that would take a fair few pages to fully get into and across!
Your new album, Houses, feels a lot more minimal and straight-forward house-y than most of your previous work. What made you want to go in that direction this time around?
With this album, I’ve dealt with an itch that I’ve been wanting to scratch for a while now. I loved house music from the off. I suppose it would’ve been the whole acid house ting that turned me onto it, with early UK nights like Shoom at Clink Street and Spectrum at Heaven, a gay spot under Charing Cross train station. Those times were epic for me because there was a big revolution within music happening then, how all of a sudden you could go out on a Monday night and have a proper tear-up on the dance floor, like it was the weekend! All these really great nights started to happen during the week, which had the effect of turning the weekends into more commercial club nights, where you might go to hear more radio-friendly dance-floor pop hits. But I digress!
All this to say, House has always been there, niggling away in the background of my music-producing mind! I’ve said this many times but whenever I get hold of a new piece of music-making gear, I’d always road-test it by knocking up a quick four-to-the-floor groove. Drums, bass and to top off, a simple melody. The Houses album is me finally setting it in stone, on my own within a solo capacity. (The Africa Hi-tech record touched on house and techno quite a fair bit, too.) It’s also a nice genre to play around with, swing within the rhythms also. Not many would even do this, especially seeing as a lot of drum machines and step sequencers have their own built-in swing naturally, by way of the envelopes of each drum hit or bass patch, all coming together to make a certain feel. I like to push this within all my music and it is all over this Houses album. Quite subtle in most cases, but always there to enhance the groove. Hear any of the tracks from this record in a club and you’ll get the drift.
What does the phrase “Strength in Struggle” mean to you? Have you any experiences in your life that have embodied that — or any experiences that phrase brings to mind?
“Strength in Struggle” can mean many things for me! I suppose, for now though, I can describe it as the struggle within this music industry. I’ve been in this game for more or less 30 years now, and have had some great times and moments — but during all this, the industry has definitely not been an easy place to navigate. Like, a few albums back, I did a really great record for a well-known and respected UK label. Made me go places musically that I’ve been wanting to go, but had never had the chance or the right forum. Thought, how great is this. Grew up listening to a ton of their music and now I find myself a home with this label. Next thing I know, they drop me! I never even got to meet most of the crew seeing as I live in Australia now. You know, when you think things are going swimmingly, and instead they are not. To this day I do not know why or what happened! But as my dear mother always told me, “Son, everything works out for a wise purpose,” and you know what, she’s always been right as far as I’m concerned. Also the massive drop in physical sales over the last decade and a half has meant that, as a musician, you have to be across a lot more disciplines other than just making the music. Wouldn’t change it for the world though. I’m sure everything is as it should be.
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