Interview: NZ Hip Hop History With DJ Spell-Part 3

The beginning at the end: When I set out to interview Spell, I had 20 general questions I ask everyone, some specifically for him of course. But when we sat down he had a different idea, one that I’m glad we rolled with. Instead of an impersonal Q&A we spoke through a timeline that he actually has mapped out on a large piece of paper at his house. I realized that as someone who writes about hip hop, I’ve spent the last 10 years sitting on the fence watching the New Zealand hip hop culture happen, while Spell rolled up his sleeves and pretty much did it all (except rapping, though he says he did try). In part one and two we covered his past, from being seven and sneaking scratches on Punakai’s dad’s turntables, entering his first DMC’s, to getting his heart broken to the present day where he’s planning his first gig: The Super Brawl Invitational Beat Battle at Sandwiches, in Wellington, May 17th. It offers the winner a Maschine +Komplete 9 thanks to Native Instruments and will be hosted by Juse1. Guest judges are Haz Beats (Home Brew), Riki Gooch (Eru Dangerspiel), Parks (Ladi6), Mara TK (Electric Wire Hustle) and DJ Raw (Footsouljahs). ‘This is just the beginning’, Spell says, ‘It’s too late to back out now.’

HH: Okay your time in Vancouver…

S: Okay so 2010 I entered the [Red Bull] Thre3style Scratch DJ competition. The guy Haydn Middleton gave me a slot in the competition. He had never heard of me, I don’t know who told him to get me but he listened to them and gave me a slot and I was like I’m gonna win this. I heard about it and I was waiting to be asked.

HH: Oh you had to be invited?

S: Yeah. So I got a slot and they put me on first, this was like nine o’clock, at night at San Fran. I did my set and everyone was like cool this guy’s actually good, no one had really heard of me yet. But I went first… made a pretty big impression on people and people remembered it. Then I got more gigs after that and started doing more support for acts. Then fast forward to the same time 2011, I entered the Thr3estyle again and won the heat in Wellington, they sent me to Auckland the next day and I won New Zealand against Paydirt. I took it mad serious.

HH: How long did you work on your set for?

S: Probably two months and the last two weeks were pretty hard out. So then December came I went to Vancouver and that was incredible. The whole thing and Red Bull got money man, mad paper.

HH: What was it about Vancouver you remember?

S: Getting flown to Vancouver, getting taken care of, hanging out with 16 other country champs, then hanging out with some of my DJ influences like Scratch Bastard, who I was a big fan of from the Scribble Jam tapes it was just cool just to kick it with him.

HH: Do you ever get all fan-like?

S: Yeah I got a funny story; I met some big names that week. I was there for a whole week…There was a battle every night and a headline act each night so the first night was Cosmo Baker and The Rub and he’s like a legendary Philly DJ who started off as a graffiti writer. He was super cool. The second night was fucken…Just Blaze and yeah, so I met him and that was cool…I had my light saver with me, I was carrying it around and he likes Star Wars as well. Then the third night was Peanut Butter Wolf, fourth night was DJ Premier and Pete Rock and you know I got to meet Preme and Pete Rock, just like casually make conversation with them it was insane. Fifth night was Numark and Z-Trip from Arizona and these are like my DJ idols, yeah and I met all of them and I didn’t get like nervous or anything…The only person I got star struck with was Shortkut whose a DJ from the Bay and he was just backstage. I don’t know why he was there but he was backstage and it looked like he was just by himself, kind of chilling and I walked in with the Australian DJ Perplex who was like bro that’s Shortkut and I was too shame to go and say hello to him. I was star struck. And that’s the only person.

HH: I don’t even know who that is…

S: Yeah well that’s the thing. He’s just big to the turntable scratch nerd scene…Ha, I didn’t meet him but I saw him. And yeah there’s a bunch of other crazy shit that happened. I went and saw Prince. I snuck into the Prince after party through the cellar. Me and this DJ called Seko from Van City. We snuck in through the cellar because we got there late and security were being dick heads and weren’t letting anyone in so we were standing outside for an hour just listening to Prince inside just jamming. And that was a good way to end it…

It was cool because going into the Prince after party, was like everyone was on the same level- all these famous DJ’s that I had been hanging out with the whole week it was like I was looking up to them, and then we got to the Prince concert and it was like me and Cosmo looking at Prince and I was like, this is incredible.

HH: So Vancouver was amazing because you were in a space where people were really respecting what you do?

S: Yeah I felt like a rock star like I get off the plane and there are Red Bull girls there with a big sign that says ‘Spell’. The event was sponsored by Mini and we had a bunch of Red Bull girls driving these Minis around and it was pretty much like 24/7 if I wanted to go somewhere I had a Red Bull girl to take me anywhere. It was pretty cool to feel like a rock star guy for that week…

HH: Does that feeling sit well with you?

S: For one week is cool but I’m not really a rock star kind of guy. I’m more of a stay in my room by myself and play the piano kind of guy.

“Try and learn on vinyl if you can help it, and learn how to mix vinyl. If everyone did that from the beginning the world would be a better place.”

HH: So what did you take away when you came home?

S: My mind set changed to international instead of national and so I started viewing myself as not a New Zealand DJ but a planet earth DJ and was like, hey I actually might be good at this DJ stuff… I always compare myself to whoever’s the top and I’ll never be a Jazzy Jeff, but it puts things into perspective.

HH: In the past year and a half what’s been the biggest set for you?


HH: That set was like you’d designed the whole thing…

S: Yeah when I heard they were doing it at the Town Hall I knew I had a big stage to use and they were just expecting me to do my Red Bull Thre3style set. I just asked if I could do something else because I knew I had to step it up a little bit. I just viewed it as a performance, not just as a DJ, I’m not just playing music to hype the crowd up, I have a big stage at my disposal, I have more to offer and I used it. I did a nice little intro, danced around a little bit, DJ’d and rocked the crowd. No one really knew what I was doing even like Dujon whose the Bboy in the Bboy vs. DJ part in that set. I’d always had that idea in my head…If I have an idea it just gets stored in my ideas box.

HH: Did KRS see it? What was he like?

S: He saw some of it. He said hello…he wanted to meet our Zulu chapter. But yeah he just said you know, I saw you up there you were rocking it or something like that…KRS 1 was a big thing, like huge deal for me.

HH: So what’s next?

S: An album, some vinyl, heaps more music like the whole DJ thing for me is cool, but what I’d really love to do is make music. That’s really what I love doing. What I need really is money to get it mastered and press up the vinyl. I have more than enough content to put out five albums.

HH: Can you describe your style of beat?

S: Umm…Hip Hop foundation with instrumentation, bits of funk and I don’t know man cause I make a whole bunch of different shit. Most of my beats end up with some kind of keys on it. Like Warren G and Battle Cat are huge influences on me. I can make some hard core boom bap….like sample heavy boom bap and I can make some chilled out soulful g’d out g-funk. It’s just a reflection of the music I was brought up on.


HH: Which was?
S: I grew up listening to a lot of classical music. Both my parents played the piano so there was always a piano in the house, my dad loves jazz so a lot of jazz- Oscar Peterson, Herby Handcock, Dave Brubeck, oh just heaps. And then my mum was heavy on disco like Abba and the Bee Gees and shit and dad was like Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool & The Gang and also movie soundtracks. I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs I knew the soundtracks to all those movies before I even saw them.

HH: How did you and Jazzy Jay end up at a house party together?

S: Oh he has a good friend in Auckland, whose his kid friend from the Bronx, Eric Orr he married a Polynesian girl and ended up moving to Auckland. But yeah I think he went to Auckland and heard about us in Wellington and he wanted to come down because he heard Hip Hop was good in Wellington so we went and picked him up and it was a pretty big deal man, it was actually a huge deal. And that was 2011. Meeting him was big, it was like the Bronx had come to Newtown and yeah we had a house party in Newtown and Jay got on the decks and it was off the hook.

HH: What can people look out for you from 2013?

S: More music. But actually you know what I’m running my first event by myself, I do have help, but May 17 at Sandwiches I’m hosting a beat battle called ‘The Super Brawl Invitational Beat Battle’ and the three judges confirmed are DJ Raw, Haz and Riki Gooch, there’s eight competitors, seven are chosen and the last will be a wild card that will be done through an online battle with Ayebro.

HH: Someone wrote on your SoundCloud that you’re the most underrated person from New Zealand do you think so?

S: Oh there are different aspects. There’s some things I am super overrated for like people think I am the man at, but I’m actually not that good at, but then there’s other things that I think, I’m actually kind of good at this and I wish more people heard what I just made.

HH: What do you love about Wellington’s music scene?

S: It’s cool, it’s small.

HH: Who would you pick to watch in Welly?

S: My favourite DJ is Alphabethead, he’s incredible. And an up and comer…there’s this kid called Gooda, he did DJ school last year, yeah I really like him, he’s good.

“I’m like the worst DJ I hate clubs, I hate lots of people in the same place, I don’t really drink and so there’s alcohol everywhere. Everyone’s usually messy and drunk and it’s usually really hot in a club and that sucks…I’m playing to cater to myself, what I wanna listen to.”

HH: What irritates you about Welly’s hip hop scene?

S: Not much. I don’t really pay attention to the politics really. I can’t really complain, but actually the standard of the way DJ’s get paid here in Wellington is real low so that’s a bad thing, in comparison to other cities I’ve been in. When people ask me how much I am charged they’re like what!? But I only charge this guy half of that so… Especially for the DJ’s who have been DJ’ing like 20 years.

HH: What’s something of yourself that you put into your craft and you hope people take away when they listen to your music?

S: I like to tell a story when I’m performing so if people can follow the story that I’m telling that’s what I hope. So they can go away and say like that Spell guy, that’s a good story he just told. It has just come with time. I just want people to know when I play, I’m playing my favourite music that I grew up listening to that I thrash at home. And that story goes back to the 70’s with funk and soul and then the 80’s with electro and boogaloo and then into the 90’s with R&B and hip hop and then into the 2000’s with the whole beat stuff. So I just want people to get that I’m not just a kid that downloaded a bunch of shit off torrents. I love the music I’m playing and I have a big connection to it and understanding.

HH: Watching you perform is like watching someone play video games with decks…

S: It’s like I’m in my room, I don’t give a fuck about the crowd. Everything is kind of shut off and I’m definitely in a zone when I DJ.

HH: Every time?

S: Not every time. Maybe I had a bad day, maybe I just woke up or something, maybe I haven’t slept. There’s a bunch of factors, maybe some crazy girl like spilt her drink on my shoes or something that can always get me to snap out of that zone and that sucks when that happens. Then I start hating it because it becomes a job and I’m at work.

HH: When did the Zulu Nation become official in New Zealand, what is it?

S: We became official in December 2011, we became a chartered chapter. For everyone it’s a little bit different but for me I’m just doing exactly same shit, nothing’s changed, but for me I have a global family now that I’m apart of and we all just come under this one umbrella and there’s chapters all over the world actually on my trip to Vancouver I stopped off in Seattle and stayed in with the Zulu chapter there.

HH: Is there criteria to be a part of it?

S: There is, but it’s kind of hard to say no to someone if they want to be down. There is a process that you go through like fill out a form and have a little interview but it’s not like an exclusive, elite hip hop group at all.

HH: Do you see what you do as work?

S: Yes. 100% Because I know that eventually this shit is going to get me paid. When I have been making beats in my bedroom at home for 12 hours straight, in my head I view it as I’ve been at work for 12 hours.

HH: What advice would you give up and comers?

S: Try and learn on vinyl if you can help it, and learn how to mix vinyl. If everyone did that from the beginning the world would be a better place.

HH: When did you fall in love with hip hop?

S: It happened over a span of like five years from 1995 -2000 it didn’t happen right away and when it did happen I didn’t realize it until I was like deep in. I was just a regular kid watching cartoons and seeing graffiti and always wondered what that shit was and then seen breaking, Jason Nevins Vs. Run DMC for the first time and into the present day. It’s too late to choose anything else.

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