Since 2001, Brooklyn’s DJ Spinna has been preaching the good news of Stevie Wonder on wax and in clubs all over the world. After amassing underground cred in the ’90s with Jigmastas and producing for Eminem, Spinna’s search for a new direction led him to collaborate with DJ Bobbito on several “Wonder-Full” tribute shows and recorded mixes in honor of Stevie. His work eventually caught the attention of Stevie himself, and two officially-sanctioned Spinna remixes appeared with Wonder’s 2005 album, A Time To Love.
But the crowning moment in this chapter of Spinna’s career had to be when Stevie himself finally appeared at a Wonder-Full party, providing his matchless vocals over Spinna’s live cuts (check this surreal/sublime mashup of “Funky Drummer”/“I Wish”, courtesy of a Wonder-Full show in 2013).
Spinna’s mixes and parties not only spotlight Wonder’s musical genius but also illuminate the man’s influence on popular music at large (see: the Spinna-produced Wonder Wrote It series, featuring a cavalcade of musical legends covering songs by Wonder). Amid prepping for DC’s latest installment of the Wonder-Full party (April 29 at RedRocks), Spinna was kind enough to take a few questions from The Couch Sessions on his musical kinship with Stevie.
Share with us your earliest memory of Stevie and his music.
My earliest memory of Stevie goes back to his first appearance on Sesame Street in 1973. I saw it a few years later and I recall my mom explaining to me that he was blind. I didn’t quite grasp that concept at five years old and I remember marveling at the TV screen wondering why his eyes were wandering all over the place behind his sun glasses. The first Stevie tune I came to know as a kid was his Bob Dylan cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. My dad had the 45. The most eventful listening was the Songs in the Key of Life LP. It was the only record in my household (and probably in existence at that time) that was a three-record set, a bonus 45 and included this big booklet with all these special liner notes and lyric sheets. As years progressed into my late teens his music became more of an obsession.
Stevie’s appearances at past Wonder-Full sets (including those in LA and DC) must’ve been a dream come true. What will you always remember about those nights? And any chance he might reappear at upcoming shows?
The most memorable thing for me is his gratitude. He has fun surprising the crowds and giving the love back. A few of these times were direct surprises for me! Especially the very first time he showed which was in NYC! I didn’t even know he was coming but everyone involved with the events knew. He can be a great prankster. He’s naturally a loving person and one of the most genuine human beings I’ve ever known. There’s no telling when he will show up. Most of the times it’s coincidental…if he happens to be in town wherever Wonder-Full is happening. The time he stopped by in DC a few years ago was the only time it was pre-planned, but I had to keep it on the hush. The element of surprise is now part of the mystique for these events, you just never know what will happen.
Your latest Stevie-centric album (2016’s DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder Of Stevie, Vol. 3) focused on covers of his music. Tell us about your favorite all-time Stevie cover(s).
- Jackson 5 – “Don’t Know Why I Love You” – Michael is singing his 12-year-old heart out like a grown man.
- Jacob Collier – “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” – This young man is an absolute genius. He’s playing all of the instruments and singing complex harmony parts. I was trying to get this version for The Wonder Of Stevie, Vol. 3 but it was extremely difficult.
- Brainstorm – “Everytime I See You, I Go Wild” – I love Belita Woods (RIP) who was the lead singer for Brainstorm. I appreciate a great vocal performance and she certainly killed it on this. The musical arrangements are amazing as well.
- Aretha Franklin – “Until You Come Back To Me” – This is one of those instances where the cover version (in my opinion) outdoes the original, which in the case of Stevie is really hard to do. However, this is Aretha we’re talking about here, ‘nuff said.
Which Stevie remix of yours are you most proud of, and why?
I’ve done two remixes, “My Love is On Fire” which is the most popular, and “Sweetest Somebody” which is my favorite. Stevie liked the first one but he absolutely loved the second one which made my entire life! I kept that remix tight for years hoping one day it could get an official release, only a few have it. I’m most proud of it because Stevie loved it, and it’s quite an epic mix. It has a Brazilian feel and the energy of it is uplifting. Every time I play it, people get lost in the vibe.
What’s one song that you wish more people realized that Stevie wrote, and why?
Quincy Jones & Patti Austin – “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me”. Why do I wish more people realize this is a Stevie-written song? Because it’s freaking awesome, that’s why! Everyone knows the song but hardly anyone knows he wrote it. The liner notes generation understands.
What’s a lesson or memory you will you take away from having worked with Stevie?
I witnessed something magical and life changing at his Wonderland Studios some years ago. He invited me to hang out with him for a few days, a dream come true for certain. I got a chance to finally experience his work process, which is something I never imagined happening. Without going into specifics, I’ll state that he is surprisingly open to suggestions and thoughts of his work while in progress, (or at least he trusted my judgement). That was a huge deal because it made me realize that even the biggest artist in the world can use a second opinion at some point in their work process. For someone like Stevie who’s pretty done it all, it’s great to see that he’s still human and not some music-spitting machine of perfection that can keep it all internal.
Especially as a DJ whose source materials (including Stevie’s work and others) were at one time only available on vinyl, what are your thoughts on vinyl vs. digital? Which do you prefer to work with, in the studio and live settings?
I love both formats, but vinyl is my first preference. Not everything is released on vinyl, so it’s important to embrace both formats to stay relevant and current. I grew up playing vinyl and it’s something that will always be embedded in my DNA. The vinyl format has surged in retail—outselling CD’s and digital downloads in 2016—which is a great sign of people getting back into the tangible experience of listening to music. In the studio, I generally pull from vinyl sources, but I’m not against using high-quality digital formats, no mp3’s. For live settings, I use Serato DJ, CDJ’s and vinyl.
Why do you think Stevie’s music lends itself so particularly well to remixing and reimagination?
Remixing Stevie’s music is a grey area. I believe a lot of his music shouldn’t be touched and if so, it has to be treated with extreme care. He particularly is not a huge fan of his music getting re-worked out of its original context. At best, club treatment is the most essential approach to reimagining his works. Updated Stevie Wonder music for clubland is a great way of extending his fanbase to a younger/newer audience, as long as his original musical integrity is intact.
If you could only have access to one Stevie album for the rest of your career, which would it be and why?
I get asked this question often and it’s always a tough one to answer. His golden period is between 1971 and 1980, which means Music of My Mind to Hotter Than July. There’s something special about all those albums. If I had to narrow it down it would be between Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. My favorite songs are on those releases, specifically “Too High”, “Golden Lady”, “Visions”, “As”, “Summer Soft”, “Another Star”, etc.
These days, who’s your favorite MC to collaborate with?
Oddly enough, I haven’t worked directly with MC’s in a minute. Outside of Jigmastas I’ve been doing mostly remixes of MCs, in recent times Blu who’s an incredible MC, Slum Village and a track featuring Large Professor & MOP (soon to be released). There’s a few MCs on my bucket list that I would love to work with in the future. My top three wishes are MF Doom, Jay Electronica and Anderson.Paak.
What are a couple of your most prized vinyl?
I have so many:
- Purple Rain (Ltd US Purple Vinyl)
- Placebo – Ball of Eyes
- Damn Sam – The Miracle Man and Soul Congregation LP
- James Mason – Rhythm Of Life
- Midnight Express – Danger Zone (45)
- Junei – Let’s Ride (45)
- Stevie Wonder – That Girl (Yellow Mexican 12″, never issued anywhere else on 12″)
- The Grodeck Whipperjenny LP (James Brown production of Acid Psych Funk)
What’s your favorite place to go crate-digging?
I won’t mention names of spots but as far as countries go, Japan is number one for me. Everything you’re looking for is there. You have to be willing to spend the time and money but it’s literally like a vinyl paradise. Aside from Japan, I love buying records everywhere I go, especially in countries like England, France, and the Netherlands. New York is also not completely dry despite what many vinyl collectors think. Brooklyn is currently a hotbed for records.
You’re booked for some festival appearances this year, including The Roots Picnic in Philly this summer. How do you approach those types of shows, compared to your Wonder-Full or Soul Slam (MJ/Prince-focused) parties?
Festival sets really depend on the crowd and demands of the promoters. Most often I’m requested to play multi-genre sets or straight House/Electronic music at festivals.
DJs often seem to assume the role of musical historians and archivists: unearthing little-known gems and preserving the past through reimagination. How do you see your role in contributing to Stevie’s legacy?
I believe I’ve helped to sustain Stevie’s legacy during dormant periods of his career. When Wonder-Full started in 2001, his studio album Conversation Peace was released in 1995, six years prior. Throughout the 2000s he’s only had one other studio album (A Time to Love in 2005). Overall, I’d like to think I’ve brought more awareness of his catalog to his lifelong fans and helped to create new fans, who may not have been aware of his greatness. These Wonder-Full parties are an act of community service and an educational trip. The entire purpose for me is to preserve Stevie’s legacy.
Don’t miss out on Spinna’s latest Wonder-Full party at RedRocks on H Street. DC’s own Jahsonic is also on the bill. Visit Eventbrite’s page for tix and all the pertinent details. More show dates and info are available through DJSpinna.com.