Hey, DJ: DJ Spinna

The producer and remixer talks about his Stevie Wonder tribute parties, the best albums of 2016, and words of wisdom he's culled from Mr. Wonder.

There’s no doubt that 2016 has been a trying year for many of us, especially for those in our local music community. And, in difficult times such as these, there is nothing like the power of music to renew, rejuvenate, and uplift our spirits.

This Saturday, a solid option for dancefloor therapy comes in the form of a party dedicated to Stevie Wonder. Now in its thirteenth year, the celebration is a musical tribute to Stevie’s messages of unity and love and features NYC producer and remixer extraordinaire DJ Spinna behind the decks.

We got a chance to pick Spinna’s mind about his early nightlife experiences, his latest Stevie compilation mix, and what’s on his personal playlist.

Wonder-Full SF 13: A Tribute to the Wonder of Stevie takes place this Saturday [12/10] at Mezzanine SF.

SF Weekly: You grew up in N.Y. during the ’70s and ’80s. Can you recall your first experience with nightlife?
Spinna: My first real club experience in New York was the Paradise Garage. I went there as a 16-year-old, way too young to be in there for sure, but you didn’t need an ID as they didn’t serve alcohol. You had to be a member of the club or a member’s guest which is how I got in. Needless to say it changed my life forever. All the music I grew up listening to on N.Y. radio came to life before my eyes on the craziest sound system I ever heard controlled by the legendary conductor Larry Levan, who was the king of altering your emotions with musical selections and sound. That experience shaped me as a DJ.

SFW: What’s something you wish still existed in nightlife of the past?
S: The thing that I miss the most is overall music sensitivity and letting the music really be the driving force for partying and dancing. In this technology age it seems like there’s more posers and wannabes going out to clubs, and way too many DJs on the scene that want to be seen (literally) and got into the craft for all the wrong reasons.

The era I come from was less about DJ celebrity status and all about the music and its presentation. Most times, you didn’t even see the DJ. They were in an elevated DJ booth somewhere in the club and you had to look really hard to even notice them. The DJ’s power was in the music, and they somehow managed to develop a strong fan base without having to be seen. People really danced together and parties felt more like celebrations. Also, at one point in time it wasn’t about going out to hear the same Top 40 songs played on the radio. Records were broken in the club and partygoers were more open-minded and receptive to music they’d never heard.

That’s where the music sensitivity part kicks in. I wish we could get back to that place where new artists can be broken in the club and older music can still get the same kind of love strictly based on how it makes you feel. The powers that be did a great job at programming the masses. As a tastemaker, it drives me crazy sometimes.

SFW: As someone who puts on tribute parties to Michael Jackson, Prince, and Stevie Wonder, how have these artists’ personal styles affected you creatively? 
S: These three artists in particular are the pinnacles of creativity. They stayed ahead of the curve and pushed boundaries beyond their limits. As a producer, I’ve always maintained the same approach. Trying new things, experimenting with sounds and different methods of recording is a recurring theme for me in the studio. As of late, their messages of peace, love, and unity have resonated with me on a deeper level. I want to continue to make music that’s timeless and speaks to the soul of the people, and that’s across all genres of music that I make.

SFW: What were some inspirations going into the latest Stevie Wonder compilation mix you released this past summer?
S: The whole idea behind the Wonder of Stevie compilations is releasing underexposed productions and compositions from Stevie’s catalog and making it accessible to the general public. This time around, the focus was to create the link between current and older artists, something that hasn’t really been executed in the past, as well as usual inclusion of lesser-known tracks. I included a track from JRod Indigo, who happens to be a Bay Area artist that recorded a great version of Stevie’s “Go Home.” Other current artists are Sunlight Square from the U.K. and Foreign Exchange. The thing that excited me the most, though, was getting clearance on the song “Buttercup,” which is a previously unreleased song that Stevie wrote and produced for the Jackson 5 in the early ‘70s. The Wonder of Stevie 3 is the only official way to get that on vinyl!

SFW: In these polarizing sociopolitical times, which Stevie song brings the message of unification the most for you?
S: The world needs more love right now. Love conquers hate and there’s too much hate being practiced all over the planet. With that being said, “Love’s in Need of Love” couldn’t have any more significance right now.

SFW: Because you’ve had opportunities to hang with Stevie, what are some words of wisdom from him you can share with us?
S: I learned more about Stevie’s wisdom by example than actual words. He gives more than people are aware of. He’s one of the most kindhearted and generous souls I ever met.  Through him, I have a better understanding of what giving back really means and how important it is to do everything in my power to make the world a better place. Through several conversations with him about about sociopolitical issues I can tell that he’s serious about love being the healing force to unify the planet. For him, it’s not just lyrical clichés on records.

SFW: S.F.’s Wonder-Full always has lines down the block, so clearly we love you and the party. Do you have a favorite moment from the times you’ve spun here?
S: One of my favorite time’s is when Stevie called in for Wonder-Full 9 in 2014 and spoke to the crowd. The stars haven’t aligned yet to allow for him to be present physically at one of the events. For all the years of the Bay going so hard for the parties, it was well deserved and the people loved it.

SFW: Throughout these years as an artist, how have you managed to do your best as a producer, musician, DJ, and father?
S: It’s all about the balance, which is not easy to do in my case because I wear so many hats. I try to give quality time to everything when applicable. I stay busy, but my life is pretty simple, and I try my best to stay away from outside distractions.

SFW: What’s currently rotating on your personal playlist?
S: As I’m responding to this interview, I’m listening to Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus EP. Recently, I’ve heavily enjoyed new albums by NxWorries, A Tribe Called Quest, Jordan Rakei, Solange, Common, King, Childish Gambino, and Tall Black Guy. 2016 has been a great year for new music and has given me so much hope for the future.

SFW: What’s in store for 2017 for you?
S: New music! I’m working on several projects at the moment. I’m collaborating with this incredible young guitar prodigy, Marcus Machado, out of Brooklyn. He’s destined for the stars. I’m halfway done with a new Spinna album across the board featuring various artists. A new Jigmastas album is underway for late spring, and I’m also staying super busy with remixes. The next remix to look out for is for King’s “Red Eye” and it’s bound to captivate your mind! I’m proud of that one.

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