A Q&A With Squeak E. Clean
We met up with Squeak E. Clean (aka Sam Spiegel) – DJ, producer and one half of musical duo N.A.S.A.- to talk about DJing at school parties, his fascination with space, where he sees the future of turntablism and how he came to collaborate with Zegon.
When did your interest in music begin?
I started playing music when I was about seven years old. I sang, played cello for a little while, flute for a little while. Then in the sixth grade I started DJing at school parties and dances, we called ourselves J and S Mix Productions and we had a card that said J and S Mix Productions: Great tunes for awesome prices. And then when I was 15 I discovered this tiny electronic music room under some stairs in my school and started going there. Me and some friends formed a band and I started recording them on this old Apple computer which I continued doing through high school and getting more into music. We’d have rap battle songs that we would do. I remember doing one rap battle against a kid in our school and the beat was made up of barking dogs, it was really dumb stuff. We’d also do covers of James Brown, like “Tighten Up”, we’d play the bass line and all the other instruments were bad digital samples. Then at the end of high school I got a $100 BOSS Dr. Sample and eventually an AKAI MPC-2000 which is a sampler, drum machine, sequencer. Then I got into Pro Tools, and it just kept going from there.
When did you first get decks?
I didn’t get turntables until I was 18. I used to DJ with a Discman and I bought this crappy radio shack mixer. And we cued them up and played between Discman to Discman. Then when I was 18 I got some turntables and I started doing DJ gigs and I realized this is actually something I can pay my bills with.
How different had DJing been from that early age of 18, when you realized it could be a paid gig and how do you see the role of the DJ now?
It was something I always had a lot of fun with but not something I considered an art form. Later when I started doing the N.A.S.A. stuff and met Zegon I realized it can be something you can do and think about in an original way. Turntablism in the late 90s was something that inspired me because lots of innovation was happening with people like DJ Qbert. I was always more of a party DJ than a turntablist and then a huge event that changed the shape of DJing was when Serato came out, because vinyl DJs were able to switch and mix really fast and juggle much quicker. Just the act of picking up a record and putting it on a turntable took a lot of time, so once you were able to have cue points and loop stuff you were able to be a party DJ but play the turntables much more like an instrument, because you could be so much faster and there were so many more possibilities with looping and cue points and jumping from record to record and making conversations between vocals from record to record. With Zegon, we always did four turntable sets but once we started using Serato and it was two by four, our DJing went to the next level because we were just able to do so much more.
Are people taking advantage of that jump in technology?
Serato made it much easier for everybody to be a DJ, but there’s a handful who really do innovate. DJ AM, who sadly passed away, was the greatest DJ on Serato. I’ve never seen anybody be able to master it like him. It was so exciting the way he would mix stuff and scratch on and scratch out, and use the cue points. He was dynamic, but also intuitive and natural.
What do you think the next step is going to be in turntablism or DJing?
Turntablism has become more intellectual, people are customizing their instruments and creating songs. With Serato you can play four records simultaneously and I think that’s really going to spark some innovations in turntablism, drive it onwards and develop it.
How did you and Zegon meet?
Me and Zegon met at a party in L.A. It was crazy because I met a whole bunch of people I ended up collaborating the same night. I met Sony from Head Banger Crew, Rusty and Koool G Murder… it was a serendipitous event in terms of throwing a bunch of awesome people together that met and ended up collaborating together afterwards.
And how did the collaboration work with N.A.S.A.?
Me and Zegon would just make music that we were into, and in terms of the collaborations we would dream up whatever collaborations we could after the track was done. Sometimes while we were making it we’d be like ‘You know who’d be great for this song?’ and come up with it while we were making the track. But it was more of a brainstorm, and then we had a board with a dream list on. It wasn’t just a list of musicians it was like the name of the song, and then we’d write down our dream collaborations for the song. And the record took six years because there were 80 artists on there and it was a process of getting in touch with them and seeing if they were into it. Then I’d write a letter to them telling them what the record was about and what the song was about.
What was is it that was especially interesting about Zegon that made you want to work with him?
When I met Zegon at the party it was a great coincidence, and there were a lot of things we connected on. I had just recently been getting into Brazilian music and Brazilian funk and soul. Zegon is an expert on that. And he had a huge record collection of the kind of music I was getting interested in, so we immediately connected on that. The day after we met, we met up and made some music. It was just two people that are really open and thirsty for creating.
What about the writing process with N.A.S.A., how did that work considering you and Zegon are in different areas of the world?
For the first record a lot of the stuff we’d started together and then he was in LA part of the time, but part of the time he was in Sao Paolo. The stuff he’d come up here for we’d call ‘beat seasons’. He’d come for 3 weeks or a month and we’d be recording and start a bunch of tracks, ideas or sketches. And then he would go back, I would finish them, do arrangement, add instrumentation, and we’d send them back and forth. And I’d take on board his ideas, add some of my own and finish the song up. So it was interesting process, but it was fun. We’re always on video chat talking every day and I’d play him stuff just over the video and he’d dig it or not.
So, regarding the name, are you really big fans of space travel and space programs, or is it just because it’s an acronym for North America/South America?
We’re huge space geeks. I watched hundreds of hours of NASA footage for sample ideas, and inspiration, while I was making the record. One thing that was cool that I kept thinking about when I was making the record is I watched this one film about the international space station and the way the space station was like an international collaboration. All these different parts were made in different countries on the earth and assembled and put together with communication with other places on the planet that may have been 30,000 miles apart and they kind of came together in space as one building. I was really inspired by that in making the record. And in feeling that’s how we’re making this record, assembling all these different parts and kind of gluing them together.
What do you think the next big technological push will be?
I think blogs have been something that has really pushed how people consume music and how music gets out to people. And I think it’s actually great because music is a lot more democratic now. Whether it’s something that’s being pushed by a major label or just some kid in his bedroom, if its good and it gets on the blogs and it starts to get some love by some people and people are talking about it and passing it around, it gets out there and gets into people’s ears and gets into the clubs and gets into people’s Serato libraries, and people start playing it out. And that kind of democracy didn’t really exist before the internet and before the blogs. I think virtual jam rooms are a great idea. There’s a lot of sharing stuff that’s happening now with people doing remixes. I think applications will start to live more online, I think the idea of people actually recording stuff together in a virtual environment will start to happen too.