N.A.S.A.'s DJ Squeak E. Clean: Ready for Liftoff
View photos from N.A.S.A.'s record release party at Cinespace in Timothy Norris' slideshow.
While working on his new album with funk maestro George Clinton, Sam Spiegel got a piece of advice he hadn’t anticipated. “Prune juice and pussy,” Clinton said. “That’s how I stay young.” The dreadlocked 67-year-old offered up this gem while recording at Spiegel’s 101-adjacent Hollywood home studio, where Clinton was “partaking in illegal substances between takes,” as Spiegel puts it diplomatically.
Such memorable moments were wonderfully common as the DJ/producer, also known as DJ Squeak E. Clean, assembled the debut album by his pet project, N.A.S.A. Short for North America/South America and inspired by the space agency of the same name, N.A.S.A. is the brainchild of Spiegel and Brazilian DJ Ze Gonzales, a.k.a. DJ Zegon. What started out as a dream between friends (“Why don’t we make a record about bringing people together from different worlds?”) ended up a real-life, bonafide 17-track album boasting a megacast of contributors that reads like a who’s who of the music industry today.
Tom Waits, David Byrne, MIA, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Santogold, Spank Rock, RZA, Ghostface Killah and Kanye West, to name a few, all lent their talents to The Spirit of Apollo, N.A.S.A.’s debut album, due out next Tuesday. The result is an unexpected hybrid of hip-hop rhythms and rhymes, new-wave keyboards and rock & soul that shares a starting point of Brazilian funk from the ’60s and ’70s. Most feature some sort of unlikely collaboration — Karen O with Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Fatlip on the track “Strange Enough,” Waits with smooth rapper Kool Keith on “Spacious Thoughts” and Byrne with Seu Jorge and Z-trip on “Money,” to give you an idea.
So how does a Jewish kid from Bethesda, Maryland, round up such top-name collaborators? Surely it doesn’t hurt that his brother is Academy Award–nominated film director Spike Jonze, who has been romantically linked to rocker chicks and Hollywood starlets. But it really comes down to Spiegel’s vision and musicality, which had artists such as West and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs requesting him to produce tracks for them or arrange their concert productions (as he did for the rap star’s 2008 “Glow In the Dark” tour).
“We were pretty much relentless,” Spiegel says of their strategy for getting their “favorite” artists to participate on the album. “We had these really huge visions that seemed unobtainable, but we were under no time deadline and we wouldn’t be satisfied until the record was exactly like we wanted it.” Lounging on the grass at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on an obscenely sunny January afternoon, Spiegel confesses that it sometimes took as long as three years to get collaborators’ schedules to coincide, but he and Gonzales were willing to wait. “We were extremely patient,” he says. When musicians couldn’t make it to Spiegel’s Los Angeles studio, he’d go to them, traveling to Sizzla’s Rastafarian compound in Jamaica, or Waits’ log-cabin studio in “fucking farm country in the middle of nowhere.”
The duo were adamant about keeping their project free from outside influences for as long as possible. “We didn’t reach out to labels while we were making the record because I like to do things independently and keep it artistic,” Spiegel says. Now that it’s in the can, The Spirit of Apollo will be co-released by the Anti label (home to Waits and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Spiegel’s own imprint, Spectrophonic.
Spiegel, an unassuming and amiable 29-year-old whose sandy-brown hair and sideburns seem to change with the weather, says that one of the most rewarding things that came from making the record was working alongside Waits and forging a friendship with the legendary gravelly-voiced crooner. “I really wanted [Waits] to do it but I thought it’d be a long shot,” Spiegel confesses. “He’s only collaborated twice and never on hip-hop or anything that has a programmed beat. They got back to me and were like, yeah, he likes the track, he wants to do it. And I was, like, ‘Fuck, that’s awesome.’”
When asked why he decided to get involved in the N.A.S.A. project, the notoriously choosy Waits had high praise for Spiegel and his unorthodox technique of blending different genres of music. “Sam’s viral enthusiasm is what contaminated me, and Kool Keith’s track sealed the deal,” says Waits, referring to his collaborator on the thumping yet ominous track “Spacious Thoughts.” “Styles of music have become separated by marketing mavens, but it was not always like this. Music disregards these arbitrary boundaries. The artificial division strangles the evolution of music. Sam, like the famous horticulturist Luther Burbank, is grafting and cross-pollinating. The record is the musical ‘Island of Dr. Moreau’ — snakes with bunny ears and monkeys with feathers and you can dance to it.”
Musical genre bending is not the only cross-pollination Spiegel’s involved in. He also uses his commercial scoring business, Squeak E. Clean Productions, which produces music for the likes of Nike, Adidas and Motorola, to expose the masses to his music and fund his creative habit. “I like to feed all the records I do through that business,” he explains. Spiegel paid for nearly the entire N.A.S.A. project himself through this highly successful business. Far from being a sensitive artist worried about the implications of “selling out,” he takes a more pragmatic approach, doing whatever he can to bring his music to the greatest number of listeners.
“[Commercials] are really great because it’s a way to get the record exposure,” he says. “If someone hears your music in a commercial during the Super Bowl, that’s the most ears you could possibly have. Way more than radio, way more than iTunes, way more than MySpace. Millions and millions of people are hearing your music and you’re making way more money on it than you would selling it on a record. I’m sure more people will be doing it like this in the future. It’s the best avenue for licensing you can possibly imagine.”
In fact, several video-game deals await N.A.S.A., and they have plans to pursue film options as well. So far, their music is set to appear in “DJ Hero,” the DJ’s answer to the hugely popular “Guitar Hero” video game, “Skate 2,” a new Tony Hawk video game that’s in the works, and “Fight Night.” Spiegel’s manager is tightlipped about what film deals are on the table, but says, “We’re trying to be judicious about where the music gets placed.”
Spiegel has also been busy working on a documentary film that chronicles the making of The Spirit of Apollo, as well as videos for each of the album tracks. Collaborators on the visual side of things include another who’s-who list of contemporary artists and animators: Shepard Fairey (who created the now hugely famous Obama “Hope” posters), Sage Vaughn, Mark Gonzalez, Barry McGee, the Date Farmers, Splunny, and even big brother Spike Jonze. At a recent N.A.S.A. record-release party in Hollywood, will.i.am, Fatlip and members of the Wu-Tang Clan were dancing on the tables.
With this ultrahip cast of associates, Spiegel may find himself fielding accusations of trying to cash in on the contents of his Rolodex. But the amicable DJ doesn’t mind. “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” he says. “I know that we made our dream record because it was fun and exactly what we wanted to do straight from our hearts.”
N.A.S.A. | The Spirit of Apollo | Anti/Spectrophonic
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.