After approximately a decade of writing rhymes, digging for breaks and working with the likes of Lewis Parker, Hitchin-based producer-on-the-mic Danny Spice is finally starting to see the recognition his musical talents deserve.
A student of the golden-age production sound, Spice’s warm blend of heavy drums and well-chosen samples recently saw him take away the “King Of The Beats” title at one of Pritt Kalsi’s infamous production-based competition events, which in turn has led to the release of a dope collectable seven-inch single featuring Juice Crew legend Craig G.
With his album “King Amongst Thieves” in the pipeline, Danny Spice talks here about his early material, keeping old-school production traditions alive in the digital age and why he’ll never lift a sample from a reissue.
Explain how you got into the music game and what drew you towards the production side of things…
“I’ve always collected records from a young age. I’ve got an older cousin who used to deejay and he would be cutting things up and I was introduced to a lot of things through watching him as a kid as he’s about twenty years older than me. My dad was an avid record collector as well and when I started getting into Hip-Hop he showed me a lot of the music that was being sampled in what I was listening to. As a kid getting into the music you don’t initially realise exactly what’s being sampled and what’s not, so he put me on to a lot of stuff that way. I think the first sample he ever showed me was on a Tom Tom Club record or something (laughs). So to be honest, that’s where my whole fascination with beats and how they’re put together really began. Primarily I was known as an emcee, but I’ve always been drawn to the beats and the turntables really.”
So was the rhyming something you started doing out of necessity because you wanted vocals on your tracks?
“The reason I started to rhyme to be honest was because I couldn’t actually afford the production equipment to do what I really wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do something. The first thing I actually did was deejaying. I had turntables and learnt how to scratch, beat-juggle and things like that. The main reason I started rhyming was because I only had belt-drive turntables to start with and they wore out (laughs). I had to do something so I just started rhyming. As I progressed and started to get more into it I must admit there was a bit of fame chasing going on (laughs). I enjoyed being the front man and having my voice out there but the beats were always my passion regardless of what else I was doing.”
So without equipment how did you start to learn the production ropes?
“I released my first record “Home Truths” in 2004 and started recording that late 2002 / early 2003. I didn’t produce any of that, it was all produced by Capital P (aka DJ Pelt) who used to be in the group 499 and was local to me (note: 499 had a deal with Profile Records in the mid-90s). I met P through a mutual friend and we started working together. But even though I wasn’t producing it myself I was very involved in that side of it. P would always have the drums down ready but then I would sit there going through breaks with him choosing what samples I wanted to rhyme over. I chose all the cuts that were used, whether it was me doing it or P. I started messing with the Akai S-950 in his studio and getting a feel for working with equipment. Me and P don’t really talk much anymore as we fell out over a few things as time passed, creative differences or whatever. But I do have to give Capital P props because he did show me a lot about how to record music in a studio environment and get the best out of the equipment you’re working with. He definitely had a lot of knowledge and was really dope at flipping samples. That first record was recorded onto a Tascam eight-track and then dumped onto tape. It was very hands-on and felt very organic which was something that I really liked. I’m not really a computer person and I find it very tedious sitting in front of a screen for hours so putting that first record together that way just felt right. It felt like I was actually making music and doing it in a similar way to how producers I looked up to like a Pete Rock would have done it at some point. I’d worked with producers before P but it always seemed to be more sitting in front of a laptop working with a fancy soundcard and some production software rather than feeling like you were actually getting your hands dirty doing it the more organic way. So working with Capital P was definitely a turning point for me.”
There’s definitely been a debate in recent years about the differences between working with traditional sampling equipment in the studio and using computers as the main production tool – do you feel there is a difference in the sound of the finished product?
“You’re right, there has been a massive debate surrounding that. To me, Hip-Hop has always been about making the most out of whatever you have available to you. I remember reading an interview with Havoc of Mobb Deep and he was saying that he used to make loops using the pause-tape method when he started because he didn’t have any equipment. I watched an interview with DJ Mark The 45 King and he was saying that he used to splice reels of tape together to make his beats initially because he coudn’t afford a 950 or an SP-1200. So nowadays, a lot of these kids that are using cracked copies of Reason or whatever on their computer are still using that same ethic to make the most of what they have available to them. So in that sense, the ethics behind it still comes from Hip-Hop but those ethics then aren’t translating into the finished product. I don’t care what any little geek says, you can hear the difference between beats that have been made on an SP or an MPC and beats that have been made on a computer. Personally, I find making music more fun having the hands-on approach with the sampling equipment and to me the end result just feels different. I like that organic feel and some of the imperfections in the sound that can come from working that way. I mean, at the end of the day, I’m not going to say that I don’t like any music that’s made only using a computer because if something’s flipped well than it’s flipped well. I mean, I don’t really like the sound the MPC gives you to be honest and I own two of them. But I’d never say I won’t listen to a track that’s been made on the MPC (laughs). Some of Pete Rock’s best work was done on the MPC-2000XL and I’m really feeling Damu The Fudgemunk who uses that as well. It’s all about the man behind the machine rather than the machine itself and if something is done well and sounds good then it sounds good. It comes down to personal preference and I know what type of sound makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and as a producer I know the equipment I prefer to use to get that sound.”
How do you approach digging for your samples?
“I’m real anal with it (laughs). I won’t even sample off a record unless it’s an original copy. I just won’t sample off a reissue. I know people out there sample off MP3s and if you’re putting it into the SP or MPC and the end result is dope then I probably wouldn’t be able to tell that you did it that way, but personally, I like to bring that element of fun to it and have the challenge of going out looking for an original sample and then using it. Digging is just part of the process that I enjoy. I’ve always felt that to be a good producer you have to have been a record collector first and have that knowledge of good music and breaks before you can do anything and I hope that when people hear my music they can catch that vibe that tells them I’m all about getting your fingers dusty and searching through those crackly old records in a crate somewhere. I’ve got a couple of good spots that I use for funk 45s and albums which are always reasonably priced so I’ll pay them a visit but then for some of the more obscure library type records that are a little harder to find I might use eBay but I only really try to use that if there’s a particular record that I’m after. But I’m not a producer who believes that once a sample’s been used that it should then be left alone. No Hip-Hop would ever get made if that was the case. So when I dig, if I happen to find a record that’s been sampled before and I like it then I’ll still pick it up and see if I can flip it a different way. For me a sample is like an instrument and in the same way that a guitar can be played a different way by members of different bands, I believe a sample can be used in different ways with a completely different end result. Like, I remember there was this one piece of music I was after that I’d heard used in “The Professionals” TV series and I finally ended up getting the record from eBay and then Lewis Parker used the same sample for the “Man Up” track from “The Puzzle”. I was heartbroken when I heard that (laughs). But I will still flip that sample to see what I can make out of it. It’s all part of the challenge of making music.”
What made you decide to enter Pritt Kalsi’s most recent King Of The Beats competition?
“I was a bit reluctant to enter the competition at first. I’d seen the first film with the Mr. Bongo boys and Juliano so I knew what the idea behind it was all about but I didn’t know if I wanted to go into a competition I might lose which could then tarnish my name. I was worried about the impact that might have down the line on people supporting the music I was planning on releasing at the time. I’d just got some new beats from Lewis Parker and I was working on putting something out. But then there was a setback with getting that project finished and I didn’t really have anything else to do at the time so I started thinking maybe I should do the competition. A close friend of mine Mark was murdered around that time and another friend of mine was saying that I should enter the competition for him and it got me really fired up. My friend’s funeral was actually the day before I went to go and do the dig and it was really on my mind because he used to deejay for me and really pushed me to do my music. I really wanted to win it for Mark and I went into it guns blazing. I contacted Pritt and told him I wanted to enter so we arranged everything from there. We all had to meet in Notting Hill at Soul & Dance Exchange at about ten in the morning and I didn’t even know who I was going to be up against but I was in full battle mode (laughs). I was showing off a little telling the other guys that I was going to take them out and that I’d win (laughs). To be honest, it became evident pretty early on in the dig that there knowledge of music and records wasn’t the greatest. Obviously, you’re given the £20 to go in and find your records with and I was doing things like finding a nice drum break, seeing there was another copy of the same record and buying both so that nobody else could see I had it and then get it themselves (laughs). I was really using some tactics.”
Well they obviously worked because you won…
“Yeah, I did the event a week later and won it. There were a few people in the crowd who disagreed though. I don’t know if maybe people felt I was being a bit too cocky beforehand but I was just going into it with that battle mentality and I was determined to win. I think that’s one of the problems that the British Hip-Hop scene has had is that a lot of people don’t seem to have that in-it-to-win-it mentality like they do in the States. Or at least, some people over here don’t like to see people with that attitude. But at the end of the day it was a battle and that’s how I approached the event. The rules of the competition state that you can put a verse or cuts on your finished beat so I’d called the track “Who’s The King?” and my rhymes covered as much of the competition process as I could within sixteen bars talking about how I was the first one to arrive at the shop on the day of the dig and things like that. Pritt had printed up this fake beat-digger’s money and there was a line in my verse that went “Pritt gimme £20 to spend until I’m bust…” and when I was onstage and that part came on I pulled out the money, screwed it up and threw it at the camera (laughs). I was trying to put on a show and was in the zone but I felt afterwards that people were looking at me like I was being really arrogant or something which wasn’t the case. If I hadn’t of won I’d have been humble and given credit where it was due. But I definitely wanted to win (laughs).”
How did you make the link with Craig G for your new single “King Of The Beat”?
“When you win King Of The Beats you’re allowed to take away the crate of records that everyone got during the dig for the competion. So my idea was to take them away and make a concept EP only using those records. I started doing that but then decided it was sounding too good to just leave as a handful of tracks so I went into my own collection and put together some more beats with the intention of making a full album called “King Amongst Thieves”. I was on the look out for good American rappers to get on the album from the offset and I went to see Diamond D playing a deejay set in Brixton and Craig G was just there. Pritt was there filming it and he introduced me to Craig and I told him I’d really like to work with him. He was a real gent and we stayed in touch and then when it came time for me to think about putting together a lead single for the album I decided that was the one I wanted to get Craig on. I sent him the beat, told him the idea behind the track and Craig was open to me being very involved in what he was writing because as he said it’s not a Craig G track produced by Danny Spice, it’s a Danny Spice track featuring Craig G. So we talked about me being in the King Of The Beats competition, what equipment I use, the concept behind the album and Craig just took all of that away and incorporated it into the rhymes you hear on the single. I’m not really big on the whole internet collaboration thing but if you’re looking to work with artists in the States it’s really the only way to do it but I’d only work that way with artists I’ve actually got some sort of prior relationship with. Dizzy Dustin from Ugly Duckling is also on the album and he’s someone I met when I supported them during a UK tour, plus Oxygen from Sputnik Brown is on there as well. I wouldn’t want it to be a rent-a-rapper situation where you’re emailing back and forth with someone you’ve never even spoken to. But as I don’t have any other British emcees on the album other than myself it was the only way to put the album together the way I envisioned it.”
Was that out of choice or circumstance that you have no other British emcees on the project?
“It was out of choice. I did record with some British rappers for the album but it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. I think certain beats need certain voices and most of the tracks I came up with for the album I felt just needed that smoother American flow. British rappers tend to be a little harsher with their delivery and even on the tracks I’m rhyming on I’ve had to adapt my flow a little so that it blends more with the vibe of the music. Plus, to be honest, I’ve never really been the biggest British Hip-Hop fan. Lewis Parker was always one of my idols before I’d even worked with him, I’ve got all of Jehst’s records and Mark B & Blade’s album “The Unknown” was genius work. So there’s definitely good British Hip-Hop out there but I’ve always been more into that East Coast, New York boom-bap Hip-Hop.”
Are you expecting criticism for not having any UK emcees on the album?
“Of course I am. But this is my debut album and I really am living out a childhood dream doing this and those East Coast influences that drew me to Hip-Hop in the first place are a massive part of my sound as an artist. So at the end of the day, I don’t really care about the criticisms because I’m doing something that I want to do.”
The single “King Of The Beat” is out now on COG / KOTB with the album “King Amongst Thieves” to be released in the near future.
Photos courtesy of Andy Higgs.