Depending on how you look at it, DJs can be either gatekeepers or bridges.
They can choose, simply, not to play a song. Or, through a beautiful array of techniques- the beatmatch, the mix, the remix, just to name a few- they can introduce new sounds to different markets. Nigeria’s DJ Spinall is one of these facilitators of sound.
Seamlessly blending Afrobeats and Hip Hop into his club sets, Spinall finds the places in music that are universally accessible without ever giving up the uniqueness of each respective genre. I sat down with Spinall in between shows during BET Weekend to talk about the rise of DJing as an art form, the popularity of Afrobeats, and his current favorite songs.
How did you get into music and DJing?
Music had always been there for me, growing up. Dad had a big stereo in the sitting room and we were always listening. Subconsciously, I kind of picked it up. In high school, I was a social prefect. My job was to make sure there was constant fun, so I wanted to do something new, fresh. I hired a DJ and it kind of blew my mind. I’d never seen a live DJ perform. I’d never seen what they do. Seeing him do it live. . .it motivated me. I had to learn how to do that. So I learned how to DJ.
From there, I got radio gigs and started doing Industry Night. Industry Night back home is a weekly event that showcases upcoming and established talent. I was the DJ for 5 years and it let me build up trust with my audience that I was good at what I was doing. Then, I started making my own records, touring, and all that.
Did you have mentors? Or were there other DJs you were working with?
Oh, yes. Some of them are still mentors and some of them, I’ve outgrown. As you step out in life, you kind of have to get higher mentors. DJ Jimmy Jatt is one of my highest mentors. He’s the first branded DJ in Africa and he’ll be a mentor forever.
Were DJs a thing at that time, when you were first starting?
No. People just thought it was a hobby, like we were just people who were excited about music. They thought DJs would end up in the club and die in the club. They didn’t have any expectations. When I started as a DJ, no one thought anything. But I’ve always had different notions. I wasn’t going to be a regular DJ. I wanted to be innovative.
So how did DJing shift to where it is now?
DJs stepped up their game and people started to change their perspective. Shout out to Jimmy Jatt because he stood his ground and really pushed that. I started to do things differently, too. I started building a brand. When I went on tour, no one was doing that, so it helped people see us differently.
Sounds like it added weight to what you guys were doing.
Yea, exactly. It showed there’s so much that DJs can do.
Right. There’s a versatility to DJs. What do you see as the role of DJs in the industry? In music?
DJs can fit into any role in the entertainment industry. They can be the artist, the producer, the A&R, the presenter. DJs are like the hub. If you look back in time, some of the biggest artists and producers in the world used to be DJs. DJing gives you so much opportunity to acquire wisdom about music. There’s a technical aspect.
The role of the DJ can’t be emphasized enough. We’re filters, too. We can tell if a song is dope or not. It’s like an experience. It’s hard to put into words. It’s like magic; you can’t explain it.
As a DJ, you have to navigate the line between giving audiences what they are familiar with and like, and introducing them to new music. How do you do that?
There are classes of DJs. Club DJs. Radio DJs. They’re not all the same. A radio DJ has the full responsibility of teaching people the newest music. They can say, “this is good for consumption” or “this is bad.” As a radio DJ, you’re more in control of what people hear. As a club DJ… You don’t want to come to the club and hear a DJ break songs. People want to hear what they know. So as a club DJ is a different role.
I can fit into a radio DJ or a club DJ role, but I just need to adjust for the audience. It’s like going to a wedding, I’m not going to play “bitches bitches bitches.” Or at a kids’ party. It’s a different thing I have to play there. So it’s different responsibilities for different DJs.
We’re seeing this huge crossover of Afrobeats happening in the US and parts of Europe lately. What do you think has allowed for that?
I would say there are a lot of factors. First, its people’s choice. There’s nothing you can do about what people want and people want change. They are tired of hearing the same thing. Also, people travel. They know there are different things out there and if you keep pushing the same thing, people will get tired of it and want something else.
For a long time in Africa, we listened to American music, to music from other parts of the world. Times are changing.
I feel like it’s the natural course that Afrobeats is spreading. The diaspora is growing, too, and they want a good representation of their culture. And, mind you, Afrobeats didn’t start just ten years ago. It wasn’t Wiz[kid] or D’banj that brought it over. Our forefathers have been coming for 60 years, pushing the music. King Sunny Ade is still touring, as a matter of fact. Or look at Fela. Those people were touring and pushing our music, and as they faded out, new guys came in and kept pushing it forward. The new generation picked up where they left off. It’s a natural evolution, and as time goes on, it will only get stronger.
How do you feel about all these western artists jumping on the Afrobeats trend? Does it help or hurt those who have been grinding for the culture for years?
It goes both ways. I’m excited about the fact that they’re convinced it’s a good sound and they want to be a part of it, but I don’t like that they don’t give back what they take from it. It’s the whole culture vulture vibe. That’s fine, but when you win the award, tell the story of how you came about the record. Or on your social media, say where the music came from. Say it came from Africa, that it was inspired by Africans. Give the credit back to the culture rather than act like it was something they discovered while the rest of us were sleeping.
I’m grateful for the fact that they’re shedding light on the culture, but us back home, we’ve been running after this since before they came along. I want them to understand that. It’s deeper than the music. It’s true. Wizkid talking about Ojuelegba is true. The stories we tell are true. You can’t just come and take that.
Our music is about our culture, our way of living. African music is the realist music out there in my opinion right now.
We were talking the other day about how you think that DJs should be treated the same as singers or rappers, that they’re artists of equal caliber. Can you tell me more about what you mean by that, and why it’s important?
I don’t know where that came from or who gave the perception that DJs shouldn’t be on the same level. I mean, DJs are DJs and artists are artists. But I’m not comfortable with the idea that DJs deserve less and artists deserve more. I’ve been in the industry for 10 years and I still don’t understand that.
Back in the day, in Nigeria, I used to send riders to promoters and they used to think it was stupid. Maybe they thought they couldn’t sell a DJ’s face and that an artist could pull in more of a crowd. But I always refer to these music festivals that prove the absence of an artist is not felt.
DJs are very, very important. To be a DJ is a lot of work. Standing and performing for 4 hours. I haven’t been to any artist’s concert for 4 hours. But that’s expected- 4, 5, 6 hours- from DJs all the time. So its about appreciating all the components of the culture. They deserve to be nominated, win awards, be signed to record labels. I mean, if you look at it, it’s the same old mentality of not being able to build a career DJing. We’ve proven that wrong.
You know, artists always want to do interviews and press and stuff like that to promote their music, but you have this huge platform and fans who’ll listen to you. Besides “listen to the music”, what is the message you’d like them to walk away with?
I always want to create music that changes their reaction from solemn to happy, that will put them in a better mood. I want to create music that, when you hear it, you’ll remember what you were doing and be happy. That’ll make you feel good about yourself. There’s so much sadness out there; I want to make people happy.
How important is it to you to give back? Do you do any charity or social justice work?
Yes, and I think the best way to do that is through my talent. I have a DJ school in Lagos. I can teach you how to fish rather than give you fish. I want them to be better than me.
What advice would you give to new DJs?
Don’t think small. Don’t ever, ever, ever think you don’t deserve certain things. Always be prepared. And the golden rule: think outside the box. DJing is not what it used to be. Things have changed, and you have to change with them.
What are your 5 favorite afrobeats songs right now?
These are my personal favorites. I don’t want anyone to get mad [laughter]. Let them know that when you write this.
- Tekno – Samantha
- Mr. Eazi – Leg Over
- Wande Coal & DJ Tunez – Iskaba
- DJ Spinall ft. Mr. Eazi – Ohema
And tied for 1st
Davido – If
Wizkid ft. Drake – Come Closer
A manifesto is a declaration of intents and values. What is your artistic manifesto?
I would say my manifesfo is always changing, but certain things do not change about me. I’m a key lover of humanity. I feel like, especially now, the world needs peace. Unity. We need more artists to do more songs about things that matter. If there’s anything in the world you can look back and be happy about, that’s music.
You know, the leaders are failing the people. Politics is taking over, but we can still have music. The music will outlast us. The manifesto is make good music, be true to the music, and help one another.
Nora helps creatives use their platforms for social impact and project-manages people’s dreams so they achieve their goals. She first heard afrobeats in clubs in Liberia, where she was managing a hip hop artist. Send her your favorite songs on Twitter at @norarahimian.