DJ Spen has spent 4 decades blurring the lines of hip-hop and dance jams
In his 40 years as a DJ, Sean “DJ Spen” Spencer has seen it all. As a teenager, he watched hip-hop become a cultural force, opening for acts like Run-DMC and LL Cool J with his group Numarx. He’s spent decades producing and remixing dance records, running labels, and DJing around the world and for various Baltimore radio stations, watching as dance music’s popularity waxed and waned.
And he’s even part of musical infamy: A song he co-wrote with Numarx — “Girl You Know It’s True” — was later made famous by Milli Vanilli, the pop duo whose star would implode when their lip-syncing became a worldwide controversy.
“None of that would have happened unless we had gotten together and went over to Oxon Hill and created this record at the studio,” Spen says now.
After the Milli Vanilli incident, Numarx hit the wall. Meanwhile, its Baltimore neighbors the Basement Boys were finding success with major labels, producing for the likes of Crystal Waters and Ultra Naté.
“We kept doing the hip-hop thing, but never really cracking the code,” Spen says. “These guys down the street are cracking the code with dance music, and I think that’s what piqued my interest.”
So Spen made the shift toward the dance floor, joining the Basement Boys and teaming with producer Karizma as the Deepah Ones. While hip-hop wasn’t his focus, it was a key element of the music he was making, a fusion called hip-house that is explored in the recently released documentary “In Our DNA: Hip House,” on which he serves as a producer alongside former Numarx partner — and current CEO of rap powerhouse 300 Entertainment — Kevin Liles.
“Even when I was a DJ at a younger age, when we were playing hip-hop stuff, dance stuff was a part of it,” Spen says of the style. “Baltimore’s a dance city.”
That spirit is also in Spen’s DNA and has allowed him to have a DJ career for 40 years, staying true to his hip-hop roots while never abandoning the dance floor.
“Hip-hop is so relegated in a lot of ways to a States kind of a thing,” he says. “You have some other countries into it, but dance music rules the world.”