DJ Spen's label has been flying the soulful house flag throughout a decade when the genre when the style was largely on the backfoot. But will the 20s see vocal house making a comeback?
The past 10 years or so haven't been the best of times for soulful/vocal house music, at least not in a commercial sense. There's still been plenty of great house music around, of course. It's just that, in the wake of the minimal explosion of the late 00s, it was techier, more percussive styles – tech-house, minimal, deep tech – that dominated floors for most of the 2010s.
But the times may well be a-changin'. The past two years have seen tech-house experience something of a backlash – an understandable response to the deluge of sub-standard "me too" offerings that have flooded the download stores – while progressive house has made huge resurgence, even if we are supposed to call it "melodic techno" these days. So with the likes of Glitterbox and Horse Meat Disco introducing a new generation of clubbers to the delights of disco and song-led dance music forms, don't be surprised if soulful house makes a similar return to the fore in the next year or two.
Equally, such a revival has been predicted many times before, so don't be surprised if it doesn't! DJ Spen and the Quantize crew will doubtless keep putting the stuff out anyway because, as he explains below, "it's what we were put on Earth to do".
Launched in 2012, Quantize and sub-label Unquantize have now chalked up 285 and 196 releases respectively. Barbara Tucker's Think (About It) has been Quantize's biggest seller to date, while Lexahill's Let Your Mind Be Free takes the gold in the Unquantize camp. Digital releases are the main focus but both labels still release vinyl, although less frequently these days, and both are also available on streaming services such as Spotify.
So much for the stage-setting business, then. Spen himself tells us the rest…
When was the label set up, and why?
"I was a partner in Code Red Recordings from 2003. I'd previously been with Basement Boys since 1989, and I outgrew the situation. The biggest thing I wanted to achieve was musical diversity, and to try and help people and make sure the artists signed would be educated in the music business from top to bottom, from publishing, to creative and the business side.
"A lot of producers fall victim to lack of knowledge of what the music business really is. I didn’t want people to look at the music business with delusions of grandeur, that you can make a fast buck – I wanted to help educate and be transparent about it all.
"So Quantize Recordings was launched in January 2012 and since we have had some spectacular artist releases, from the likes of Barbara Tucker, Tasha LaRae, Timmy Regisford & Toshi, Thommy Davis, DJ Spen, Aaron K Gray, John Morales. Sebb Junior, Dawn Tallman and so many more.
Describe the label's music policy…
"We make dance music of all kinds from uptempo to downtempo, but we like the focus to be on music that moves and inspires people. We cross a broad spectrum, but soulful house tends to be our niche.
"I grew up in an era where dance music was just dance music, and across all the radio stations and nightclubs you could hear a cross-section of genres with Rod Stewart, Chic, Diana Ross and Rolling Stones. The point being that genres, to me, have destroyed the music industry, because now everything is now so streamlined and separated and people aren't getting a good cross-section of all kinds of sounds. If you’re listening to a pop station, then you’re not gonna get a good cross-section of music anymore.
"Our main sub-label is Unquantize, which we launched as a way for us to get back to more underground DJ/producer productions without having an artist be the focus. We’ve had releases from the likes of MicFreak, ATFC, Geoffrey C, Timmy Regisford, Groove Assassin and so many more, along with our popular Unquantize Your Mind compilation series, mixed and compiled by guest DJs.
"Across the both the Quantize and Unquantize labels you can find a broad spectrum of soulful, Afro, disco, deep, funk and even some electro stuff. If you can’t dance to it, then we don’t do it!"
How many people are employed by/involved in running the label?
"Including Thommy Davis, Kelly Spencer and myself, there are eight people that work together on a daily basis."
Any particular personal highlights?
"Yeah, Quantize's 100th release – Diephuis & Easter feat Jocelyn Brown's Don't Quit (Be A Believer). Having Jocelyn on the label was a dream come true: I always wanted to make a record with her and it proved to be everything that we could want it to be. Everyone was so great to work with."
The minimal/tech-house/deep tech continuum that's dominated house music for the past 10 years currently seems to be losing ground to more "melodic" styles… do you think we'll see a revival, too, in more soulful sounds?
"The thing is that as much as people put soulful house in a box or tend to not wanna be associated with it, it never goes away, even when tech-house rules, Soulful house just never goes away. My greatest example of this is when I saw Kerri Chandler & Friends at ADE around 2013… long story short, he had a whole bunch of young dudes playing pretty banging minimal stuff, I walked in before Kerri played and one of the guys dropped Inner City's Big Fun in the middle of his tech set and the place went off, before then going back to playing his regular stuff with no vocals.
"When I see minimal crowds dance they are like in a trance, mesmerised, not really 'dancing dancing' or having fun, which is what dancing should be IMO – but when you play a vocal record, the crowd go crazy! Vocal, soulful house and disco are having a massive resurgence and winning new young fans thanks to the likes of Glitterbox etc, and it’s great to see."
During those years, has pushing a more soulful style of house sometimes felt like a thankless (or impossible!) task?
"Hell no, we just do it naturally! I'd rather that, than try to push something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I stick with what comes from the heart. Bruce Lee says humans need to be more like water because the bottom line is, if you go and do what’s natural, the more likelihood is you’ll run into less obstacles. And that's the key to happiness and everything else: simply being able to tap into what you were put on this Earth to do."
A lot of labels that were once known for soulful/vocal house have gone completely down the Afro route in recent years, but you don't seem to have done so… was that a conscious decision?
"Well, we do release Afro-house. Really Afro-house is a derivative of soulful house, it's just more percussive. It's a natural thing that we do, it has melodies and the things for me that are necessary to create a decent song, no matter what the genre is. Our intention has always been to remain creating soulful music across all genres.
"But to completely go down the Afro road wouldn’t fit with what we do as a label. It'd be like saying, 'Let’s not focus on dance music and do hip-hop and R&B'. Not that we don’t have the ability to do one genre or another, but we have a natural knack, and above all else, a genuine love for making four-to-the-floor dance music. Maybe one day we will change it, but for now it’s what I believe we’ve been put on the planet to do."
I notice some of your music is available for purchase via Bandcamp, but not all… why's that? Any thoughts on the pros/cons of Bandcamp as a distribution channel, from the label's point of view?
"Quantize has a presence on Bandcamp – every release that we do since the beginning of this year has been on there. Bandcamp is a good medium because it allows the artist to retain almost 100 per cent of profits from their work, which is never a bad thing. But you better have a good handle on ways to promote your material, otherwise it will be just lost in a sea of other creators trying to do the same thing that you’re doing.
"For an established artist Bandcamp is fantastic, for non-established artists, maybe not so much. But from a label perspective I think it's important to be on a medium like this, because it's where a lot of independent artists are going to be able to see what you do."
You've just released your annual Miami sampler so, with WMC postponed, talk us through some of the key cuts on there…
"One of the biggest tracks is the remix of God’s Got It, a sample-based track by a Baltimore DJ called Booman which came out on Unquantize a couple of years ago. It's a classic Todd Terry-ish sounding dance track that just works really well. Truly Amazing by The Black Knight, featuring Susu Bobien on vocals, is another standout track for me, just because of the ragtime piano work… the keyboard player is putting down!
"Also there’s a remix myself and Sean McCabe did of Tasha LaRae & Jihad Muhammad's Till You Get There, and a Kenny Carpenter remix of Taken By Dreams from Timmy Regisford’s 7pm album – Kenny has done an amazing job on expanding on the original. All that and a whole host of other tracks from the likes of Geoffrey C, Thommy Davis, Eddie Amador and the musical family!'
Finally, is there anything else iDJ readers need to know about Quantize that we haven't touched on?
"Every Tuesday at 12pm EST we have the Quantize Quintessential Mix Session, which usually features a lot of our new and upcoming material. That’s on HandzOn Radio, and I've been doing it for 18 years.
"Our Unquantize 200th release is coming soon with Crystal Waters, DJ Spen and upcoming producer MicFreak called Party People, which is going to be preceded by a disco- influenced EP by Ricky Morrison and a two-track powerhouse from Eddie Amador. There's also a remix album of Timmy Regisford & Toshi’s Life Music album.
"And in the future we’ll also be looking to host more events for the labels, once things begin to get back to normal. That will help expand on what we are doing with the artists."
Words: Russell Deeks Pic: James McPherson Photography
The Quantize Miami Sampler 2020 compilation is out now
Tags: Quantize Recordings, Unquantize, DJ Spen, soulful house, vocal house, Basement Boys, Crystal Waters, Eddie Amador, MicFreak, ATFC, Barbara Tucker, Timmy Regisford, Sean McCabe, Tasha LaRae, Jihad Muhammad, Booman, The Black Knight, Susu Bobien, HandzOn Radio, Afro-house, Thommy Davis, Jocelyn Brown, Kelly Spencer, Groove Assassin, Kerri Chandler