N.A.S.A. corrals some of the biggest in the biz for its first record.
Thu Mar 12 2009
FLOAT ON Sam Spiegel (right) and Ze Gonzales (left) went to the ends of the galaxy to find talent for their first record as N.A.S.A., or North America South America.
Sam Spiegel, or DJ Squeak E. Clean in the musical project N.A.S.A., is familiar with fame; his brother is director Spike Jonze. (Jonze, via an e-mail to TONY, says "N.A.S.A. freaked out my face." Thanks, Spike!) Still, as cocksure as Spiegel sounded on the phone from his Los Angeles studio, he and his partner, Ze Gonzales (a.k.a. DJ Zegon), were not always prepared for which artist from their wish list they would land next for their debut, The Spirit of Apollo. We asked Spiegel how he scored so many names during the project's five and a half years. "We'd just write them a letter," he said. But it wasn't always quite that simple.
ODB and RZA
For the song "Strange Enough," Spiegel convinced Ol' Dirty Bastard to lay down some vocals at Titanic Studios in Harlem just before his death in 2004. For a while, Spiegel thought N.A.S.A. had the last ODB rhymes: "Actually RZA came over to our L.A. record-release party. I said, 'Dude, I think we have Ol' Dirty Bastard's last recording,' but RZA was like, 'No, no, no. I have ODB's last recording.'"
Spiegel's admiration for RZA (who raps on the track "Way Down") and Wu-Tang on the whole runs deep. He says, "He's really like a philosopher. In the Wu-Tang stuff there is an ideology and a mythology."
Spank Rock, Santigold and M.I.A.
Sometimes, for Spiegel and Gonzales, things just sort of fell into place: "'Whachadoin?' was originally gonna be just Spank Rock, but then Santigold and M.I.A. showed up in the studio. Before I knew it, they were in front of the mike ahead of Spank Rock even recording the chorus."
In other instances, Spiegel had to fly halfway around the world to get what he needed. "'Gifted' all happened at the last second—right before we had to submit the record. Lykke Li was somebody I had discovered on MySpace, and I went out to Sweden to record with her. I came back to L.A. for a day or two, and then went to New York to record with Santigold."
Chuck D and Kanye
For the N.A.S.A. team, going out of their way—way out of their way—to get a specific artist became more the rule than the exception. Spiegel recalls, "We realized we should get Chuck D on 'Money,' but it took a really long time to get in touch with him." It turned out that DJ Z-Trip, who also appears on the song, was a friend. "He hooked us up with Chuck D four years after we started the song. He came through last year and laid down his vocals."
Sometimes all that was required was a ton of frequent-flier miles: "Kanye West was out in Hawaii working and he was like, 'Yo, you wanna record this shit like tomorrow?' I said, 'Fuck yeah!' So I just hopped on a plane."
Byrne and Waits
Ever the knowledgeable DJs, N.A.S.A. enlisted a couple of faces from rock's halcyon days. Spiegel says, "David Byrne was one of the two or so people that didn't record with us in the studio. It was still very collaborative—he would send us these wordless vocals [from New York]. Just melodies...just like [singing] 'Blaaaa bleee bleee.' On the song 'The People Tree,' we just started bouncing ideas like, 'Oh shit, maybe it's about evolution versus creation.' And we came up with the idea of having the other vocalist, because it's like a conversation between God and man."
It seems that Spiegel has nothing but respect for his musical forebears: "Tom Waits was open-minded and excited about the project. It was really cool seeing this older guy step outside himself and do something unexpected [on 'Spacious Thoughts' with Kool Keith] and different than what he's used to doing. It was inspiring."
N.A.S.A. plays (Le) Poisson Rouge Thu 12. The Spirit of Apollo is out now on Anti-.
Download The Spirit of Apollo from iTunes | Buy it on Amazon.com
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