Deem Spencer: Low-Key Taking the Legacy of Queens Hip-Hop Into Soulful, Vulnerable, Experimental Directions

Hip-hop is a big tent, with room for all kinds of voices, vibes, looks and personalities, right? Or at least, it ought to be. Too often though, as in other genres, one success story spawns scores of imitators, and A&R reps, managers and promoters—not generally known for seeking out the most unique and unconventional voices out there—scramble to find the next version of that person who blew up a few months back. Duplication is rewarded, and deviation from the commercially proven is viewed as suspect.

Likewise, in a crowded landscape marked by a perpetual jockeying for attention on IG and Twitter, it’s often the loudest voices, the most colorful characters and outsize personalities that win the day and, of course, grab that money. Sometimes they’re little more than personality, but they know how to get noticed. So where does that leave a rapper with a subtler, less flashy, more low-key approach? Ask Deem Spencer.

A product of south side Jamaica, Queens—a stone’s throw from JFK Airport—Spencer is a far cry from the noisy jets that populate his neighborhood, and not exactly a sonic descendant of Jamaica’s most celebrated musical idols, 50 Cent and G-Unit, though he’s a lifelong fan. With a reedy voice and reticent flow, often set to spare rhythms, dreamy synths and flecks of piano, strings and the occasional harp, Deem’s more about reflecting than flexing, a 23-year old who’s not afraid to be vulnerable, though not in a performative, look-at-my-scars way. “Art rap”, “abstract hip-hop” and “subdued soul” are all ways that various outlets have described his work, and Deem himself has said he makes music for “the quiet people.”

If that doesn’t sound like a standard recipe for success in 2019, that’s alright. Because Spencer is playing the long game, keeping his head down, and honing his sound. After several teenage projects that were more bar-oriented, it was with 2016’s self-released sunflower that the rapper began to come into his own: six unadorned, low-key tracks about young lust and love and the general confusion of growing up, highlighted by the breakout “soap”, which tellingly opened with the line “If I cared about some money, I would be in college wasting it.”

Deem followed that up with 2017’s we think we alone (he prefers titles in lower case, another tell to his unassuming personality and frankly welcome at a time in culture when there’s too much ALL CAPS shouting going on). That project mined, in his words, “unconditional love”, particularly the love he had for his grandfather who’d helped raise him, and who had recently passed.  But it’s with the past February’s release of the LP Pretty Face that Spencer is at his most affecting yet. Doubling down on the intimacy of its predecessors, it’s his most DIY release to date—recorded almost entirely in his bedroom—and a chronicle of a longtime relationship time that was unraveling over the course of 2018.

There are ambient sounds, interludes that include a phone call with his girl, assuring him “nothing’s wrong”. As with “soap”, the attention-grabbing track this time is a jazzy one, the single “but”. There’s a dark-edged song, “been” written in the wake of a fight, a pretty, melodic one, “how beautiful”, which he previewed last year, and a lo-fi bar-spitter, “not tryna hear it”, that gives way to a back end that’s all piano and, shockingly, big band. The cover art offers Dada artificiality in contrast to the artist’s naturalness – an extreme close-up of Deem wearing a fake mustache, his skin airbrushed to porcelain extremes. And if you put all the track titles on the project together, it forms a sentence born of romantic frustration: “Really, I been tryna tell shorty how beautiful shorty is to me but shorty not tryna hear it from me.”

Pretty Face is as much performance art project as it is just another rap release, and the latest step in a fascinating evolution for an artist determined to chart his own path. Early last month Deem debuted much of the record at Brooklyn mainstay Baby’s All Right. It was billed as his first “official New York headlining show” although in the past three years he’s played many of his hometown’s most storied venues, including Mercury Lounge, Union Pool, Knitting Factory, Elsewhere, Trans-Pecos and Alphaville, and manager Steven Othello says Spencer may be at his most impactful when he plays periodic dates at Williamsburg’s small, experimental-minded Muchmore’s, a venue that feels suited to Deem’s personal musical exchanges. 

He’s understated in his music, and in conversation, as I learned when I sat down with Deem at the Brooklyn favorite Sweet Chick, to talk about finding his voice, taking his time, how being a fiercely independent, left-field artist doesn’t mean he’s without ambition—he wants hits, just on his terms. Plus: the Eighties pop icon that was the inspiration for that Pretty Face cover shot.

Deem! Belated congratulations on Pretty Face and on the Baby’s All Right show, which I heard was great.

Deem Spencer: It was a lot of fun, we had a great time. I hadn’t done many shows playing Pretty Face, but people seemed to know the songs. 

So this was pretty much all a homemade record, the first time you’d done that. Were you in a studio at all for it?

Spencer: Nah, there were a few tracks that I made with the producers, but it was still intimate, in their home studio. But that’s the exception – like the track “but”, which I recorded at [producer] Keith Charles’ apartment.

I know you have said in other interviews that record was made at a time when you didn’t even necessarily feel like making music. Was Pretty Face compiled over the whole course of 2018?

Spencer: Yeah, it was all spread out. Because I kept putting different dates on the project, when I wanted to finish it, when I wanted it out. It became like, there were different versions of what I wanted it to be. It changed a lot over time, because I didn’t really know what it was until it was done.

It just kind of revealed itself over time?

Spencer: Yeah. I mean I had the track list for like a long—a majority of it…

And of course the track titles are all part of this phrase “Really, I been tryna tell shorty how beautiful shorty is to me but shorty not tryna hear it from me.”

So you already knew you wanted to name the tracks that way?

Spencer: I don’t remember at what point I realized that, but that was when I knew like, “Okay, this is what I’m saying.”

How do you think doing it all at home affected the sound, the mood or the tone of the record?

Spencer: The delivery was a lot less “performed” I guess? I feel like it was a little more natural.

It’s hard to tell but a lot of the lyrics, a lot of the vocals feel like they’re almost improvised. And I know you write a lot and carry a notebook with you most

of the time, but were some of these almost fully freestyled?

Spencer: Some of these actually were freestyled, yeah.

The song “but” doesn’t feel like something you’d written out.

Spencer: Yeah well that—that second verse, it was mostly like something that was mostly just freestyle punching. I was in my room, and I kept hitting record, and like rapping phrase after phrase.

So was there one romantic relationship in particular that informed all the songs on Pretty Face? Something that was kind of unraveling throughout most of last year?

Spencer: Yeah absolutely.

And does the record sort of captured that unraveling on the tracks, in the order they’re on there?

Spencer: Well I don’t know about in order, but I feel like it does kind of capture the unraveling of it. Because it starts with “Really, I” and on that one I’m just in my own head, just saying to myself like I’m not really doing nothing, I’m trying to convince shorty.

The three interludes called “shorty” – it’s hard to tell, but are they mostly like phone calls, and bits of recorded conversations?

Spencer: Aight, so like, “shorty (pt. 1)” I had asked her to – cause we were still in the relationship at the time, so I was like, ‘Yo, can you tell me you’re fine?’ Like, can you record a voice message of you telling me that you’re fine, in the way that you do?’ And she said it like real normal, like, ‘I’m fine.’ And I was like – then I asked her ‘What’s wrong?’ and she was like, ‘I’m fine, nothing’s wrong.’ And I kept asking her what was wrong and she kept replying like…

The more you asked the more like, real it sounded?

Spencer: Yeah. And then so we did that together.

So she knew it was being recorded? It wasn’t like you secretly recorded a conversation.

Spencer: Oh no not at all. I asked her to say that.  But she didn’t know why I was asking. Because I didn’t know why I needed it, but it felt like I did. Because we were still together.

You’ve said a lot of last year was a pretty dark time, and that at first you didn’t necessarily even want to make music. Was it, sort of general anxiety, being in a bad place? Or was it mostly all related to the relationship?

Spencer: It was pretty much all based around the relationship. Cause everything else in my life was great. My relationships with my friends started improving, my family was in a good place, my career was buzzing, we think we alone was like moving, I was doing shows, but still I wasn’t happy. And I didn’t feel good. I was always angry.

The song “been” is one of the darker tracks, to me. And it seems like it came from a specific fight or at least disagreement. Can you say anything about that song and how it came about?

Spencer: Well, “been” – part of that was freestyled as well. And that story on that it’s crazy that you say it feels like it was from a fight. It was like right after a fight.

But the story is about a guy taking another guy’s girl.

This is theme that’s crept up for you in songs from the past. Seems to  be a bit of a recurring theme.

Yeah. [laughs]

And then “how beautiful” might be the prettiest melody on the whole record, and I remember it was attached last year to your track “I Was Talking to God”.

Spencer: Well, it was put on at the end of the video.

Right, where you guys are on the rooftop. So then you decided to take it and make it its own track?

Spencer: Well it’s not actually on that track. It’s just a piece that was added on to the video.

Oh okay. But it is kind of like a musical signature of yours tp have a song with this  30-second or more ending coda, you know? The song will completely change up and go into this whole new piece of music for the last 30 seconds or minute. What appeals to you about that?

Spencer: I just like to change the topic, change things up!

It definitely throws a curve ball. One of them [“not tryna hear it”] goes into almost like a big band ending! That was definitely unexpected.

Spencer: Cause I was just at my friend Fiddy’s house, and he like made that beat. He made the whole beat – that whole big band ending part. And I had made a song to that part, all that big band and shit? I made a full song to that and shit.

Is that ever gonna become its own song, and come out at some point?   

Spencer: I might perform it one day.

Can you say anything about that amazing record cover, the photograph and whose idea it was?

Spencer: I wanted the front cover to be me with a mustache [chuckles]. Just me with a mustache. I told Steve [manager Steven Othello], and he was like, “What kind of mustache?” And so I told him to pull up a picture of Hall & Oates. And then, for them to zoom in really close.

Like, on John Oates’ mustache?

Spencer: Yeah so then we zoomed in really close to it, like the whole face, and he was like, “This could be the cover. We should just re-shoot this exactly like that.” So that was what we did.

That was a fake mustache, right?

Spencer: Yeah

And how much was it airbrushed? Because it looks like porcelain skin?

Steven Othello: So, I designed the cover, and one of the ideas was to make it almost like, artificial? Because Deem is as natural as can be. There’s no makeup to him, he is just who he is. He always presents himself as exactly who he is in his music, so we the idea of this was to present like an alter ego, that was the opposite of him.

Spencer: I’ve never even heard you explain this! [laughs]

So it’s almost an artificial version of him?

Othello: Yeah 

Spencer: And also, really, why I wanted to have that mustache on was, when I was going through the whole relationship shit, I was always feeling like I had to be more of a man.

Be more of a man in terms of being stronger about the relationship?

Spencer: Just being – I didn’t know what more I had to do. I was just trying to be more, and be more. I was just trying to be everything. And the mustache represents like me trying to put on something to be more of a man.

In one interview you did with Pigeons & Planes in 2017, around the time of we think we alone, you said you didn’t care if people thought your music was weird, as long as you didn’t do anything that was corny. And they asked you if you thought the next record would be more “accessible”—you said you didn’t know. And I thought that was interesting because Pretty Face is a lot of things, to me it’s the most captivating, personal – at least of the three records I have heard – it draws you in a way, it’s more open. But “accessible” – I mean, I don’t need to tell you guys it’s not like what you tend to hear on commercial hip-hop radio in 2019. Are you fine with that? And do you not stress about how many hit singles there are gonna be, or – and are there people in your world, on your team saying that, saying “Where are the singles, Deem?”

Spencer: I mean, I definitely want hits. That’s a fact. I want hits.

So it would be wrong for someone to assume that you just want to be some sort of outsider eccentric?

Spencer: Yeah. I feel like I can make anything that I want, and it’s gonna sound like me. I feel like I can make a hit, and it’s gonna sound like me. And so – just watch! I’m gonna make hits, but it’s gonna sound like and feel just like me. I feel like some of the shit that I’ve already put out have been hits.

I mean, “soap” was definitely, in its own way a hit.

Spencer: It just did a million streams today.

Did it really? Today? That’s awesome.

Spencer: Yeah. On Spotify.

But I just get the sense that you’re not gonna be changing fundamentally who you are or what you do just to make something that someone says sounds more commercial.

Spencer: Oh no, not at all. I’m not interested in – I don’t know, it’s got to feel like how I’m feeling in the moment. That’s just how I work.

Steve how do you feel about all that?

Othello: It’s never about wanting to change his sound. It’s about—we have conversations about like trying to have an “orchestra in a basement” – like, what would that feel like? So every time we drop a project, sonically, we want it to sound better. The vocals should sound a certain way, and for this album we paid more attention to the mixing and the mastering of the project. And it’s like, yeah, he’s gonna record what he’s gonna record. But we make sure that we master properly, so that every time we drop an album, sonically it’s gonna sound even better. To the point where we want the sound to adapt to Deem’s sound, rather than the other way around. It’s more like how do we create a new genre that sounds like what Deem sounds like. 

That opening line in “soap” about “If I cared about money, I would be in college wasting it” – is that a statement about where your priorities are, and how making as much money as possible is not what’s most important to you?

Spencer: Yeah. That line is literal – if I had only wanted money, I would have followed the rules. But I was cool with being broke while I tried to figured out what I’m trying to do. And I still am cool with being broke, until I figure it out. I mean, it’s not cool to be broke, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything, just because I don’t have much money.

I feel like the old head, traditionalist expectations about lyricism and having a certain sound, as well as questions of “legacy” come up more around young New York rappers than rappers from anywhere else. But the Pitchfork review of Pretty Face said you seemed “blissfully unconcerned” with following in some New York tradition or Queens tradition. Is that accurate?

Spencer: Yeah definitely. I don’t feel like I am being traditional at all. Especially not in a Queens tradition. I don’t think I sound like anybody that is from where I’m from.

Othello: What’s interesting with him is like I used to push A Tribe Called Quest on him, I’d say, “You’ve got to listen to Tribe! They remind me of you.” You know what I’m sayin?  And he was like, “I didn’t listen to Tribe growing up, I listened to G-Unit.” So for him to be able to make the music that he makes, and the fact that G-Unit was an important figure in his life was kind of interesting to me, because you would think Tribe with how he sounds.

Well obviously no one looms larger where you’re from than 50 Cent. You know Deem, in 2005, when you were ten years old, I was on a block in south side Jamaica, with 50 himself, for a special on the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ movie. And he took me into what used to be his grandmother’s house, the basement where he grew up, and outside walked me through exactly where he was when he got shot those nine times.

Spencer: [laughs] What?

You saw that show?

Spencer: I don’t know! Probably!

But what was it like growing up there with 50’s legacy? I’m sure he was an important figure.

Spencer: Absolutely. He was like the hood mascot. He was the guy. I mean, I think about 50 when I think about Jamaica. Even when I say the word, I think about 50.

Do you think people still represent as much for the neighborhood they’re from like Nas did for Queensbridge or Biggie did for Brooklyn? Or in the internet age does that not matter as much?

Spencer: I mean, you’re from where you’re from. So it does. But it’s just that some people champion their cities a little more than others. But I am only from Jamaica, Queens. I don’t know, it’s a part of me.

You mentioned a couple months ago that there could be another record out this year?

Spencer: I really want to put out another project this year. I really, really want to. And I’m still working on Pretty Face, too! I have ideas of videos for all of the songs.

Are you happy with the pace that things are going for you? I know some young artists get frustrated when things don’t move fast enough, and I know some managers who say it’s important not to rush it, and to let things grow organically.

Othello: I think the goal for us, for Deem, is to develop. For me that’s the key. His career just started flourishing in the last two years, so that’s still in an early stage of development. Some of your favorite rappers have been developing for 20 years. So he still has a lot of time. There’s no rush or expectations to do certain things. It’s like, take your time, find your sound, fine tune it and grow.

Deem, you agree? You don’t get restless?

Spencer: Not at all. Because I allow myself to – I just take my time with things. I don’t force anything.