Last Friday, DJ Spinall – real name Sodamola Desmond – released his fifth album, pertinently titled ‘Grace’. It’s a symbolic record in more ways than one: arriving at the tail end of a year that will go down in the books as one that altered the course of our collective history; ‘Grace’ also commemorates DJ Spinall’s permanency in the game as an artist, DJ and tastemaker, coming five years after the release of his debut full-length, ‘My Story’, which featured the likes of Burna Boy before his global takeover.
For over a decade, DJ Spinall has been the vanguard of the Afrobeats movement, his collaborative records a revolving door of unearthed talent; a spot or a feature on a DJ Spinall record effectively a career co-sign, a shiny badge of honour to wield when you’re starting out. Just as Afrobeats and Afrocentrism became a renascent worldwide trend, DJ Spinall became the first DJ from Nigeria to play a set at the largest greenfield festival in the world, Glastonbury. After releasing a conveyor belt of records sequentially, DJ Spinall, like many artists in 2020, underwent a creative reboot. ‘Grace’ was born from this pause; a labour of love that finds the DJ coming into his own as a producer, deftly balancing the sonic imprints of established names with the vigour of fresh talent coming out of the West African pop scene.
The spoken-word intro ‘Words of Grace’ by young British-Nigerian artist Tobi Adey, sets the tone for an album that basks in the spirit of survival. On ‘Grace’, DJ Spinall distils his sound without losing his signature brand of technicolour Afrofusion, producing textural “mood music” that’s mellower, more fragrant but ultimately defiant and celebratory. On the Kranium-assisted ‘Everytime’, dancehall is woven into an after-hours number pulsing with undulating tension, on ‘Sere’ DJ Spinall switches the tempo with a highlife-inflected escapade into a lovers’ fantasy. Appealing to the popularity of Afroswing to the diaspora in the UK, Spinall called upon South East London rapper Shaybo and Edmonton crooner BenjiFlow to feature – making ‘Grace’ not just a fête of West Africa but a transcendent, Pan-African experience as well.
‘Grace’ celebrates the fortitude of the Nigerian people. Earlier this year, the world watched as a galvanized youth protested in Lagos State against police brutality and entrenched authoritarian corruption, in what became the #EndSARS movement. When unarmed citizens were met with brute force, the movement proliferated throughout the country, inciting thousands of Nigerians to come together in a show of unity and solidarity.
DJ Spinall saw first-hand the enduring lifeforce of the next generation and their unfettered desire to dream a better future. His unwavering pride in his heritage, his nationality, his people, colours the experience of ‘Grace’: it is the spirit of now, a remedy – a musical balm against adversity, but most of all, it’s a heartfelt tribute to home.
CLASH spoke to DJ Spinall on the eve of his new release as part of our newly launched digital #PLTFRM series, spotlighting global talent breaking down barriers.
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Firstly, I’d like to delve into ‘TheCAP’ – this aesthetic identity you’ve forged for the best part of a decade. For those that aren’t privy to the significance of ‘TheCap’, what does it mean and signify?
Since the beginning, I’ve always loved the idea of showcasing everything African. It’s more than music, it’s a cultural thing for me. ‘TheCAP’ is common in this part of the world; when adults are going to events, they’ll wear this colourful, patterned hat. When I was a kid, I used to watch my Father adjust his in the mirror, it signifies an occasion, something special. It’s also to showcase my heritage. For every African country I’ve been to, I’ll go to the local market and source their fabrics and prints, and take that on. It’s now a trend in Nigeria!
Up until 2018, with the release of your album ‘Iyanu’, you’d released 4 albums in consecutive years. That’s very prolific. Why was it important for you to release your records annually and have what was effectively a conveyer belt of talent on each?
There’s so much music and talent in the world, and the best way to convey the talent is to push the music. When we started putting out albums, we weren’t thinking about money, revenue or streams; I just wanted people to have access to the music. At the beginning, some of these collaborations featured artists that no one had heard of, people didn’t know who they were: some of these heavyweight musicians that featured had not even released their solo albums. So, my albums were a means of conveying this talent – I was filtering their talent. On my first album, we had Burna Boy, Yemi Alade and so forth, and look where they’re at right now.
I see my albums as being ahead of their time; you dig through the talent, years later they’ve made it. It’s very much a family affair. It’s always been about the music, never anything else.
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That being said you took a little bit longer this time round, with ‘Grace’ arriving just as the year draws to a close. What events defined this record for you? In what ways does ‘Grace’ differ from your previous albums?
I would say now the world knows who DJ Spinall is, who he represents. People have seen me grow over the last five years and evolve as an artist. With ‘Grace’ you can hear that evolution: the sound is different, the lyrical content is deeper, there’s new faces, some unexpected collaborations. This time round I was keen to bring the UK influence out – we have BenjiFlow and Shaybo on the record. It’s about bringing a different frequency and energy to the record. The flow is unique on this record, it had to be. Some artists stick to what they feel safe doing, I couldn’t take the same route.
Also, unexpected events in my life happened. I recorded some of this record in the US, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, End SARs was happening in Nigeria and that definitely fuelled my energy on this record. It’s just carries more significance.
Is that why you named the LP ‘Grace’? Is the album a sort of sonic benediction? Describe the importance of your own faith within the context of own life, and how it impacted your work on this album?
What I’m doing has never been done before in the history of Afrobeats. That takes a certain amount of grace: to be the first to do this and break new ground, it’s a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly. It is grace. Also, despite what’s happened this year in Nigeria, I’m still here releasing my new album. That is grace. In times of doubt and despair, I was still able to persevere and create a body of work I could be proud of years from now
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Where would you rank ‘Grace’ in your discography? Do you consider it your strongest record to date?
Let me break it down. On my first album, I co-wrote only a few songs: on my second album, I produced a few songs: on my third album, I produced a few more. For this album I produced almost everything, I co-wrote some of the biggest songs on this record. When I think about the amount of time and energy I spent scrutinising the sound, the mixing, the mastering, the technical details, the lyrics, the breaks, the content – every little detail, it makes it different from anything that I’ve recorded before.
Every album was made with a different feeling, but 2020 has been a transformative year personally, and professionally. I took longer recording and mastering the album because I couldn’t tour, I couldn’t go anywhere. What do you do when you’re forced to stop? You use that time to your advantage. This album just means so much more.
‘Grace’ is full of collaborations, not just with heavyweights but with newer talent. As the producer at the helm, how do you navigate different personalities on a record, how do you balance out the talent without losing your sense of self?
That’s the hardest part, it’s why you don’t see too many collaborations between heavyweights in the industry, because there’s a different energy in the studio, a different tension – brands and egos come into it and it becomes trickier to manage. For me, I’ve always let the music be the guide, and dictate which voice would feature. I’ve always let the music do the talking; it’s my leading guide. None of us are bigger than the music. You have to create for the future, when we’re gone the music will remain.
Like all your works, this record is danceable, it retains a sense of sway and rhythm synonymous with Afrofusion. Still, the soundscape is more in the mid-tempo region. Why did you opt for a pace that is more mellow, and downtempo, like with ‘Energy’ and ‘Money’?
Everything came from an intrinsic feeling. It was never about crafting a song that could go number one. On ‘Tonight’, it’s pure escapism from the sadness, on ‘Dis Love’ with Wizkid and Tiwa, it’s about providing relief from the bad news through showcasing enduring love – we’re making music with the promise of happiness. It’s about creating “mood music”. I respect the music, but I also know that there’ll be some people that will not fall in line with the direction of music we’re making this time round. Some might find it jarring. That’s okay too.
We’ve witnessed the trajectory of Afrobeats – the evolution of Afrobeats – from regional entities to something that has become increasingly globalised. What is it about Afrobeats, and I use Afrobeats as an umbrella term here, that has resonated with the diaspora around the world, but especially in the UK?
It’s in the sound, the melody and the truth. Afrobeats is joy; a representation of who we are as people despite not having everything we want. The average African man wants to live the good life, the average Nigerian wants to have fun. That comes through in the sound we create.
Afrobeats’ artists are true to their culture, their heritage and they’re not afraid to take that global. I’ve never been influenced by just one thing; I find inspiration in the wildest places and I’ve always been so aware of what’s happening around me. Afrobeats can be fun, it can be socially conscious: Afrobeats is a projection of freedom, a want for a better life.
In the UK, Afroswing is a transcendent force, especially with the West African diaspora. What’s your take on acts like J Hus and Pa Salieu, who take the essence of their Motherland but subvert it in really innovative ways?
I find it highly commendable that they possess the foresight and the skill to do that. It’s very impressive the way they subvert the essence of their sound, the way they take their experiences of home and flip the conventions, and infuse them together. It’s genius. I have to shoutout to Shaybo, Kojo Funds, J Hus. I can’t wait to have them on my records in the future.
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You’re been a DJ and a tastemaker for the best part of a decade, you’re in the know with trends before they hit the mainstream. When you’re curating, what core ingredients are you looking for in the music you play or recommend? What’s your template?
The first thing is to understand the audience and the place your DJing or performing at. Curating for radio is very different to curating for a festival. It’s all dependent on mood; the event dictates the playlist. I always try and convey a mood, and tell a story with my sets. Honestly, I’m so eager to DJ again, I can’t wait to get back into performing – it’s my favourite part.
How have you dealt and responded to the lack of performing and the lack of live music that is such a core part of your identity?
I never imagined that there would come a time when I wasn’t able to tour, I thought it would be when I retire! 2020 has been a special year. It’s opened up other hidden talents in me, that I never had the opportunity to do. I had time on my side especially with this record, I had time to refine the sounds.
Maybe we needed time to reset, and look at what’s happening in the world around us. I don’t think we’ve been more aware of the injustices happening in countries everywhere. We could see clearer this year. Also, 2020 has been a great year for self-awareness, to take pride in the self. We had the luxury of time to look inwards and think about what life is giving us. I tried to get a tattoo, but it didn’t happen. Hopefully before the year ends!
For years, Nigeria has been in the midst of civil unrest and the world finally took notice with the End SARS movement. You were on the streets, with countless others protesting against entrenched violence, police brutality and corruption. Can you describe what that palpable moment felt like? All the youth gathering together to protest a common cause?
I have never experienced anything like that before. What I felt on the streets was a wake-up call. The youth in Nigeria are strong. I felt their intelligence, I felt a sense of community spirit I’d never witnessed before. I saw chivalry, I saw organised protesting: I saw a section of protesters cleaning up after they protested, protecting the environment, delivering food to the injured, delivering food because they were on the frontline for days. It was like they were a government that we didn’t have – they were operating like a government we’ve been yearning for, for decades.
It’s time we put these people in government positions and remove the old, grey politicians who lack innovation. Young people are the future of this country, they are extremely dedicated to their future. End SARS wasn’t a protest across class lines, all classes were out there; Christians, Muslims, different creeds. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
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During the protests, the youth were leaning on this generation’s artists – Davido, Rema, Yemi, Burna Boy and yourself. Music can break down barriers, it reveals our common humanity and is so often the reagent for change. Was ‘Grace’ a by-product of what was happening in Nigeria? Did you feel a sense of urgency with this record you didn’t have before?
Definitely. I had doubt that I was going to release a record, because up until January I’d been on the road. The pandemic and End SARS forced me to put out music because the people needed joy, something they could relate to. Everything that has happened to people this year has been nothing short of Grace, it’s the stuff that builds character and changes you forever.
The Nigerian music scene is very diversified. It’s the centre of the Afrobeats movement. Which artists for you are breaking new ground and doing something different, some of whom appear on the record?
There are so many. Omah Lay is number one on my list, he features on ‘Tonight’. He’s broken so many records, he’s doing things differently, setting a new precedent. Bella Shmurda is another talented Nigerian. With Shaybo, I heard her freestyle and I thought she’s so special, I was so glad I got to feature her on the record. Tobi Adey is another brilliant new talent, he does spoken-word poetry on the opener ‘Words of Grace’, it’s so powerful!
You’ve been an industry stalwart for a decade now. You can’t last in this industry without having a steely sense of self-preservation. What would be your advice to the next young DJ/producer trying to breakthrough into the industry?
Number one is to put God first. Number two is having an unwavering belief in yourself. Number three is to not let pressure get to you: pressure comes from the external, it doesn’t have to be yours. Enjoy the process of growing, that’s something the game doesn’t tell you. The journey is so important. Watch the energies of the people you surround yourself with and protect your own. Surround yourself with a tribe that is loyal to you and build a team committed to you and your vision.
Do your research on radio, press and publications – get involved in that and don’t be ignorant about it. Say yes to people who may not know how famous you are, because those are the people that care about the craft. I always believe in grassroots movement, and building connections with my fans from the ground up. Also, understand and respect the essence of time, you’re not going to get to the destination overnight. People at the top of the food chain did not get their overnight. Success takes time.
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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Chuchu Ojekwe
Photography Assistant: Wole Babalola
Styling: Chuchu Ojekwe
Styling Assistant: UgoVision
Creative Director: Moyo Ayodele
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