Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Amie Nguyen
Photography by Jenkin Au
Jeff Spec – Love Like That featuring Moka Only and NaRai[audio:jeff-spec-love-like-that.mp3]
As a member on the forefront of hip-hop in Vancouver is artist and producer Jeff Spec. One of the members of City Planners back in the day, Jeff Spec has spent many years being heavily involved with hip-hop. Unknown to many people is that Jeff’s name is actually Chris and that Jeff Spec was an alias and alter ego that he created for himself in the early years with City Planners. He tells us about how an alias helps him say things that Chris couldn’t have. Jeff also tells us about his love with sneakers, his music sounds and styles, and life as a producer, working with the newer cats in the scene. Read on to see the conversation between the justalilhype! Crew and Jeff Spec.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Jeff Spec. I’m an MC, producer -head, sneaker-head, record nerd… you know? I’ve been repping Vancouver, B.C. since ’98 when I first moved here.
Can you tell us why you went with the stage name that you have?
I went in the other direction, man. My name used to be Intellect, back in the ‘90s. You know I was from the group City Planners, right? City Planners is like Ishkan, Moka Only, Sichuan, Sweet G – you know that’s our crew, right?
And Bird of Prey used to be in the crew and he’s still one of our close friends. They all had aliases back then and I made up Jeff Spec. I was always looking to get away from having a moniker or an intellect where people put this stigma on you. For a dude like Noreaga, if he wanted to do a conscious rap one day, how is he going to do that? He’s named after a dictator and you’re stuck. Even though it is a name, there are all these things that just goes with what it is.
How did you get the Jeff Spec name?
Well, I was going to be named Jeff when I was born. My real name is Chris and I just sort of went from Jeff and built on that.
Now everyone calls you Jeff.
Now everyone calls me Jeff, except for some people at work where I work with people with disabled people, so for obvious reasons, they call me Jeff.
As you mentioned earlier, you have a huge love for sneakers. What is it about sneakers that gave you the inspiration to make your latest compilation? Why do you love sneakers?
The album is called Sneakerboxxx with three x’s and “I did it for kicks” is the slogan to the album. It has drawn a lot of attention and people that interview me and people that I talk to think it’s all about sneakers. Just to clarify, there is only one song that’s about sneakers and I might mention sneakers in the other joints. The reason why I love sneakers is because it’s part of hip-hop culture. It goes hand in hand and, not to say that every hip-hopper is or should be a sneaker head, but it’s part of b-boy culture from the ’80s. Nowadays, when you hear b-boy, you automatically assume break dancing, but a b-boy is just a hip-hop head and you have that attitude and stance and that’s your culture. I read stories about Rock Steady Crew back in the ‘80s and if you showed up at a b-boy cipher and you have whack shoes, you might get beat down. I’m serious. Also, just coming up in a background where there wasn’t that much money, I wasn’t rocking fly kicks when I was a kid. Basically, you get to a point where you can and you want to show it off a bit. The first thing a woman looks at is the footwear and you know what kind of woman will be attracted to you based on your footwear. If you don’t have anything noticeable on your feet, you can just get lost in the pack.
Out of your sneaker collection, which shoe represents you the most?
Like favourite model and colourway and all that?
I had these SC trainers and I mentioned it in the song (On My Feet) – that’s the Bo Jackson shoe and I had the colourway with white and royal blue. They had to get retired and I haven’t found a pair since but I loved those sneakers. I’ll rock some dunks any day of the week. Dunks are my favourite basic models.
Nice, man. Branching off inspirations, what was it about Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” that got you hooked on music?
I first started hip-hop through a friend when he played me the Licence to Ill album and instantly, I was hooked on hip-hop. I was thinking, “What are they doing? What is this kind of singing called?” I didn’t know and I was about eight years old living in Winnipeg. It was different and I just didn’t know about it. I learned what rapping was and it always just seemed like this distant and untouchable thing. Beastie Boys aren’t really my thing and I heard Special Ed and he was only 16 when he did “I Got It Made”. I saw him in the video and he looked like one of the older dudes that might chase me home from school. I knew I wasn’t that far away from there and it seemed accessible. The flows and beats for “I Got It Made” and that ripple sample, that shit is classic. Ed was the first one that I caught that put it in a way that I said, “That’s me.” I think that’s what hip-hop is – a lot of it is detached from that now but what hip-hop to me is for me to be like that guy doing it. Hip-hop was something that I wanted to do and it was something positive and it inspired me.
Tell us a bit more about your relationship with NaRai. What role does she play in your music?
Well, NaRai and I have known each other for 11 or 12 years now. We met at a show and we were both performing – she was in an all girl group at the time and I was heavier on the City Planners thing. We have had a close friendship for a long time and we started seeing each other about four years ago. The more time you spend together, as both being artists, the easier it is to do songs together. Hip-hop and soul music, they go hand in hand. Hip-hop is spawned from soul music and I love to pay homage to the soul records. Having someone so talented to contribute, it’s amazing and why would I not?
With being both a producer and an artist, you’re more involved with the hip-hop scene than most people. What are some of the biggest differences for you between the thought and creation process of making a beat versus creating and spitting lines?
I think, especially for the beat that I’m really known for, it’s really sample based. It’s like you look around and find the sample and then OK, you realise that this is going to dictate the direction that you’re going to go and take the song. It’s then a matter of taking the product in your head and transforming it into a product. Even if you are sitting down to compose something, it’s an idea and then it’s something tangible. With writing, it’s almost like it’s something else. It comes from somewhere and it’s more pure and more like yourself. Musical notes and all that already exists and you just find different ways to combine them, whereas words exist and I think that no idea is really original anymore. Anything you can say in a rhyme and get across to the other person and make them say, “OK, I can put myself in this dude’s shoes,” … it’s a lot more personal. It’s your words, it’s more vulnerable, and people are listening to that. That’s when you are really putting yourself out there.
Throughout the years living in Vancouver, you have definitely worked with a lot of the members of the hip-hop scene here. What connection do you have to the younger generation artists, such as D-City and JayKin?
I see myself as the middle ground between younger generation and the older generation. I’m not a spring chicken but I’m not a dinosaur either. Moka is my mentor and I’ve come to that conclusion recently – he put me in my place and brought me into the studio after I started making music. I’ve got to give it to him and Sichuan, who really taught me to make songs and you always want to pass that on. Then the younger cats are going to build on it and make songs from that. One day, you’re going to be like, “Oh man, we didn’t do that.” Speaking of D-City, we just made a banger the other night. We’re filming the video tomorrow and we’re going to do more. I’m excited to work with them because they are sick – I can’t wait to see where they go. Even dudes like e.d.g.e. and JayKin, they are a bit younger than me and I started by producing for them when I was pretty young. They invited me onto their tapes, especially Web and e.d.g.e. back in the day. We just had this mutual lyricist respect for each other. Many cats would get into the rap game for some other reason and I’d say 80% of the people get into it for the girls. We didn’t think about that when we hit the studio. When we’re there, we think, “We’re going to eat this beat right here.” I don’t mean this in an egotistical way – that just always was the goal.
Within your musical arsenal, after working with so many different artists, what would be your most complex track? It doesn’t even have to sound crazy because most people don’t understand that complexity exists in different ways and forms.
Complexity can come from the most simplest of tracks. On Sneakerboxxx, some of the joints on there were just samples of drums. Star Captains came into the studio and they started replacing some of the sounds and building on them. It takes on its own life, especially when you got these live instrumentations and the synergy with different artists. I did a joint called “Up In The Game” for Emotionz a while ago on his last album Kush. He’s almost the same age as me and we’ve known each other for a while but that was the first time we collaborated. I gave him this joint and once again, it was just sample and drums. But, once he and Stanley Montana and then Stylus put the mix on it, I got it back and I was like, “Wow, they killed it.” I love that aspect about production – you could hand over something that’s sort of like a plate and then you let the next man put the food on the plate and then you see the meal at the end – it can get pretty crazy. I love looking through my folder on my computer and seeing what other people did to one of my tracks.
What are your views of being a hip-hop artist in Vancouver? It seems like compared to the other metropolitan areas in Canada, we’re lacking some support for our artists.
Yeah, there’s this attitude in Vancouver and you can do this showcase and have eight different acts on it, all ranging from good to not so good, but everyone gets the same response because Vancouverites have this thing where they are afraid to say what they think. Or the opposite sometimes – if you have something nice to say, you don’t want to put it out there and be vulnerable. Have you ever tried to shake someone’s hand and they don’t shake your hand back? Picture this. The Vancouver attitude is this: if I have something not so nice to say, why is it not nice? Constructive criticism is good. Without it, I would be nowhere and I think the world would be nowhere. It’s those moments where people stand up and say, “Hey, that wasn’t so good”, and it is what makes us better. How are you going to get better if you don’t know you need to? On the same hand, people are afraid of putting themselves out there and saying, “I love what you just did, man,” because artists have this stigma of being stuck up and egotistical. I think for a less secure group of people, it’s hard to put yourself in that position. I think as a city, we can improve on our self esteem and when your own self esteem goes up, it’s easier to show love and easier to get constructive feedback.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve had up until this point?
One of the biggest challenges of the new music game is that nothing lasts for long and you always have to hit them with something new. I’ve always had this musical A.D.D. where I make a record and be really HYPEd up about it for a few months. After, I decide that I have to get back into studio and then I forget to promote the record. I think that’s the artist syndrome. You need a team to handle the business things so I’m trying to look at business as an art. How can I get this out there and how can I sit down with Jenkin and Alan from justalilhype! and get up on the site? It’s pretty exciting, man. I don’t see any struggles right now, just opportunities. Things are waiting to happen and I’m finding the code to unlock it. The media outlets are different now and they are so spread out – I think I found 200 different hip-hop blogs to contact online and some of those being more than just hip-hop blogs. It’s an artists’ world. The record labels have us convinced that record sales are down and that there isn’t as much money in the music game anymore. The fact is, there is way more money in the music game for artists, just not for major corporations. They are upset about that and they are trying to dupe us into believing that so they tie everything to money and knock down doors for a few tracks. I sell my music and I’ll never bootleg my music because I believe it’s worth money. If someone bootlegs my music, I will not stop them because they are listening to it and they are getting other people to listen to it. That is more important to me than getting 99 cents for a song.
What is HYPE?
HYPE is when you feel like nothing can stop you. When I feel HYPE, I feel like I’m on the top of the world and it’s like, “Let’s do this right now”.