When Deem Spencer was 18 years old, he worked as a dishwasher in a kitchen at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York. It was close to his home, and it was a job that required minimal human interaction. "I'd go entire shifts without saying a word," he explains. "It was depressing."
At 22 years old, Deem still doesn't talk much. I first met him some time after Pigeons & Planes posted the video for "soap" in January of 2017. He told me through email that he had some new music on the way and he agreed to meet at the Complex office and play it for me in a couple of weeks. When he came in, he barely said a word for the first 20 minutes, then explained that his grandfather had just passed away a couple of days ago, and he didn't feel like listening to the music. He said he might not ever put that music out.
In August, Deem Spencer dropped his new project we think we alone. It's a bugged out, gorgeous mess of dusty soul and lackadaisical, half-sung melodies mottled with a few deceptively complex raps. Many of the songs feel interrupted—an intentional move on Deem's part—but they all manage to capture raw emotion and present it in a thought-provoking way that leans more toward art than entertainment.
During a time when charisma so often overshadows creativity and skill, it's unclear where Deem Spencer fits in. Musically, he's got more in common with Mos Def and Madlib than anything in the current hip-hop soundscape, and his introverted nature doesn't lend itself to the never-ending grind of social media updates and industry networking. Plus, he's got other things on his mind.
But all of that might be exactly why Deem Spencer is so appealing right now. He is genuine, seemingly unable to be anything but what he is, and he's at peace with that. He's also figuring out how to create the best music he's ever made.
I found out about you in January of this year, when I saw the video for “soap.” What was going on with you at that time?
I had just started writing this new tape. I had a whole plan to drop a tape in the winter, and I was gonna drop the “soap” video, hopefully get a little buzz off of that, then drop a tape real quick. But it grew into something else.
I wanted the attention for “soap,” but this whole time while I was planning all these releases, I was taking care of my grandfather. Then a week after the Pigeons & Planes post, he passed away. So, a lot of the focus changed super fast, but I was getting the attention I wanted. Bittersweet isn’t really the word, but that’s the closest thing I can think of.
I remember I met you that week when you came into the office and you seemed unsure about what to do next. Did you ever consider just taking a break and stop focusing on music?
I did stop focusing on music for a while. After my grandfather passed, I stopped writing. I stopped working on it because all the songs I wrote before he passed were about him, pretty much. Or they were songs about those feelings during those days, and those were heavy days. I didn’t really want to touch it. I had to grieve, but over time I started creating again.
I think when you came in you said you had a mixtape done already, but you didn’t want to talk about it or play it. Was that this one—we think we alone—or did you scrap that one?
It was the one I wanted to drop in the winter. I was staying home a lot, playing a keyboard I borrowed from my girlfriend’s sister. While I was taking care of my grandfather I was playing a lot of songs on keys. It was gonna be a very low budget. I trusted in the topics I was talking about, but I didn’t realize how personal some of those songs were for me. And then the timing of putting that out was… it was weird. With the attention “soap” was getting, I was able to make connections. I was still taking the opportunities that were coming, even in the downtime of just being a wreck. Through that, I met a few of the producers that ended up on this tape. I wasn’t at home taking care of my grandfather, writing songs about my grandfather anymore. I was working with other producers at that point.
I don’t think I wrote any of these songs on a good day. None of these songs come from a hopeful place.
Are you ever going to put out that keyboard album?
I might do another one. I don’t want to hear sad songs about my grandfather. I mean, a couple of those got on this. There’s a track “moonflower” that… I don’t remember when I wrote that. It was either right before or right after.
When I asked you what this album was about, you just said “grief.” Was it a cathartic process to make this? Did it feel good getting this off your chest?
I felt good because good music was coming out of it. I liked everything that I was making. I don’t think I wrote any of these songs on a good day. None of these songs come from a hopeful place. It’s not a happy project, but I feel good about it. It’s a product of my personal tastes, so I feel like I created something that only I can fully enjoy. Of course I want people to like it, but they don’t know what everything is supposed to feel like, I guess.
It’s definitely different than anything else I’ve been hearing. It doesn’t sound like you’re trying to stay on trend, or even in the same world as a lot of young artists, especially in hip-hop. Does it ever cross your mind that some of it is too weird, or too sad?
No. I don’t think I make anything that’s too sad. But weird? I don’t know, I think weird shit is cool. I’d rather make some shit that I’ve never heard before. I’d rather be the one who did it. I like my shit. I just don't ever want it to feel corny.
What do you do when you feel like you’re doing something corny?
I stop writing. I think I write in chunks a lot. For the most part, I don’t really write all at once. It’s a scramble. Sometimes I’ll lose my book, and then I’ll find it a month later. When I’m writing, I can’t just stay on one idea, so I’ll have a good 15 lines one day, then I’ll lose the book, find it, and then I have a fresh mind on a chunk that my name’s already on. So it’s like, “Oh shit, this is fire, and I know I wrote it—it’s my book.” And I remember all of my lyrics pretty quickly. Everything’s completely memorized by the time I get to recording.
How do you know when a song is done? A lot of the songs on we think we alone are pretty short.
It feels complete. I want the song to feel like my attention span. I don’t want to talk about something for too long. I don’t want to go too deep into a topic, but I always try to at least get to a point, or get the whole feeling out. If I’m writing some shit that’s got a very bitter tone, or a very excited tone, I want it to feel genuine but sometimes I throw interruptions at the end of the song. It’s just my attention span. I like the idea of interrupting myself before I say too much.
You seem pretty mature. How have you changed over the past few years?
I think I’m pretty mature. [Laughs]
Are you different now than you were three years ago?
Three years ago I was 19. I’m not very different than I was. The focus was still there. It all changed recently, but who I am hasn’t changed. When I was 19, I stopped going to school. I stopped working. It’s funny that you asked about the last three years, because it’s been a crazy last three years. I’m glad that now, my goals from three years ago are finally happening.
Do you believe things happen for a reason? You had all this personal shit going on and at the same time these dreams started coming together. Do you think it had to happen that way, or was it just bad timing?
I wouldn’t say it was bad timing, it was just a lot for me at the time. But I think that’s how it was supposed to happen. That’s how it happened, and that’s how we got here.
Was there a time in your life that shaped the music you make today, just sonically and stylistically?
Probably the last three years. That is what shaped what I make. I’ve been making music for the last seven years, and I’ve gone through a bunch of changes stylistically. It wasn’t until I dropped sunflower that I became a fan of my music. That’s a different level. That’s like a cousin of self-love, when you’re actually a fan of yourself. I like listening to sunflower. I’m not cocky enough to say I’m one of my favorite rappers, but I definitely make the right music for me. That’s really what’s changed, and it changed how I view my own work. I really like the shit I’m making.
Do you feel connected to New York’s music scene?
New York’s the only place I’m from. I like New York music. A lot of these young New York artists—like Young M.A or A Boogie or Cardi B or Desiigner—all remind me of people I grew up around, so I’m able to appreciate their music. It’s a cultural thing. That’s really how we talk, and there are a lot of mannerisms in these artists that remind me of what I grew up around. It’s in me, too. I can’t say I’m not New York.
What about the history of New York, like we’ve talked about being Mos Def fans before. Do you feel like you’re part of a lineage of New York music?
I don’t know if I could say that. The only music I really listened to before I got my iPod in 2010 was shit my mom was playing in the car, or shit that was on 106 & Park at night. For the most part, that was just new music, the hits, and classics. So if it wasn’t in one of those categories, I probably missed it.
I’ve seen you perform live a couple of times now, and I always wonder what’s going through your mind when you’re on stage.
I’m nervous before every show. Especially if I’m headlining or if I throw the event. First I’m nervous like, “Is anyone going to come?” Then when people come it’s like, “Alright, fuck, now I have to actually deliver.” But yeah, I’m nervous every single time. And it shows on stage, I think. It’s a fight. I gotta be impressing myself to keep going, but I really feel the love at the shows, and that says a lot. I’m excited to add these new songs to the show.
Your videos, especially the last couple, have been great. How important is that visual element to you?
It’s one of my favorite parts. I love making visuals. I’m trying to find the perfect visuals for the live shows, too. Music videos are special because they’re supposed to be the identity of the song. I’m working on a film right now, so I’ve been thinking about visuals a lot.
Does the film tie into the music?
Yeah. I love making visuals. I used to go to school with Mike from Prolove Visuals—he was probably one of my very few friends at the school. After I left I would always talk to him on the phone, because I’d always write movies and I’d call him and be like, “Yo, I got this movie idea.” We were in seventh grade, and all the way to twelfth grade I’d call him with ideas like, “Yo, this shit is gonna be crazy.” I was going to go to college for screenwriting before I changed my mind. Mike ended up really going to college for film. We make every visual together, and we’re doing the film right now.
So you’ve got some momentum now, all the pieces are coming together. Do you feel pressure now? Or do you still feel like you’ve got control and you’re doing what you want?
I don’t want to do anything I don’t want to do. It’s gonna be weird for a while, until I grow out of this. But I definitely know that I’m not with no uncomfortable shit.
There’s a lot of people trying to get my attention now, and that’s weird to me because the only people I’ve been around for the last three years… it’s not that many people.
What do you mean “until I grow out of this”? What’s "this"?
Like, who I am right now. I don’t really like talking to people. I don’t know. I feel like I’m not ready to be in front of the world. I probably won’t be in front of the world. Like, I probably won’t be in front of too many people, but who knows? I don’t know. Hopefully people like this and talk about it and it spreads, but by that time hopefully I know who I am a little bit more.
My team definitely helps me be more organized, but every video is my idea, every song is my idea. Hopefully as I start getting better ideas, I know how things work a little better. There’s a lot of things that I’ve had to learn the last few months. Like waiting to put music out. [Laughs] Every song that I ever put out, I put out when I felt like it. There’s lawyers now. There’s a song on this tape that I couldn’t put out because of a sample. I’ve never had to deal with that.
But there’s never any pressure to make something more accessible, or reach more people with the next one?
Nah, my next one is whatever the fuck my next one is. I mean, maybe my focus will be to get more people involved. It can possibly grow into that, but right now I don’t care about all that. I want it to be right for me, and that’s really how I move.
You talked a little about not wanting to open up completely, or not wanting to talk to people. Do you think you’re trying to make it hard for people to get you, so the people who do get you really fuck with you?
Nah, I’m not really trying to do anything. I make the music, I hang out with my few friends. But now that I have the following that I wanted for so many years, there’s people trying to interact with me via social media, because that’s now the only way we interact. Now there are people who I have to update. I have to tell them when music is ready, or why it’s not ready. It feels like a silly game, having to manage fans. And I’m not really friends with people.
People see the numbers start going up, and the numbers start going up faster, and shit like this. There’s a lot of people now being more friendly than they’ve ever been. There’s a lot of people trying to get my attention now, and that’s weird to me because the only people I’ve been around for the last three years… it’s not that many people. So it’s weird trying to manage attention and promote.
Do you think you’re ever going to fall back or just disappear from the spotlight? Some people get that attention and then realize they don’t want it.
I don’t want to disappear, because I definitely do have big goals. It’s a silly goal, but I’ve always wanted like a top 10 album of the year. I’ve always wanted some sort of praise for work that I did.