N.A.S.A: Flying High With All-Star Collaborators On The Spirit Of The Apollo

On their debut album The Spirit of the Apollo (Anti-), DJ/producers Sam Spiegel (Squeak E. Clean) and Ze Gonzales (DJ Zegon), together as N.A.S.A. (North America South America), embarked on their own musical odyssey. As studio astronauts, the duo’s mission was to mix Spiegel’s love of North American hip hop and rock with Gonzales’ passion for Brazilian funk. Together they hoped to create a new musical galaxy filled with Earth’s rising and brightest stars.

From the start, The Spirit of Apollo celebrates humanity’s delicate interdependence with “The People Tree,” and then it ponders the perpetuating evils of worshiping the almighty dollar on “Money.” Both tracks juxtapose David Byrne’s soulful siren against the barbed spitfire rhymes of Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Blackalicious rapper Gift of Gab. As the rest of the album unfolds, the other collaborating crew members (Kanye West, Santogold, Karen O, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Tom Waits, Kool Keith, KRS-One, Fatlip, et. al.) send the 16-song shuttle ride surging towards a dance-floor party on the surface of the sun.

Though the journey isn’t conceptually cohesive track to track, the universal groove of the Spirit of Apollo still mines the depths of human emotion. Among the other party tracks, “Way Down” stands out as the album’s deepest trip to a dreary and emotional underworld as Barbie Hatch’s dark and cathartic croon, RZA’s nimble flow, and John Frusciante’s psychedelic rock riffs take your heart and mind through a compelling journey filled with pain, sadness, and loneliness.

A few weeks before the album’s launch date (February 17, 2009), Spiegel explains how the project began nearly six years ago, when he and Gonzales first considered combining their music passions. “We started talking about using the Apollo theme because that’s what we wanted the album to be about,” he says. “The album’s first collaboration with [Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer] Karen O created the song ‘Strange Enough,’ and then we added the Ol’ Dirty Bastard vocals. That’s when we realized that this album is all about avoiding the things that keep mankind separated musically and culturally. We focused on the unity idea because it’s the unexpected collaborations that bring the world together.”

For the last several years, Spiegel has sharpened his producing skills by scoring commercials and movies. And those experiences helped capture The Spirit of Apollo. “Scoring a picture is a very dynamic process; it has builds and falls,” Spiegel says. “I’ve really learned a lot about how to translate that to music. Being able to play and have a wider range of instruments has really helped widen my production palette too. When you’re confronted with different types of music, you’re forced to grow and open up a new part of your musical vocabulary.”

As a producer who has a long list of previous credits and collaborations, ranging from movie and commercial scores to album and remix production, Spiegel says that he began tapping his “list of favors” to accomplish his mission. “Calling in a few favors meant different things depending on who I was talking to,” he says. “Santogold was the very last song on the album, and we needed to get it finished or we would have had to push the release date back. She was on ‘Gifted’ with Lykke Li and Kanye West. She was telling us that her vocal chords were trashed and that she was way too busy touring, but I begged her to take time out so we could finish this song. She was generous enough to meet me in New York and record the song.”

Ever since his adolescence, Spiegel has been in love with hip hop. “This was the album that I was dreaming about making since I was a kid,” he says. “Even though it took a long time, it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. It was a very special honor to work with my hip-hop and rock heroes.”

Once he had his wish list of collaborators, Spiegel sent letters to the album’s hip-hop emcees. “We presented the music to the emcees by sending them the track with a letter about what the album was about, why they fit into the album, and what the song was about,” he says. “We already had the hook and melody, and sometimes each emcee would write with us in the studio. I ended up going all over the world to record this album. It was a big, crazy adventure.”

Spiegel received unexpected inspiration from folk/blues journeyman Tom Waits, who gave the project depth and support. “Waits was really into the project and wanted to support us by donating his services from the start,” Spiegel says. “I was going to pay him because I didn’t know him that well, but we became friends fast. He would call me with ideas for the album’s film and suggested other collaborations. He’s such an amazing and terrific person.”

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