As far as acronyms go, N.A.S.A.'s got clever cornered. Shorthand for North America, South America, the name sums up the transcontinental collaboration between two world-class beat masters: Squeak E. Clean (Sam Spiegel, U.S.A.) and DJ Zegon (Ze Gonzales, Brazil).
N.A.S.A. also shouts out to the duo's serious space fetish. Their debut album, out this month after five-and-a-half years in the making, is called The Spirit of Apollo. And in photos, the DJ / producers are decked out in flight suits, floating above a distant Earth with a pair of turntables. (Chalk that up to computer magic, not a double-life with the real NASA.)
“I think we've always been space fans,” Spiegel says. “Like Star Wars, and this book called Our Universe that I was really obsessed with. Ze always loved space, too. You can feel it on our record, obviously. There's a lot of space references and samples from space movies.”
Spiegel can pinpoint the allure: “I think I'm attracted to it because it's mysterious and unknown. That's obviously intriguing.”
Plus, let's face it, zero gravity is just plain cool. “I remember I saw that movie Space Camp,” he recalls, referring to the 1986 teen flick released, with freakish timing, six months after the Challenger disaster. “I thought, I want to go to space camp! I want to be an astronaut!”
In the end, he aimed a bit lower, but not much. Almost as difficult as becoming an astronaut—though requiring substantially less schooling—Spiegel turned into a globetrotting DJ with friends like Iggy Pop and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on speed dial.
It didn't hurt that his brother is Spike Jonze (né Adam Spiegel), the movie director behind cult classics like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. And Gonzales got his start in Sao Paolo as a professional skateboarder.
But pedigree only gets you so far. Connections alone don't land you the names that drop one after another in the Spirit of Apollo track listings: M.I.A., Spank Rock, Santogold, RZA, David Byrne, DJ AM, Ghostface Killah, George Clinton. Some of the couplings are outrageously unexpected. Anti- Records labelmate Tom Waits' gravelly vocals tangle with rapper Kool Keith's smooth flow. Karen O teases as Ol' Dirty Bastard gives posthumous props to Wu Tang.
You could say it's out of this world. Getting all these stars together on Earth, however, was no easy feat.
“The most difficult part was reaching out to the artists and coordinating with them,” says Spiegel. “That's why it took so long. These people are all busy and they all have stuff going on.”
First, Spiegel and Gonzales laid down the beats. Then they dreamed big about who would wrap lyrics around their Brasilia-tinged, sample-heavy scaffolding. “We'd say, ‘Oh, this sounds like this person; oh, this sounds like that person.'”
Incredibly, they checked off the majority of their wish list. One missing name, Spiegel laments, is the late, great James Brown.
“He's my all-time favorite musician. We reached out to him a lot while we were making the record, but it didn't work out. He was just always touring non-stop, and then he passed away. He was really my inspiration.”
Even though he never touched down in N.A.S.A.'s studio, however, the spirit of Brown lands a guest appearance in the duo's aesthetic of driving, funky rhythms and soulful, unstoppable beats.
Working with the guest artists, Spiegel says, was the final frontier in this musical odyssey. “Sometimes we'd say, ‘Do whatever the fuck you want.' And sometimes we'd tell them that this is what the song is about, and they could work within that framework. We were sure to be very hands on, even though we also wanted them to collaborate a lot; we wanted to make sure the album felt very cohesive, and like one piece of art, rather than a bunch of random songs.”
In the end, N.A.S.A. succeeded, but the question remains: How do they pull it off live, without their crew of celestial cohorts?
“Two DJs, four turntables,” Spiegel says. “We also recruited some local aliens to come dance with us. It's going to be a big, intergalactic circus.” N.A.S.A. play on Thursday, Feb. 26, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/nasa.