NASA are on a voyage of discovery


By Si Hawkins

Every now and then a collaboration so curious crops up that you can't help but wonder how it ever happened. Here are a few forthcoming efforts: Tom Waits trading growls with eccentric hip-hop king Kool Keith, David Byrne getting angsty alongside Public Enemy's Chuck D, and Kanye West being outshone by quirky Swedish songbird Lykke Li. Not the likeliest of pairings, then, and all on one album. Made by a couple of ex-skateboarders.

Sam Spiegel, aka Squeak E Clean, and Ze Gonzales, aka DJ Zegon, are the duo at the heart of N.A.S.A., whose celeb-filled collection, The Spirit Of Apollo, finally achieves lift-off this month. Six years in the making, it's been quite a trip.

'The reason it's called Spirit Of Apollo,' explains Brazilian Gonzales, while tinkering with tracks in the corner of a London hotel room, 'is that our mission was like another Apollo mission. Getting the record done was as hard as getting to the Moon.'

Spiegel and Gonzales met at a party in 2003 and began making beats the next day. 'N.A.S.A. means North America/South America,' explains Maryland-born Spiegel, spreadeagled on the hotel bed and clearly the project's prime mover. 'We were like, OK, this is what the record's about: every song must be as unexpected as possible, bringing people together from different worlds, just as we'd come together from different worlds.'

A large noticeboard became their base of operations, naming 35 potential tracks and a dream list of suitable guests, says Gonzales. The persuasive duo put together a sort of live-action mixtape, laying down verses with one artist then offsetting them with a chorus from someone at the other end of the musical scale. 'We got as many people in the room together bouncing off each other as possible,' says the American.

Also involved were leading ladies M.I.A., Santogold, Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Lovefoxxx from CSS, funk legend George Clinton, reggae star Sizzla, Brazilian folkie Seu Jorge and several generations of hip hop, from KRS-One to Spank Rock - and Ol' Dirty Bastard, a few weeks before his death.

Even the core N.A.S.A. partnership is an interesting meeting of minds. Spiegel is the brother of film-maker Spike Jonze, and launched his own career by scoring Yeah Right!, Jonze's cult 2003 skateboard movie; a career which has since taken in high-profile ad themes and album production. Gonzales, meanwhile, is a professional skateboarder turned sought-after DJ with a knack for marrying traditional Brazilian rhythms to edgier urban beats.

The underlying N.A.S.A. sound is rooted somewhere between their two styles: dirty hip hop meets experimental electro-pop uptown. It's a solid base on which to host so many disparate voices.

Speaking of which, N.A.S.A.'s next logistical nightmare is a live show. With the various vocalists otherwise engaged, they've settled on an elaborate audio-visual effort fronted by the Cosmic Crew - girl dancers in alien-garb - while Spiegel and Gonzales manipulate re-edits and specially commissioned videos across four turntables. A celeb-filled extravaganza is very tempting, however.

'We might do one big show, for TV maybe, a pay-per-view kind of thing,' says Spiegel. 'It'll be like the Wrestlemania of music.' N.A.S.A. mania. It has a nice ring to it.

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