Deem Spencer Learns to Swim



Months away from the release of his forthcoming album, deem spencer reckons a steady vision with deepening waters.


deem spencer paces into the dimly-lit interior of Williamsburg’s pinkFROG café a half-hour or so after twelve, but depending on how you look at it, he could also be wading. His strides are measured, it seems, with the same dynamics instinctively brought about by knee-level waters: security in the presence of a floor, aplomb tethered by the ability to see it clearly, assurance buoyed by how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to drown. But water is also, in principle, a territory both entirely different from, and infinitely more mysterious than land—no matter how calmly it may pool around our ankles, nor how sharp our ability may be to see what lies beneath it. And so, deem walks into the café, upright as if bolstered by the sight of the surface, but also justifiably hesitant: the water only gets deeper from here, and his eyes are more fixed on the unknowns far ahead than the knowns beneath his feet.

When he makes his way over to a modest table at the foot of a lush stage area, he uses one puffer-coated arm to offer a loose hand-clasp, and another to set down two vinyl records encased in obscure, plain-white packaging. He’s wearing a greenish Telfar hoodie over a coffee-colored baseball cap that holds together an assemblage of brawny dreadlocks; it feels like he’s perennially on the precipice of a grin that might or might not show up on the outside, but occasional toothy guffaws serve as timely reminders that it’s somewhere in there. “This is the first time I’ve ever gotten this,” he says, gesturing towards the pair of records, which now sit on an adjacent tabletop. “I have to listen to it and approve it by tomorrow. See how it sounds and make sure it feels how it’s supposed to.” 

“There were certain conversations I couldn’t have with him in the past, because he just wasn’t there yet. He’s there now.”

The records in question are freshly-received test pressings of his forthcoming LP adultSW!M, set for release early next year via Nigil Mack’s imprint Drink Sum Wtr. It comes at a time, for deem, where the growing prospect of the world’s collapse oddly coincides with an existential, coming-of-age fork in the road of his own winding trajectory. Much of his career has been buoyed by a certain boyish appeal, parallel to positions he’s long held in his family—he makes music your mom wouldn’t be upset about; up to his twenties, he was constantly the “kid” of any house he occupied—but the waters are gradually deepening, and as they do, his songs are sounding more and more like attempts at learning to swim. Much like his calculated wade into the café, he’s bolstered by the fact that he knows what he’s getting into, but just as privy to a sense that he’s entering different, more mysterious territory than anything he’s braved before.

“The experience is different now for him,” Steven Othello, deem’s creative director, said in a Zoom call. “I met him when he was 21. He’s 27 now. There’s a lot that’s happened in the past six years. He’s had a lot of time to sit with himself and ask himself tough questions—like what does he want to do with music? Relationships. Love. There were certain conversations I couldn’t have with him in the past, because he just wasn’t there yet. He’s there now.”

Much of adultSW!M’s creative ethos is rooted in cathartic progression, where growing up—at some levels, literally: he went from watching Adult Swim as a kid, to getting the company’s blessing to name his album after it—produces just as many tough questions as difficulties answering them. The stride he wields against his metamorphosis now is one he’s carried his entire life. “I’ve always understood patience,” deem says, catapulting a hushed voice against obscure accordion music that blares from the cafe’s speakers. “But I can’t say I didn’t want it all–like, fast. I understand that everything’s not going to happen tomorrow. But there were a lot of times where I wanted it to.”

When overnight victories have occurred in recent years, they’ve often looked more like puzzling nuances than monolithic triumphs. The first time deem had any serious semblance of making it as a mainstream musician, it was January of 2017, and he had just gotten a video of his featured in Pigeons & Planes. Up to then, deem had been tasked with taking care of his sick grandfather alongside his cousin—a labor of love, and one through which he began to learn more about himself as both man and artist. He got news of the feature midway through tending to him. “I called Mike [Weir] that morning, and we were hyped,” he says. “Pigeons & Planes posted my music that Friday. That day, people, managers, labels, started hitting me up. I was like, Let’s go. We got ‘em.

But when the time came for him to finally meet with Pigeons & Planes in their Manhattan headquarters, the overnight victory had already been complicated by a counterbalance. His grandfather passed away within days of him receiving the invite, and now, he could barely bring himself to either speak, or make music. Pigeons & Planes offered to give him whatever he wanted or needed. The trouble was that he couldn’t place a finger on either.

The death of his grandfather marked the first days in which he’d have to grow, and fast, into a newfound role as “the man” of his household. “I am the oldest man in my immediate family,” he says, sounding like he hasn’t said the words out loud in a long time. “Like, I am the man. My grandfather passed away five years ago. I was 22. At 22, I didn’t feel like the man of anything. But now, everyone in my family respects that I’m really doing it—traveling the country on some artist shit, traveling the world… shit is cool. I really get to do some cool shit off of just being myself.” Being himself has also granted him the bandwidth to be “the man” for his own sake: midway through the pandemic, he was able to buy his first apartment with the money from his first distribution deal.

But now, for deem, the challenge is reckoning the young qualities that have made him unique, with a growing set of older ones poised to guide him through deeper tides. It’s a psychological balancing act not only harnessing the makeup of adultSW!M, but his future from this point forward. “When you’re out at sea, it’s either you’re going to swim, or you’re going to sink,” his manager Saint said in a phone call. “With this record, it’s the fact that he’s an adult. It’s him coming to the realization that I’m an adult. He has very childlike elements in regards to his disposition, and how he creates—which makes it brilliant, because as adults, we tend to lose that childlike spirit within us. He’s not trying to not be that; that’s naturally him. But he also realizes, ‘I’m an adult. I’m going through things that I really need to figure out. I have to be responsible. I have to hold myself accountable.’”

“You’ve got to believe you can have it all tomorrow to really want it.”

The lead single to adultSW!M came out this past November, and arrived with a future-borne heaviness markedly new to deem’s material. Titled “To Have It All,” it features large-scale, sometimes morbid platitudes over a backbeat much bouncier in comparison to the track’s more existential subject matter. “I wanted it all,” deem starts, sounding both wistful and slightly sarcastic. “Forgot I gotta give / And by the time I did / All the stuff I wanted, gone.” 

Our interview takes place about a week before Christmas. Growing up, when the time came for other kids to make Christmas lists and get hopes up, deem worked, instead, to ground lofty dreams to more quotidian realities. Much of this philosophy has survived to see 27 years. “You’ve got to believe you can have it all tomorrow to really want it,” he says, referencing a sentiment equally applicable to Christmas Eve angst and SoundCloud-era grinds. “You understand getting your hopes up once you get your hopes up.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever gotten this,” he says, gesturing towards the pair of records, which now sit on an adjacent tabletop.”

The existential boundary line separating adultSW!M from his previous work goes beyond just its sound. The album artwork for his most recent LP, 2021’s Deem’s Tape, featured a faded photo of a young deem standing, serious and wide-eyed, at the foot of a large flower display. Gracing the cover of his forthcoming release, on the contrary, is an oil painting that depicts him, as a grown man, toting an infant through an ocean of troubled waters. A concept that’s been on deem’s mind throughout the recording process is legacy, and what he wants his own to look like. There’s a longstanding dystopian theory in New York City that, before we know it, all of it will be underwater—by the time he reaches the top of the mountain, will it be a matter of standing atop the crest, or swimming where a crest used to exist? 

The question is one that requires a vision willing to anticipate unsteady waters of unpleasant futures, all the while maintaining balance in the already-unsteady tides of a crumbling present. On both prongs of the equation, there is water to be survived in, and a survival that begins with acknowledging its existence. Somewhere in it, deem is wading from one end of time to the other—bolstered by familiarity, but knowledgeable of depths yet to be braved.


“What color is your heart today?”

adultSW!M will mark the first time deem—who has, up to this point, exclusively released music under a self-made imprint called deem spencer & the Flower Shop—puts out a full-length project with the help of a label. Admitting where he needs assistance is a skill that, much like the newfound depth-preparative outlook this record serves to chronicle, came about gradually over 27 years’ worth of hard-earned lessons. “It gets easy when you’ve run out of arrogance,” he says, choosing his words slowly and carefully. “Shit could really humble you, and then you’re like ‘Aight. My pride is in the way.’ I’ve done a lot. I’ve gotten millions of streams. But people have helped me. People have always helped me. Being independent doesn’t mean you’re doing it yourself. I definitely needed someone in my corner who cares about the music getting sold.”

This is because—as is especially the case for humble acts like him—it’s one thing to make music because you love making music, and an entirely different thing to partake in the cutthroat business of making it profitable. deem’s artistry has long been hinged on the former quality, his intimate songs serving as both living honings of his craft, and journal entries for a narrative being figured out in real time. But also, as reckonings with his age bring about new reconfigurations of his vision, the waters of making music as an adult are proving much deeper than they were when he was still a kid. With youth comes the freedom to dabble; with adulthood comes the necessity to commit. And with commitment to music, too, comes an adjoined commitment to the necessary evil of making it make money. “As the label owner of deem spencer & the Flower Shop, I didn’t care about the music being sold,” he says. “And it wasn’t getting sold. Now I’m in a place where somebody cares about that.”

As far as Drink Sum Wtr goes, that person is Nigil Mack. In 2012, deem was 17 years old and freshly beginning to find his footing making independent mixtapes. By early 2016, he realized that if he wanted anything to come of his upstart efforts, he was going to have to start performing. Much of New York City’s live hip-hop infrastructure was, over the four year stretch from then to the pandemic, gatekept by dominant scenes—mostly centered in Brooklyn and Manhattan—that fostered strong ties with sought-after venues and niches. Being from Jamaica, the southernmost tip of Queens, the only option available to deem and his friends for a while was to hope for on-stage opportunities at open mic events… a process he, being the quietest among the group, did not enjoy: “They were coming in trying to network and get on the shows and shit, but I was like ‘I promise you, I can’t do that. I’m not trying to be these niggas’ friends.”

The opportunity deem was looking for came in the form of a packed house party, thrown by one of his friends as a birthday celebration. He was the last act to go on-stage, and it quickly became evident among the hordes of revelers that he was also the best. (Though he hesitates before making the statement, he ultimately resolves that he’s allowed to call his performance best-of-show—not because it’s an opinion he clutches dearly, but because hordes of people literally walked up to him afterwards to tell him so.) Nailing a performance in such convincing fashion, on top of the fact that his soft-spoken persona often runs in direct conflict with any such prospect, came with a liberating effect, because up to then, he’d spent years trooping through sets that sometimes went so badly he had to turn away from his audiences and shed secret tears. Newfound knowledge of his capabilities sprawled into a monthly practice of consulting Facebook with open calls for co-performers, advertisements for self-organized shows, and DMed collaboration requests. The result was a steadily unfurling grassroots fan-base, equally split between his Queens hometown and the Manhattan-Brooklyn infrastructure he was freshly beginning to storm the limelight of. The waters were deepening, and deem was learning to swim.

When his video prompted the aforementioned Pigeons & Planes meeting, the death of his grandfather largely kept him from talking, but he did manage to find the words to say that he needed a manager. A week later, he was told that Mack—who had worked in the past with Kid Cudi and D.R.A.M—was into his music and wanted to talk. “I had met with a couple of managers previously,” deem says, as a suited musician nervously strikes the opening piano keys of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “But I met with Nigil, and it didn’t feel like he wanted anything from me, except to see me do good. He wasn’t making promises like the other niggas. He wasn’t trying to flex–like, there was this one manager who bought me a one-month MetroCard. Shit was like a hundred dollars. I was like, ‘I don’t know you bro. You don’t have to do this.’ People will try to court you in this business. But I met Nigil, and I was like, ‘I can really build myself here.’”

“I’m big on figuring out what his mood is based off of his gut. Like, ‘What color is your heart today?’ ‘What does this album feel like to your heart?’”

When deem started working with him in 2017, Mack had just gotten a job as Vice President of artists and repertoire at Republic Records. A deal was on the table then, but he was hesitant to sign. Over the phone, Mack agreed to meet him half-way, leveraging his industry knowledge to guide him through new challenges, while also working alongside Othello and Saint to hone his independent outlook. When Mack founded Drink Sum Wtr this past spring, five years after their initial connection, signing deem was among the first orders of business. adultSW!M, perhaps more than anything else, is an extension of this very growth-oriented ethos—in maturing as both man and musician, deem is also becoming just as intent on recognizing where he needs help, and learning to incorporate those factors effectively both at home and in the studio.

“For him, with this album, beyond anybody else questioning his process, you could see him questioning his process,” Saint said. “Like, ‘What can I do to evolve?’ ‘What can I do to become a better artist?’ ‘What can I do to become a better collaborator?’ And all of these things, I think, are going to help his artistry grow.”

A big part of the growth process, for deem, also harps on being willing to open up. Othello’s style of creative direction utilizes co-generated moodboards, jump-started from open conversations about how deem might feel, and why. A question that often gets asked in these conversations is “What color is your heart today?” “We talk about colors a lot,” Othello said. “I’m big on figuring out what his mood is based off of his gut. Like, ‘What color is your heart today?’ ‘What does this album feel like to your heart?’”

“Everyone’s goals set, mine was the GOATS.”

When I throw this exact question back at deem in the café, he wastes little time referencing the very specific color sky blue. “Specifically sky blue, and, like, brown. Wood,” he says. The original concept for the album’s artwork was a painting of deem standing in front of a wooden house—it was also initially supposed to be called My Wife and Kids—but he didn’t feel like predicting the future just yet. The album centers more on the journey through present waters than the arrival at a later destination, and over the year he spent making it, he’s grown increasingly comfortable with just that: appreciating going somewhere before he can appreciate getting there.

On the closing track of his most recent project, we get a glimpse of where in particular he might be coming from. Titled “Prayed for More,” the song sees a somber-sounding deem ruminate on the merits of his surroundings, and how they line up with visions of his aspirations. “Everyone’s goals set, mine was the GOATS,” he raps, almost as if he’s whispering to his reflection in a mirror. “I got a boat / Hennessy on Antarctica float, sink down and then float.”

A year has passed since he sang those words into the void, and it feels somewhat, in retrospect, as if the version of him that appears on adultSW!M comes with wisdom the wide-eyed boy on the cover of Deem’s Tape did not yet have to wield against his lofty questions. Floating is a very improvisational exercise—it is a rite-of-passage of visiting public swimming pools to realize this—and one that, much like wading into steepening waters, requires just as much self-assuredness as knowledge of existent dangers lurking below. But as long as he has a destination and water to take him there, deem is two things: an adult, and a swimming one. If you’re willing to listen, he might just teach you how to swim, too.

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