DJ Spike -- or Ronald Smith as his family and friends knew him -- oozed chemistry. He had an instrumental influence on people. In Pittsburgh, Spike introduced the deep, vibrant and soulful sun of house music to heads too accustomed to dark clouds.
Frankly, house was too disco-rooted, too soft for people who liked their music hard. The throbbing underground New York and Chicago dancelove movements would hit 'Burgh floors like bricks if thrown by most other deejays. And to be fair, Spike was less than victorious in turning out house when he tried it in the early '90s.
As house-culture keepers such as John Eperjesi, Kelly Carter and DJ EZ Lou Ortego will tell you, Thursday nights at The Upstage in Oakland were Spike's -- period. He began the Thursday new-wave '80s nights back in '93 or '94 -- the same event EZ Lou has continued to this day. The same nights that transformed a teen-age Kelly Carter upon hearing Hardrive's "Deep Inside," forcing her to buy turntables the next day. Yet Spike couldn't win 'em all, and drew protests from those married to the synth-pop rock and industrial/hardcore sets they were used to.
In '95 he jumped The Upstage, taking a huge congregation with him. "I still have the note he left me," says EZ Lou: "Lou, I quit The Upstage. Do you want the job?"
Spike carried his flock to Kaya, Lava Lounge, Soba, Pub I.G. -- everywhere -- exponentially increasing his house guests and causing lines around blocks to his parties. He was often accompanied by his younger brother Jimmy, who he'd let fill in on the tables sometimes.
"He taught me how to deejay and got me into the music scene," says Jimmy, now living in Austin. "He had all kinds of new and progressive music from New York and other places. Me and my friends thought it was the coolest thing in the world."
Eventually, they found sanctuary at the jumpin' Luv Bomb gatherings at his Mount Washington spot, with a view overlooking the city.
Spike didn't crash house parties. His house parties crashed Pittsburgh.
"Where Spike went, the party went," says EZ Lou. "His dance floors were always packed with fun, sexy, down-to-earth people -- gay and straight, black and white, and everything in between."
Thing is, you don't grab that kind of following by just spinning dope music. People were drawn to his spirit of generosity, his gentle persuasion and radiant personality, symbolized by a smile his father says "would light up a room."
Michelle Massie, a Luv Bomb regular whose brother Michael was Spike's roommate then, recalls how she was stuck in New Jersey at college when Spike "offered to come get me. He drove all day, got lost and loaded up all my junk when he got there. He was so exhausted but he said he didn't mind."
Spike spent the past couple years volunteering at the Walnut Grove food bank in West Mifflin, packing bags and helping the 200-plus families who came every other Monday evening.
"He came to me one day and said he wanted to do something for the people at the food bank," says his uncle Bill Broadright, director of the food bank. "He was always that kind of guy. And they all liked him -- the families and about 15 volunteers -- and they were all at his funeral."
When Spike died on New Year's Day, at age 38, he was enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, studying counseling and education. He had just overcome some demons from his past and was training to help others. The former Billboard reporter was staying with his father and spending a lot of time with his family, especially his brother's children. Although the official cause of his death is unknown, suspected causes include sleep apnea and a brain aneurysm.
His mother, Jane, had returned to school as well, studying nursing at Clarion University. Before starting there, she had to take a six-week CCAC course in a subject she had difficulty with.
"He tutored me through it," she says. "Even though he never had any background in it himself, he'd say, 'Just give me a chance to read the book and I'll help you.'"
The course was in chemistry.
With additional reporting by John Eperjesi.