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Spank Rock: Beyond The Booty.

July 7, 2014

SpankRockSmall01Text by Christopher Malo. Images by Michael Bucher.

SPANKROCK_jump_poster PROWLERFucking is a part of his music. Someone’s sexuality? Not so much.

“But to create an environment where people feel physically amped up to behave sexually?” Spank Rock considers. “Yes, that is what I am trying to create.”

The West Baltimore transplant sits at a table on the ground floor of the Kimmel Center, hunched over, looking pensive as his fingers work his chin and he contemplates the questions put forth. He has recently returned from Mexico, where he performed at San Miguel Sound, a music festival that takes place in a bullring.

He sports white sneakers, white basketball shorts, a cut white T-shirt with the name of his label, Bad Blood Records, in red across his chest and a backward white Decades Hat Co. on his head. The round glasses on his face are tinted to keep out the bright sunlight that falls through the Kimmel’s open design. Or possibly to keep anyone from seeing in as he peers out.

“And when I say people, I mean anybody who is in the room,” he says. “I mean everybody. Which I think maybe influences some of the choices about what words I use in my music. I want people to feel comfortable and open to be themselves, at any moment in time, when they listen to my music and come to my shows.”

Known for his uber raunchy, sex and drug-fueled music, it would be easy to pigeonhole the 30-something-year-old Spank Rock, otherwise known as Naeem Juwan, as a one trick pony. Especially if that trick was one that started in the club scene of Baltimore, before Drexel University brought him to Philadelphia and the wood paneled basement of the Ukie Club, former home of the infamous Hollertronix party.

Not that he ever intended to become the rapper or fashionista he has become.

A measure of Spank’s success could be due to being the right person, at the right time, in the right place, surrounded by the right people. As DJs Diplo and Low Budget’s Hollertronix party began mashing rap and Bmore club music, they had a sleeper in their midst to provide the authentic ass-shaking go-go lyrics to pair with their new sound.

“He really seemed to appreciate what I was trying to do as a DJ,” says Low Budget. “And looking back, his music is a reflection of the same thing. At that time there was a big void that needed to be filled for a lot of people. We felt a little confined by the ‘rules’ of traditional hip-hop and were looking for ways to incorporate different genres and odd personalities that we identified with.”

For those old enough to remember, Hollertronix parties were epic, before the word lost all of its substance. And speaking of substance, there was a ton of them going around, being passed around, smoked, snorted and banged at Hollertronix as people of all colors, styles and backgrounds would meet to sweat it out on the dancefloor. All while stoic 60-plus-year-old Ukrainians chaperoned the party.

“When Naeem first gave me his CD, I was really impressed,” Low Budget remembers. “I didn’t know he was making this kind of stuff. I thought he was just a charismatic party kid. Pretty much all of us were really hype to hear music being made that embodied all these elements that we tried to incorporate in our DJ sets.”

The music of that time – the early 2000’s – became associated with the people who helped birth it. It is an association that shows one aspect of Spank, but not the only one.

“If all you pay attention to is hooks on a dance beat, you’ll get one perspective of me,” Spank says. “But there’s a ton of my fans who look for my new projects because of the detail.”

But an amped-up sexuality expressed in music is certainly not a new angle. And because it may be one facet or weapon in an artist’s arsenal, doesn’t mean it is or has to be the only one.

“My musical trinity is Michael Jackson, James Brown and Prince,” explains Spank. “Those three guys always had politics and sex, and mixed politics and sex in their music for their entire careers. For me, that’s the only way to make music.”

Prince was his first musical influence; his extended family, another. His grandmother constantly played music in the house and there was always a Soul Train line at Thanksgiving. It was at an aunt’s house where he would watch her VHS tape of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

Possibly the easiest place to hear The Purple One’s influence in Spank’s music is on “Baby,” off his 2011 album, Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar. From performance, to mixing genres, Spank has taken many of his cues in life – subconsciously or not – from the impression that Prince made on him. That includes his interest in fashion. Not in following it, but in setting it.

He, along with friend M.I.A., was selected as one of the faces of Alexander Wang’s Fall 2011 T line of clothing. Not that he remembers how he was selected. GQ featured Spank and 10 essential items he can’t live without.

“When I debuted, I decided to dress the opposite of what rappers were dressing like,” he explains of the fascination with his style. “It was a big indie rock influence. There’s a band here called Man Man – I remember seeing Ryan Kattner outside of Last Drop and I would be like, ‘Yo, that dude looks so fly. I want to dress like him.’”

He wore tighter clothes than was the trend at the time. He rocked chunky framed glasses.

“Just as influential was his aesthetic!” says Low Budget of Spank’s fashion sense. “He was the first black kid I knew wearing skinny jeans. I thought that was crazy at the time! Like, hands down no question, so much of the styles that blew up in hip-hop, both sonically and fashion-wise, Naeem was on it. And it wasn’t this contrived ‘trying to be weird’ thing. He was just doing him. Seriously man, I know that sounds superficial but I think it says so much about his influence.”

The accidental rapper had also become an inadvertent fashion trend setter. It isn’t a role that he is necessarily comfortable with these days. Being concerned with fashion – the pace and trendiness of it – is one of the biggest mistakes he feels he has made.

“We have to remind ourselves that the fashion industry is meant for the bourgeois, and the people who have the most money to make themselves stick out from the people who don’t have money,” Spank explains. “I don’t consider myself someone who is a part of bourgeois. I consider myself someone who is a part of the proletariat. My family is part of the proletariat. I grew up in Baltimore – West Baltimore. We didn’t have money.”

His was a family that couldn’t afford Tommy Hilfiger, let alone Alexander Wang.

“I have to keep reminding myself that my value and the value of others is not in the way they present themselves but in the ideas they have,” he says about what he believes is really important. “Being so overly concerned with trends and fashion, taking so much time to have it fill up my brain and my head, was me behaving as if I was a spoiled rich person who wanted to show how different and privileged I was than everyone around me.”

Like with most things for most people, there is an evolution that has taken place as Spank Rock has gotten older. Part of finding out who you are, is finding out who you aren’t. Finding who you love means finding many you don’t. Part of the process of finding out what is important means detours spending time chasing what isn’t. Not that style isn’t important to him.

“I think when it comes down to personal style, it’s wonderful,” Spank says. “When you can take what you have or go to a thrift store and flip it in a certain way, that’s creative. Not to say the designers and fashion industry aren’t creative people, I love the design of Alexander Wang. But to be concerned with it, to follow fashion on Instagram, Twitter, to see it every day, it’s pulling me further and further away from community, further and further from reality of what I can actually afford, further and further from focusing my talents and making them sharper.”

But as with his music, his fashion sense has also caught on and endured.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he says with a smile. “You couldn’t see any big, black framed glasses on basketball players if it wasn’t for me.”

He may also be known for gems like his 2 Live Crew inspired Bangers & Cash EP or for interviewing Mos Def in Interview magazine, but he feels the thread of politics is one that is also accessible in his music if one chooses to look.

“I think I am one of the few musicians these days who still believes in the power of art and music like they used to in the ’60s and ’70s,” Spank explains. “So politics always influences what I write.”

While cocaine and fucking may be the easy take-away from his songs, he is most proud of “Nasty,” a track off  E.I.B.A.E.I.A.F.L.

“It’s a collage,” he says. “I have a rap that is my most James Brown moment, just screaming one line at a time.”

“We ain’t gotta be rich, bitch/We ain’t trying to play God, dog/We ain’t gotta be stars y’all/As long as we stay smart,” raps Spank over a thumping club beat, complete with what sounds like a stuttering laser attack. It’s a quintessential Spank Rock ass moving groove … complete with a message?

“I think it is a really important line for creative people,” says Spank, explaining the song. “Today, because of a lack of job opportunity, a lot of it comes up in creativity or entrepreneurship and I think it is important for us to base our success on our own personal goals and not on the goals of all the hoopla around us.”

As Spank explains how he threads politics into his tracks, there is almost a sense of boredom as he expresses what is important to him, and  an apathy to the fact that some may miss the messages he infuses into his lyrics.

It is strange how these strong beliefs he holds are expressed in soft words during a conversation, yet on stage, his energy is indescribable. During performances, the message is at times is buried under several layers – of booty, bass and narcotics.

“Those ideas are mixed into kind of silly, like, punk sort of rap,” he says of  “Nasty.”  “It was about creating the energy of rebellion but also giving people the awareness of knowing how to gauge success in their lives based on their own ideas. It may not be hyper-political in the traditional sense, but when we live in a new age, when people aren’t engaging with one another face-to-face, a lot of it is dealing with this false reality. So it was a political thing to remind people of.”

Having New Orleans’ bounce music queen Big Freedia on that track was also significant to him.

“You bring someone on a record or just the collaboration itself, it shows true diversity,” Spank notes. “Especially having Freedia rap ‘pussy’ over and over and over again for 18 bars in that big, boastful voice. To bring that element to a song and have Freedia be gay and play with gender roles, I thought it was a slick way to not just be provocative, but to level out a playing field. What I think right now is that people want to create a spectacle, not create real change. So I think it is my most political song.”

Freedia and Spank, who is also gay, met on the Check Yo’ Ponytail tour in 2011.

“I was amazed at his stage presence and his ability to create such a dynamic sound,” says Big Freedia. “He also has rap skills. More than all that though, we became very good friends. It’s rare to find people like that on the road but Naeem is someone I consider a true friend.”

As of late, Spank is pushing to become a better songwriter, transitioning from the boom-bap basement of the Ukie to performing around the world to the new age of the Making Time parties with Dave P. manning the decks.

“That thing really changed my life,” Spank says about the Making Time parties.

The near future has Spank Rock playing businessman and artist as he gets ready to release a six-song EP this summer, titled Startisha.

“Maybe the future will be not so accidental,” Spank says, reflecting on his career path. “I hope the future continues to look like the past, continuing to search for a new experience.”

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