By Kier Wiater-Carnihan
Naeem Juwan, aka Spank Rock, sounds like a confused man. Partly, perhaps, due to excessive celebrations concerning the release of the spectacularly-named “Everything Is Boring And Everyone Is A Fucking Liar”, his long-delayed follow-up to 2006’s “YoYoYoYoYo”. The launch party was the night before last and Juwan still sounds somewhat the worse for wear, his laid back drawl sounding slightly sleepy as he recounts, “it was a really fun night, I couldn't remember the performance the next day”. Yet despite the obvious pride in his new material, he still admits to sneaking out to go and watch Thom Yorke DJ at the Saturday Night Live after-party down the road, “one of the shittiest things I probably could've done, it was pretty disrespectful to myself [laughs] ”. It's the first of many contradictions in the world of Spank Rock.
As the title of the album implies, Juwan is pretty pissed off with the state of things right now, both in terms of the genre he operates in ( “hip-hop music is so stale”) and the wider cultural and political environment. Yet finding a coherent response to these inadequacies is not always easy - he sees the problems but is as incapable of finding solutions as the rest of us. While lyrically “Everything Is Boring...” attempts to distance itself slightly from the hyper-sexual booty raps of “YoYoYoYoYo”, you're still never more than a couple of verses away from lines like “Her pussy taste so good it won a Michelin star” or the bewildering “Shake it till my dick turns racist”. You get the sense Juwan, now he's reached a level of success where people listen to him, wants to make serious points; yet he can't quite bring himself to abandon the formula that got him that platform in the first place.
“I thought the first album had moments that weren't, you know, hyper-sexual, but probably no one pays attention to that stuff except for Thom Yorke who said his favourite song was 'What It Looks Like' when everyone else's favourite song is 'Backyard Betty' or 'Bump' or whatever. I think it's more about what the writers and the fans wanna pay attention to, but I definitely made a conscious effort to bring some of those lost feelings to the forefront on this record. But I still wanted the album to be sexy. It's still a sexy album.”
This is despite XXXChange (producer Alex Epton, who was Juwan's collaborator on “YoYoYoYoYo”) being almost wholly absent. In his place there's a slew of guest producers including Boys Noize and Savage Skulls. So where did Epton go?
“He's on this album once, but he doesn't have a greater presence on the record because we had a bit of a falling out when we were signing to a bigger label. It was a very, you know, clichéd thing that happens to a lot of young artists. When a new opportunity comes along, money becomes involved and new responsibilities show up. It was pretty tough for us to understand how to make clear decisions, how to continue to work together and continue to be friends. But that only lasted for quite a short time, we've been making music together again and being great friends, but in the recording process I was working with different producers. It's not too big of a deal.”
Was it difficult to get other producers to create something that still sounded like a Spank Rock record?
“Uh....yeah (laughs). First of all, I don't know how to produce. At all. I've never touched a key on the computer. But when I was with Alex I'd go through the different beats that he made and choose my favourite one. And, you know, every rapper does that so I don't think that it's odd to be able to put together another album that sounds like mine. But it did take me, like, five producers to make up for one Alex (laughs). He's so creative, it took me a while to kinda piece it together without him.”
The record label responsible for the dispute between Juwan and Epton was Downtown Records, who released the Benny Blanco “Bangers And Cash” collaboration in 2007. Previously Spank Rock had been signed to Big Dada, but though he insists working with the British label was “cool”, Juwan sheepishly admits to getting “a bit...frustrated” following the unexpected success of “YoYoYoYoYo” , success that was maybe too much for an independent to deal with. However, that frustration paled in comparison to that he experienced working with Downtown, and there's still anger in his voice when he tries to explain what went wrong.
“I don't know, it's the fucking music industry man! All these record labels lost all this fucking money because they couldn't keep up with technology, you know? Instead they had this really obnoxious, bratty reaction to new technology, and tried to throw money at it to shut it down. And they couldn't do that. All they had to do was work with the people who were creating the technology and use those creative minds to get ahead of the curve, but since they weren't capable of doing that for such a long time they put all that pressure on their artists to take the hit.”
“So basically, these record companies are losing money and all they wanna do is not invest in creativity. They want everyone to sound the same, they wanna make sure that you make something that's gonna make them money immediately, and then, just to make sure that their backs are covered more, they now have the artists sign 360 deals [a deal where in exchange for funding and advances the record label takes a percentage of all the artist's earnings across all sources] . So they're taking your record sales, your fucking merchandise money, your touring money, and anything else you could possible bring them, instead of learning how to sell records.”
“Unfortunately I was in this situation where the new record label I was on wanted to renegotiate my deal and kinda backed me against the wall to turn me into an artist that I didn't want to be. I was speaking to some other labels but I just got too nervous, it felt so horrible to me that someone else's ambitions could, like, stop and change my life, when all I wanna do is just sit and make music and put it out. Very simple ambitions, you know? So I thought it might be safer for me to just put it out on my own.”
“When I was on Downtown I remember having a lot of arguments about what producers they wanted me to go and work with. We started off having these wonderful meetings where they were like, “Who do you want to work with? We'll put you in with anyone you wanna work with”, you know, big record executive assholes - I'm sure I'm not the only artist that's heard this shit – they butter you up and make you think that you can do whatever you want. Then I would make what I thought were quite simple requests – there were only a few people that I wanted to work with – and they didn't have the patience, they just wanted me to go and make hits so they put me in with producers who'd already had number one songs. But these producers had no clue where I was coming from. I think, especially in the hip-hop world, I have a pretty unique perspective, and it's pretty tough trying to collaborate and bring my ideas to the table when hip-hop music is so stale and linear right now. It's all about materialism, and I felt they didn't have the patience for me to sit down and try to write something that was cool. They just wanted me to write something that sounded like everyone else.”
Herein lies the problem of what happens when a once vibrant and original genre is consumed by the mainstream: when it's regurgitated back to the masses it loses everything that once made it exciting, hence the banal bombast of commercial hip-hop that floods the airwaves today. Juwan is dismayed at the development and at a loss to explain how it happened.
“I really wish I could figure it out but I just don't understand. I remember being younger and you had A Tribe Called Quest and Nas and Pac and Biggie and Wu Tang and De La Soul, Salt-n-Pepa, all these different voices and styles and perspectives in hip-hop music. And it was all so extraordinarily good. And now you don't see that. I think there are some good rappers but mainly I'm just not interested. I listen to a lot of singer-songwriters [instead]. The artists I've listened to the most this year have been Connan Mockasin, Joanna Newsom, Beach House and Deerhunter. I would love to be able to make music like that, but I don't want to alienate my audience any more than I already do! (laughs).”
Perversely, the most interesting song on the album (and, for me, also the most irritating) is neither hip-hop or indie, but an attempt to mimic the modern Pop-Rap that is the antithesis of Spank Rock's apparent ambition. '#1 Hit' presents a cynical image of the pursuit of transient fame, and the shifty characters behind the scenes who exploit those so desperate for it. It's an interesting comment on the cultural bankruptcy of the current pop scene, but is let down by the fact the song itself, and particularly its saccharine chorus, employ the worst techniques of that genre (save, thankfully, auto-tune). Mightn't the satire get lost along the way? It turns out that's kind of the point.
“I wanted it to sound like a good pop song, so I wanted it to be competitive. I think maybe if the satire becomes lost then I achieved my goal. It was more a kind of inside joke, for me and my friends. I had some pretty big arguments about that song, because it's quite cheesy and obvious. I kind of wanted to make it look very easy to make a pop song, like today's regular pop songs – “look, I can do it, now leave me the fuck alone!” (laughs). To show off and then be the artist that I wanna be. So that song is not a success, that idea is not a success, until that song becomes popular. If it doesn't become popular then I didn't write a good enough pop song! (laughs) If it doesn't become popular then it's not easy to write a pop song.”
Again this highlights the paradox of Spank Rock circa 2011 – he's dismissive of the frenzied pursuit of fame yet he quite openly pursues it himself. A recent tour slot supporting multi-million-selling pop animal Ke$ha emphasises just what a uniquely contradictory space he occupies – the foul-mouthed but thoughtful Baltimore rapper bringing explicit booty-bass to an audience of pop-gobbling pre-teens. If he feels uncomfortable in this space, he doesn't show it.
“It actually went down pretty well. I think we probably made it weirder than we should have. It was crazy, the first show we did I came out on stage and all the kids started screaming as if they knew who I was, and then they started dancing to the music, dancing to music they'd never heard before. I was like “Holy shit! Alright dude, I can do this!”. Then the next three shows were kinda the same. Then we did a show and everyone hated me. Their arms were crossed and they were mugging me and just wanted LMFAO and Ke$ha to come out (laughs). So it was a pretty wild ride, each city was different, but overall it went really well.”
“I was really surprised and kinda happy that Ke$ha has a fanbase of people that are pretty open-minded. She's kinda supposed to be the alternative badass pop star so I guess it just made sense! (laughs) I feel kinda embarrassed to say that, not because I'm embarrassed of my friendship with Ke$ha but because I put so much angst and thought into my music, (laughs) it would've been nice if every time we stepped on stage we got booed and people threw shit at us and we could've said “Ah you guys just don't fucking get it!”. I was really excited by that but it didn't happen that way, because a lot of them actually got it!”
“The cool thing is I'm not in a position where no-one's listening to the music, so I feel pretty happy about that. Would I trade making the music that I make to become even more famous, make more money? I don't think so. I'm not interested in what makes people famous today, it seems like a lot of people are famous for absolutely nothing. There used to be a time where someone had to see real talent, and that would make them a star – they'd be, like, unusually beautiful or really smart. They had to do something that everyone else couldn't do, and then they would become famous for it. But now it's like the more average you are the more people relate to you, and because you're famous they feel, “Oh, then I can be famous”. They feel like they look like you, they can sound like you, they can do what you can do, and it gets their hopes up that one day they can have that spotlight. Which I think is weird. I don't know the real reason for it. I think that's what alienates me so much, I really am just baffled. You look at reality shows or you look at a trend of musicians singing through auto-tune and it's like, well, who can't do that? I can't figure it out, you watch a reality show and it's like, why am I watching a reality show, I've got these same shitty motherfucking neighbours right next to me! (laughs).”
When Juwan talks about past stars who made it thanks to real talent, he may well have been talking about Prince – he recently had the purple one's face tattooed onto his body, and you could argue that his pornographic lyrics have their roots in songs like “Do Me Baby” or “Come”. Yet when it comes to other influences who might be honoured by having their image stabbed into Spank Rock skin, it's someone closer to home that takes precedence.
“It's weird, I thought the first tattoo I was gonna get was gonna be a portrait of my mother from her high school photo – she had this perfect afro! It's a really beautiful photo. I'm really surprised, and maybe ashamed, that Prince made it permanently onto my skin before my mother did (laughs). But I also call my mother up on the phone so maybe that's alright. I think she's pretty fascinated by me. What do my family make of my music? I don't know, it's hard to tell. It's funny cos I'm like, “The two of you raised me, I don't know why you're shocked by anything I could potentially say or do!”. I think parents are always like, “(sighs) I didn't raise my children to be like that”, but it's like, you were the one playing, like, Bowie and fucking Boogie Down Productions and Shabba Ranks and fucking Prince, it's all coming from your influences, like Parliament/Funkadelic, the craziest spaced-out lyrics in funk music. I'm just trying to follow a tradition of the music I heard growing up, you know? I definitely have a cruder, 1990s Baltimore language, I think the younger generation is a bit more profane than generations past, but I did try to write a song, 'The Dance', as a fake funk song for my nieces and nephews and I tried to make it as clean as possible.”
“Growing up in Baltimore did have an effect because Baltimore is one of those cities in America that kind of developed its own style of house music, and a lot of the kids in Baltimore aren't being properly raised (laughs). I think there were a lot of moments in my youth that were pretty wild and promiscuous, I think I've seen a lot of things and been part of a hyper-sexual environment and that definitely had an influence. Nothing crazy, I don't have a Lil Wayne story where I was bullied into having sex with some thirty-year-old woman when I was twelve, it's not that crazy! But I think when you're that aware of sexuality at a young age it has an effect on you. Also, when your community is violent it has an effect on you, and when your parents are working all the time to raise you and your siblings, and the kids who don't have great parents are all raising each other...a unique perspective comes out of that, that's all I'm gonna say!”
It's not just his perspective that's unique, his position in music is unique too. He's a rapper that doesn't listen to rap, a wannabe iconoclast who's adored by mainstream pop audiences, a recording artist who splits from a label that tries to homogenise his sound, and then intentionally records a song that sounds homogeneous. It's an awkward place to be. On the fantastic “Car Song”, a collaboration with Santigold that's maybe the album's strongest track, he raps “Now I want to go west / Like Kanye? / I was thinking more Cornel”. Truth is, he's neither. So who does he want to be? As it turns out, a megalomaniac cartoon mouse...
“I want to start [writing] right now cos I don't want the next [album] to take a long time. I wanna learn how to produce more things and I wanna be more prolific. I just wanna be a bit better at what I do and become a better songwriter, and I wanna be able to really take over people's minds for three minutes, you know? And write things that stick with you forever. I want people to be able to get lost in the music. I want to be mentioned alongside some of the best songwriters. Eventually. It might take a bit longer than I expect though. It's like Pinky And The Brain, I wanna take over the world!”
Let's hope he has more success than they did. A Spank Rock world might not make any more sense than this one, but it'd be a hell of a lot more fun. We talked to Spank Rock knowing two things: now he's reached a level of success where people listen to him, he wants to make serious points; but yet he can't quite bring himself to abandon the nasty formula that got him that platform in the first place.