Naeem Juwan of Spank Rock on "#1 Hit," Bowie, Prince, James Brown, and the perils of nostalgia
Spank Rock (due tonight at Summit Music Hall for the Check Yo Ponytail 2 tour) emerged in Philadelphia around the middle of the last decade, making music that brought together threads of hip-hop, rock, R&B and electronic pop. With the release of 2006's YoYoYoYoYo, the group became known for its provocative lyrics, even though there was more to the songwriting than just clever turns of phrase.
With the recent release of Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar, Spank Rock has further revealed a sense of humor that's both outright funny and thought-provoking. We spoke with rapper Naeem Juwan about "#1 Hit," David Bowie, Prince, James Brown, and the perils of nostalgia.
Westword: Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar is a great title for an album. Did that title stem from frustrations you were having about the state of things right now?
Naeem Juwan: Yeah, you know, stuff that you get frustrated with in the music industry and things like that. I think the title, even though it's serious, there's a little bit of humor in it. I think it's kind of a bratty thing to say. I'm happy that people responded to that. I feel like a lot of people might feel the same way.
You did a great interview with Robo Robb earlier this month, and you said so many sharply observed things. One thing I found particularly interesting is that you said you don't feel you're part of the hip-hop community and that you take more inspiration from artists like James Brown, Prince and David Bowie. What aspects of what they do have you tried to bring into your own music?
I hate it when they bring up my idols, because I know that I haven't reached their level of talent yet. I don't expect people to hear it right away. I'll start with Bowie. When he writes, he really can pull you into this new world. It's a bit abstract, but it's still tangible, and it pulled out a really strong emotion for me. I also love the fact that he went through so many music styles as his career developed.
I think Prince also does the same thing. He can really travel through different genres really well. I think he has a great understanding of punk, jazz, funk and R&B. I like the way he blends all those things together. I also like how totally bizarre he is and the way he performs. I think [the fact that] someone that bizarre, and who sounds so bizarre, can be so popular is a wonderful thing. I don't know what it is about me, but when I saw Purple Rain, at the age of three, I was a Prince fanatic for life. It just never stopped; it's some genetic make-up or whatever.
James Brown I love, because I love the way he can be extremely political and extremely sexy all at the same time while throwing a dance party. I love his influence on the civil-rights movement and African-American culture. I love the fact that he had a message and that he was raw about it and fun.
One thing I saw that I thought didn't quite encompass what you're about is the genre of "dirty rap" on Wikipedia. Even on your first album, you're about more than that.
That's the thing that frustrates me the most out of everything, and I think I was trying to fight through that on this album. You never know what people are going to respond to. Actually, I do know what people always respond to. People always respond to sex, and they will always respond to profanity. It takes more to actually listen to lyrics and to know where the music is coming from. The music that I choose to rap over is part of the discussion and creativity just as much as the lyrics are.
You have to put more work into figuring out the music, so when people call me "dirty rap," I just think it's a lazy way to put a stamp or a label on it and push it off to the side. It's like everything needs to be in a category. People don't feel comfortable and let something to exist on its own. I use just as many curse words as any other rapper, I think, but I didn't think I'd get tagged that way.
Why did you team up with Allen Cordell for the video for "#1 Hit," and does the imagery and loose storyline of the video relate to the what you're going for with the song?
It was part of the Urban Outfitters video project. The producer at Urban, I guess, asked for three different treatments, and he suggested three different directors. I was really skeptical about the whole project and didn't really where to start. But I saw Allen's treatment and some of his older videos, and thought he just really had a great sense of humor, and he was really creative with building strange characters.
The song itself is really corny. I think it's kind of a generic pop song. Even titling it "#1 Hit," there is a kind of an inside joke that some people have been taking seriously. When you hear the song, you have to make a glossy, shiny video for it. It's the only thing you could possibly do. I just love the fact that we could take the song and bring it into Allen's world.
And I liked how we could make something that was obviously supposed to be materialistic and sexy and turn it into this really gross, bizarre, sad, dark place. Because I think kind of what the song is about is that even though it sounds like a nice clean pop song and it sounds inspiring, it's about the ugliness of attaching yourself to fame or aspiring to be famous.
When you see it not knowing where it's coming from, you think, "Is this a joke?" So it kind of is but kind of isn't?
Right, yeah, it kind of is, but it kind of isn't. I really wanted the song to sound like a good pop song. I really worked hard to make it something that could stand up and maybe be played on the radio. But I think the joke is...I think the song, if someone else had done it, it wouldn't be funny, but coming from me puts it in a different context.
You have what I consider to be a very healthy and well-placed skepticism about nostalgia and romanticizing the past. What got you thinking that way, and what have you done as an artist to avoid the temptation to mine the past for ideas? Certainly Hollywood seems to be recycling movie scripts, so it seems so prevalent in the culture.
It's really easy to say, "I want to make something exactly like this," and imitate things that have happened in the past. It's really difficult to take things that have inspired you and make it into your own thing. I think when people decide not to push a little more and go the extra mile, it affects culture.
If we're constantly imitating the past, we're not paying attention to the things that really affect us day to day, so the music becomes this kind of escapist sort of thing. You put it on just to escape everything around you instead of putting on something that helps you deal with society as it is today. I think that stunts the growth of everyone around us.
It's hard for me to talk about this, because there are definitely moments on the record where you can easily hear my influences. You can easily hear me trying to sound like Prince. But I know I didn't take the easy road. I know it wasn't like, "Okay, well, Prince used this drum, and we have to record it to that, and we have to do the three harmonies that he does."
I didn't take the blueprint and completely imitate it. It was more like me trying to capture the spirit of Prince. I'm trying to sing my heart out here. I feel like Prince does the same thing with his love for James Brown. There are moments where you know Prince is just doing his best James impression, but because he isn't James, it comes out as this weird Prince song.
I like to see people create that way. It's impossible, kind of, to not create that way. We're always inspired by things that happened in the past. But I think because of technology, laziness and how easy it is to make a name for yourself these days. I think people are imitating and putting it out as quickly as possible. It's just uninspiring.
It's also obvious. Every five years, someone will say how a past decade is cool again. So it's like everyone is doing '80s sounds, or everyone is doing '90s now, and they're making music that sounds like *NSYNC. It's just fashion. It's not the way I get down with music. I like my artists to really push themselves to take the things that have happened in the past and turn them into something new.
You have a "song" called "Hennessey Youngman (skit)." What's that song about, and why do you think that pun particular fit as a title?
Oh, so "Hennessey Youngman (skit)" is just my friend Hennessey talking about the album, why is it so long and using his sense of humor. Hennessey is a character one of my close friends created, and he's an art critic. He's an art critic, but he also has some very ghetto tendencies. So if you go to his YouTube page and check out his critiques of fine art and the fine-art system, you'll see why I asked him to say something on my record. I said, "Hennessey, can you please do a skit for me. Just say something on my record, anything you want to say." And he came up with a little joke.
What was it about the lyricism of Jehru the Damaga, Gang Starr and Wu-Tang that had such an impact on your own writing?
I came up in a time when it was really important to be Afro-centric. It was really important as a hip-hop artist to say things in music that could inspire the kids around you to be a little bit more thoughtful and serious and organize a bit. I went to a prep school, too, and my mom and dad were always talking about civil rights and made sure I knew about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Because I went to a prep school, I was clearly the minority there and one of the poor kids that went to the school.
I listened to a lot of Jehru and Gang Starr to help me have the confidence to get through school. I think it's really easy for a poor kid of color to be in a rich society as a minority and get discouraged. I feel like you have to be ashamed of your home life and where I came from. I think that music helped me to be proud of the things I brought to the school.
When I first started rapping in the underground hip-hop scene, I wanted to say really important things. I wanted to say things that were inspiring and conscious. So I was always trying to write like them. I think there are still traces of that in my music today.
You still use the stage name of MC Spank Rock. How did you get involved with being an MC? What was your first involvement with performing in public like?
I had a band in high school. We were kind of cheesy. We sounded kind of like the Red Hot Chili Peppers with a rap over the top of it. We took a lot from Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Qwest and Funkadelic, too. I guess I was fourteen when I performed in front of a crowd. But not a huge crowd, probably like battle of the bands. Something really cheesy. I just used music as a hobby, and I just loved it. I liked performing so much, I didn't even mind being bad at it.
It wasn't until I moved to Philly that I went to open mikes and poetry readings, and they would have bands at the open-mike sessions. The musicians were so amazing, and the singers had amazing voices, too, and the poets and rappers were so amazing, as well.
I thought, "Oh, shit, I have to step my fucking game up if I think I'm going to be a part of this. So I need to just sit down and not perform ever again." I think it wasn't until I got to Philly and saw the talent here that I really put myself out there. So I feel like the real beginning of learning how to perform started with going to open mikes there.
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