If you’re at Little Miss Whiskey’s on H Street NE this Saturday night, the headlining DJ will be Spank Rock, an artist-as-underground culture legend who will probably drop a record or two that he recorded himself that changed the future of both pop music and the music industry. The artist born Naeem Juwan in Baltimore has worked with Grammy Award-winning 18-time global Billboard #1 hit-maker Benny Blanco on his groundbreaking, 2007-released Bangers and Cash EP to acid-techno wizard Boys Noize on latest 2014 EP The Upside. Diplo, Mark Ronson, M.I.A., Armand van Helden and Santigold dot his storied career, too.
If wanting a sense of what makes him an instantaneously iconic name upon mention to music aficionados in-the-know, it’s his honesty and trust in his creative process, both of which are showcased in the name of his 2011 album from Bad Blood Records, Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is A Fucking Liar. Speaking about that, along with his thoughts about fellow underground legend and creative partner Amanda Blank, pop music at-present, DJ culture and what he now wants out of his career, this is a conversation as deep as it is far-reaching. Hopefully, this will provide surprises, reflections and laughs along the way. Enjoy!
Ten-plus years into a career, is [your career] all you were expecting from music when you started out?
Well, I ask this because with some artists, it’s like, you have ostentatious career dreams, and with others, it’s like “[you] just wanted to make really great music.” At some point, you either exceed your expectation or fall a little short and have to reconfigure your goals. I just wanted to get a sense of where you were at in regards to this?
It’s like, I don’t know. I think artists have a big personal responsibility, and I think that people who bring new ideas into culture also have a great responsibility because no one can tell you what’s going to happen, you’re always taking a risk. Whether it’s positive or negative…well, it’s usually both happening at the same time…something really great is happening while something really terrible is happening. It’s hard. [Being a musician] is definitely not what I expected. It’s awesome and I’m still happy and blown away by the impact I’ve made with my music but there’s still so much more I want to do. This lifestyle is crazy!
Yeah man! I look at your career and you’ve worked with a litany of artists, producers and people who literally made [what was then, and now] the future of music happen. So, when you hear one of these [futuristic] productions, what’s going on in your head when you’re thinking about creating something on a song that might progress the expectation of where the sounds being made in the music industry are headed?
I’m always trying to do something that maybe I haven’t done before. I try to not make everything sound exactly the same, so there’s always some surprises on the things that I put out. I hope that each time that someone can hear something a little bit new. I try to challenge myself to do something different. The cool thing about my most recent EP is that it’s the same thing that was cool about the [well-regarded and 2006-released] Bangers and Cash EP. Bangers and Cash was done completely with Benny Blanco, and this one was started down in New Orleans with my friend Kid Kamillion, and we did the bulk of it there with him. The energy [for the latest EP] came from one specific collaboration. I didn’t have some kind of mastermind plan, it was really about Benny Blanco and Kid Kamillion giving me the time to create a solid piece of work that reflected where the two of us wanted to go at that moment. We had the time to not feel rushed, to get to know each other and shit like that. We weren’t like “Yo! We’re going to make music “just like this,” and make the “next big thing,” it was more like what we were feeling at that time.
You worked with [German acid house/techno producer] Boys Noize on The Upside EP, which for those familiar with your sound might stand out like, “oh, shit, that’s different?!?!” How was the process of working with him? What went into it, and are you happy with “Gully,” the track you did together?
Yeah, the cool shit about working with Boys Noize is that he’s one of the rare producers who will let you be yourself. Sometimes I’ll link up with people and they’re like, “I am so excited to work with you.” Then we get into the studio and they’re like, “I want you to do something like ‘this.'” So, I’m like, “do you want to work with me, or do you want to work with the other artist you referenced?” Working with Boys Noize, from the beginning it was all about creating a space where I could do whatever I wanted to. The outcome was great because we captured the right spirit. It’s all about capturing the spirit that’s in the room at that time. Like, it’s creating energy, and if you do it right and you capture the energy in that room it’s always locked in there. I’m happy to work with [Boys Noize] and it never feels like we’re trying.
Your 2011-released LP is entitled Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is A Fucking Liar. Is that still true?
I mean, I don’t even know if it was true at the time I said it! But it’s definitely a real feeling. I guess now I still think that everyone’s a liar, but it would be a different thing now. The statement would still be just as critical of society, but I think I might be focusing in on something else.
Well, I had to ask because when the album dropped, it really was a cool statement because it made everyone stop and question everything. I think in a lot of ways that culture makes things artificial at some point. I started off as a music writer covering Baltimore club, and to see how that’s extrapolated into EDM, and it all feels like a move from the organic to the artificial…
I hear you, but I think you should rephrase what you’re saying because it’s not culture that makes everything artificial, it’s capitalism that makes everything artificial…
It’s specifically capitalism that takes natural moments of expression and culture within groups of people in society and makes them artificial. It’s capitalism.
Right. Underground to me always feels exciting and somewhat based in truth, and when you look at culture that’s “boring” and “lying,” that’s not-so underground. I think your album title was important because it speaks to so much of what’s happened in this last decade of our lives.
I think back now on when I said that and there was so much wonderful music being made that I was inspired by, and always artists that made me question “how are they able to do that, to create a thing that nobody else is doing that sounds so unique?” I think that what became boring about it all is that we started faking so much. We started putting images up on the Internet [that weren’t honest]. I remember going to parties and that shit would not be poppin’, there were like ten people in there and nobody was dancing or having fun. Then the next day, you see all of these dope photos on the Internet! I’m like, “that’s not the party I went to!” That’s when I knew that people were literally faking the spirit. Now we have a culture of people more interested in the image than the spirituality of underground culture. So, that’s where “everything is boring and everyone’s a liar” comes from. And it’s still happening!
No doubt. So I wanted to ask you also about Amanda Blank. I’m happy that “Assassin” was on The Upside as I believe her voice and spirit is missing from music and culture right now. I wanted to ask you about her legacy, working with her, being friends and having her around in your creative process?
Amanda is the fucking truth. There’s very few people in my life where I’m like, “oh shit, this is a force of nature that you can’t move.” She’s an institution, and she was an institution even before she started making music. Like, when she got on my first album and did a verse, she had never recorded anything before. I saw her rapping on a street corner or whatever, and she wasn’t even taking it seriously. She was drunk and she was with her friends outside of the club. I was like, “she could be on my record.” I wasn’t like, trying to be Puff Daddy. I was like, she’s in my scene in Philly, and I’m making a Philly rap record on this indie label.
Before [Amanda] was making music, she was like, an institution. Like, if Amanda was at the party you were at the right party. If you ran into Amanda out or at a party, it was like some shit was going to pop off. You knew that like, you would go home after a memorable night. Her and her crew, and the energy she brought was everything. She was true to herself, honest and fierce. I agree with you. I think that her energy is something that is missing from culture and music right now. We have a lot of artists right now who put so much time and effort into looking a certain way and have people help them write their raps and produce their songs so they can do things that Amanda has already done.
That’s how I feel. Honestly, when I started going out in 2008, it was made apparent to me that Amanda Blank had set the archetype. It’s crazy for me now when I look at new artists now, and yep, there’s Amanda still setting the archetype!
Right! Like, every single alternative or mainstream female pop star, rapper or whatever who has an “edge” to them has completely copied her style since 2006. It’s funny how a decade can pass and people are still trying to imitate her.
I remember seeing Amanda play a show in D.C. at the Rock and Roll Hotel, and as underground artists, we don’t expect much from our shows and audiences, so we get really excited when we see people having a good time. The show was packed, and there were these four girls standing in the front row singing every lyric. They were like, tearing up and I’m like, “oh my God.” We need real emotional responses from audiences right now. We need a strong and secure woman with a big voice who can say things that are raw and honest and be swaggy about it and be punk about it. The one thing that a lot of artists didn’t take from Amanda was that riot grrl feeling and emotion. They took all of the topical stuff. Let’s just rap about pussy and dress scantily clad. They didn’t go through the whole story and get the strength that it takes to be Amanda, that straight-up “fuck you” attitude that Amanda has that makes Amanda as special as she is. All of these new people are scooping the foam off the latte and not getting to the real shit!
So, as far as you right now musically, are you working on new material? What’s inspiring you? Where’s your head at regarding your music?
I’ve been letting producers take the forefront. I’ve been trying to meet the right young producers that are coming up that have a vision and a voice. I used to say, “I want to sound exactly like this, and I know exactly what I want to do,” but now I’m letting producers take the forefront and just offer them the right top-lines and song ideas. I just want to talk about love and bring in a lot of ideas that people are not talking about right now in the culture. Like, rappers right now are being redundant in what they’re talking about and what they’re presenting to the world. I feel like they’re saying the same things that have been said since hip-hop began. However, our culture is now extremely different.
I think technology has advanced capitalism so much that it makes consumerism go so fast that it’s hard for artists to keep up with it. It forces artists to create stereotypes of themselves just to commodify themselves quicker. Say you have a conscious rapper, or somebody who’s like an alternative rapper bringing something political or culturally relevant. It sounds like they’re talking about and creating from sounds that make it sound like we’re stuck in a world in the 1960s or 1970s. It sounds like they’re talking about the black experience from back then. I think that the black experience and the hip-hop experience at this time is way more complex than that. I also think society is way more complex than that, too. There’s a lot of things that young people are not talking about regarding technology and how they relate to each other. That’s not being discussed. It may look like it’s being discussed, but it’s still being seen through the same existing stereotypes and tropes of what it means to be young in America. I think we’re missing out on a lot of stuff.
I totally agree. So, you’re DJing this weekend at Little Miss Whiskeys, which ties into a question I want to ask you about your career. What’s the most specific “eureka” moment you had at a party that you want to attempt to try to record onto a record? Like, that one moment when you were at a party and you knew you wanted to professionally be around music forever? Is there a way to even record that? If so, what would it be and why? There’s a whole new era of kids entering into party culture, so what do you think needs to exist on a record to ensure that they stay around for the long haul?
Ummm…damn that’s a tough question because every time I think about those moments in the past, the influences never just came from one direction. That energy came from everyone in the building. I mean, the DJ had to be bold enough to play different music and the party kids being confident enough to wear something that everybody else wasn’t wearing. Also, I mean, me and my crew used to hit the dance floor first, so we’d be happy to be the first people on the dance floor. That was really important. All of those elements had to come together, so it’s difficult to say. I just know that it was coming from a lot of different places.
It was a group of people, not just one direction or person. I don’t think I could step into a club and just offer the experience that I was having when I was coming up! I don’t know man, I was hanging out with a lot of weird people. We didn’t have like, cell phones and apps that allowed us to like, record shows and take photos of ourselves, so a lot of our entertainment involved fucking with people and being obnoxious. Sometimes it took throwing a drink on somebody, locking somebody in a bathroom and doing something real wild. It was all about jumping up onstage with the person who was performing. It was way more interactive and we didn’t have so much to distract us from actually really interacting with each other. Am I answering this question right?
Yeah! You are! I mean, it’s an open ended question. Your experience is different than say, a big room DJ who’s separated from people because of a stage, barricade, money, power and influence from the people. The club experience they’re providing in a track is certainly different from yours…
Right! I’ll just say this. Before all of the homies that are big DJs now were big names, the parties they were DJing were doper because people weren’t looking at them and were listening to the music instead. The parties were better. The music was better, the selections were more creative. The festival sound is built around people who have expectations. You know when the drop is coming, the sounds are very similar, and it’s a very regimented thing. I don’t think that music has really advanced in years. A lot of it all sounds the same as it always has. I miss the days when DJs were icons who played music that went different places, people could dance with each other and not stare at the DJ. Ideally, the DJ is in a dark room somewhere and the music is just fucking playing. You can’t see the DJ’s fucking haircut! If I could give anything to kids today, I would remove a lot of the hoopla around the DJ. I’d get the DJ off the stage, put them in a black box and let the music play.