Spank Rock Emerges from His Personal Dark Age with an Album That’s Even Darker
It’s nearing 100 degrees one afternoon in July when Spank Rock orders his first frozen margarita from the patio at Life Café, a casual restaurant in New York’s East Village. But even before the tequila hits his bloodstream, Spank Rock (real name: Naeem Juwan) proves to be loquacious and forthcoming, more than willing to discuss the setbacks that tempered the recording of his second album, Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar. (The Baltimore native and Philadelphia transplant is more private about his age, insistent that he’s as “old as the wind,” despite being only in his midtwenties.) Writer’s block, a failed record deal, and depression were just a few of the hiccups.
“I pushed myself so hard and I got some really special moments out of it,” he says of the new album. “But I will forever hear the darkness in it.” It’s difficult to reconcile the meek, soft-spoken man sitting across from me with the spastic performer and wonderfully filthy lyricist behind 2006’s YoYoYoYoYo, Spank Rock’s debut. Clothed in super-skinny black jeans and a loose-fitting tank, his wiry frame and bespectacled face—which appears in this fall’s T by Alexander Wang ad campaign—even give him a slightly nerdy appearance, which dissipates when he chronicles the sequence of events that led him to record his sophomore album. “I was really pissed off that I’d gotten pigeonholed as this sexy, dirty-mouthed rapper,” he says. “I’m not saying that’s not true—but I also put a lot of heavy, interesting content into YoYoYoYoYo and I challenged myself to rap over music that people weren’t trying before.”
Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar debuted last month via Bad Blood Records following a tumultuous three years that nearly ended with a scrapped album. After releasing his Bangers & Cash EP with producer Benny Blanco in 2007, Spank Rock hit a wall, unable to tap into the energy that fueled his debut, an album born out of his frustration with a music scene mired in nostalgia. “Our lives are so different now,” he says. “So why are we still talking about the same issues? I wanted to make music that feels the way I feel now, but people only got excited about the sexy party shit. The songs sound like one thing, but talk about another. I write in circles and maybe that’s why people miss the point in my music.”
This isn’t to say that Spank Rock intends to completely shed his wild-child image—“I could tell you about a party I just went to in London that was really crazy”—but it’s easy to pick up on the bitterness that colors his thoughts. “When you’re an artist, you’re packaged and manufactured and people want you to be only one thing,” he says.
In 2008, weighed down by pressures from his label, Downtown Records, he took up residence in a West Village apartment, but struggled to create music. “I was bummed out,” he admits. “I would leave producers in the studio waiting for me all day and go out all night, running around New York, trying to figure out where I wanted to start.” From there, his deal with Downtown unraveled quickly, leaving him with neither resources nor money. “They dropped me halfway through the writing process, but it would be unjust to be gossipy and point fingers, because the industry is suffering and major labels don’t have time for you to be who you want to be.”
Until now, Spank Rock has been relatively calm, speaking in even tones while doing steady damage to his margarita, but a mention of Atlanta rapper B.o.B.’s debut album gets him riled up, seemingly out of sheer conviction rather than anger. “When I first heard B.o.B, I thought, This kid’s kinda dope. Now I think he’s such a pussy,” he says. (Some critics panned last spring’s B.o.B. Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray as an ultra-pop version of his original textured aesthetic.) At the risk of sounding too jaded, he offers a short summary of the options available to musicians trying to dip their toes into mainstream culture: “Do you want to be a pop star, or do you want to be a musician? I made a decision not to participate in the pop music industry, so it took me longer to put out music. I’m always fighting to get to a point where I think I’m doing something cool enough to share with people. And then, I still have to figure out how to put it out.”
With his record deal a thing of the past, Spank Rock continued to tour overseas with Mark Ronson in support of the Brit’s third album, Record Collection. His luck changed during a fateful encounter in Australia with Berlin-based producer Alexander Ridha, known professionally as Boys Noize. With Ridha’s encouragement, Spank Rock left Philadelphia and flew to Berlin in fall 2010 to complete his album. “It was wonderful to have someone in my corner, not trying to manipulate me, but I was scared to even share anything with him, because everyone said the music I made was shitty,” he says. “I had close friends who told me they were going to help out and then they started working on big, corny pop star music. I started to think something was wrong with me.”
His insecurities, coupled with his unfortunate habit of making producers wait, made the recording process a challenge for Ridha, who until then had never worked with Spank Rock. “He’d come up with the hook for a song in a minute, but then it would take him five weeks to write one word,” Ridha says. “If he wanted to go out to a bar and write, I let him do that, but sometimes I had to say, Let’s stay focused, or you’ll never finish the album.”
In Ridha’s joint studio and apartment space, he and Spank Rock created four original songs and revamped another four tracks on the album (including “#1 hit,” which Ronson helped produce), but the thrill of Berlin nightlife took a definite toll on the pace of his work. “It was his paradise,” Ridha says. “A lot of producers would have kicked him to the curb and taken a holiday, but I was patient and I had hope.”
Two weeks later, I meet Spank Rock again at a low-key listening session for Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar at Painkiller, a tiki bar on the Lower East Side. He abandons his seat at a table surrounded by a group of friends and walks over to find out what I really think of the album. I tell him that the sonic “darkness” he mentioned during our initial meeting is at least partly obscured by his manic flow, delivered over a series of rock-infused, club-friendly electronic beats—and, yes, I liked some of the filthy lyrics.
Spank Rock recently joined Ke$ha (“She’s a fun girl and not a total idiot, which you would expect her to be, given her music”) on a cross-country tour, which also gave him the opportunity to hit the central states. With the album finally out, he feels as if a weight has been lifted off his shoulders, but still, his discontent with pop culture is at an all-time high. “I don’t want to come across as this bitter diva in a cave, but this industry is fucking wack right now,” he says. “We’re oversaturated with musicians reenacting things from the past. The kids in America are fucking fucked because none of their favorite artists are pushing things forward.”
Needless to say, Spank Rock is realistic about what the future might hold for him, and it doesn’t include pop stardom on the level of B.o.B. fame. Instead, he’d rather compare himself to Sonic Youth, the iconic alt-rock outfit who endured living in the shadow of Nirvana for years, only to emerge as a classic band in their own right. “It’s my life, I’m a fucking musician, and no one matters except for me and the people I collaborate with. I’ll keep making music—I just won’t take so long next time,” he says, before ordering another round of drinks.
SPANK ROCK LIKES Lucky Cheng’s.
Photography by Christophe Kutner. Styling by Rich Aybar.