Naeem Juwan first made his mark in the mid-2000s as a Philadelphia-based rapper out of Baltimore who was known for ribald rhymes delivered at a mile-a-minute pace. Back then, and until recently, Juwan was known as Spank Rock, an appropriate name for a transgressive party starter.
Frequently paired off with Philly’s equally risque Amanda Blank, he collaborated with German electronic producer Boys Noize and toured with Diplo, as well as mavericks like M.I.A. and Philadelphia pop synthesist Santigold.
In 2006, Juwan made a sensational Spank Rock entrance with his debut album, YoYoYoYoYo, following it up in 2011 with the less well-received Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a F- Liar.
Now, after a nine-year absence, Juwan is back with Startisha (37D03D ***), a new album that expands his musical range and teams him with unexpected collaborators like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and country-soul cult hero Swamp Dogg.
Startisha, named after a childhood friend, is Juwan’s most personal album, so he chose to release it under his own name. He’s now known simply as Naeem.
“I had to remove a lot of stuff in my head so I could have the confidence to make this album,” says Juwan, speaking from Los Angeles, where he lives with his boyfriend, Scott Ross, who directed the socially distanced videos for Startisha’s “Simulation” and “Woo Woo Woo.”
“The music industry is really, really tough,” says Juwan, who sings as well as raps on Startisha. “Just that feeling of being really valued and then having no value, in the blink of an eye. It’s confusing, and there’s so much pressure to conform or follow trends.”
Juwan, 39, grew up in the working-class West Baltimore neighborhood listening to his mother’s David Bowie, Elton John, and Parliament-Funkadelic records, as well as the frenetic dance music subgenre known as Baltimore club.
In 2000, he moved to Philadelphia to go to Drexel University. He dropped out after a year but met early Spank Rock partner Alex Epton, who had the brainstorm for Juwan to rap over warp-speed Baltimore club beats. “I didn’t think that was possible,” he remembers, laughing.
Disillusioned with the music business after Everything, he began working four years ago on what would become Startisha, seeking a fresh start. Noah Beresin, the producer who was formerly one-half of the Drexel-born hip-hop duo Chiddy Bang, pointed him toward young Philly producers Sam Green and Grave Goods.
Most of Startisha was recorded in Philadelphia, including the self-assured “Stone Harbor,” an unabashedly pop love song written for Ross, whose family vacations in that Jersey Shore town.
In 2017, Juwan performed at the Eaux Claires Festival in Wisconsin, striking up a friendship with Vernon that led him to move to Minneapolis to work on Startisha at the Bon Iver leader’s studio.
The song “Naeem” on Vernon’s 2019 album i,i is named for Juwan. “It’s a bit of mystery,” says Juwan, “because I won’t ask him about it. It’s an honor, coming from a good friend who has been really inspiring and encouraging to me.”
Juwan lived in Minneapolis for a year and a half. He collaborated with Vernon associates like Francis and the Lights and 78-year-old iconoclast Swamp Dogg, with whom he has become close. Startisha’s “Simulation,” about creating your own alternate reality, was influenced by “Synthetic World,” from the 1970 Swamp Dogg album Total Destruction To Your Mind.
As Startisha progressed, Juwan realized that he was leaving Spank Rock behind. “By the time we got working on the album, nothing Spank Rock was happening. All my friends who were around for the Spank Rock records, it was a totally different group of people.” (The exception is Blank, who is featured on “Woo Woo Woo.”)
“So it just felt good to shed that brand of whatever Spank Rock means to people and present myself as myself. Hopefully that gives me the room to be more agile in the future. I want to be able to make whatever I want to make and not be attached to anyone’s expectations.”
While working on Startisha, Juwan read Lewis Hyde’s 2008 cultural study, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art. It helped him think critically about the role he was playing as Spank Rock.
“The trickster is a character that rearranges the world,” he says. “It’s always important to question people in power, and institutions. ... As a minority, there’s so little opportunity to see yourself in your superheroes, to have someone to look up to. People who’ve been awarded often don’t look like us, or come from where I come from.
“So it’s really important to have tricksters around to say, ‘That is all fake.’ Those images of what it looks like to be successful can always be rearranged.”
Watching Black Lives Matter protesters attempt to rearrange the world after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police “gave me a lot of anxiety” at first, he says. But “it’s been amazing to see America go through all these emotions — frustration and anger, and then peace."
Following the Philadelphia demonstrations from Los Angeles made him homesick. “I miss it so much,” he says. "It’s like no other place in the world. The Los Angeles protests got attention for a minute. But I was following Philadelphia Twitter. That was way more exciting for me.”
But if Spank Rock was a trickster, Naeem is not.
“When I was younger, that was the way I was practicing self-expression. And it wasn’t until I read the book that I realized that this album is not about me rearranging the world. ... It’s about me focusing on myself and long-lasting ideas like love.”