Naeem | photo by Shane McCauley | courtesy of the artist
Naeem on humble heroes, quarantine creations, and making the highly personal Startisha
Startisha is the newest release from multifaceted Baltimore-born artist Naeem that is both a departure from and growth upon his Spank Rock persona.
Part emotionally raw, part brash and unapologetic, often on the same track, this album is an expansion of the spirit of Spank Rock with room allowed for more emotional freedom and self-reflection. “A lover, freedom fighter, and a ratchet club-rat,” he’s ready to be seen as more than a stage presence.
I got to speak with Naeem about the inspiration of the album title, finishing the album in multiple cities, and filming and releasing music videos during a quarantine.
The Key: Where have you been quarantining?
Naeem: I moved to LA about a year ago. In the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.
TK: Did you move there after the album was finished, or did you have to do any work from LA to solidify mixing and mastering?
N: I think the album was finished by the time I moved here, but we did end up mixing the album here in LA with Damian Taylor. I think I might have still been living in Minneapolis at that point.
TK: I read that some of this album was created in Philly and Minneapolis.
N: Yeah, the majority of the record, like 90% of the record was written in Philadelphia. My two producers who got the Executive Producer credit on the record, Sam Green and Grave Goods. I wrote the album with those two.
TK: You took a lot of the album to Minneapolis with you, and it seemed like there was a lot of collaboration there.
N: Yeah, so, after writing all the songs, my homie Ryan Olsen had been inviting me to Minneapolis a few years prior for a couple music festivals, and me, Sam, and Zach took the album to Minneapolis to get a couple extra sprinkles on it to boost it up a little bit. We spent a lot of time in Wisconsin at Justin Vernon’s studio, and got a chance to collaborate with a bunch of really amazing musicians from the area. Kids like Velvet Negroni, Justin Vernon, some of the bandmates of Polica, Francis and the Lights happened to be hanging around during that time too. Swamp Dogg! All that stuffs happening in Wisconsin at Justin’s spot.
I moved to Minneapolis from Philly knowing that I was going to do finishing touches of the album and I was kind of surprised at how many people ended up being involved in the end product. It was really wonderful because whoever was there at the moment, you know, Justin would be listening to the album and maybe Francis just sitting there playing a little keyboard riff, or maybe Simon is like ‘Yo, lemme tweak some things,’ and he jumps on the computer and comes up with a bunch of different weird electronic sound layers to put on it, or Justin sampling his voice on a little a voice memo. Swamp Dogg was in town for a Wisconsin festival and he was at the studio and Ryan was like “Yo Swamp, we need you to sing this line for us.” It was very unplanned, very organic.
TK: How else did the quarantine effect releasing Startisha and the music videos?
N: Quarantine was a pain in the ass, right?! It was really devastating to me because I had worked on this project for such a long time and so much time has passed and I’m really happy to put it out, then all of a sudden I can’t do any of the normal things to help promote it. But we still wanted to push through. It really was kind of wonderful because it made us get really creative. I don’t think any of the things would have turned out as well as they did.
The “Simulation” video probably wouldn’t have been as interesting if we didn’t have so many constraints, you know? I could only work on it with my boyfriend Scott. We kept thinking big and we kept having to pull back on what we could and couldn’t do. Filming was hard on us, just the two of us carrying equipment, running out of sunlight because we couldn’t work fast enough.
And then the “Woo Woo Woo” video, this idea that Bobby Whigham and Amanda Blank came up with. Bobby was, like, art directing my room and sending me stuff like, “Put this poster there, and put these sheets there, and stack the cans up like this.” Just that whole process of totally flipping my bedroom into this set was so fun and felt so youthful. I think a lot of musicians as old as I am don’t get to experience that excitement anymore.
TK: Damn, hearing that your room was art directed for “Woo Woo Woo” changes a few of my questions. I was going to ask some quick fire questions like Star Wars or Batman?
N: I’m Batman.
TK: I saw the Training Day poster and the DMX poster. DMX or Denzel Washington?
N: Aw man, I fucking love DMX. I gotta choose DMX. I actually saw him when I was living in Philly, I went to a show at the TLA. It was so good. Still one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen.
TK: You had a basketball and a skateboard in the video. Balling or skating?
N: Well, I can’t do either one of those things. I used to play basketball a little bit with the family growing up, so I would choose basketball, even though I wish I was a skater.
TK: Since it looks like we’re not getting our music venues back for a while, what does promoting or performing this album look like for you? Are you thinking of doing any live streaming?
N: I’ve turned down all of the livestream requests. I feel really unprepared and uncomfortable. Even performing into a computer screen for the “Woo Woo Woo” video made me feel really self-conscious, because I’m not one of those people that’s always filming themselves talking into their phone. I would love to do something, but maybe it’s just more important to create new music, and just be happy that this is out in the world and people are listening to it. Just move on to the next thing. I’d rather just see what happens than to force something to happen. I’m just gonna make something new and then maybe the world will open back up. It’s cool to me just being an album, just being listened to. I don’t need to perform.
TK: I listened to the first track “You and I” a few times before realizing that it was a Silver Apples cover. So I had to go back and look up who the Silver Apples were…
N: Damn, you’re a music journalist for WXPN and you don’t know the Silver Apples? Blasphemy!
TK: I knew that was gonna come up. I’m a trumpet player! I could talk to you about some jazz, but the Silver Apples didn’t have a trumpet player.
N: I know nothing about jazz, it’s embarrassing.
TK: Where did the Silver Apples inspiration come from? Because the tracks sound completely different.
N: I learned about the Silver Apples in 2009 of something like that, and I became a big fan. The “You and I” song is not one of my favorite songs by them, but I was really grabbed by the lyrics. For some reason that day the song reminded me of a James Brown song on acid. So I started imagining James Brown singing it with the JB Band playing it properly. I don’t think James Brown would have sung this song fast, I think he would have sung it slow like “Try Me” or “Please Please Please.” So, I wanted to remake it like James Brown.
TK: I hear that. Your voice on that track gave me a bit of a Bilal feel.
N: That’s amazing. Bilal is one of the greatest singers alive. I know I can’t sing as well as him, but that’s good to hear. I definitely am influenced by Prince a lot, so I enjoy trying to do a little falsetto and be brash about it. I’m sure Bilal is pretty influenced by Prince as well.
TK: Who isn’t? I see a lot of Prince shoutouts on your social media mixed in with a lot of reading of James Baldwin. Are you going back to any James Baldwin books now?
N: I learn about Baldwin pretty late in life. The first book I read of his was Giovanni’s Room. Then I read, but didn’t complete, If Beale Street Could Talk. I read some interviews from when he was older, living out in France. I recently read Fire Next Time. I watched the documentary (I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO). He’s a really important figure to me. I was really upset that I was very familiar with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but had no clue who James Baldwin was until some fucking hipster in New York told me about him when I was like 25.
Him being queer and atheist during the civil rights movement, him being an ex-pat, then deciding to come back, document and give commentary on the the civil rights movement. He’s the most important thinker in America. I guess he might have been a little bit before his time. I do think about the things he says, and the way that he looks at life, a lot. I try to write that way. James Baldwin’s influence on me is probably most obvious on “Tiger Song,” but of course I’m not as poignant as him, so it might have been a swing and a miss. Yeah, “Tiger Song” is the most Baldwinesque.
TK: You’ve talked about the album title, Startisha, in other interviews, but why does that name stick out to you?
N: She represents a lot of women in Baltimore for me. Such big energy, you know, women that are very full of life. Very unafraid, silly, funny. I think the important thing about using her name as the title of my album is really just to show how important black women have been in my life without really getting the credit they deserve. Growing up in Baltimore, my family was the only family on the block, amongst our friend group, that had a dad living at home. The strength and hardwork and organization of black women is what caused a lot of us to survive, and I want to just scream it as loud as I can.
I also thought it was really cool to, you know this is someone that I don’t really have a friendship with anymore, I probably haven’t seen her since I was 13. It’s not a love story. I think a lot of times in our lives we focus on our first loves, or we focus on role models, or who we want to be when we grow up. Michelle and Barack. Jordan or Janet Jackson. But I was really surprised by the fact that I had this urge to focus on just one of the normal players in life. And I think that’s really important to show how much power the everyday person has and how much they can affect us and change the way we view the world forever.
TK: Going along with this conversation about names, this is your first release under your own name. What can you do as Naeem that you couldn’t as Spank Rock?
N: First of all Spank Rock is my nigga. That was the best time of my life. I’ve never felt more powerful, I’ve never felt more a part of a scene, then when we were performing that music. Every show was just like magic. Putting out music under Naeem was not something that I was really excited to do. Not putting music out as Spank Rock almost made me feel like a failure in some sort of way, you know, resigning that name.
I didn’t make this change being like “Oh, fuck this, I gotta move on and do something new.” I, personally, was very comfortable putting out music as Spank Rock but I think what happened was that for whatever reason, mostly poor music journalism, I got pigeonholed into the audience and the media only expecting one thing from me. I saw that, once I tried to shift the conversation to be a little bit more thoughtful, the value of the brand — and I didn’t even know I was a brand, that’s how naive I am — the value of the brand started to drop.
So, my hope is that putting out music as Naeem, the audience will realize that I’m just an average living person and my thoughts and ideas change daily by how the world affects me. So, not to view me as a commodity, but view me as a living being. I hope that’s what putting out music under my own name allows me to do.
TK: It feels like under Naeem there’s nothing you can’t do. There are still bangers, but there are also these more intimate love songs.
N: And to be honest, I think Spank Rock could do that. I would have allowed Spank Rock to do that. I think that, you know, consumerism is a bitch. Like, we’re artists trying to tell real stories, give a little piece of ourselves, then all of a sudden we treat it like it’s a very cheap commodity. I don’t know, I think that to me Spank Rock is just as much of a lover, freedom fighter, and a ratchet club-rat. I would have allowed him to be all those things. I guess, maybe it’s easier for people to understand the duality when it’s just the name that my parents gave me.
TK: The last question is more of a request. If you talk to Amanda Blank soon, let her know that her verse on “Woo Woo Woo’ was fire!
N: Ha ha, I definitely will. Man, I fucking hate rapping with her because she shows me up every single time, like, no matter how hard I try, she always destroys me. I’ll definitely tell her. She’ll be happy to hear that.