Photo: Shane McCauley
Naeem Talks New Album 'Startisha,' Creativity In Quarantine And The Need For Change In America
For Naeem, his newest album, Startisha, is a rebirth in more ways than one.
Sure, it's technically a debut album: It's his first LP under his birth name, but his third full-length overall. Prior to Startisha, the Baltimore-born rapper spent more than a decade pissing off parents as Spank Rock, the party-starting, sexually explicit artist who's rhymes could make Luke Campbell and the 2 Live Crew blush.
Startisha is a hard pivot for the rapper born Naeem Juwan. The genre-bending album, released this month (June 12) on 37d03d, places sonic experimentation at the fore, while Naeem's deepest thoughts and personal memories form the project's core.
On "Stone Harbor," he sings about his love for his boyfriend, while the album's title track, named after a neighborhood buddy, sees Naeem reflecting on the friends he's lost over the years.
Then there's "Simulation," the album's debut single, which features Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and soul/R&B singer Swamp Dogg. The track's trunk-rattling bass, mixed with its sparse drums and spacey production, creates a hypnotizing effect that allows Naeem's piercing lyrics and warped raps to penetrate your psyche.
"They cutting funding / Locking up children and banning books / While I'm popping bottles with dope boys that bottom / Till we shoot our babies like Sandy Hook / No truth to be found anywhere we look," he raps on the psychedelic single.
"It was something I was really on the fence about," Naeem tells the Recording Academy about releasing Startisha under his birth name. "So much time passing by kind of made it clear to me that maybe I would feel a little bit more free and light-hearted about putting out music and also about sharing new parts of myself and writing more personally if the record came out as Naeem."
The album comes during the era of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced Naeem to push his creativity while under quarantine restrictions. (He and his boyfriend filmed the socially distanced music video for "Simulation" at home, while the visual for album single "Woo Woo Woo" unfolds like a Zoom video meeting at the club.) "I'm really excited that being quarantined forced me and my friends to really trust one another and work hard," he says.
Startisha also drops as the U.S. nears its third week of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice in response to the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black U.S. citizens by police. Naeem, who's remained vocal on social media about the issues impacting the country right now, says politics has "always been part of my songwriting."
"I've always been extremely political and very concerned with the way people are treated," he says. "I'm extremely concerned with the way that America needs to continue to perfect itself and the world needs to continue to perfect itself. I'm angry a lot of the times."
The Recording Academy chatted with Naeem to discuss the organic collaborations and personal journey behind Startisha, his newfound approach to creativity while in quarantine and the necessary steps to address America's social unrest.
This interview, edited for clarity and brevity, is composed of two separate interviews; a follow-up interview was conducted in the wake of the nationwide protests.
You recorded the album across the U.S.: Philadelphia, New York. You even went to Justin Vernon's home studio in Minneapolis. What role does location or setting play in your creativity, particularly when you are writing a new album or new music?
Location played an especially big part in this time around because I wasn't considering time and I wasn't being guided by my own solo ambitions. The whole practice of this album was opening myself up to the process of writing and the process of collaboration. I wanted to make it feel really good to me. I wanted music writing to feel really special to me and to the friends I was making it with. So I really did take my time to consider environment, and let the environment have an impact on me, and my collaborators have an impact on me …
Then we were doing extra production in Wisconsin with Justin and getting some more collaborators on the album like Swamp Dogg or Velvet Negroni. That environment, Minneapolis as a city, had a big impact on me. Eau Claire, Wis., in Justin's studio space ... it's just charged with this energy that I think a lot of people feel comfortable and safe at. And that played a really big part in making collaboration happen really quickly.
So those environments were really important because sometimes we'd be in Wisconsin and it's just freezing and just tons of snow out. Trapped inside, you get to really focus and feel a camaraderie because everyone's kind of going through this tough climate. I had time to really let the environment to really sink in and sit in all these different places that I worked on the album at, and it did have effect on me.
This is your debut album under your birth name. Why was it important for you to release this specific album, this specific body of work as Naeem?
It was something I was really on the fence about ... So much time passing by kind of made it clear to me that maybe I would feel a little bit more free and light-hearted about putting out music and also about sharing new parts of myself and writing more personally if the record came out as Naeem. Something that I wasn't really aware of was how much of a brand you become. I never really thought about branding; I just always made whatever I wanted to make because I felt alive and this is what was coming out of me.
There were moments where I felt like the people's perception of the Spank Rock brand, they didn't want to give me room to grow or change or present any different ideas. That's unfortunate because I thought that Spank Rock was representing freedom and anarchy and just like this kind of burlesque sort of spirit that allowed a lot of people to feel free in and witness things that they may not have witnessed before or thought about things in a different way than they thought before. But at the same time, I had still been trapped in people expecting a certain sound or vibe from me. The closer and closer this new album became to be completed, it became more clear to me that I would feel better if I was able to represent myself instead of a moniker.
Also, a lot of Spank Rock stuff was made with really close friends of mine from Baltimore High School; those people aren't really in my creative circle anymore, and so the feeling and music is different—a little bit different. And I wanted to respect that, too.
Did you go into the album knowing it was going to be from Naeem? Or did you go into it thinking it was going to be a Spank Rock album?
I went into it thinking I was making another Spank Rock album. Because I gave myself time to create it, there was just a lot of conversations that [were] happening between me and other musicians or artists that I'm close with, just talking about the process of what I'm doing and expectations and fears. By the time, the album was completed—the writing of it was completed—I felt like it was clear to me that I should put it out as Naeem.
Do you feel any pressure or any sort knowing the album going to release under your birth name rather than another Spank Rock album? Does it feel different?
No, I really did put in a lot of work to not feel any pressure at all. That was the point of completing this album was to relieve myself from a lot of pressure that I felt. And I'm really happy that I did all the things I needed to do to remove myself and the pressure. I just like feel so fortunate that I'm able to put out another album ... I'm in this space right now where there's no pressure. The only pressure I feel is creative pressure. The only pressure I feel is to live up to a standard that I personally have: What a music video looks like or what a live show looks like or what my new music that I'm writing now will end up turning out. But no social pressure, I really worked really hard to remove that.
Do you think the fans of Spank Rock are going to understand what you're trying to do on Naeem?
Spank Rock is [from] 2006. So much time has passed that I think that the fans of Spank Rock, their lives are completely different than what they were in 2006. I feel like they probably are interested in seeing what I'm making now. I don't think they have a fanatical attachment or [are] like, "I can't wait to f**king do Molly and bounce my ass to Spank Rock." I don't think my fans are like that, they're probably like changing diapers or some sh*t.
Speaking of your Spank Rock days, you've always tried to take rap music and hip-hop culture on multiple left turns. You've always mixed rap with electronic and other genres. Your previous album, 2011's Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a F**king Liar, featured production from both Boys Noize and Mark Ronson. Is it important for you to keep mixing things up, sonically and artistically, throughout your career?
I think it seems to be like a pattern of what I'm drawn to. I think that happens because the music that I listen to, all my favorite artists seem to make music that way. My favorite artist being Prince, I imitate the way that he mixes genres together a lot. My other favorite artist being [David] Bowie, I'm influenced by the way he mixes genres together. And I'm also influenced by the way they try to reinvent themselves or stay ahead of trends. That's something that I push for and hopefully can get better at to become.
You initially did not want any guests on the album. That shifted after you started showing some of the early album demos to your friends and collaborators. Was there a moment or a reason when you changed your mind about allowing collaborators on the album?
It was really the leadership of [producer] Ryan Olson ... and being a part of his world and him introducing me to so many different artists in Minneapolis and me spending a long period of time there—the city and the way that they collaborate with one another and work together started influencing the record. And it just happened really organically, just because that's the way they were making music ... I didn't ask for any of the collaborations, I think.
You're rapping about some heavy stuff on this album. You talk about Sandy Hook, banning books, cutting government funding. Have you gone this deep before in your music? Or is this a new frontier for you?
Politics has always been part of my songwriting. I think that was one of the things I was frustrated with in the way that public and the press wanted to perceive Spank Rock, because I was trying to write music the way that James Brown writes music or the way that Prince writes music where it's dance music, but it's still political; that's always how I write music. I think I just was doing a bad job of letting some of that stuff shine in the era of the Spank Rock stuff. I think it was getting lost in the production, how fast-paced the music was.
But no, I've always been extremely political and very concerned with the way people are treated. I'm extremely concerned with the way that America needs to continue to perfect itself and the world needs to continue to perfect itself. I'm angry a lot of the times.
In what specific ways do you think America needs to continue to "perfect itself"?
Racism is at the root of every problem in America. The decision of Brown vs. Board Of Education caused a reaction from white Americans that fueled every negative thing about this country today, from anti-abortion movements to [the] privatization of schools to redlining real estate to biased AI and [face-]recognition technologies.
I believe the only reason why America has yet to pass universal healthcare is because white Americans are afraid of being a part of an integrated healthcare system. There needs to be a movement of honesty and integrity in white American culture.
How can the country improve on some of the injustices causing the national social unrest happening right now?
It's extremely simple: Hold people accountable. For example, if a police officer murders an unarmed innocent civilian, convict that officer for murder.
You've been using your platform to voice your opinion and stance on many timely topics. You're pushing to defund the police, for example, and you're also encouraging fans and listeners to donate to Campaign Zero, which works toward ending police brutality in America. How can artists and everyday music fans use digital tools and social media to spread useful information in a meaningful, impactful way?
I struggle with how effective social media is to make real change. It's very difficult to have civil disagreements on social media, so I would encourage people to build IRL relationships with community organizations. Finding factual information is difficult on social media, and I've found myself regretting a few things I've shared because I didn't take the time to fact-check it. However, fundraising seems to work wonders, and Instagram has a super-simple register-to-vote sticker that I think everyone should be [messaging to] their friends right now.
The music industry recently initiated a social media initiative and industry-wide blackout, dubbed #TheShowMustBePaused, as a response to the racism and inequality within the wider music biz. Did you participate?
I didn't participate because of the urgency to defund and reform the police. I would have participated if the black square was a receipt for a donation, a call to a politician's office, a petition signed, or a new person registered to vote.
The social unrest and protests happening across the nation are clearly reaching people everywhere. What are some methods, tactics or approaches that artists, labels and music companies and entertainment corporations can initiate to turn the widespread momentum into lasting impact or change?
Donate money to local organizations that do the hard work of researching, organizing, protesting and supporting people in our communities who have the most need. Educate young music fans about the importance of voting, and work closely with voter registration and turnout campaigns.
You're wearing a face mask in your music video for "Simulation." The video for "Woo Woo Woo" looks like a very lit Zoom call. What has this quarantine lockdown done for your creativity?
I think it's been a blessing in some sort of ways, because having these restraints on what you can do really pushes your creativity. So me shooting the "Simulation" video ... we had to take a lot of time and sit [and think], "What can we actually pull off just the two of us? Is this too much? Can we actually get this shot?" [There were] a lot of things that we wanted to capture that we didn't capture.
The "Woo Woo Woo" video, putting faith and trusting your friends was really awesome. I think it was something I really needed to do at this point in time because sometimes your ambitions make you overlook the talent that's all around you. I'm really excited that being quarantined forced me and my friends to really trust one another and work hard.
The album opens with a cover of the Silver Apples song "You And I," which talks about not making time for the little things. With the world in quarantine, we're all now supposed to have this free time on our hands for exactly that: all the little things. Since being in quarantine, have you found or made time for these little things that we often ignore?
I don't like being pushed around by this world. I don't think it's set up right, so I don't participate the way other people feel the need to participate. But what is disappointing to me is when I watch friends and family not take the time, when I sit and watch friends and family not question why society is set up this way or not question why they're depressed all the time, or not question why you have low self-esteem or these other things. I'm always questioning our institutions, I'm always questioning government. I'm always taking time to myself and taking time to enjoy being alive.
I don't think accumulating a mass amount of wealth is something I should be driving myself to the ground for. I don't know for a fact that we are reincarnated or I don't know for a fact that I will be here again. If I have to deal with this really embarrassing existence of being human, this really disappointing way of being alive, I'm going to take time to enjoy it. When I heard that Silver Apples song, I was just like, "This is an important poem for people to hear." Stop being pushed around by these people who are just trying to take all of your energy, these people trying to take all of your attention. They're sucking money out of us—for what? We decide to participate in that world; we don't have to do that. I just always decide not to do it, as much as I can.
Now that Naeem is born and out into the world, is Spank Rock dead?
There was a Hollertronix reunion party in Philly a few years ago [in 2018] where I decided to make a memorial feature for Spank Rock and just killed him off. I don't even see how that could exist right now.