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Destined: Spank Rock

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Dirty hip hop from the East Coast's durty HQ, Baltimore.

Destined: Spank Rock

Download "Put That Pussy On Me" by Spank Rock.

Taking the stage at Luke and Leroy’s, a club in Manhattan’s West Village, this winter, Naeem Juwan appeared out of place. Sporting a dinner jacket and a trimmed, conservative hair cut, Juwan, who performs under the moniker Spank Rock, could have been mistaken as a schoolboy, spiff and clean behind the ears, playing hooky amid the shaggy crowd formed in the club’s atrium. His oversized glasses, whose design suggested the size and shape of a car’s rearview mirrors, only distinguished him further. Gripping a microphone in his right hand—an object which, in his firm grasp, could have been a keepsake or passport—and peering over the assembled crowd, Juwan seemed nothing short of a stranger, lost and searching for something familiar in the engulfing dark space.

The DJ played a record. The bass of a hip-hop song thumped from the speakers and, for a moment, Juwan became recognizable, even reducible to a series of general propositions: Here was another underground rapper, I sighed to myself, some rhyming solipsist who plundered Kanye West’s closet—the proselytizing and mixed metaphors were sure to follow. But as my expectations diminished, the DJ changed course. The bass drum accelerated, the snare skittered, synthesizers bleated. It was rambunctious, and the preceding hip hop beat, which was hardly boring when the DJ first spun it, seemed prosaic in hindsight. Bodies began moving, the club’s air heated and, yet, Juwan stood still, positing himself as a motionless figure in contrast with the shaking melee.

A sampled voice, disembodied and stuttering, suddenly aired a crass and, for at least half of Leroy’s patrons, impossible demand. “P-p-p-put that pussy one me, p-p-p-put that pussy on me” the record beckoned. Upon hearing the salacious aural cue, Juwan broke his stolid pose and jerked his torso to and fro, pecking his head to the DJ’s beat. He began speaking into the microphone in long, staccato rhymes. In the tightness of the club’s space, Juwan’s words, fast and unforgiving, became inaudible—during a song’s crescendo, his voice, a nasal monotone, sounded like the hum and blurting of a kazoo. The scene, coupled with Spank Rock’s hyper music, was confounding yet entertaining, sardonic yet joyous. A playful irony hung in the air like a slowly twirling disco ball.

Perhaps in another rapper’s hands, the performance might have been pornographic, misogynistic, or just plain creepy. Juwan, however, was simply outlandish. Witnessing Juwan, a frenzy of rhymes and contortions, rap atop the overly sexualized song was like watching video feed from a karaoke bar: It seemed like self-conscious imitation, where the affect of appearing like a rapper was more significant than the rapping itself. And whatever sex or sexism was present in the lyrical content of “Put that Pussy on Me” had been checked, like blinders against the sun, by Juwan’s enormous, nebbish glasses. All bifocals and flapping limbs, Juwan seemed incapable of exuding anything genuinely coital. Even his moniker, Spank Rock, was silly beyond the pale of the erotic.

Riding the release of his single “Put that Pussy on Me,” Naeem Juwann has, for the past six months, begun capturing the ears and, perhaps, the groins of hip hop listeners and enthusiasts of Miami bass and Baltimore club, those provincial celebrations of big beats and bigger butts. In light of the general trends in hip hop and club music, however, Juwann is an unconventional success. While hip hop is capable of evoking a range of sentiments, the ability to be ironical has been, on the whole, beyond the genre’s reach. As should be apparent anyone who has been privy to the growing absurdity of hip-hop music videos, there are rappers and DJs—the artiste-auteurs claiming pure authenticity in an art form based on pastiche and sampling, or the autobiographers making fortunes glamorizing poverty left behind long ago—who are certainly ironic. But rarely have rappers admitted to consciously inducing or creating this irony themselves. Any irony has, rather, been left to critics, satirists, and cynical listeners to diagnose ex post facto.

The irony which saturates “Put that Pussy on Me,” and other work by Juwan and his producer and cohort Alex Epton, is of a wholly different nature. “Put that Pussy on Me” is, without a doubt, a self-conscious record. (Even the record’s cover, a crude image of a headless woman, perched forward, jeweled, and clutching her naked rear end, is a visual pun about the sexual roles endorsed by club music.) But “Put that Pussy on Me” is not self-conscious in the way most rappers would use the term. Whereas a so-called “conscious” rapper is aware of the content in his lyrics, and the image it projects, Juwan’s consciousness extends to both content and form—Juwan’s music suggests that he is aware of both his image and the fact that hip hop and club music are capable of eliciting these images in the first place. Juwan’s control over the form of club music in a song like “Put that Pussy on Me” is illustrated by the fact that he has, at once, produced a record that is entirely danceable yet seems to make fun of itself for the song’s entire duration. The song is the stuff of Casanova’ whispers, but in Juwan’s performance, it becomes a bump-and-grand anthem incapable of wearing a straight face. To be clear, though, Juwan is neither a theorist nor conceptual artist, but is an entertainer first and foremost. He just happens to be one with a flair for the ironic.

In the fall, Juwan opened for last year’s wunderkind MIA on her tour of the United States. It was his first time on an extended tour, and he admits that some audience members were stumped by his performance. “I think people are receptive to my sense of humor,” Juwan said in an interview by phone, shortly before New Years. “But some people didn’t get it. When I was on tour with MIA, there were all these girls in the front row, and when they heard the first song would be something like ‘Put that Pussy on Me’—they might not have taken me so seriously.” Yet, for all of the humor in his act, Juwan would hardly call himself a comedian. “I take myself very seriously,” Juwan said. “There are so many more things that go on in my, and everyone else’s, life—it’s not like I wake up and put club music and ‘Put that Pussy on Me’ all day.”

Prior to his incarnation as Spank Rock, Juwan rapped and performed in a more pedestrian fashion. Raised in Baltimore, Juwan moved to Philadelphia after graduating high school in the late 1990’s, and began his career as a more earnest rapper in the vein of Mos Def or the hordes of underground rappers on the Rawkus imprint. Yet Juwan found the austerity of underground hip hop stifling. “I wanted to be completely expressive and cover everything I’ve been going through. I wanted to be more honest,” Juwan explained. “Underground rappers can be too high and mighty on themselves without giving any real human emotions.” Besides an inability to fully express himself, the trappings of underground hip hop—a subgenre whose artists tend evince a singular bravado that flattens, rather than ferments, with age—prevented Juwan from further musical experimentation. In light of “Put that Pussy on Me” and his work with Hollertronix DJ Low Budget on last year’s BMore Gutter Music mixtape, it seems as if Juwan has found that experimental release in music which leans closer to dance music than strict hip hop. But when asked whether he considered himself a club artist or a rapper, Juwan was adamant that he is primarily a hip hop artist.

Juwan cites his continued allegiance to hip hop as an indication that, contrary to whatever humor has been present in his past releases, he is a serious, rather than a satirical, artist. This seriousness, Juwan admits, has been lost in releases like “Put that Pussy on Me.” Yet he promises that his entire persona, encompassing both the ironical and the sincere, will be on display in this spring’s forthcoming LP, Yo Yo Yo Yo Yo, to be released on Ninja Tune’s Big Dada subsidiary. The album, Juwan expectedly proclaimed, will include “the conscious rapper and the booty anthems and everything else in between.” How exactly Juwan’s more serious material will sound, and whether Juwan’s “conscious rapper” material will be genuine or a self-conscious play on underground rap, remains to be seen. In the meantime, we still have Juwan’s more whimsical work which, although ostensibly concerned with women’s bottoms, can be quite heady in its play on hip hop and club music’s norms and conventions.

Learn more about Spank Rock at their website, www.spankrock.net.

By Ben Yaster

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