Interview by Black Dog Bone
Photo by Jorge Moreno
When you listen to your own music and compare it to other music that’s popular right now, how do you feel?
Music takes so many different forms. You have music that is very commercial and the major labels want to make a lotta money off of it. In order to do that you have to make music that’s easy going. You have to make music that anyone can get into. Then you have music that real artists make, where people put their life and their ideas into their music. Almost like some kinda religion. We work on this music and we’re constantly creating it, constantly trying to make this product. Hopefully people will like it, but mostly it’s just for us, just for the people around us. It’s more like a cultural thing. I never really know, just because I think one of my songs doesn’t mean everyone else is gonna think it’s good. I get frustrated sometimes.
The reason I’m asking is because I listen to so much music, but when I got your record I was so excited. I keep telling people to check the new Spank Rock album out.
Why is it more exciting than the other stuff that’s coming out?
I feel like there’s a lot of guts in it. And I can tell that you’re having a great time doing it. There’s an honesty about it. Your vocals don’t sound like anyone I’ve heard before. You don’t have a typical rap vocal sound. It’s something never heard before.
I try to sound like myself. I don’t wanna sound like anyone else. That’s the cool thing about Hip Hop. My favorite era of Hip Hop was probably late eighties to early nineties when you had so many different rappers and they all had their specific style. When you listen to all of those records they were all good. None of them sounded the same. That’s what I know about Hip Hop. Hip Hop is supposed to be about the individual. So I hope my music doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. It’s not supposed to.
It’s a phenomenal record. I don’t think you have realized it.
I don’t know. I know there are spectacular moments to this album that I’m really proud of. Like my first album, it came out and it took people about two years to start paying attention to it. Then this one comes out and critics are saying like, “It’s been 5 years since his groundbreaking debut album came out.” And I’m like, that album wasn’t groundbreaking. When it came out no one cared about it. It took me two years of touring and pushing it into culture, to make it into something that people listen to and care about. Now this album came out 2 months now, and maybe it’s the same thing. I don’t see it yet. Maybe it’s taking some time to catch up with people. If you think it’s phenomenal I’m happy that you do and that some other people do too. Everyone doesn’t have to think that.
It’s like club music, it’s like Dancehall, it’s like Dubstep. All of these different sounds I’m hearing. Sometimes it’s like an early Rock & Roll song. But you always make it sound like Spank Rock. How do you do it?
We listen to a lotta different music. I love music. My producer, if I sit with XXXchange he plays me music I’ve never heard before from all different eras. So there’s a lot of things I did and things I’d like to try to do. We wanted to make something like an old fifties Rock & Roll song. I’m thinking, we could imitate someone, but then it wouldn’t be our own song. It’d just be repeating something someone already had done. To me that’s really boring and a waste of time. But a lot of people want to hear something that already happened in the past. Now there are so many things going on, so many new feelings, new technology, all the world’s economy is coming together and crashing into one another. There’s so much to talk about and such a new feeling. I don’t understand why someone would wanna do something retro. Of course we all have people who inspire us. Like my biggest inspiration is Prince. When you hear a song like “The Dance” or you hear a song like “Baby” you can kinda hear Prince in there. But I really wanted to still make it sound like my own thing. Through production and through having this conversation with XXXchange about what to make this song turn into, we’re able to have the same energy and impact as a song that might have inspired us.
You said you were inspired by Prince. What are some other influences?
I listen to a lot of songwriters. Some of the musicians I’m listening to right now, I’m listening to them because I love the way they put words together. I love their melodies. I love to listen to poets. Right now I’m listening to Joanna Newsom a lot. Her last album is just perfect. I’m listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen, he’s a folk singer.
I love Joanna Newsom. Leonard Cohen is also amazing.
He is amazing. I’m also listening to a lot of Nick Drake.
Really, Nick Drake? I can’t believe you’re listening to Nick Drake. See, to me I listen to everything too. I can play Waka Flocka Flame and then follow it up with Nick Drake and Public Enemy. What else are you listening to?
I really loved the last Metronomy album that came out. I’m always listening to David Bowie and I’m always listening to Prince. And my favorite favorite favorite right now is Connan Mockasin. He’s from New Zealand. He makes this really trippy experimental, like jazzy Psychedelic stuff. He’s working with Charlotte Gainsbourg right now. I’m excited to hear that.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. I grew up there in the late eighties.
Did you also live in Philadelphia?
I live in Philadelphia now. After I graduated from high school in Baltimore I went to college in Philadelphia.
Baltimore has a very original club music sound. Did that sound have an influence on you?
Yeah. It’s funny cause I grew up with Baltimore club music. Club music kinda grew outta Chicago House music, so I’ve been listening to Chicago House music for my entire life. But when I first started making music I wanted everything to sound like New York. I wanted everything to sound like Nas, like Wu Tang. I wanted to sound like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. It wasn’t until we started making the album, XXXchange was like, “Yo, you don’t make music that sounds like you. You rap good, but you’re always rapping about very deep, serious, like political style raps. Why don’t you have fun in your music, cause all you do is have fun and party all day anyway.” He told me to be more myself. That’s when we started bringing all these Baltimore club sounds. I started going back to my roots, what I grew up with. So Baltimore was a big influence for me. Miami Bass is a big influence, Chicago House, and more recently a lot of Post Punk and New Wave has been. I’m trying to learn more and more about music like that.
When you say Post Punk, what bands do you mean?
Like early Sonic Youth. Like Joy Division too. I never really got into New Order, but Amanda is always telling me I need to listen to New Order. It’s like her favorite band. I like Joy Division and a lot of other stuff, even Talking Heads.
Have you ever heard Bang Gang? He’s a Trip Hop artist from Iceland. Or Keren Ann? She’s from France. They’re really amazing artists. Both of them did a live album together with an orchestra backing them up. The project was called “Lady and Bird”. You probably would like that.
No. Bang Gang, Keren Ann? I’ve gotta check them out.
Do you listen to Burial?
No, I haven’t listened to Burial, but I have heard of him.
What’s your connection to DJ Diplo?
In Philly Diplo and my friend Low Budget started a party called Hollertronix. They’ll play anything from eighties Pop music to Dirty South Rap, then they’ll play some Baltimore club. So they’d mix up all this music together in one night, and that’s never been done before. So this party kept getting bigger and bigger. Me and Amanda Blank and Plastic Little, we’d always be there, it’s what we were growing up in. They did one of the parties in New York; Roxy Cottontail asked them to come and perform in New York. From there people from New York started coming down for the Hollertronix parties. It was like once a month, massive events. Diplo was working with M.I.A. at the time, and for one of the Halloween parties he had M.I.A. do a performance. I also performed and Bun B performed. It was a really crazy, really awesome, wild night. That’s how I know Diplo. And I was passing out demos and Diplo gave them to his label. He was signed to Big Dada, he put out his album “Never Scared” on that label. They called me up the next day and asked me if I wanted to put out an album with them. I was like, “Yeah I guess so.” I wasn’t even taking music that seriously. I was just doing it for fun. It was only me and Alex putting some stuff together. I don’t know, Diplo is like family. He just started doing really big things.
The Hollertronix Parties were in a club?
Hollertronix was in a private club for Ukrainian immigrants in Philadelphia. Somehow they allowed those guys to throw parties there. It was in a pretty bad neighborhood and the kids coming out for it were the Indie Rock kids, like scenesters. Hollertronix was this underground thing that people knew about. It was wasn’t promoted, there were no flyers. It grew quietly through word of mouth. All your artsy trendy kids who were into music turned up. It was a good mix. They played Dirty South and Baltimore club, so there were Black people there too. It wasn’t an all White party. It was like a perfect mix.
How did you get your name, Spank Rock?
It was pretty stupid, to be honest. I didn’t mean to keep it. When I was in college I lived in a house in West Philly. We built a stage in our living room and we started throwing these open mike’s. We’d have live bands come down from New York. And we had a DJ set up, some friends would deejay and if you wanted to get up and rap you could do that. We sold forties out of the basement. They started getting a little out of control, so we had to stop them. Too many people were coming. On the third one I wanted to get up and perform and rap, cause before that I wouldn’t rap at all. One of my friends was asking me, “When are you gonna get up and rap?” So I said I’d rap at the next party. I had never written a rap. I was trying to figure out a name, and I knew I wanted it to have Rock in it cause I wanted it to sound like the eighties. I wanted Rock. I can’t even remember how the Spank part came, it was kind of a joke. So I was going to be Spank Rock just for one night, but I just forgot to change it. I didn’t know what it meant, I just went with it.
A lot of Rap lyrics right now are boring, they’re so redundant. Your lyrics are really different from anyone else. I wonder what makes you so different?
I guess I’ve been through a lot of different things in my life. Some rappers have only lived one way, only been in one environment. They come from the neighborhood, that’s all they know. They’re not paying attention to the news or to politics, they’re not excited about what’s going on in the rest of the world. For me, I grew up in a poor part of Baltimore, three blocks away from one of the biggest open air drug markets, but then I was still going to a private school at the same time. I had to dress up in a tie and a blazer and go to school every day with my backpack of books. And I’m walking through the neighborhood to the bus stop past all these hotheads. I get on the bus and it takes me an hour to get to school. I get to school and I’m at this perfect place—everyone’s rich, everyone’s White. It’s safe and beautiful, cause it’s a private school. It was two different worlds where I grew up. I got these two different personalities. One kid that needs to be able to survive in his community and the other kid who needs to survive in the academic world and in a whole new culture that he doesn’t know anything about. I started learning so many different things, and I put that into my music. Just because every other rapper is talking about material things, I can rap about that if I want to, but then I would only be rapping about a very small part of my life. Also I think it’s important to share everything. As an artist you want to be able to see the world and explain it to your audience. I think Outkast is always great at doing that. It’s ghetto, it’s Black music, but this great imagination and this great intelligence helps you, it helped me as a kid to aspire to be something different. I listened to Wu Tang and entered a whole new world. I didn’t know anything about Kung Fu movies or Asian culture. It didn’t even make sense. I was like, what the fuck! Who are these crazy alien Black people making music? It was insane. I wanna make music that has that kind of impact on you. I want the kids to look at my videos and hear my album and be like, “I’ve never heard anything like this before.” If you keep making all the same old boring bullshit about swag and selling drugs and going to the clubs, it gets stale. The culture starts to die. I love Hip Hop culture and I love the culture now, but I want it to grow, I want to give it new ideas, I want it to be powerful, I want it to have the same kind of impact that it had in the past. That’s why I put different ideas into the music.
When Wu Tang Clan came out they were Black as you can be, but they were not scared to break out and do something different. That’s the way I see you. You bring that other element. You have the courage to say that you listen to Joanna Newsom or Nick Drake, which a lot of people wouldn’t say.
That’s the thing. I’m an artist and I don’t care what other people think. I already went through that. I’m not gonna give a fuck about what other people think. I already did all that, took my tie off before I came back home from school on the bus. I’m past that. Now it’s all about me and my music and my audience. I can do it any way I want to. You gotta put some creativity into it. I’m just trying to be creative.
When I hear your music I feel like you’re totally free and doing what you want. You’re not tied to anything.
I’m really really trying to become that. I think I’m almost there. But still there are times when I pay too much attention to what other people are doing. I see people blowing up. I wanna be as big as Ashanti. I see Diplo blowing up and I wanna be as big as Diplo. I think that really stops me from throwing myself into the volcano. All I wanna do for this next record I’m making, I want to completely like go. I’m almost there, but I feel there’s a lot to do. When I start thinking about blowing up then I start thinking I need to make a Pop song or something like that. At the end of making this album I came to the realization that I don’t need to do anything but work really hard on my music and continue to be the artist that I can be. I think I have it in me to be a truly groundbreaking musician. I think I have it in me to create something totally different. And that’s what I wanna be. I want people to look back on my career the way people look back on Prince or someone like that. I want them to say, “Wow, this artist put out all this music and no one else is able to touch it. No one else has made anything like it.” It’s not really about popularity anymore. It’s about being able to make something truly special.
For you it might be hard to blow up in the mainstream because you don’t fit into any category. But once you do it, once they get into Spank Rock, it’s going to be over. You’ll be a legendary artist Prince. You’re in a world of your own. You’re not going to the mainstream, they’ve got to come to you. If you could work with any artist or producer, who would you like to work with?
I’d like to work with Andre 3000 from Outkast. I would like him to produce something for me. That’d be cool. And this rapper named Danny Brown. He’s a new rapper from Detroit, I think he just signed to Fools Gold. I really love the way he raps and I like his references. I’d also love to work with the composer who works with Joanna Newsom, he does all her arrangements. His name is Jim O’Rourke.
That would be interesting if you did something with Joanna Newsom.
Yeah. I wanna play around with making Hip Hop like fairly composed. It’s kind of like how Wu Tang did it with sampling, I wanna take it to the next step. Like work with real composers, people who are classically trained.
I can’t wait to hear your next record. You probably won’t be putting out another album for a while?
I don’t want to wait for a really long time. I’m working on it. I’m just starting to work on my new album. Hopefully throughout the winter I’ll keep working on new songs until I know where I want to go. With this new album that just came out I felt like the whole time I had a hard time trying to pull these songs together. Then right at the end of it I was like, OK I know what I want to do now. But the album was already done. So I want to keep up with that, I wanna stay working here.
When you were working on this album you didn’t feel like it was coming together?
It was a little bit difficult at the time. Then right at the end I had all these new ideas and I could finally see where I wanted to go.
How long did you work on this last album, “Everything is Boring and Everybody is a Fucking Liar”?
It was about 2 years, but it wasn’t consistent. Some of the songs are 2 years old and some of the songs are only months old. I think I grew a lot between the beginning and the end of recording. A lot of things happened.
Do you have a studio at home?
No, I don’t. That’s why I always have to go to New York to work. On this last album I moved to Berlin for a month. I’ll probably put a studio at my house, cause to be a good artist you have to be able to make music all the time.
How do you come up with your lyrics? Do you hear the beat first?
I do a little bit of both. Usually I want the music first, but there are times that I read something or I have something on my mind and I want to express it in lyrics, so I’ll start writing first.
I feel like with this record you’re going more in the direction of chanting, tribal poetry, like you found your path.
I don’t know. I’m getting there and that’s where I want to go.
What are you working on now?
I just came back from being on tour. I was in Europe touring around a little bit.
When you were in Europe did you perform with a DJ?
Pretty much with a DJ and have a homey on for a couple of extra drum pads. We had the MPC’s set up and put some rhythms on top of it. It was cool. It’s a little bit different from your average Hip Hop show.
What would be for you perfect show?
It’d probably be something that looks like a Prince performance, like “Sign O’ the Times”. I don’t know if you saw that, but it was a concert for Prince’s album “Sign O’ the Times”. He had a whole band set up with a horn section and a rhythm section. There were all these neon lights. It was really awesome.
With your new album, what was your input? Did you work on the production or just do vocals?
I only write lyrics and rap. I don’t know how to make beats. I worked with a lotta different producers on there.
That’s amazing. When I listened to the album I felt like you had done all the beats. I thought one person did all the production because the sound is so consistent.
I choose the beats from different producers. Sometimes it’s hard for me to listen to other people’s opinions. So a lotta times I’m working side by side with a producer. It’s like I’m curetting the album. I’m not just sitting and waiting for someone to get me beats and then I rap over it. I’m always looking for the right beat that kinda talks to me, something I really feel. A lotta people think it’s a negative thing. A lotta people say I should work with only one producer and try to make a sound that’s more cohesive. But I think that what’s happening is I’m not a very cohesive person. I’m kinda like a complicated person, so you get all these different feelings on a record. It sounds perfect to me, but some people don’t agree.
That’s funny because to me it sounds like one person was behind the whole project. It’s like when I hear an MIA record or Diplo or Santigold I feel their energy is all over it. That’s the feeling I get from you. But it was many different producers?
Yeah, it’s a bunch of different producers. All of them are close friends of mine. Either we’ve working on different projects together before or we talk regularly through the internet. It is a pretty personal record, but there were a bunch of people who helped out. You have Sam Spiegel who did the N.A.S.A. project. M.I.A. and I actually featured on that album together. You have Boys Noize, who I’ve known for some years but it’s our first time working together. He produced the majority of the music, about 4 or 5 of the tracks. Boys Noize is like a House and Techno producer. He has the most beats on the record, and also he mixed down all of the other songs too. Even if he didn’t make the beat he gave it the right mix. And this young cat coming out of New York named Le1f produced two songs. He produced “Nasty” featuring Big Freedia, and he produced “Birfday”. Then we had XXXchange, who produced my whole “YoYoYo” album, the first album I made. He’s on this one too.
This album is very different from the first one. What do you think?
I think it’s a little different. I think it’s a progression. I think I showed some maturity. It showed that I know how to write a complete song. In the first record a lotta times I’d only write like one verse and then Alex would have to make the whole song come together.
Who produced “The Dance” and “Car Song”?
“The Dance” was produced by XXXchange. “Car Song” was produced by Sam Spiegel.
I love those two songs, but really all the tracks are classic. I’ve been playing it non-stop for the last 2 weeks from the time I wake up until I go to sleep. What kind of reaction have you been getting for the album?
People have been saying, “He did it again.” I think my fans are really excited about the album. I think the album is reaching out to a lotta new people as well. But I don’t really know. To me it seems like there are a lotta new artists out now who are getting a lotta attention. I’m just happy to be able to continue to put out music and to be able to travel around.