Naeem Is Here; First Name and All

“Going [from] being shielded by a brand to only being the name my father gave me, I hope it gives more opportunities for me to be myself.”
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Certain albums have body. Certain albums have such a distinct understanding of self billowing through them that it’s impossible to confuse the work with any other. Born in Baltimore and based in LA, Naeem Juwan, 39, who goes simply by Naeem on stage, understands the importance of lacing music with self to create something deeply personal and wholly present.

Naeem’s debut album under his own name, Startisha, is an amalgam of the lessons learned from his past life as a touring artist with Bon Iver and his work released under the moniker Spank Rock.

“One thing that was hard for me to deal with was when I realized the name Spank Rock meant something [different] to other people than it did to me, you know?” Naeem explains to me over the phone. “I didn’t realize I had created a brand… But because of that brand, people always wanted more and more of exactly what I had done before. Changing my name—not changing my name, but undressing, in a way… Going [from] being shielded by a brand to only being the name my father gave me, I hope it gives more opportunities for me to be myself.”

With nothing to hide behind, Startisha feels like a new beginning, one four years in the making, recorded mainly in Philadelphia, with a stint in Minneapolis as well. 

“I’m a cousin of a lot of genres and musical scenes; it seems,” Naeem said earlier this year. “I don’t know why, but I am. I collect many homes. I was born in Baltimore, lived in Philly but was in New York City so much that people thought I lived there, traveled all over the world, and now I’m in Los Angeles.”

With Naeem’s collection of homes and sounds, Startisha’s nine tracks have a tricking pulse. The music is grand and consuming, without being overbearing. The mixes are rich with detail, and Naeem’s voice claws through the production in a series of heartwarming and wrenching tunes. 

The opener, “You and I,” a cover of the Silver Apples “classic,” rips apart the seams of our comfort as Naeem’s voice strains and balloons overtop surging synth chords and ping-ponging percussion accents.

Later, on “Us,” we’re treated to a dab of lightness and gently frenetic production. There’s a real tactile experience baked into Startisha, making it a total reinvention and evolution for Naeem. The record thrives in the space of challenge and affect. The album is extraordinary, personal, and filled to the brim with a bubbling ethos. 

My full conversation with Naeem, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

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DJBooth: Let’s talk about the past first. You had a moniker (Spank Rock) and toured with the greats (Avalanches, Bon Iver, Big Red Machine, Mouse on Mars). What did you learn from your past life and past selves?

Naeem: That’s a serious question! That’s hard… I don’t pay attention to time much. I refuse to use calendars, and I don’t set alarms for myself. The past seems a lot closer to the right now than it is on paper. The things I’ve learned have happened naturally. Some of those things have fallen out of my mind. But… I set a few rules for this album, to do something different. One of the rules was to only work with producers in Philadelphia. That’s where I was living at the time I was making the album. Another rule was to write love songs. Another was to always start a song writing from personal experience and memory. Another rule was to focus on Baltimore.

I set those rules because of my past and the way I was engaged with the music industry in the beginning. It was a little less personal. A lot of my music back in 2006, politics and partying was the only thing that influenced it. That caused me to be pigeonholed by [the] media. I wanted to, this time, make it harder for the media to pigeonhole me.

You’re releasing your debut album, Startisha, under your own name. What significance does that hold for you?

One thing that was hard for me to deal with was when I realized the name Spank Rock meant something [different] to other people than it did to me, you know? I didn’t realize I had created a brand. I didn’t understand what branding was… I always thought [Spank Rock] was an extension of myself, but because of that brand, people always wanted more and more of exactly what I had done before. Changing my name—not changing my name, but undressing, in a way… Going [from] being shielded by a brand to only being the name my father gave me, I hope it gives more opportunities for me to be myself.

Startisha was made in a handful of spaces, namely Philadelphia and Minneapolis. How did recording across the country influence your work?

We did most of the writing in Philadelphia. The album was me creating a new relationship with [Sam Green and Grave Goods], the executive producers. It was a home-grown record. It was just us three every day, working in Philadelphia, for about two years, writing these songs. Then, we eventually went to Minneapolis to get a little extra help.

What is it about Philly that’s so important to you?

Philly is… It’s fucking amazing! People there… It’s that blue-collar, East Coast kinda vibe you could find in Baltimore, you could find in Boston, all these places, but for some reason, the experience in Philadelphia is hard to put into words. It’s pretty rough around the edges, direct. And for me, it’s diverse. It also has a lot of great music history, too. I [got] into Philly because The Roots are from there. That’s been a big influence on my life. Moving there and becoming a part of that music scene is inspiring.

I just moved to Philly with my girlfriend. Literally two weeks ago.

No way! I lived there for 18 years, from West Philly to South Philly to Northern Liberties, to the area [where] you are. It’s just so fun there. What do you think about Philly?

Being out in Philly, it feels different from every other city.

Yo, I’m so glad to hear you say that! I felt the same way. I walked around so much, making the record. Sam lives in West Philly… I could catch a train from Fishtown all the way out to [him]. Sometimes, I would see how far from West Philly I could walk into Center City or South Philly. I just loved walking around that city so much. It just gives you so much, but it doesn’t feel hectic like New York does.

Earlier this year, concerning the length of time spent working on this album, you told i-D, “It feels at first like I’m a terrible musician, but then I remember I was trying to build strong relationships with everyone who took part in making it, and not just simply make an album. And that takes a little extra time.” Do you still feel like “a terrible musician?”

Ha… I’ve always pushed myself to try to become a little better and do something different than I did before. Sometimes, I do kind of… For example, I’m about to set up a little recording area in my bedroom so I can send ideas back and forth to Philly and finish making a new album. I have this album coming out right now, and I feel proud of certain things; I feel proud that people wanna talk about my music. Even all these positive things, when I sit down to work on new music, I think that feeling of not being good as I wanna be is gonna pop right back up. I only do that because I wanna push myself to become better or think about music in different ways than I thought about it before.

In your bio, you write, “nothing is real, and our greatest defense in this life is our creativity.” How has creativity protected you both emotionally and spiritually?

Man… We’re born into our bodies. We don’t know where we’re gonna be, what part of the world, what our bodies are gonna look like… The whole world is already set up around you, and they have an idea of what a perfect man is, what a perfect woman is. If you get born into this world, and you are extremely far from those ideals of perfection… You’re gonna be devastated. Because of that, you better be creative. You better figure out a way to put yourself into the story. You better figure out a way to put your face into the superhero costume.

My favorite artist of all time is Prince. I use Prince’s work as my Bible. I could never fully believe [in religion]. I know it can be enlightening; I just could never turn those stories and fables into facts. Prince’s catalog became my Bible, and I could see myself in that world. I knew there was some way for me to be proud of myself. That all comes from creativity.

As people get re-introduced to you through the album, how do you want them to perceive you as they finish the work?

Some projects I’ve made, I had big plans for them, and I thought people [were] gonna like it so much, and it didn’t turn out that way. So, for this album, people’s perception is not a part of it. I just don’t care how people view it. I just hope it means something to somebody somewhere.

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