By: Chris Pacifico
2006 was quite a year for hip-hop. It started on a sad note in February when the underground producer/exemplar J Dilla passed away at the age of 32. The Roots dropped their seventh studio album Game Theory, which they called their most serious to date. Kool Keith's best known alter ego (one of a gazillion), Dr. Octagon came back after a ten year hiatus with The Return of Dr. Octagon. Aside from re-emerging from a "retirement" no one actually believed would last, Jay-Z released a "comeback" LP and managed to take a chunk out of Cristal champagne sales by boycotting the brand after the company's managing directors covert racism came to light. If there was one thing overlooked by the mainstream music media it was Spank Rock, a group with the power to save rap music from the pretentiousness and easy gimmicks that plague it these days.
The Philly by way of Baltimore duo of Naeem Juwan (aka MC Spank Rock) and producer Alex Epton (aka Armani XXXchange) and their debut release, YoYoYoYoYo, has not only changed the playing field of rhymes and production but also marks a zenith in hip-hop's creative dynamic for the 21st century. The album was mostly recorded for fun before Big Dada signed them. "It's all coming out now that they didn't want to sign us in the first place," says Epton.
Along with Juwan's rapid-fire rhymes there's Epton's signature hodgepodge production which incorporates drum n' bass, big beat, Miami bass, robo-funk, acid house, G-funk, techno and a whole lot more with stabbing bass lines and infectious verses. "It's more like up-tempo rap music for the club," says Juwan in the green room backstage at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia with Spank Rock's extended crew partying all around us.
Epton's good ear for what makes Spank Rock so pulsating and speaker-thumping ranges from what some journalists and critics claim was his brief apprenticeship at record label and hipster dance consortium, DFA Records. When I inquire about how he landed it, Juwan shouts, "A lot of dick sucking." Epton says, "My friend who I went to high school with DJ'ed over there and he was a music technology student at NYU. So I went over there but then they got rid of me because I was too stupid. I always wanted to do shit for rap music but just in a totally different way."
After relocating from Baltimore to Philadelphia to study at Drexel University, Juwan spent a week with underground producer Shawn J. Period over at Rawkus, one of the labels most responsible for thrusting underground hip-hop acts such as Talib Kweli, Common, and The Beatnuts into the limelight. "He really helped me learn how to be a recording artist. Just watching Mos Def come through the spot and record songs for all the Soundbombing projects and shit like that was really inspiring," says Juwan. He's quick to credit the vast eclectic vinyl collection he had as a kid. Juwan recalls, "They used to joke around in the projects and call my mom the black hippy because she had a whole lot of records from like Bowie, Chicago, Yes, and shit like that."