The story of Spank Rock is a story about Baltimore, but then again, it ain’t. Because it’s a story about leaving as much as it’s about staying, about moving on while remembering your roots, about innovation and its relation to tradition.
Naeem Juwan, better known as MC Spank Rock, MC Super Disco Spank Ro’ or just Spank Rock, grew up alongside two brothers and five sisters in a West Baltimore row house. “The only element of my household that was consistent,” he remembers, “is that my mother and father always listened to music, a habit my mom says she picked up from her mother.”
Meanwhile downtown, in a neighbourhood little less riven by crime and poverty, Alex Epton was growing up with his parents, both artists from Oklahoma. And while his mom and dad “always supported any vaguely creative endeavors on my part,” they may not have been expecting him to transmogrify into the producer known as Armani XXXchange.
As the two boys grew up their paths twined over and round the city without the two of them ever coming into contact. As Naeem remembers it, “from prep school to the raunchy hood club Paradox, I found myself spread thin across all positive and negative elements of city life.” Epton, meanwhile, was too busy taking classes at the Peabody Conservatory of Music to have much involvement in the city’s club scene.
Naeem had begun rapping in the 8th Grade, getting advice and ample criticism from a big sister who was a little more deep into the hip hop thing than he was. Through her, he was eventually introduced to Shaun J Period (the producer for Mos Def’s groundbreaking “Universal Magnetic” EP), Mos Def and Last Emperor. Period, in particular, took the trouble to mentor Juwan: “Shaun invested a lot of time into helping me develop my skill as a recording artist, and being in such good company at such a young age made me believe that I could be just as important as Mos Def or Kweli in a year.” It wasn’t to work out quite like that. By the late-nineties the wave of underground hip hop was starting to dissipate and both Epton and Juwan were keen to leave a city which, at the time was, in Naeem’s words, “static”.
Alex headed to Boston to the New England Conservatory of Music where he “failed out” before moving on to New York, where he ended up joining pop-punk-electro outfit Zero Zero. Through their album, produced by the DFA, Alex landed a gig interning at the DFA studio. “I did not know anything about how a real studio works. So I learned the basics: what is a mixing desk? what is a patch bay? a filter? eq? microphone?” After his time there he ended up working as a bike messenger and a truck driver to make ends meet, all his spare moments spent on the old Zero Zero ProTools rig, getting to grips with production.
Naeem, meanwhile, “moved to Philly, got wrapped up in the thriving ‘Neo Soul’ scene, started listening to punk, dropped out of college, partied like the world was ending and got rid of all of my hip hop cds. But I continued to make music and develop a style of my own.”
The pair were introduced “with the idea that we would make music together,” by Chris Devlin aka Chris Rockswell. Chris had lived on the same street as Alex and had been at school with Naeem. He had some graffiti in an exhibition in Baltimore and invited them both to the opening and hence engineered their meeting. He remains their DJ and an essential part of the group to this day, respected and admired by the others for “his taste in music and ear for rocking a party”.
The process that led to “Yo Yo Yo Yo Yo” was set in motion. After Alex had helped out engineering at sessions that Naeem was working on with Steve McReady, the MC began to go and visit the producer in Brooklyn. When Juwan heard Epton’s own music, he knew he had to put something on top of it. As Alex explains it, his musical background means that “I’m interested in remixing songs that don't exist. Creating songs just to remix them. Creating songs just to sample them.” As for Naeem, “I always try to be as honest as possible with my music and have it represent my life as it is at that moment in time.” It was a meeting of minds.
The resulting album sounds like “the rap version of Prince's 1999 album,” according to Juwan, or, more self-deprecatingly, from Epton, like “American kids ripping off European kids ripping off American hip hop.” Either way, it’s quite unlike any record you’ve heard before. And one that, in some strange sense, could only have come out of Baltimore, even if the protagonists had to come out of Baltimore to make it.
Not that the connection is dead. Fourth and final member of Spank Rock is battle DJ, designer and motor mouth Ronnie Darko. “We’re all from the same place,” explains Alex, “so we understand each other deeply. And we like to drink together and fuck around and have fun.” Naeem concurs: “Ronnie’s the life of the party. And the one person in the group that’s most likely to get all of our assses kicked.” He pauses, smiles a sly smile. “Next to Alex, that is…”