Becoming Naeem

Naeem, the new moniker of the legendary artist formerly known as Spank Rock, has always been on the cutting edge of what is fresh and interesting in alt-pop culture. In this latest incarnation of his artistic life, Naeem has transitioned from rapper to singer, releasing a surprisingly soulful cover of Silver Apples' "You and I" which we are proud to premiere below. Cell Vision correspondent Marcus K Dowling caught up with Naeem to discuss his new single and video, his creative relationship with Bon Iver, and what it means to shed "Spank Rock" and become "Naeem".

photos shot by Kenny Rodriguez during Naeem's artist residency at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn.

“I’m a cousin of a lot of genres and musical scenes, it seems. 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.”

“I’m a cousin of a lot of genres and musical scenes, it seems. 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.” Impressively, Naeem—formerly known as Spank Rock—has had a career that has seen him defy being defined by genres, spaces, and places. However, as the COVID-19 outbreak has Naeem quarantined in LA, his latest work finds him discovering a sense of calm as he navigates uncharted creative horizons with a sure-footed and right-minded perspective.

“You and I” is Naeem’s latest single, and the video (which premieres here) shows him maturing and seeking something more emotionally substantive from music. It’s a stark compilation of images from his creative down time during Summer 2019. The video offers a glimpse into an artist who, by taking a dive into soul music, has, to the surprise of most listeners, found a comfortable place in a seemingly unfamiliar creative lane.

the video for Naeem's debut single "You And I", shot and edited by P. Nick Curran.

He's been releasing projects as "Naeem" since 2018, noting to Out Magazine in an interview that "[Spank Rock] was like spazzy, just freaking out, jumping around, you know, shaking my ass and grinding on the floor, humping the floor and shit...[Naeem is] a progression off of everything else that I've done, but I care about writing love songs more, I care about writing from a more personal place. I think that is the only real change. I still love mashing up genres and being experimental with sounds."

"As a name, Spank Rock shed itself in this process of making this album. A lot of time has passed. Spank Rock was much more energetic in the marketplace than it was in my mind. It was a creative shell of sorts for me.”

"As a name, Spank Rock shed itself in this process of making this album,” he says of the new LP. “A lot of time has passed. Spank Rock was much more energetic in the marketplace than it was in my mind. It was a creative shell of sorts for me.”

Within that shell were dynamic collaborations with the likes of super-producer Alex "XXXhange" Epton; DJ/producers Devlin and Darko; singer-songwriter Amanda Blank; and numerous others. "I haven't worked with many of those people for a very long time," Naeem bittersweetly laments.

Spank Rock performing "Race Riot" alongside Devlin & Darko and XXXChange in Brooklyn in 2006.

“I was living in the same apartment building in Minneapolis as Bon Iver,” Naeem notes, starting to tell the story of how he and the artist born Justin Vernon began their creative partnership. Naeem’s gilded creative path includes a mid-2010s stop through the Twin Cities, as he was working on a project that sadly “didn’t quite work out” with Poliça’s producer Ryan Olson. Naeem and Vernon never officially worked together while living in the same building, but they oftentimes encountered each other during what Naeem refers to as a “very important creative time” in his career.

Naeem's collaboration with Bon Iver and Bruce Hornsby "U (Man Like)"

The official pairing of Naeem and Bon Iver occurred for Bon Iver’s 2019 collaborative album I,I. Naeem and Bruce Hornsby partnered with him for “U (Man Like)”, but there’s another album single titled “Naeem.” Stereogum writer Chris Deville remarks, “‘Naeem’ is the one where Vernon sings about falling off a bass boat and having a bad, bad toke. At the Bon Iver show I attended this fall, they ended the main set with it, and for good reason; the thing just builds and builds until it bursts.” AC Rojas, who directed the video for the single, added in the same article that “[Naeem] is concerned with the potential for intergenerational healing, and how we choose to engage with that potential.”

Bon Iver's single "Naeem"

“It’s strange. Justin kept telling me, ‘I wrote a song named ‘Naeem’,’ and I brushed it off because it made me feel uncomfortable. I heard he had performed it a couple of times before the album came out, too. Once the album came out and [“Naeem”] was on it, I was like, ‘fuck, he wasn’t joking!’”

“It’s strange. Justin kept telling me, ‘I wrote a song named ‘Naeem’,’ and I brushed it off because it made me feel uncomfortable. I heard he had performed it a couple of times before the album came out, too. Once the album came out and [“Naeem”] was on it, I was like, ‘fuck, he wasn’t joking!’” Laughing, Naeem continues. “What I found amazing is that when the album was released, he put all of his collaborators on a pedestal equal to him. It speaks to how Justin views music and his creative community. The album, he felt, was larger than him.” Overall, regarding the album, Naeem views it as one of his favorite professional experiences. “I felt lucky to be a part of a musical scene where the leader of that scene is willing to not be competitive, but ultimately create a new way to present music.”

Naeem’s new motivations positively align him with many of his artistic inspirations while simultaneously informing his future aspirations.What emerges is an artist aspiring to redefine his art via a boldly expanded creative approach. "As a rapper who sings, I'm doing something similar to the transition OutKast's André 3000 made from rapping to singing. That feeling of hearing him, from their debut album to The Love Below, blending everything and becoming a lost child of P-Funk, was exciting. That, and then there's Prince going from disco to rock to R & B and rap, doing something very similar to David Bowie in many respects. Just like them, I like to follow a personal path of self-expression."

"I wanted to do new things with music, and also control my career again. I needed to take the power away from the audience that grew around my old persona."

A certain bravado in his voice, he continues after pausing to ensure he’s choosing the right words. "I wanted to do new things with music, and also control my career again. I needed to take the power away from the audience that grew around my old persona. I wanted to pull away from 'Spank Rock.' I'm writing more personal songs, from my own experiences, so it feels liberated from what Spank Rock became."

Turning the Silver Apples' jangly, stomping 1969 proto-punk hit "You and I" into an emotive doo-wop ballad is an inspired concept. However, as a completed product, it offers a sense of where he's headed. Intriguingly, a cover that initially was supposed to be a collaboration between him and The Gossip's Beth Ditto, with Mark Ronson likely on production, maybe more fabulous as a solo concept bearing none of those impressive earmarkings. In discovering a greater sense of artistic freedom, Naeem has likely unlocked the potential to achieve a level of creative success similar to his musical inspirations.

"It was a 'Hail Mary' of an idea. I was in the studio with Mark Ronson in 2011 while he was touring with his Business Int'l project, and he was also working with The Gossip. Mark, [Gossip lead singer] Beth Ditto, and I were in the studio. 'You and I' was a song that grew to mean a lot to me, and the cover was initially supposed to be a duet with Beth. What's funny is that I think I sang even worse back then than I do now. [The Silver Apples] version is spazzy and out of control, but to me, it sounded like it could be better if it felt like 'James Brown on acid.' Then, the lyrics have this very 'Motown/doo-wop' feel. In my mind, the song needed to be slower to accentuate all of that." As he noted to Brooklyn Vegan, the song connects to him because “in terms of the ideas of self-care and the attention economy…[not having] time for the little things...feels really heavy and makes so much sense right now.”

"Singing is a crazy, amazing feeling. Singing is different than rapping. My whole body becomes an instrument. It is another tool in my musical toolbox now."

For an artist who spent more than a decade as an influential hipster party rapper, finding his best voice as a singer is a novel concept. Moreover, the artists he rattles off as "what I'm actually listening to on Spotify" reflect a diverse and imaginative spectrum of songs and production. He cites British jazz-folk fusion artist Robert Wyatt and Martin Newell's funky lo-fi Britpop explorations in Cleaners from Venus as highlights. As well, he's keen to praise "motherfuckers who can sing their asses off, making avant-garde music," like King Krule, Serpentwithfeet, Moses Sumney, and more. "They do things that I aspire towards being able to do," he says.

Singing is a crazy, amazing feeling," Naeem adds. “Singing is different than rapping. My whole body becomes an instrument. It is another tool in my musical toolbox now. I haven't totally found my voice as a singer yet. I'm looking to refine it, so I'm messing around with different genres.” Positively, Naeem concludes, "If I were to compare myself to a football player, I'm just now getting past the line of scrimmage, and I'm starting that push to the end zone."

Naeem's debut single "You and I" is out now, you can stream/purchase via Spotify/Apple or visit his Bandcamp via the links below:

Listen to "You and I"
Naeem Bandcamp