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The Evolved Voice Of Naeem

The Baltimore-born MC talks music, weed, and the power of love songs.

The Evolved Voice Of Naeem
Courtesy of Shane McCauley

Naeem (aka Naeem Juwan), the artist formerly known as Spank Rock, is currently on a journey of trusting his creative instincts. Gone are the days of evaluating everyone else’s opinion. Now, he’s trusting himself.

Naeem’s new album “Startisha” is the culmination of his inward journey, listening to his own voice, and answering the question, “What does it mean to be prolific?” During our recent phone conversation, Naeem reflects on his creative evolution, his path to success and his affinity for Prince.

What inspired you to pursue music?

Naeem: I think everybody in my family was a big music fan. Nobody was a musician except for my uncle, who was a hip hop DJ back in the eighties. I vividly remember seeing his bedroom and him having all these Kangol hats and really cool posters of LL [Cool J], Run-DMC, Kool Moe Dee and Rakim. So that might have influenced me wanting to get into music. Also, meeting my homie GE-OLOGY—a DJ who produced some early stuff for Blackstar, the Mos Def/Talib Kwali collaboration—and spending time with him talking about music was really big to me.

My older sister going to college at Columbia, becoming part of the New York hip hop scene and inviting me up to shows was big, too. She introduced me to a producer—Shawn J. Period—who made beats for Boot Camp Clik, Mos Def and Kwali. He let me come up to Brooklyn a couple of times and I would watch him make beats. He would also let me rap on songs and stuff—which was really kind of him in retrospect—because I was a terrible rapper back then. Him taking me under his wing that summer was really important.

Was there an initial experience that highlighted for you that a career in music was possible?

Naeem: As a sixteen-year-old kid going up to New York and feeling really cool that I was hanging out with artists I really looked up to, I thought I was in and that I’d made it. And that just wasn’t the case. There’s so much work you have to do to prove yourself. Just because you know certain people doesn’t mean they’re going to give you a record deal or that they’re going to have time for you. They’re working on their own careers. I remember feeling very much like, “What’s wrong with me? Why haven’t I made it yet?”

It was a learning process. I felt like I was getting closer and closer to actually understanding the technical side of things. How to be a rapper, how to do breath control and things like that. The more I learned, the more I stuck to the craft of being an MC. But there was never a time where I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m about to make it.” I remember when I got the record deal to put out the “YoYoYoYoYo” album in 2006, I wasn’t even looking for a record deal. This British dude called me and was like, “I work with Big Dada, I heard your demo, and I’m interested in putting out an album.” Everything was a surprise and a step to getting closer to doing what I wanted to do. When I was a kid I thought the “step” was me making it, which it wasn’t. It’s just one of the steps. 

For your new album, “Startisha,” you talk about wanting to write love songs and write from a passionate place. Was your evolution from Spank Rock to Naeem part of what went into the record?

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Naeem: Everything I guide myself by is Prince’s career. I look at Prince’s career and I just try to get the closest to that, even though I can’t play any instruments. I can’t split, I don’t have beautiful hair. All things that make me not Prince. I looked at the catalogue of music that I’d made and was like, “This doesn’t look anything like what Prince did.” I went back and listened to his discography and asked myself what my favorite songs were. Most of those songs are love songs. If Prince is my favorite artist and my idea of what a great artist is, then why does [my] catalogue look so different from that?

I had to set some rules for myself being like, “Yo, you think you’re a songwriter? You haven’t written one love song.” Every great songwriter is writing love songs all the time now. I didn’t feel well-rounded enough, so I started trying to bring [love songs] into my practice.

What do you think “Startisha” symbolizes?

Naeem: I think it symbolizes a real dedication to the craft and what I think is important in music. There are so many other lanes you can take, so many other things you can do and still be a successful artist. I think what was happening was that I was considering everyone’s opinion. I was considering all these different lanes all the time and I was hesitating, not knowing if I should go right or left. I think that this record symbolizes a dedication to knowing exactly which way I want to go. Saying, if this is what you want to be, this is what you have to do. You’re going to have to write more. You’re going to have to not be afraid when people devalue you because you didn’t make the song that they wanted you to make, and really just focus on your own voice. It’s the beginning of losing a lot of that hesitation and losing a lot of that fear.

Making something that doesn’t exist is really scary. You’ve got to really be confident that whatever this weird thing that you can’t help but make…you want it to be important to people. I can’t imagine how crazy it must have felt for André 3000 to be like, “I’m in Outkast, but actually, I want to make this whole album by myself. And I want to make “Hey Ya” and some weird ass shit like “Dracula’s Wedding.” Only André could have written those songs, you know? I’m sure, since he’s a human being, he has to go through the same process of being like, “It’s okay for me to do exactly what I want. It’s okay for me to find humor in the things I find humor in. And if I find humor and believe in these things, somebody else out there might be able to agree with that.” That’s what this album is for me. Cutting out a lot of the noise.

How does cannabis play a role in your creative process?

Naeem: It’s funny because a lot of my friends don’t consider me to be a weed smoker. When I was younger, I had this really intense thought that I had to smoke weed to be a rapper and make music. I smoked all the time and it was making me not so sharp in the brain. Now, I’m reintroducing [weed] into my life and it’s showing up a little more frequently, like eating edibles every now and then, or smoking in the studio. It’s something I set a rule for myself not to ever do, but it’s been creeping back in. I never want to be a musician who has to depend on a drug. I think that’s a really dangerous place to be. [My consumption] is not habitual. I always use it, whether it’s weed or something else, to enhance a situation. I want to make sure I’m in complete control of that. 

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Weed helps me understand the time and space between each bar a little bit better and understand how to fall back behind the beat a little bit more. It really was really helpful on songs like “Woo Woo Woo,” [helping] me find the rhythm to this really weird and jerky beat. I have this anxiety with rap and recording where I’m always rapping above the one, I’m always rapping a bit too fast. I really like the way [weed] gets me to calm down a little bit and be more considerate of rhythm.

Weed helps you ease into the flow.

Naeem: And recognize how much time I actually have. Sometimes without [weed], the time between each beat feels so fast to me, so I’m super anxious to catch it. I’ll be a little bit before the one. While smoking, I realize, “Oh man, you have all of this time.” Then it feels like a whole minute between each beat.

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I’m definitely not a brand weed guy, but I like all the technical chemical shit. I think it’s very important to know what you’re putting into your body. I just consume whatever is around in the studio, whatever the producers are smoking. I know that indicas are too intense for me, so I like to stay towards sativas and CBD. The way my body metabolizes weed is pretty intense, so I prefer CBD with a little THC in it.

Are there plans to support the album with a tour amidst the global health situation?

Naeem: I don’t know what’s happening with touring stuff. Everything kind of stopped. I think I’m just going to put a lot of my attention into finishing another album and maybe plan more creative pieces, extended videos, things like that. Something more in the film world. I’m still trying to figure out how performance will pan out this year and next year.

Have you thought about Zoom and Instagram Live as possible outlets?

Naeem: I don’t really fuck with that shit. I feel really awkward looking into the screen. But I’m sure some of that will surface someday.

If I do a Zoom thing, it would be something a little bit more creative. The way Erykah Badu has been doing all of her live streams has just been beyond. She had like three different rooms and three different outfits the band would change into. That felt like a real experience to me, not someone just sitting in their bedroom. So that’s what’s up.

Follow @naeemjuwan and check out his album “Startisha” available now for download and streaming

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