Although for many people, Baltimore immediately brings to mind a certain HBO crime drama, the city also has a lesser-known but far more upbeat reputation for its dazzling celebration of low-brow hedonism.
There’s John Waters, sure, but there’s also the insane DIY festivals thrown in parking lots, the cartoonishly cheap Tuesday night ragers, the rock opera society, the row of strip clubs next to police headquarters.
And there’s Spank Rock.
For years, the Baltimore-bred m.c. born Naeem Juwan didn’t merely create the soundtrack to the party, he embodied it through his euphoric live performances. His 2006 debut YoYoYoYoYo, chock-full of giddy hypersexual absurdity and a sumptuous take on Baltimore club music, quickly garnered Juwan widespread acclaim; nearly fifteen years later, tracks like “Backyard Betty,” “Sweet Talk” and “Coke & Wet” are just as outrageous and quintessentially Baltimore as they were then.
Juwan’s reputation for wonderfully gauche naughtiness makes the transformation evident throughout his new album all the more remarkable. While Startisha (out this Friday on 37d03d, the first music to be released under his birth name), still features some NSFW odes to corporeal pleasure, it is largely focused on exploration, both musical and spiritual.
Recorded across the country over five years, its nine tracks find Juwan crooning in addition to rapping; along the way he tears down and rebuilds a ‘60s cult synth-pop gem, collaborates with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on lead single “Simulation,” and reckons with his own identity on the devastating “Tiger Song.” The end result is fresh, artistically brave and sensational in its own right.
While he is by no means a regular cannabis consumer, it certainly plays a role in the larger story of Juwan’s artistic and personal evolution. In this wide-ranging interview, Juwan reflects on his earliest memories with cannabis, how a “weed coma” led to some of Startisha’s best rapping, the double-edged sword that drugs can play in self-discovery and more.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Congrats on releasing the album! How does it feel to put it out after a nine year break?
Time flies by. I read my age in print and it’s really shocking (laughs). Everything feels right. It feels natural to me to put this record out right now. I feel like I’m on my path.
That’s beautiful. Has weed been a part of your life for a long time?
Weed came into my life around the age of 15. I went to this prep school, Gilman. We had to wear ties every day. It was strict. There was a lot of need for the young Black kids there to be rebellious and be cool (laughs) [and show] how black we were. Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle came out when I was in 6th grade. It was before I started smoking weed but I already thought it was the coolest, most rebellious thing (laughs). It’s funny to say nowadays, especially in LA where I can pick up weed like it’s a bottle of [medicine].
It became a part of my life when I started rapping, being influenced by Boot Camp Clik and sagging Tommy Hilfiger khakis. It went hand in hand with hip-hop.
That’s amazing. Speaking of normalizing weed, have you been in Baltimore since dispensaries started opening up there?
That’s insane. I didn’t know that [was happening]. That makes me feel good and bad at the same time. Those stores [cited by the author] are all in white neighborhoods. I know that smoking weed was one way to target and criminalize Black people and Black kids, so it’s tough to hear that. It’s exciting that it’s moving forward, but it’s also a slap in the face. It makes me feel really sick to my stomach that these fancy white neighborhoods get these fancy weed stores first, and I think a lot of Black kids still run the risk of going to jail for possessing it.
Absolutely. I hear you. Forgive me switching gears a bit, but I did want to ask more about your experience with weed and making music; is it still part of your process?
As I became a professional musician and needed to pay attention to detail, it became a real tug of war for me. I get hit really hard by weed. A lot of my friends laugh when they see me smoking weed (laughs). It was always around, but then it became non-existent [in my creative process].
But for the last album, recording “Woo Woo Woo,” I was so high at the studio. I was asleep while [producers Sam Green and Grave Goods] were making the beat. I woke up, said ‘I’m going home.’ They told me to try something. I wrote this verse in some sort of weed coma. I knew exactly what I wanted the rhythm to be. They were like, ‘You need to smoke all the time!’
I’m considering [including it] in my practice now. I do think the influence of a drug makes you pay attention to space and time. I feel aware of time between each beat, how to be behind the beat, which is something I’m really bad at.
That’s awesome. Are there particular products or strains you’re into?
I was smoking whatever was around. Since quarantine, I’ve been eating mad edibles (laughs). It’s not something I would have ever done pre-quarantine. It’s helping me be patient and take in the world with some grace instead of so much anxiety.
I also meditate for a half-hour most mornings. You can accomplish that same kind of feeling without weed (laughs). I don’t think it’s something so magical that you can’t experience those feelings in other ways.
When I was listening to Startisha, and “Tiger Song” in particular, I was thinking about how drugs have helped me become more comfortable with my own identity; I was curious if you’ve had a similar experience?
It’s tough wrestling with my initial response to say ‘yes;’ weed and drug use has been useful, but at the same time, I have so many friends who are no longer here because of their experimentation with drugs.
I wish that our society was better at raising young men. I think that if there were more examples of what a successful man looked like, a lot of the escapism through drug use wouldn’t happen. Sometimes when you feel like you can’t fit in, or can’t live up to standards, those standards shouldn’t be standards at all.
Like I said earlier, smoking weed was a really big part of my adolescence, turning into a young teenager and what I thought it meant to be a cool rapper kid. But you can remove that and you can be the same, still interested in the same things, still rap well without weed.
Whether it’s anything else – ketamine, shrooms, MDMA – I love all those experiences so much, those experiences really made me the person I am today. But I know I also have to break away from those experiences in order to function properly.
To get to the point I’m at right now, I had to stop a lot of that behavior. It really is a double-edged sword; you need to know that that drug doesn’t make you who you are.
It’s like those substances are able to open doors or break down walls, but those doors and walls shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Exactly. I think drugs should enhance a situation, not be the situation. If you can’t wake up every day and be confident [without those drugs] then that’s a trap.