10 things you need to know about Baltimore-born innovator Naeem

His new single ‘Simulation’ ft. Swamp Dogg and Justin Vernon reminds us nothing is real.

by Frankie Dunn
23 April 2020, 2:14pm

Fledgling artists are fun, sure, but every now and then you come across a musician who has done their time in the industry, done a whole lot of living and learning, and emerged out the other side with a project that’s close to perfection. Introducing: Naeem. Music heads among you might recognise the man born Naeem Juwan from his Boys Noize-released work as Spank Rock, while others might clock the name and wonder about the Bon Iver connection (we’ll get to that later). But after almost a decade touring with everyone from The Avalanches to Justin Vernon, holing up in Berlin for 37d03d residencies, and committing to discovering and collaborating with new Philadelphia talent, Baltimore-born LA-based Naeem is releasing his first record under his own name.

“When somebody asks what kind of music I make, I just say rap music,” he says, “but then they listen and are highly disappointed”. You see, it’s actually very hard to define Naeem's sound. His forthcoming album, Startisha -- four years in the making, out 12 June -- has features from artists including Velvet Negroni, Francis and the Lights and Ryan Olson, across a genre-hopping tracklist that boasts reflective love songs one minute and queer dance tunes the next. It feels like a complete representation of a person; whole and thoroughly personal.

On lead single “Simulation” -- which is out now -- Naeem reminds himself and us that social constructs are impermanent and can be changed. “I hope it’s not mistaken for a nihilist’s lullaby,” he says, “it’s an activist hymn. The song has lots of different DNA on it." Written in Kansas City with producers Morris and Tom Richman under the influence of a whole lot of BBQ, it wasn't until a year later that he found himself working on it (and the rest of the album) at Justin Vernon’s studio, April Base, in Eau Claire Wisconsin with Ryan Olson and executive producers Sam Green and Grave Good.

“Justin played piano, sampled his own voice note, and very organically the song began to take its final shape. The icing on the cake is when Olson said he could get Swamp Dogg to sing the chorus with me. I died when it happened because Swamp wrote a song called "Synthetic World" in 1970 that influenced a lot of my ideas for “Simulation” alongside Grant Morrison's graphic novel, The Invisibles.”

Lose yourself in the video for “Simulation” and get to know Naeem via these 10 interesting facts...

1. Baltimore truly shaped Naeem
“Baltimore always puts me at a loss for words. My childhood was unique in that I experienced a lot of socioeconomic diversity in a hyper-sexual environment. Baltimore club queen Miss Tony performed at my friend Heidi's bat mitzvah. I know it's not unique for a bat mitzvah to be extravagant or have an A-list celebrity perform, but in this case the celebrity was a drag queen who was popular for the Baltimore club anthems "Pull Your Guns Out" and "How You Wanna Carry It." This was our normal. At the end of the day, Baltimore taught me to have love and respect for all people and cultures, and to never judge or police people’s customs, because all cops are bastards.”

2. His earliest musical memory is watching Purple Rain with his Aunt Trish
“I remember asking her to play "Delirious" from Prince's 1999 album over and over and over again.”

3. Naeem performed the first song he ever wrote on local television
“You might be able to find footage of me on Congressman Kweisi Mfume's talk show The Bottom Line. I was 15. I think it probably sounded like a terrible Mos Def inspired shit show.”

4. His forthcoming album Startisha is named after someone special
“Startisha was a friend me and my sister had as preteens growing up in the Hanlon Park neighbourhood of West Baltimore. She had a massive spirit at such a young age.”

5. Naeem shot the video for “Simulation” during lockdown
“There was a lot of confusion and disinformation coming from the White House about the pandemic, and my original plans of shooting this video with Baltimore filmmaker Matt Porterfield in Tijuana were eventually cancelled. Luckily, I'm quarantined with a highly-skilled director, my partner Scott J. Ross. We came up with a concept that would be simple to shoot, but with each day that passed there were more social distancing restrictions coming from the governor.”

6. It was, understandably, a very hectic process
“It got to a point where we were wearing masks and gloves wiping down all the film equipment that was shipped via FedEx to our home with alcohol or peroxide. My stylist Trudy Nelson would drop wardrobe at my gate wearing a mask and gloves, and we finalised each look through text message. Scott and I aren't one of those couples who work well together so we were constantly arguing because it was too much work for just the two of us. I helped him set up each shot, and then ran in front of the camera to get as many takes as possible before the light changed. Swamp Dogg happens to have a green screen ready to go at all times at his home, so sent us footage of him pants-less singing the word ‘simulation’ over and over again. Justin sent us an iPhone clip of him playing the piano too. Then a good edit, some After Effects work, professional colouring and voila! We had a music video.”

7. On the verge of releasing his four-year-long project, Naeem has mixed feelings

“It feels at first like I’m a terrible musician, but then I remember I was trying to build strong relationships with everyone who took part in making it, and not just simply make an album. And that takes a little extra time.”

8. Bon Iver’s “Naeem” is named after him
“I don't know if it’s about me. I do know it is named after me, but I never asked Justin about it.”

9. Naeem was born under the third sign at a very auspicious time
“I'm a Gemini and I was born at 11:11pm.”

10. Quarantine has taught him some things
“It taught me that I was obsessed with buying stuff. I just had this really bad habit where I felt the need to buy something everyday, just for the sake of buying something. It has also taught me to become closer with my family and to not take them for granted. I really miss clubs and bars and people, but I'm happy the world was forced to stop. I hope people are using the time to reflect on what’s really important in life, and that it helps us form stronger communities and choose better leadership in the future.”

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