Don't get it twisted; some of the best things in life are nasty. Spank Rock, for one. The combination of Hanks (the black on top) and producer Alex "Armani XXXchange" Epton (more white than orange) fermented in grimy parties from Baltimore (where the crew met) to Philadelphia and Brooklyn (where they moved). Augmented live by the Baltimore Bass Connection, DJs Chris "Rockswell" Devlin and Ronnie Darko, Spank Rock makes the crowd perform as much as the group, no matter where the roots get put down.
However, following the past year's hype surrounding B'More Club Music -- an up-tempo, strip-club-friendly modulation on hip-house and a distant cousin to the ghetto-tech/Miami bass that emerged from the Mid-Atlantic in the early '90s -- Spank Rock has become most closely associated with "Bodymore, Murderland," home of the nation's highest crime rate. Like the city of Baltimore, with its gritty pockets and merciless streets, Spank Rock's debut LP, YoYoYoYoYo, is an upfront, in-your-face party, poised to have listeners cracked out like they're sucking down Sparks and Percocet.
"I'm so busy talking to journalist, I don't have time to talk to my best friends," laments Hanks, sounding a tad disassociated.
"But it's like this Spank Rock thing is becoming a movement," a mildly loopy Hanks continues. "My boys are all over URB [Urban Alternative Culture]'s Next 100. People are almost building our rep for us, because thanks to DJs, they're picking up on all kinds of gutter music. It's like the title of the record: The more 'Yo's' the better, because it's a perfect word, because it's second nature. Like the way we drop that fat, funky bass."
The booty-bangers of Spank Rock truly are second nature to Hanks. Hanks' original interests lay in the hip-hop of Mos Def, Common, the Roots, and the Rawkus Records era. But in the last few years, Hanks found his peers in Illadelph -- fueled by DJs including Diplo and Low Budget of Hollertronix, and Cosmo Baker and Ayres of the Rub -- less concerned with "keeping it real" and more into keeping it real funky, which allowed him to entertain and embody the persona of a sex-rap Rico Suave. Of course, none of this would come to fruition without the riddim contributions of Hanks' partner in crime, Epton.
With a background in hardcore bands followed by collaboration with sample-based Jade Tree rock band Zero Zero (originally produced by the revered DFA duo), Epton knows his way around a studio, from the EFX pedals to ProTools. His listening habits encompass everything from MPC hip-hop to baggy and beardo, druggy electronic epics. His production on YoYoYoYoYo's 12 tracks is like a conversation between a calculator and a Geiger counter as ESG plays in the background, or hearing Q-Tip spit over robofunk in the reverberating folds of an arcade designed by architect Frank Gehry. Or maybe seeing Antipop Consortium go geek chic over the Neptunes making London grime twerk. You'd never know it was living-room production. Disembodied sounds manage to be minimalist and mentalist -- no mean feat --and adhere in an insistent grind without ever falling too much into step.
"Spank Rock is like remixing songs that were never there to begin with," says Epton. "I have a lot of stuff recorded on my hard drive -- lyrics and beats -- and later I stick it together in a collage. We don't sit and make songs in six hours; it coalesces from weird bits. But no surprise, when I was little, I'd be playing Legos and not build what was on the box. The way I work is to have the blocks lying around to see what sounds good with each other."
Indeed, Spank Rock is a block party, the most important blocks of which are in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.
However, associating Spank Rock too heavily with Baltimore will only breed misconceptions, because the music's tone, while at times bleeping and metallic, is not gunmetal gray enough. The vibe is more for messing around than lashing out, and it's not claustrophobic enough. The repetition never achieves the surrendering status of mass chanting. Don't let a song or two about poo'nanny distract you. There is percussive layering and concise phrasing, but Spank Rock isn't single-minded enough (in a good way) to be B'More.
That's what Spank Rock isn't. But to use Spank Rock's own lyrics, I'll "tell you what it look like, tell you what it is." While there isn't overt "soul" in the cheesy R&B-meets-hip-hop vein, Spank Rock takes cues from the City of Brotherly Shove, in that Hanks pays obvious attention not just to the words, but to certain ways of projecting and pushing voice. His tongue "is the drum," his mind "the machine," as he claims. Exaggeration, aspiration, exasperation, and perspiration all fuel Spank Rock's verses, which are sometimes shared with foul-mouthed Philly funkstresses Amanda Blank and Kristy (aka the "Typical Girls"). Offended by certain reviews questioning his level of irony, Hanks says that while there is a playful nature to his work, there is no buffoonery. He's "sick wit' it," he'll "stick wit' it." And he hopes that in the end you'll git wit' it.
At the base of it all, however, is the Brooklyn element. After five days of surviving an onslaught of New York minutes, anybody in his right mind would be out of his mind. This desire to get unleashed can be heard in the deluge of taut electro-tech clicks and ticks punctuating each song.
Hanks' producer, Epton, agrees that this was the prevalent Friday attitude he saw during his days as a bike messenger. And it's this vibe of tightly wound throw-down that Epton imbues his productions with, in the hopes that his aforementioned DJ friends and similar tastemakers will also see the tracks as suitable for the jump-off. Between sweat-beaded walls is Spank Rock's native forum.
"I'm a rapper, I'm not a superhero," says Hanks, offering haters the bird. "And Alex is a musician. People will have their opinions about how serious they should take us. But we've got no conflict. We want to make music because it's what we like, and it's what we want people to like."