Spank Rock, the hip-hop/funk/electro group originally from Baltimore that was the subject of an intense, year-long, behind-the-scenes industry battle, recently completed a four album deal with Downtown Records, the independent label responsible for launching Gnarls Barkley’s platinum-selling debut St. Elsewhere. Formed less than two years ago by former major label talent scout Josh Deutsch, Downtown beat out heavy-hitting contenders like Domino and Atlantic to sign the much-loved underground sensation known for its crafty beats, raunchy lyrics, and raucous live shows.
Spank Rock is certainly enjoying the fruits of the new music economy. While US sales of the debut album YoYoYoYoYo are negligible, they receive much critical love from the press and bloggers, with dozens of tracks and remixes in heavy circulation on MP3 sites. There are two mix CDs , one for the Fabric Live series and a Scion/Ninja Tune comp. The most recent singles have been vinyl and/or digital-only releases, including Pase Rock’s X-rated party anthem Lindsay Lohan’s Revenge and its absolutely not-suitable-for-work video that was secretly hosted on the Spank Rock website for several months. In New York, they’ve headlined Bowery Ballroom, McCarren Pool, and most recently, the new Highline Ballroom (just days after opening for Bjork at the Apollo and closing out Coachella).
Spank Rock’s music is pretty irresistible, and its easy to see why an ambitious and apparently agile label like Downtown thinks they can be huge. But Spank Rock’s got staying power no matter what label they’re on. The group’s recent live gigs have been spectacular, extensive touring refining their rough-and-ready club chops into a compelling, exciting big room stage show. The crowds are rabid, and at shows fans know the words to all the chants, especially from the most recent tracks. Naeem Juwan – aka Spank – definitely has star power, and producer Alex Epton aka XXXchange’s beats keep getting better and better (though struggles over control of the name Spank Rock nearly derailed their future). Like P-Funk and Digital Underground before them, Spank Rock have the funk, and that could give them mass appeal. Can Downtown hit the jackpot again?
Spank Rock released their debut album, YoYoYoYoYo, on the Ninja Tune-affiliated hip-hop imprint Big Dada in 2006. While the album has sold less than 13,000 copies in the US to date (according to SoundScan), singles like “Rick Rubin” and “Bump” were extremely popular in clubs and on blogs, and the group has toured extensively over the past 18 months, including slots on last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival and this year’s Coachella, and opening for artist-fans like Bjork, Ghostface, Beck, and the Beastie Boys.
When the group originally signed to Big Dada, it was a 50–50 partnership between two Baltimore-bred friends – MC/vocalist Spank Rock (Naeem Juwan) and producer Armani XXXchange (Alex Epton) – who were managed by Brian De Ran of Leg Up Management. Before and after the album’s release, Spank Rock toured almost continuously in the US and overseas with collaborators Chris Rockswell (Chris Devlin) and Ronnie Darko (Ronald Rubarth) – aka Baltimore Bass Connection, and a revolving crew that includes Santogold and Amanda Blank (Amanda Mallory), though after a few tours XXXChange chose to remain home in the studio. As serious interest arose from numerous major and indie labels, Naeem signed a separate management deal with Jayson Jackson, a former P. Diddy protege whose other clients have included Mos Def and Lauryn Hill. After months of negotiations the pair legally split, with Naeem retaining the rights to the Spank Rock name. “Spank Rock is and always will be Naeem,” says Jackson. “He’s looking forward to working with XXXchange and other producers too.”
Downtown Records is a small label with six staffers and offices in New York and Los Angeles. In addition to signing the Danger Mouse/Cee-lo collaboration Gnarls Barkley, Downtown’s other artists include Cold War Kids, Art Brut, Eagles of Death Metal, and the soon-to-debut Kevin Michael. The label has also released the soundtracks to the films Masters of Horror II and Borat. The label was founded in January 2006 by Josh Deutsch, a former A&R scout for Elektra and Virgin, with $10 million in venture capital from John Josephson, an investment banker with Allen & Co.; Stan Schuman, another Allen & Co. banker; telecom magnate Michael Hirtenstein; and Sheridan Square Entertainment founder Joe Pretlow; according to the New York Post. The company is s projecting $25 million in revenue and a $2.5 million profit this year. The label has a distribution deal with Warner’s ADA and a joint venture agreement with WMG‘s Atlantic, who has the option to participate in any of the label’s releases it chooses. So far, Atlantic has exercised its option only for Gnarls Barkley and the Borat soundtrack, and are rumored to be considering the upcoming Kevin Michael release.
The deal with Downtown includes both Spank Rock and XXXchange, as well as Amanda Blank, who Downtown has signed separately as a solo artist. Sources familiar with the final contract said Downtown insisted on including XXXchange in any agreement, and he will produce at least 50% of the next two Spank Rock albums and receive “Executive Producer” credit on all future releases, while remaining free to produce for other artists and labels. XXXchange is also set to produce the lion’s share of Amanda Blank’s album, and is currently in the studio with The Kills for Domino. According to Brian De Ran, who remains XXXchange’s manager, “it has been a little less than amicable split all around, but they have remained friends and will continue to work together.” He expects work on the next Spank Rock album to begin this summer.
Downtown’s deal with Spank Rock is worldwide with the exception of the UK, where no contract has been signed but Domino remains the leading contender. In fact, Domino was very close to winning the entire project when Downtown came in out of nowhere with an offer that was bigger per record than most indies can offer for a four album deal, according to people familiar with the negotiations. Big Dada did well too. One attorney involved said that at one point Ninja was holding out for more than $1 million, and ended up with a significant part of the advance on the next two records. The original recording and publishing contracts between Spank Rock and Big Dada were signed before Spank Rock had a manager or even an attorney, and did not anticipate the kind of success and attention they have since received.
Recently, the New York Post reported that Downtown Records and Engadget founder Peter Rojas are seeking to start RCRD LBL, a digital-only imprint that will offer its music for free on an ad-supported website. The business model is to seek revenues entirely from advertising and sponsorship, with the music being given away for free. Spank Rock is not part of this new venture, said Jayson Jackson, which remains in such a nascent stage that it has yet to negotiate contracts for artists to participate, according to the New York Post.
Editor’s note: Downtown Records declined to comment for this story.