Michael T. Regan
Location: Scoop de Ville, 1734 Chestnut Street
Amanda Blank is locked out. Under ordinary circumstances, this wouldn't be a problem for the nice, naughty rapper and performance artist. The Germantown native currently lives blocks from me in the Italian Market area. Surely, she can hang up on me and make calls to the name-brand locals she's worked with and hung around forever Diplo, Thom Lessner, Naeem Juwan and get a lock jimmied.
Not today, though.
"I can't believe I'm stuck in Berlin and that I just lost my room key," says Blank with a huff.
She builds a head of steam for a second, then stops and begins to laugh, more than likely at herself, and steps into an elevator to get the situation worked out.
She'll work it out. That's what she does. She works it.
Only this time, Blank long the side dish, the mouthy, sexed-up hype girl, the rowdy collaborator has to work it on her own.
Her boys are behind her, always. There's no doubt that the guys she calls "brothers" on the scene like Juwan and Alex "Armani XXXchange" Epton, respectively the MC and producer of Philly hip-hoppers Spank Rock who first introduced Blank to the world have her back. And DJ/producer Diplo is there for her. And her best gal pal, Santi "Santigold" White, is, too.But this is Amanda Blank's time. She's on her own. And she loves you.
After seven years of rapping, bumping and beating around Philly's bush hanging at house parties, jumping onstage with Spank Rock, M.I.A. and Santigold, making merry mayhem as a member of Thom Lessner's B-52s-like electro performance art-act Sweatheart she's got a debut solo album, I Love You,due Aug. 4.
"I know, right?" says the 26-year-old Blank as if confiding in a girlfriend about how long it's been since she started her rap game and how her first album is only now coming out. "I'm always in my own little world so I never think that anyone's paying attention to what I'm doing or how long anything's taking."
Lots of people have paid attention.
"Labels were after us from day one," says Juwan. Like Spank Rock, Blank signed with Downtown Records in 2007, but a solo career wasn't a sure thing. "She didn't know if she ever wanted to make her own record."
Michael T. Regan
Such a tease and one that's kept heads turned her way.
The spotlight's been on the cocky-voiced MC not just because she's a lovely, animated girl whose long-worn torn-T glamour punk look has inspired knockoffs across Philly's dancefloors. (We won't vouch for the plastic Pat Benatar look she dons when she performs as part of Sweatheart). Rather because with equal connection to Philly's electronic music and hip-hop worlds as well as its art gallery universe, Blank is an anomaly: Laurie Anderson with a dirty mouth and better dance steps, Karen Finley without the yams.
Since 2002 and the Hollertronix parties of yore at the Ukrainian-American Citizens Association, where DJs Wesley Pentz and Mike McGuire (Diplo, Low Budget) mashed Southern rap, new-wave kitsch and baille funk, Blank's been working Philly's underground dance scene with flash and foul lingo.
Yet when Amanda Mallory daughter of Germantown teacher Pat McGrath, sister of WKDU DJ Katey McGrath wasn't dancing and rapping with Spank Rock at the wood-paneled Ukie hall where capri pants, oversize plastic earrings and Obolon beer bottles once ruled, she was working with the conceptual artists of Space 1026 where the Spandex-clad Sweatheart was conceived.
"Amanda was free and down for whatever me and Rose [Luardo] did," says Sweatheart leader and graphic artist Lessner, 32, of his and 36-year-old girlfriend Luardo's visual arts crew turned band. "Amanda upped our street knowledge, made us better-looking and sing terrific. We needed her spirit around, and in return Amanda might've gained some of our ye olde wisdom."
All that spirit and talent made for some notable collaborations and guest spots as her catty rap got applied to 2005's genre-defining mix CD Bmore Gutter Music and the Eli Escobar/Doug Grayson remix of Britney Spears' "Gimme More" in 2007. She put the piss 'n' vinegar into Pase Rock's "Sexy Motherfucker" and showed the illustrious Wu one, Ghostface Killah, her O-face on a ribald remix of his "Crambodia."
Sweatheart's filth-electro debut, So Cherri, featured Blank getting down on rabid cuts like "Finger Bangin'" and "Dream Beaver." Bangers & Cash, Juwan's team-up with Benni Blanco, spawned a video for their hot hop hit "Loose," starring a raven-haired Amanda on a toilet yapping tough about her carnal knowledge.
Then there was "Bump," from Spank Rock's 2006 debut, YoYoYoYoYo. There, on her first collaboration, Blank cut through Juwan's rude speed rap with her own brand of silly smut.
"If you get us at the right time/ You get it from behind/ In just Chanel pumps/ throw my legs up/ If you ready you can get it anytime you want."
From "Bump" onward, Blank was a white-girl Millie Jackson and Roxanne Shante rolled into one. She made a big impression, and her future was set if she wanted one. At a 2006 dinner/schmooze that Sire Records' Seymour Stein and Philly jock Jerry Blavat threw for Spank Rock and Amanda Blank at Gioia Mia, Stein leaned over to me, at around 3:30 a.m., and said that Juwan was like Prince and Blank was a modern-day Blondie. It's a compliment Juwan still relishes. He credits "Bump" for the lion's share of that acclaim.
It may be rare that someone can begin and build a career so quickly out of a few seasoned stanzas. "But that's what Amanda did with 'Bump,' you know?" Juwan says of their auspicious teaming and the touring that followed.
Michael T. Regan
But people knew her only as the ultimate sexed-up hype gal. Where was the real Amanda?
It's time to find out.
I Love You is one of 2009's hotly anticipated recordings for a couple of reasons:
Because this firebrand takes steps into crunching new-wave pop and swaying slow tunes while keeping her electro-hop raw and raunchy. "I didn't just want to be the chick with the dirty mouth," says Blank. "I wanted to sing. I wanted to have songs."
And because Blank is signed to a publishing, licensing and releasing deal with Downtown, the label home of the likes of Diplo (artist and CEO of Mad Decent), Spank Rock and Philly expatriate Santigold, as well as Mos Def, Justice and Gnarls Barkley.
"There's something in the water down there," says Downtown CEO Josh Deutsch about the Schuylkill punch. "Amanda is part PJ Harvey, part Beastie Boys and part Madonna. She's already happening."
What Deutsch means is that Blank's reputation for sass and skill precedes her; that her queendom got bestowed upon her before she even signed a contract. Blank has long been implicated in the Internet/blog market by virtue of her musical partnership with the much-adored Spank Rock, her raps for several Diplo mixes, her haughty naughty lyrics for the likes of Pase Rock's "Lindsay Lohan's Revenge" ("why you showin' them coochie lips/ gettin' up out your car") and her recent opening slot for Santigold.
I Love You should hit the ground running. All this queen has to do is snatch her rightful crown.
If only she were a little more confident, all this may have been Blank's sooner.
Juwan claims that Blank has always been shy and insecure. Deutsch says that the entire time he's known her, he's never been able to figure out quite what she's thinking because she's often so quiet and withdrawn.
"I still feel as if I'm a novice to this game and don't have my necessary confidence up yet," confessed the petite Blank from her South Philly row home before leaving for her German tour. "I just never really felt comfortable doing my thing until I met people family, really like Thom, Rose and Naeem."
Michael T. Regan
Not that her real family wasn't pretty cool to begin with.
Blank grew up down the street from Germantown High School with an artist mother and a film teacher father (they divorced during their daughter's childhood) who were genuinely hip, even hippie-ish parents. "My dad still wears the Hollertronix shirts I gave him and he's 60," says Blank. "Most people think I look like my mom, which is cool. But I think I look like my dad."
Then there's her sister Katey McGrath, veteran WKDU disc jockey. Blank calls her own musical youth cheerfully vapid and pop-hoppy (lots of Michael Jackson) until her sister turned her on to new wave and punk rock records pulled from the station's shelves.
"If it wouldn't have been for Katey, I'da been a hood rat listening only to Top 40 rap and wearing nothing but hoodies. I mean, I loved New Order first record I think I ever bought on my own but it took my sister to tell me about Joy Division and Ian Curtis." Her new wave past shows through on her album's first single, "Might Like You Better," with its Romeo Void-quoting lyrics ("I might like you better if we slept together") turned into a heated booty call of sorts.
Blank wrote as a kid stories, characters in her head. "Give me a theme and I'll write it," she says. "That worked when I started doing Sweatheart. We'd come up with a theme like being Mormon sisters in the old days with wool dresses where the collars go up and dresses go all the way to the floor and are long-sleeved, and we did our hair in big funny buns. And I'd rap from that perspective. [I do the] same thing with Naeem. I'm playing a character to fit this part on his songs."
She jumped rope as a kid. On "Make It Take It" from I Love You, Blank raps about growing up in Germantown with a sense of the language she used as a child. "It's like how little girls speak. I played jump rope with all the girls on the block from the first grade until high school. All my girlfriends in high school thought it was kid stuff. But the new kids were like, 'No, no, your white girlfriend really can jump rope.'" That song is specifically written for them for the G-town girls. "None of the boys know what I'm talking about."
Naaem Juwan knew.
In 2002, at age 18, Blank met the young rapper outside a Hollertronix gig. At first, Blank says, he was quiet as a mouse. Then one day she saw him on his bike and they got to talking. With Juwan, she would get an opportunity to flex a muscle she'd been working on privately by discussing the raps she was writing. With Juwan, she found herself rapping before she did so for anyone else.
"We were inseparable ever since," says Blank.
Juwan knew who Amanda was before he started hanging with her. "I knew she was hot and that she could dance like crazy with awesome style," says Juwan, who was used to seeing her rocking out and running around the club scene. "No fooling? I admired her from afar."
As wild as Blank was, Juwan found it hard to get to know her at first. "She moves fast."
Michael T. Regan
Blank wasn't pursuing music back then. Juwan's Spank Rock was merely making its initial inroads into Diplo's burgeoning scene. Yet no sooner than Spank Rock got a few guest slots at Hollertronix gigs and hot shots at big Diplo events in Baltimore (where he grew up) and Manhattan, Juwan asked Blank to come along for the ride. Bugged and coaxed was more like it.
"When we talked I found in her something that came natural rapping and songwriting," says Juwan. "She never took it seriously. I'm the first person who asked her to do that."
She did. It was at one of Roxy Summers' aka club promoter Roxy Cottontail parties with Diplo at Rothko that Spank Rock made his New York City debut in November 2004.
Nobody knew he was bringing Blank onstage. "Diplo nearly died as he didn't even know she could rap, let alone get onstage for my big debut," says Juwan.
Juwan nearly died, too, when Blank claimed that her nerves were getting the better of her that night.
"It was actually pissing me off," laughs Juwan. "At sound check she's whispering into the mic and crying. She forgot her clothes and had to go shopping for new ones right before the show. Roxy was freaking and calling me a fucking idiot. I told Roxy that Amanda was really good but secretly it was the worst. I thought she was going to ruin my show."
Right up until the moment Juwan had to pass his mic to Blank, he was in a cold-sweat panic.
But then she snatched it out if his hand and killed it. That night, Blank's mad chatter made her a star.
"What the fuck happened out there?" says Juwan. "I called her a fucking asshole, yelled about giving me drama. I never knew whether she was really sick or faking it. To this day, she insists she was sick, but I don't know. Either way, she made it real and kept touring and recording with me because she's a natural at this."
In summer 2004, Thom Lessner was already a famous painter known for his cartoonish stylings; his girlfriend, Rose Luardo, was a noted performance artist. That's when they were introduced to Blank.
"Rose met Amanda and her pack of rats just when we started dating," says Lessner, who was actually worried they'd be a bad influence on Luardo, and was even a bit intimidated by Blank's Hollertronix party groupies. Until they got to know her.
Michael T. Regan
Lessner's first real "bro down" with Blank was that summer, when she called him to be the getaway driver to break free from a bad living situation. An old roommate had changed the locks to Blank's house and Lessner helped her break in, get her gear and then motor away. It wasn't long afterward that Blank, Luardo and Lessner began wearing matching weaves and watching horror movies all night.
"Naeem got me used to the mic, but Rose and Thom really helped me to be brave onstage," says Blank.
"She had curiosity and something to say," notes Lessner. "Once she joined Sweatheart [in 2005], she looked totally at ease. The next Amanda would have it easier because of the first Amanda's blueprint."
Lessner fondly recalls Sweatheart gigs at art galleries, old-age homes, diners in Albany, N.Y., summer camps in Wildwood for mentally handicapped adults and a talent search at the Granite Run Mall where the trio lost out to a 9-year-old blind kid. Blank even did a flashy installation with Luardo at the Megawords storefront event in Chinatown in September 2008. Nail Me was an interactive nail salon where the duo clipped and painted Lee Press-Ons upon request. "I have a funny feeling that Amanda wanted to go to beauty school," muses Lessner.
Lessner's kitshy-comic notion of cheesy metal and pop camp aided Blank's transition as a performance artist. Think of Samantha Fox at a high school kegger and you've got the trio's vision for Sweathheart whether they dressed as sexy construction workers, Neumann-Goretti High prom queens, a laser-bearded *NSYNC cover band or Easter eggs. "She even owned a lot of her own costumes," notes Lessner.
Even though Blank gave Lessner and Luardo tons of "classy Amanda-me-downs" like Gucci sunglasses and stretch pants, Sweatheart has its own tailor now and is set for its own level of stardom with Blank on board. Along with mastering a six-song vinyl Sweatheart EP, Tell Your Sister, produced by Julian Grefe and Jeff Ziegler, for September and a full-length CD for early 2010, Lessner's on call by Blank to make T-shirts, logos, record sleeves and underwear for her solo stuff including the Hall & Oates-like cover for her "Get It Now" single.
"What I've been making for her is in the spirit of the big egos from arena rock bands of the '80s," says Lessner. "No one has the stones these days to put their face all over a T-shirt the way David Lee Roth used to."
Except Blank. She's got the stones.
It might have taken a few more high-priority label meetings like the one I was privy to at Gioia Mia. Plus she might have needed some distance from her raunchy contributions to YoYoYoYoYo, Bangers & Cash and Sweatheart's "Fingerbangin'" to get her stones up.
Though she claims she signed to Downtown before any of the Diplo crew, Blank sounds as if she were scared to commence recording. "Honestly, I was spending someone else's money what if I didn't have the goods?" she asks. Plus she wanted to make her own way and smell her own flowers before recording a debut.
While in the studio listening to fellow Diplo collaborator M.I.A. record 2007's Kala, the British/Sri Lankan singer told Blank something smart. "Honey, sometimes you got to get outside of the studio and live life," remembers Blank.
That's what she did. She got out of a lousy relationship, rode her bike, ran to XXXchange's apartment in Brooklyn and wrote songs on his couch about family, friendships, people she loves and people we hate that she could sing out loud to.
"Big brothers" Diplo, Switch and XXXchange produced I Love You. "They're nice to me, beat me up, mess with me, embarrass me in front of boys everything a big brother would do."
Her "other half, my best friend," Juwan, raps on "Gimme What You Got" even though he purposely stayed away from Blank for a while as she recorded her debut. "She doesn't owe her success or the success of this record to anyone but herself," says Juwan. "I didn't even come around." (Then again, he's stayed away from the studio as Spank Rock since 2006.)
Blank's debut is more expansive than her collaborations, despite there being naughty bits heard throughout its wealth of roller-skating jams, jump-rope jams, new-wave jams and even slow jams like her "Leaving You Behind" duet with Lykke Li.
"I'm sure Downtown wasn't ready for that," she exclaims. "I just didn't want to do an all-electro hip-hop fast rap record not that there's anything wrong with that about sex."
And it's not. There's a party going on at every turn, make no mistake, what with its mixes provided by Switch, Diplo and XXXchange. Lyrically, too, Blank's got the party started. What else would a deep dark dance cut called "DJ" be if not a bash-about with a spinster? And sex? While its rhythm is pumped for maximum R&B effect, Blank twists the lyrical sample of Romeo Void for "Might Like You Better" into a pretzel of triple-entendres. "Gimme What You Got" and "Lemme Get Some" are all about the zipless fuck. But even at their hypest, "Shame on Me" and "Love Song" find something tender to crow about her buds, her past. And the block-rocking rope-jumping "Make It Take It" is as much about living in the city as anything Springsteen's ever accomplished. Certainly, it's groovier.
"To me, this record is a Philly thing, about my neighborhood, really, and all my friends. Sometimes when I listen to it, I'm not even sure if people outside of Germantown will get it. Sometimes I'm still just that same hood rat on the corner."
Amanda Blank opens for Yeah Yeah Yeahs Wed., July 29, 8:30 p.m., $25, Electric Factory, 421 N. Seventh St., 215-336-2000, livenation.com.