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Deem Spencer

Written by
Phillip T. Annand

Photos by
Jessica Lehrman

"I’m on my way to iHop right now."

"The homies wanted pancakes."

One bar into this phone call and we are already lost inside a Deem Spencer lyric. A good writer, a more seasoned writer, or just any writer at all, would have been able to use Deem’s admission of a 9pm trip to the International House of Pancakes to situate our protagonist within the larger state of rap in 2019. I am not a writer by any definition of the word, so I do nothing besides drop the ball and appreciate a mission of stoned excellence while slipping further down the Deem Spencer slope.

"I saw you open for Nasty Nigel at the Knockdown Center in Queens. How many shows had you done at that point?"

I will take this opportunity to note that I had absolutely no idea who Deem Spencer was when I first witnessed him bob and weave his way around a microphone wire in 2016. I was minding my own business in the back of a performance art space, supporting a friend, when a pencil sketch of a rapper with a wide toothed grin made the most of twenty-five minutes and millennial attention spans.

"I started throwing my own shows in March 2016. I had done one show each month up until that point. So it was probably my fifth show."

The person standing on stage is more J.J. than Jay-Z. He looks like he stole the mic. It was my feeling at the time that he had better start doing something good with it before an adult took it back. Speakers crack. A decaying arrangement of strings and keys begin to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon themselves across a pile of kick drums. Before someone who files their taxes on time could cut the sound, the kid who otherwise looks like he should be duct taped to the corner seat of an F train starts rapping:

“If I cared about some money I’d be in college wasting it."

Smirks from the audience. "Fuck yeahs!" from first semester dropouts and degree holders alike. The great white flash of a knowing smirk, sneaks out from underneath the edge of a bucket hat. He is not nervous. He is rapping south, directly at his own shoelaces. Looking up every single time a lyric stabs someone squarely in their fragile sense of self.

"Ya’ll niggas told me I’m a king / Then you told me I’m a slave / Then you told me Imma win / Then you told me I’m afraid."

To say that I was utterly unprepared to be verbally assaulted by a high schooler would be an understatement. There are very few breaths being taken between bars or within the audience. Lyrics are spilling and bouncing like jelly beans across the cement floor and no one can turn off the faucet. The once responsible adult is in rapture and has taken a seat.

"I’m the hearty harper, the Pied Piper of the party starter / Shorty, I could turn the water to a flame / I’m a martyr marker, the art of ark / I’m a water walker / I could lead the unholy on a wave."

Nothing has changed in his demeanor or delivery but he is now showing off. There is a pocket, and he is within it. Everyone standing in the crowd has silently agreed to lay down and take turns volunteering as the doormat upon which Deem Spencer will wipe his feet before stepping into our living room.

"We are not friends / I do not love you / We are locked in / I will not dive in when the shop struggle / I will not play save a hoe / The greatest soap does nothing for a popped bubble."

The song ends and we, the entire audience, have joined Deem Spencer’s PR team. It has taken approximately two minutes to become a disciple. I will spend the next day emailing and texting friends in places of various altitudes—the firmest of co-signs, the strongest of suggestions. Crowdsourcing support for a cult leader who can’t legally buy a drink, has never been approached with more certainty. Kool-Aid served. Kool-Aid consumed. We have been fruit punched in the solar plexus.

Deem Spencer walks off stage. Disappears into a cloud of daps and sincere nods. I lose him in the crowd. He is unrecognizable without a microphone.

Four years later, everything and nothing has changed. Deem still presents himself as the least likely hero. Deadpan, blank stare, slow to smile, even slower to speak. For a man who articulates for a living he has a shocking capacity for silence. At this moment he stands at the precipice of some version of greatness. Spencer has been profiled, co-signed, Pitchforked, and Faded in ways that other rising artists would auction off appendages to duplicate. His initial offering sunflower (2016) is fifteen brilliant minutes of back row, high school observations from your friend who could have gone Ivy League if he had done his homework. His 2017 follow up EP, we think we alone, is a twenty-two minute low frequency sound bath that handles deep loss with glowing hopefulness. Both projects are jaw-dropping appetizers. We await the main course.

Deem has spent the better part of the past six months in his childhood bedroom going through a breakup.

"Small. Two big windows. With a view, you feel me?"

A view of what? "The neighbors house."

Waking up between 5 and 6am, he proceeds to write, record, and mix by himself nearly every morning. He finishes his upcoming project, Pretty Face, at the same time as the relationship.

"I feel like my story is for me to tell. It fascinates me to be able to talk about it. I realized listening back to the tape I just finished, it’s really just me talking about my relationship. It’s as simple as that. Just me talking about it and making fun of it."

Emotions are no laughing matter. That makes things difficult because Deem Spencer has jokes. "I used to make music with no intent, so I was just like rapping my ass off but not talking about anything and when I started actually talking about myself, it came out in these very personal but reckless raps."

Watching Deem tap dance on the razor’s edge between heartlessness and sincerity on Pretty Face is not a lighthearted endeavor. The album is a free fall into heartbreak. The production twinkles and shines but only underscores the fact that no one else is in the amusement park.

It’s nearly impossible to make out what Deem is singing on the opening track "Really, I" but the pain is palpable. His voice gives out on him, dropping on and off the track, broken laughs haunt the background before an ominous beat drops and Deem’s now crystal clear voice rips across ear drums: "I asked the girl’s guy why we all can’t love her." Before you have time to think of an answer, the production has short circuited, strummed chords from some kind of digital harp float behind a short, smirking lullaby about cocaine. Conversations are happening with parents and you are standing in the corner of Deem’s bedroom, watching him process his emotions in real time. Rain is on the windows. Nine minutes into the album and the familiar chime of a FaceTime call rips you out of this alternative reality, forces you to check your phone to determine your place in this universe and suddenly it’s all very clear that you, or Deem, or both of you need to pick up the call.

"It sort of became a go-to for me to just talk about myself and not care how I talk about (the breakup) or not care how I reference the people around me. Just telling the stories."

That storytelling has reached new peaks on Pretty Face. Deem’s break up and the inevitable emotional fall out that trails behind it, are territories that rap doesn’t often explore. Growing up listening to Kid Cudi and Kanye supersize their emotions into massive, cinematic Broadway plays surely had an influence but Deem’s approach to songwriting is not only arrestingly honest but shockingly original within the genre. I ask what he listened to while recording, songs that may have helped him process his emotions. "Get money music," he answers. Everyone copes differently. If you were raised in the South Side of Jamaica Queens when Curtis Jackson ran rap you might feel the same way.

"I’ve known the words to ‘Many Men’ since I was seven years old. My mom had the album." The cracks in Deem’s wool knit armor reveal a Teflon vest of confidence underneath. "50 Cent really just influenced how I move around here and that reflects in my music. 50, at least for the kids I grew up with, influenced the way we move. 50 is like the soundtrack for..." Deem’s voice goes quiet with admiration. "It was really like some superhero shit." The confidence with which Spencer practices his craft defies many aspects of his character. The youngest brother carrying the wisdom of the eldest. Engaged but utterly unimpressed, Deem is running a one man race.

"I see myself dropping whatever projects I feel like making, at my own pace, for as long as I live and that’s all I want to do." If the fact that Deem’s vocals are often mixed to a level one could generously describe as "out of reception" wasn’t enough of a hint, Deem is making this music for himself.

"I want to be better than everyone but that’s not the point. I want people to feel good while they’re listening and be able to relate. But I want something to listen to that relates specifically to me. That’s really the point."

But what about the pressure point? There are passionate statements of artistic intent and then there are cold realities. If the artist serves only themselves, where does that leave the listener? Rappers have always been transparent in their service to their fanbase. We fully expect albums to be interrupted by two to three sparkly gifts specially wrapped for radio. But there are no compromises on Pretty Face. Deem Spencer made the album he needed to hear and nothing else. The decisions he makes alone in his bedroom will dictate the arc of his career. The game is fickle and the spotlight moves quickly. How much does he pay attention?

"It’s whatever. It feels the same as all the other tapes ‘cause like all the other tapes I made it on my own time for myself pretty much. I know the only difference is a lot more people are going to hear it this time because, I don’t know, it all came together in the last few years."

There has to be more. He’s too aware not to realize what’s at stake. Scoring the soundtrack to your own story is a worthy endeavor, but Deem Spencer has a few thousand people waiting to borrow his headphones. Hans Zimmer doesn’t compose for himself. Is there space for Deem Spencer to continue practicing an alchemy entirely his own? At what point will he grow out of the bedroom that afforded him this freedom?

"Is it failing if you did it exactly the way you wanted to do? I don’t know. You can fail by choosing the wrong methods, I guess. But as far as what I really want to do personally, which is put out great work..." Deem pauses.

Silence.

For the first time in the conversation I can hear his brain collecting itself. How many sacrifices are acceptable? How many compromises are unavoidable? How important is it to reach the finish line if someone else drew it?

"I guess I’m not really comfortable at failing, even if I did it exactly how I wanted to do it."

The multitudes contained inside that short burst of indecision is what greatness sounds like. Scores of artists before Deem Spencer and legions of those to come after will tiptoe through the very same minefield. Their genius rests within the decisions they make. The slight of hand they employ to push the wheel in both directions when they arrive at impossible forks.

"I’ve recently become more open. I’m learning how certain things work. I’m learning the best ways to make sure that everybody can hear my work versus just being a loose cannon and throwing everything online. I feel like I’ve grown to appreciate working with others more in the last year, so in a way I’ve grown out of doing everything my own way. So, it lowers the percentage of failure. If I can express my goal with my collaborators and include multiple insights in my decisions..." Deem’s voice trails off again.

Silence.

He is listening to the implications of what he’s saying. The compromises he could be speaking into existence.

"It’s crazy how my answer changed."

There’s nothing crazy about it. The answers and the contradictions that form Deem Spencer are the foundation of his magnetic draw. A truly transparent struggle. If you’ve been there before then it’s impossible to look away. Well over an hour into the conversation, we begin to pack it up, having long since passed the point of gathering what was needed. It’s difficult to end a work in progress. I am in no particular rush but I am still searching for a way to climb out of this Deem Spencer lyric. A writer would find a way to make sense of this sixty minute run on sentence but I have only succeeded in lodging myself further in this wonderland of abbreviated genius. I pause. Attempt to let the beat respirate in my best Deem Spencer impression. And I ask him what’s left to say. It’s your world if you want it, Deem.

"This is my best tape. That’s all I want to say."

Silence.

The music will say the rest.