Amanda Blank: Philadelphia Freedom
Shane McCauleyAs a teen, Amanda Blank got schooled in music by hanging out at her sisters radio show (and smoking cigarettes).
Twenty-six-year-old MC Amanda Blank is still trying to get past her Married With Children moment. On indie-rap crew Spank Rock’s celebrated, 2006 debut, YoYoYoYoYo, she contributed the following lines in honor of Christina Applegate’s alter ego: “See, I like my ass sassy/I keep my man happy/’Cause I ride like Kelly Bundy/Yo I keep that shit nasty.” For years after, that reference in the song “Bump” stalked Blank nearly everywhere Google’s search spider found her. She became that nasty girl rapper.
“It’s been a few years since they made that album,” Blank says. “Back then I was just writing rap verses. Now I sit down and write songs.”
Indeed, Blank, a product of the hipster seaboard that includes resurging sounds from Baltimore (Debonair Samir), Philadelphia (Diplo and Switch) and New York (Santigold), has matured and is stepping out with a solo debut, I Love You, due on August 4 on Downtown Records. It is one of the year’s most-anticipated indie-dance albums, alongside Kid Sister’s own October debut. On the long player, Blank steps away from her Baltimore club–flavored sound and takes a stab at more accessible pop. She even sings.
“If people want to hear my Baltimore club style, they can buy a mixtape,” Blank says. “This album is about loud, poppy songs. Melodies and harmony were a lot more important to me.”
On “Make it Take It,” a snappy track with drum and bass undertones, Blank sings as fast as she once spit rhymes. While she hails from rap, the track paints from a punklike palette, her choruses bending upward in a sustained siren call. A cover of Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never” brings Blank back to her booty-bass vixen role, albeit without the uptempo grooves of B’more or the Auto Tune of clubland. “Big Heavy” has a disco snare and bell-bottom bass line that could have come straight from the DFA catalog. And Blank is masterful in her deconstruction of LL Cool J’s “I Need Love,” which she calls “Love Song.” In an interlude on the track, a father figure says, “What did I tell you about these rappers . . Rappers are bums,” and Blank responds, “No, Daddy, no.”
Blank, with a wardrobe of metallic, neon and glitter, skates between bad-boy addict (a nonalbum single, “Get It Now,” retraces Heart’s “Magic Man”) and ball-busting heartbreaker. You can track her white-girl-rapper lineage from Deborah Harry to Princess Superstar to Peaches, though Blank is less of a put-on: She says her true influences were African-Americans such as MC Lyte and Missy Elliott.
Growing up as a child of divorced artists in the Germantown community of Philadelphia, Blank started writing rhymes as a teen, but it wasn’t until Spank Rock recorded its first album that she was asked to spit for posterity on “Bump.” While she always followed hip-hop (and could recite, as a child, Blondie’s “Rapture” word for word), it was an older sister’s radio show on influential college station WKDU that opened a young Blank’s eyes to indie, punk rock and gothic flavors. “As a teen I would hang out with her at the studio for six hours straight and just smoke cigarettes,” Blank says.
After high school, she moved to an area of Philly — near South 13th and Locust streets — that she calls the “gayborhood.” There she discovered that her neighbors were Major Lazer member Switch, Spank Rock’s Naeem Juwon, and M.I.A. producer Diplo. “Diplo — he’s my big, crazy, older brother,” she says.
All of the above, along with Spank Rock producer Alex “XXXChange” Epton, Santigold (with whom Blank toured this spring), Chuck Inglish of the Cool Kids and Lykke Li ended up in the studio with her as she laid down tracks for I Love You in New York. Gary Richards, the promoter behind Saturday’s HARD Summer festival, where Blank will perform, happened upon the rapper in the Big Apple. “I was in New York, in the studio with Crookers, and Diplo and Switch were working on Major Lazer,” he says. “They were also working with Amanda, and playing her album. Right there I said, ‘I’m booking her.’ Her album is sick.”
Blank is part of a new generation of dance-oriented artists that knows no genre boundaries, has little reverence for copyright, and easily surfs between street and camp. She uses LL Cool J and Heart as canvases for songwriting that is at times both intimate and tongue-in-cheek. There is enthusiasm for the recorded song (Heart, Blank says, is “the ultimate girl band — two badass chicks”) and “Internet digging” — the new crate digging — but for the new kids like Blank, a track is also means to end, which includes paying gigs. Key cuts from I Love You, after all, are available for streaming on Blank’s MySpace page. The Blank business plan takes a page from Chris Anderson’s book Free: Why $0.00 Is The Future of Business, which submits that people will spring for premium content after they’re teased with some samples.
Blank’s premium content is unlocked with a ticket to see her perform. She recently opened for Santigold, whom she calls an “instrumental, smart and creative” influence for her career. She’s now touring with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Her shows, she says, are minimal on purpose. It’s just her and a microphone. And no Kelly Bundy references. (“If I never heard that song again, it would be okay,” she admits).
“I remember seeing Peaches years ago in Philly, and she came out completely alone, without even a DJ, and she did the entire show by herself. I was totally captured by it. I don’t need the help, either. No background dancers or singers. For two months I’ve been doing that. I want to prove myself.”
Amanda Blank performs alongside Underworld, Chromeo, Crookers, A-Trak, Tiga and more at Hard Summer Saturday at the Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood. 18+. Doors at 8 p.m. Advance tickets: $65. Info: hardfest.com.
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