Jeremy Spencer is first and foremost a writer, so it may well be that his Hip Hop handle, Sleep, is a reference to Hamlet ’s “To sleep, perchance to dream.” And there’s the rub; Spencer doesn’t need to hit the pillow in order to dream. With his third full-length release, The H.W. Bush/Clinton Era , an exhilarating concept album and sonic scrapbook that hearkens back to Hip Hop’s ’90s heyday, Sleep is living his dream.
Ironically, Sleep can’t be getting much sleep these days. He works full time, helps raise his kids, writes (he’s currently chipping away at a novel), is going to school to become a teacher and routinely turns out thought-provoking and highly musical tracks and albums. Bush/Clinton is an excellent case in point. On the surface, it’s a banging Hip Hop track record. But dig deeper and you’ll discover remarkably nuanced and textural songs that also happen to be history lessons, cautionary tales and contemporary truths.
“That was important to me,” Sleep says in the control room of Otto Labs studio in Covington. “It’s one thing to be a good lyricist, but if the music doesn’t sound good, it’s not really going to matter. It’s not going to stick with the listener.”
Bush/Clinton could almost be considered an accidental album. Sleep released The Definition of Insanity, a five-song collaborative EP with Nick Pedigo and The Gonz (under group name Lithium) that detailed the inevitable arc of a relationship, back in August. At that point, he wasn’t thinking in terms of writing and recording. But inspiration, like water, rises to its own level.
“I went to see (the N.W.A. bio film) Straight Outta Compton, and that inspired me to do something ’90s oriented,” Sleep says. “I feel like that was the golden age of Hip Hop. And my music is always themed; it’s always a story. I feel like albums should be an experience, not just a random collection of songs. An album should take you back to a certain place, jog memories of things you forgot. With Bush/Clinton Era, I wanted to remind people of the (music of the) ’90s, but also add in some social commentary of how things were back then and how they’re still the same now, in certain cases.”
Astonishingly, The H.W. Bush/Clinton Era was finished three weeks after Sleep saw Straight Outta Compton. Immediately after the movie, he canvassed a number of producers directly or indirectly connected to The Fraternity, an online collective with members spread across the country that he helped launch. Texas producer Wonder Breed supplied Sleep with close to 40 beats, and he began to assemble his soundtrack based on sound and compatible vibe. (The album features various producers and guest spots, including local MCs like Monty C. Benjamin and Santino Corleon.)
“In about seven to 10 days, I wrote every song,” Sleep says. “Then I did another two to three weeks of recording. It all happened pretty fast. I knew exactly what idea I wanted to go with and the sound I wanted.”
There are more than a few moments of hair-raising power on Bush/Clinton, like the gauzily realistic gunfire on “B.Y.O.G.,” the roll call of keep-the-poor-poor realities on “Government Assistance” and the sad litany of local-TV-news shooting reports threaded throughout “Cannibalization,” a candid assessment of the self-destructive elements present in some black neighborhoods that is alternately sympathetic and critical. Like the N.W.A. movie (but often transferred to the streets of Ohio), it’s an undiluted homage to ’90s Hip Hop that also illuminates the harsh socio-economic circumstances of the era.
“I wanted to make songs that people who grew up in the ’90s could identify with,” Sleep says. “ ‘Cannibalization’ is probably my favorite; that’s going to be the next video. That’s a song that a lot of people wouldn’t make.”
The same could be said for the bulk of Sleep’s impressively themed catalog. After a series of exploratory mixtapes, Sleep detailed his childhood in Lockland and Mt. Healthy on his debut album, 2013’s Lockland 95, by titling the tracks with the names of people he knew growing up and telling their stories. His sophomore album, last year’s acclaimed Branded: The Damon Winton Story, was also conceptual, telling a linear tale of urban despair through eight tracks and showcasing the cinematic scope of Sleep’s storytelling abilities.
While Bush/Clinton is thematic, it’s Sleep’s most song-driven and dividable full-length to date, making it easier to translate to a live presentation.
“I don’t have a live band, but I’m working on that,” Sleep says of his performance ambitions. “My music is so themed, it’s hard to perform. A lot of my music, you just have to sit with because it’s so story-oriented. At my core, I’m a writer. I’m also writing a book, so my music kind of displays that — it kind of sounds like an audiobook. But this album is more traditional. I could perform a lot of these songs; they’re not stories, they’re just songs.”
Right now, the future is shades bright for Sleep. Along with assembling a band (he’s previously done shows using the soundtracks that comprise his albums), he also just returned from his first West Coast trip, where he says he made important connections and exposed his music to a new audience. Some projects with The Fraternity network (he’s never even met many of his collaborators, because members of the online collective are spread across the country) are also on the table. And as The H.W. Bush/Clinton Era clearly proves, Sleep is no more than a flash of inspiration and three weeks of work away from a brilliant new album.
So just how does Sleep manage to juggle the various personal and professional chainsaws that need to remain airborne?
“I write in the car. It’s very dangerous,” he says with a laugh. “My children live in Kentucky and I live in Cincinnati, and I get them every weekend, so I’m constantly driving back and forth.
“I’m a pretty fast writer. When I’m inspired, I just want to get it done and out. I’ve never understood when people are like, ‘I’ve been working on an album for a year.’ I understand that you want to make sure everything’s right, but you don’t want to miss the moment of what inspired you to do that.”
Find SLEEP’s music at sleep513.bandcamp.com.