Asher Roth, rising rap star
Bucks' hip-hop phenom shoots straight to No. 1.
Asher Roth isn't like other rappers.
The rising star whose debut album Asleep in the Bread Aisle went straight to No. 1 when it was released on iTunes on Monday hails from nowhere near the hood.
The 23-year-old rhymer grew up in the middle-class community of Morrisville, in Bucks County. His hip-hop calling card is "I Love College," an ode to higher-education hedonism born of his experiences while sort-of studying to be an elementary-school teacher on the leafy campus of West Chester University.
That song, which Roth calls "satire at its finest," has sold nearly a million copies since its release in January, and been streamed more than 36 million times on his MySpace page.
And there's another thing that sets Asher Roth apart: He's white.
That would seem to stack the odds heavily against him. "For successful white rappers in the mainstream, the reference points are Slim and none," Roth said Monday.
Wool cap on his head, blue boat shoes (no socks) on his feet, peach fuzz on his chin, he was sitting for an interview backstage at the West Chester club the Note before a free show sponsored by MySpace. But first he'd been signing autographs for scores of fans waiting out in the rain.
There were two causes for celebration: It was the day of his CD release, and it was International Cannabis Day. (He plays another MySpace show tonight at World Cafe Live, and one tomorrow at Rutgers in Camden.)
More accurately, there are two successful reference points for Roth. The first is Slim Shady, the alternate nom de rap of Eminem, who was named the best rapper alive by readers of Vibe magazine last year. And there's the New York rap trio that the British newspaper the Guardian referenced last month in proclaiming that "rap is about to get its first white Jewish superstar since the Beastie Boys." (A spokesman for Roth said he does not consider himself Jewish and does not practice Judaism.)
Roth has been more frequently compared with Eminem - so much so that he rhymes about it in "As I Em," because "it's impossible rejecting an elephant in the room."
"We're two drastically different human beings," said Roth, who calls himself "not an angry person at all." His inflections are sometimes similar to Eminem's, but his style is much more relaxed.
In his songs, Roth goofs around about his reverse minority status. "L'chaim, that's more like it / But what do I know? I'm just a white kid," he rhymes in "Roth Boys," his playful version of Jay-Z's hit "Roc Boys." In the music video, the rapper "with hair like a Troll doll" rides around on a bicycle, his helmet snapped on tightly.
But at times, he said, he has been self-conscious about being a fair-skinned interloper: "There have been points where I was like, What am I doing here? Am I good enough for this? But you just got to go with it."
Roth has been rapping for more than half of his life - he started when he was 11. The son of a design-firm executive and a yoga teacher, Roth said, "My entire childhood was based around Little League baseball and swimming at the pool" - and, hip-hop. He said he spent his childhood studying "lyrical, substance-driven" rappers like Tariq Trotter of the Roots, Common, the Notorious B.I.G., Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, as well as Eminem and the Beasties.
(His father, David, the subject of his son's affectionately sentimental "His Dream," said his main contribution to the early years his son spent rapping around the house was "telling him to shut up.")
"It was the writing thing about being a rapper that allowed me to express myself, but also to be clever and artsy," the younger Roth said. "Just to manipulate words and have fun with that. It's that element of freedom that you get from music."
As an emcee who is unabashed about his suburban origins, Roth's cred might seem more shopping-mall than street. And he would be in danger of being laughed off in a world where authentic urban experience has long been used to market hip-hop to the white teenage masses, if he weren't in possession of one key quality: talent.
"I always get a kick out of it when people say Asher is a gimmick," said Scott "Scooter" Braun, the Atlanta promoter who signed Roth to his fledgling label in 2007 after hearing him on MySpace. "He's a white kid in a predominantly African American genre who goes by his own name. He has no stamp of approval." (When Eminem arrived on the scene in the late '90s, his way was eased by his association with esteemed producer Dr. Dre.)
Braun says connecting with Roth was "a destiny type of thing. I had this concept of who the next great white rapper was going to be," he says. "A white kid being completely unashamed of who he was. And he would have to be able to hold his own with Eminem, else it's not even worth it."
After he heard Roth freestyling over a Kanye West beat, Braun called a number listed on Roth's Facebook page. The phone was answered by Tom Boyd, one of Roth's best friends at West Chester, who along with hype-man Brain Bangley is on the road with the rapper. "We're living the dream," said Bangley, backstage at the Note with Boyd, in shirts emblazoned with the word College.
Roth said that on the day Braun called, he had decided to give up rapping. "Nothing was taking off. I was just another white kid in college who was rapping." Braun dangled the possibility of a record deal, but nothing was decided until two weeks later when Roth went to see Borat.
Inspired by Sacha Baron Cohen's spontaneity, Roth texted Braun: "Trust your gut, let's make some moves."
Next thing he knew, he had taken the longest flight of his life, to Atlanta, where he lived for a year while recording the mix tape The Greenhouse Effect, which started to create buzz. Roth signed first with Braun, and then with hip-hop exec Steve Rifkind, who had put out the Wu-Tang Clan's classic 1993 album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Since then, Roth, who has no fixed address - "he's a Bedouin," his father says - has had his bona fides spoken for. Philadelphia hard-core rapper Beanie Sigel called him "the future." XXL Magazine put him on its cover, and he's been booked for the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia on June 6.
"Asher is a really good kid and a hard worker," said Rifkind, who is seen in the "Roth Boys" video pushing Roth down a grocery aisle in a cart filled with white bread. "And he's not trying to pretend to be anybody else but him."
And who is that? The frat-boy in the "I Love College" video who advises, "Don't leave the house till the booze gone, don't have sex if she's too gone, and when it comes to using condoms, put two on"? Or the crazy-acting charmer who, along with Bangley, elicited this praise at the Note from Katey Spina, 16, of West Chester: "They're potheads, but they're so hot. And they know what's up."
Or the guy who, backed by a sharp three-piece band, rapped about the virtues of eating organic food - and while coming out for "random sex," also urged his fans to "respect women"?
"I hope that ["I Love College"] doesn't define the artist," Roth's father said. "Because I know Asher is a person of character."
Roth himself doesn't want to be trapped by his song.
"Look, I love what it's done as far as bringing people together," he said. "But I think it's the worst song on the album. It's a good beginning point. Just drinking a beer, hanging out, smoking a joint. And if you guys can relate to that, then come follow me. I've got a bunch of other stuff to talk to you about. The idea is to be a teacher."
"But I really don't take myself too seriously." He lowered his voice and looked around conspiratorially. "This really isn't a big deal. And a lot of people want to make it a big deal. . . . I'm just encouraging people to be themselves. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, 'Be yourself, everyone else is taken.' And this is who I am."