Can a white suburban kid change the face of hip-hop?
If there’s any truth in Revolutionary Road, American Beauty, Mad Men and the writing of John Cheever—that everyone in suburbia is secretly miserable, living life with crushing boredom or a crippling secret that’s killing them softly—you wouldn’t believe it on the first warm spring day in West Chester, Pa., where the flowers are finally beginning to bloom and college kids equipped with backpacks scramble across town to classes they’re running late for.
It’s a quaint borough. Gorgeous. “Diverse … prosperous … collegiate … accessible,” its website proudly boasts. Huge, impressive houses spring up behind white picket fences. Lush pastures of rolling green farmland dominate the landscape. Picturesque. Peaceful. Idyllic.
This is where “I Love College”—the boozy, marijuana-worshipping, horny ode to university life—was born.
“I Love College” came from the pen of 23-year-old Asher Paul Roth, a rail-thin, perpetually disheveled white boy with “hair like a Troll doll” (so he says on another of his hits, “Lark on My Go-Kart”) from the southern Bucks County hamlet of Morrisville, a one- hour train ride on the R3 from Center City. In short: the ’burbs.
Now that “College” is a smash hit (more than 800,000 singles sold, 29 million streams on MySpace, radio play spread across multiple formats) and his full-length Asleep in the Bread Aisle is due on April 20 (4/20, get it?), Asher Roth is on his way to music stardom.
He’s been named one of MTV’s “MCs to watch,” been put on the cover of XXL magazine, been knighted “the future” by Beanie Sigel, endorsed (“co-signed”) by Young Jeezy, Ludacris and Akon, joined on Asleep by heavy hitters like Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-Lo Green and Busta Rhymes, added to the annual Roots Picnic, and has put out a mixtape with highly influential DJs Canon and Drama.
In other words, he may be poised to change the face of hip-hop.
West Chester University is where Asher Roth became enthusiastic about scholastics. It’s where Asher Roth—white geek with a Norman Rockwell upbringing—became Asher Roth, potential next big rap star.
Thing is, the two aren’t very different at all. And considering this is hip-hop—a genre notoriously hamstrung by issues of authenticity, street credibility and “keeping it real”—that’s rather remarkable.
“People tell me I’m a white minstrel show. They say, ‘This is a white kid that’s making a mockery of white people,’” says Roth over the phone, trying to manage the whirlwind of buzz currently blowing around him, lest he be ripped to shreds by it during a media-intensive day. “But I am just more what white people like, based on the stereotypes … That’s not a gimmick, that is me being who I am.”
In many ways, Roth’s existence challenges the very notion of authenticity in hip-hop. Many of Roth’s detractors say he’s not real because he’s not ’hood, but is that the only consideration when assessing authenticity in the genre? If the point is to be real in hip-hop—and by being real we mean being true to who you actually are—then perhaps no one in the history of the genre has been more authentic.
Saying he isn’t real or that he’s one giant marketing ploy is to challenge the entire notion of what authenticity means in the genre; Roth would have to be something he’s not in order to be accepted.
“I think white rappers stand out initially no matter what, but I don’t really think white rappers get a lot of attention in terms of the right kind of energy, which is to be looked at as to really be something and to be a part of hip-hop,” says Elliott Wilson, founder of RapRadar.com and editor of XXL from 1999 to 2008. “Asher has to be honest about who he is and where he comes from. People respect that in hip-hop. I don’t think you have to be poor and impoverished to make good hip-hop music. I think most importantly, again, it’s about credibility.”
Roth signs on to Wilson’s theory, pointing out that even his hip-hop handle, Asher Roth, is just his own name. He’s running from nothing. He rides his bike through the ’burbs with a goofy grin and a helmet strapped to his head in his “Roth Boys” video. He drives a Toyota Corolla. The first CD he bought was Crash by the Dave Matthews Band. He loves Oasis. He raps about MILFs.
Of course, hip-hop’s graveyard is littered with the bones of white rappers who didn’t see it the way Wilson or Roth do. In particular, there’s Robert Van Winkle—a pencil-necked kid from Dallas, Texas, who moved to Miami, shaved lines in his eyebrows and head, started using phrases like “Word to your mother” and changed his name to Vanilla Ice. The list goes on: the Southern crunking of Bubba Sparxxx and Paul Wall; the angry growls of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
Roth is none of them, but haunted by all of them.
Having grown up in fairly close proximity to Morrisville, PA, up there in Lower Bucks County, it seems to me that nothing much good, bad, or otherwise has happened in or come out of Morrisville (except for super-duper journalist/publicist Howard Wuelfing, but that’s a bit “inside baseball,” sorry…). Until now, anyway, with the lightning-fast rise [...]
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There are a few things you notice about Bucks County rapper and soon to be mega-star Asher Roth when you meet him. 1) He’s tiny. Like Hobbit small. And when he shakes your hand, says “Hi, I’m Asher,” you feel you could break every tiny bone in his little tiny hand with just a modest [...]
PW's Music Issue 2014