West Chester University is grimy.
Had you visited the school’s website in late March, you too would’ve seen the disturbing note about armed robberies on the suburban Philly campus. Mix those with the typical campus occurrences of underage drinking, fornicating and other felonious, dorm life shenanigans, and you’ve got yourself a backdrop dark enough for the next Young Jeezy album.
Darn right, Asher Roth’s got the street cred to be the new voice of mainstream hip-hop. The education-major-turned-MC has experienced the rough underbelly of the American academic system. The guy knows what it’s like to feel powerless against The Man. He’s from the mean streets of Morrisville, Pa.
Oh, who are we kidding? The closest Roth’s ever come to hard knocks is the time the cops banged on his apartment door for playing his music too loud. The dude is as white bread as they come. You’re more likely to catch him sporting Teva sandals than Tim boots. He even carries an L.L. Bean bag.
Yet Roth seems the least bit worried about being judged by his outer appearance.
“I’m just real comfortable being in my own skin,” says the polarizing Atlanta transplant, who in December became the second white rapper ever to appear on the coveted cover of hip-hop mag XXL. “I’m just not taking myself too seriously and enjoying the time that I have here. I feel like a lot of people, especially in hip-hop, are very, very serious. I understand. But at the same time, you have to relax and realize the world doesn’t revolve around you. You aren’t entitled to nothing.”
It’s refreshing, if not entirely ironic, to hear Roth renounce any perceived sense of entitlement, especially after his first single, “I Love College,” practically reeked of white, upper-middle-class privilege. If he’s ever been faced with high expectations, however, it’s now. With his impressive debut album, Asleep in the Bread Aisle, set to drop on April 20, he’s been called everything from the great white hype to the future of hip-hop.
He could very well be both.
IN JUST TWO YEARS, the 23-year-old college dropout has gone from MySpace nobody to iTunes behemoth. Co-produced by Atlanta’s Ben Allen, “I Love College” has garnered more than 350,000 paid downloads, further fueling the Roth phenomenon. And his manager Scooter Braun can’t help but smile at the virtual luck and marketing vision that led him to the golden boy.
“I told Chaka Zulu, Ludacris’ manager, ‘I’ve got this concept for the next great white rapper. I’ma market him the exact same way I marketed myself within the Atlanta hip-hop community,’” recalls former promoter and industry insider Braun, who is also white. “‘But he’s gonna have talent. He’s gotta be completely unashamed about being a regular white boy. He’s gotta have swag. He’s gotta win over all these dudes in the hip-hop community.’ You’ve got to have the talent of an Eminem.
Otherwise, you can’t even do it. That’s why I was like, ‘It’s going to be impossible to find this kid.‘”
Two weeks later, Braun received a random MySpace friend request from a hip-hop-loving kid named Asher. Braun liked what he heard so much that he dug up Roth’s contact info on Facebook and made a 2:30 a.m. call. On the opposite end, Roth’s friend thought Scooter was a cop and hung up.
Determined, Braun called back a second time, with ammunition.
“I actually sent him — no lie — to the Creative Loafing article,” laughs the former promoter who was featured on the cover of CL in May 2006. “Because of the cover story, [Roth and his friend] saw all these pictures of me and celebrities and read this article about me and were fuckin’ hyped to talk to me.”
The industry upstart used his connections to transfer that hype to Roth. Suddenly, DJ Drama was co-signing the kid on BET’s “Rap City.” Then came the barrage of Eminem comparisons. Call it the white rapper’s burden. Or the truth. There’s no denying his nasally flow mirrors Em’s. Of course, Braun sees it as a selling point.
“[The resemblance] actually drew me in,” he says. “Ja Rule and DMX sound alike. Ne-Yo and Usher sound alike. T-Pain and Akon sound alike. This isn’t the first time this has happened with a tremendous amount of success.”
The main thing the MC lacks, however, could be his greatest asset. On the evolutionary scale of white MCs, Roth may be the first mainstream candidate to stand totally erect. He’s not the wigger Vanilla Ice portrayed, or relatable, poor white trash like Eminem. He certainly doesn’t wear gold teeth like Paul Wall. In no way does he pretend to fit in with the stereotypical, urban narrative echoed by commercial rap — unless talking about weed, women and wrongs is culturally specific. For better or worse, it shows that the industry is broadening its targeted demographic.
Upon listening to Asleep in the Bread Aisle, the Marshall Mathers comparisons won’t much matter. The disc — being jointly released through Braun’s Schoolboy Records, Steve Rifkind’s SRC label and Universal Motown — features 12 memorable tracks of rhyming (“La Di Da”), rejection (“She Don’t Want a Man,” featuring Keri Hilson), reflection (“Fallin’”) and his redress to those who’ve crowned him a Slim Shady soundalike (“As I Em”).
Listeners will “understand who I am” after hearing Asleep, says Roth. “They’re starting to get past the preconceived notions and easy reference points. They’re starting me at zero instead of negative 10. [They’re saying,] ‘All right, this kid isn’t Marshall Mathers.’ It’s whatever. It is what it is. I just know that when the album drops, it’s going to be an entirely different ballgame.”