Asher Roth: Moment Of Clarity
Nah, he replies, laughing off the question but copping to the likelihood. I get in these little detox modes and Im starting a little not-till-the-sun-goes-down routine. You gotta stay focused. At this time in his life, thats probably a good idea. Even after recently graduating from MySpace hype to the mixtape circuit and getting his first major-label deal, the 22 year-old is hardly at a stage where he can kick his feet up. Many emcees get to this point and never become more than a catalogue of hot freestyles on other peoples hit records. Roth doesnt intend on becoming one of them so hes hard at work making his still-untitled album more than just an hour of jokey punch-lines.
Its important to me how I come out with my music [on the first album] because thats how people are gonna portray you for the rest of their lives. Its gonna be tough to win them over if you want to change directions, he tells us. His Greenhouse Effect mixtape with DJ Drama and Don Cannon was all fun and games but hes ready to show us why Steve Rifkind calls him Hip Hops Bob Dylan. His official debut isnt scheduled to drop until February, but fresh out of a Virginia studio with Nottz, he confidently explains his vision for the project. With a clear head and clear eyes, Asher Roth talks to HipHopDX about Internet buzz, managing his image and of course, rapping for Jay-Z.
HipHopDX: Especially to people outside of Philly, it seems like youve had a quick rise to the head of your class. Would you characterize it that way?
Asher Roth: I mean I guess so. To be honest with you, I try to stay away from the whole media thing because theres nothing positive that comes out of that. Youre either gonna get a big head from the compliments or get mad at what people say. People have been very receptive, but as far as where I stand on the latter; Im not sure.
DX: Your success thus far has very much been the product of building Internet hype. Do you feel like you wouldve had the same opportunities ten years ago when that wouldnt have been possible?
Asher Roth: Who knows, man? The online marketing and using the MySpace and Facebook to my advantage is really whats kinda catapulted me in a way that you could call overnight. I dont know if Id have the same success I think good music is gonna shine through regardless but it mightve taken a little bit longer.
DX: On the other hand, Wikipedia (another user generated site) has your article considered for deletion because people are complaining that they dont know who you are [note: the page was in fact taken down the next day]. Its so easy to get on the net and say youre a rapper, so how do you plan to separate yourself from the pack of random kids with MySpace Music pages?
Asher Roth: Thats the truth everybodys a rapper. I think theres a lot that I bring to the table as an artist in as far as creativity, but on the same token, a lot of people dont know who I am. As far as Im concerned, I havent done shit. Theres a lot, a lot, a lot of work to be done; I just got started.
DX: Do you feel like the new age of democratized content is making the music better or worse?
Asher Roth: Its definitely arguable but theres a lot of trash out there. The filter systems really have to go up not because like you said, anybody can pretty much put up a MySpace page and go, Yeah, Im a rapper now. We definitely have to be more careful; we really gotta be more selective now. It definitely has its pros though because some of the most talented people in the world could never get heard before. We dont want to exploit it to the point where everybodys considered a rapper but its those few that make it that make it real special.
DX: Youve come out in the same vein as Kanye and Lupe whore making regular guy rap about paying bills and going to class. Thats been successful for some but its still a gamble. Was there ever a temptation for you to try to mix in something more gangsta since thats often what people like?
Asher Roth: Nah, when I first started rapping it was pretty much songs about our girlfriends and going to house parties and dancing. I could never really rap about stuff I didnt know. Its always cool to tell a story, dont get me wrong, but me personally, I can only speak for myself.
DX: Do you still remember your first rhyme?
Asher Roth: [Laughs] I was in a battle with my friend where they used to do a Hip Hop workshop after school and when I was like 16. One day everyone was like, Battle Dan, battle Dan. and I got up there and said Im Asher Roth and Im the best/ do you shop at Ross or do you 'dress for less'? The funny thing was I was shopping at Ross but everyone laughed and thought it was funny. The real humor is based on truth. The stuff that you rap about on an every day basis, thats what people relate to. It humanizes me and makes me approachable. I dont wanna be unapproachable.
DX: So at what point did you start leaning towards the more political topics?
Asher Roth: Its just recently as Im growing up. Im still just a kid and growing up through this whole thing. I think thats just the age were living in; what we want from out music and what we want from our politics is just honesty. People are tired of being lied to, tired of the bullshit. Like I said, I can only speak for myself but Im entitled to my opinions and I feel like were at a point where its kinda fucked up. Its pretty fucked up. Thats why Im a full supporter of Barack Obama. Is he gonna change everything in one fell swoop? No, but its still a change. Its something new and its something different and its just what we need.
DX: You mentioned going to an after school Hip Hop workshop? Were there a lot of other kids trying to rappers in your school?
Asher Roth: It was definitely the burbs but there were a good 10 or 15 kids who were influenced by Hip Hop and we all shared a common interest so wed get together. Its funny, with me I was never like I need to get a deal, or I wanna be the biggest rapper on the planet. It was never like that. I was just influenced by music and I enjoyed spending my free time making the music and rapping over beats. The music made me feel good and I think thats something I try to portray in my music. I wanna listen to music that like, puts a smile on your face and makes you feel uplifted. This worlds not perfect; theres times when youre pissed off. Theres times where youre frustrated and theres times when Ill be able to share that pain on the other side the spectrum, but for the most part, I want my music to be warm and uplifting.
DX: Was there a particular artist or record that made you decide to go from a fan to an artist?
Asher Roth: Im inspired by all music, but when I was listening to like, Arrested Development, The Roots [click to read] Things Fall Apart, Mos Defs Black on Both Sides albums like that, its dope and its got a soul to it. Its timeless. I dont want to put out a project thats like, cool for a weekend. I wanna attach myself to timeless music. The mixtape was cool, I just wanted to showcase the versatility and that I could do a lot of stuff. Now for the album, I wanna write real songs. I wanna do collaborations, but real collaborations, not just where I send over a beat to somebody. I think [the album is] so authentic and so organic and so about the music that I think the real people will respect it. Back in that day - well, I hate to say back in the day but - people used to go in and do real collaborations. I mean, I understand now that people have their own agendas, but this is a movement thats really about music.
DX: Those artists and albums are known for a lot of heavy black political content. Were you identifying with the specific message or the spirit?
Asher Roth: Its not a race thing with me; were human. When I speak about this stuff I want everyone to get past it. Im a huge [Bob] Marley fan, for instance and on the record War hes talking about theres always gonna be war until the color of a mans skin is no more significant than the color of his eyes. Thats kinda where Im at. Im so past the race thing that its not even in my world at all but a lot of people arent. I come here speaking about where Im from and how I feel about it and everyones like, Whoa, slow down, were not there yet. Its been kid of an eye opener for me because Im seeing that while I know there are other people that feel like that but its not ready to get brought to the mainstream. Theyve been scared about topics of conversations like this. Here I am thinking it doesnt need to be a topic of conversation but like, I think theres still some air to be cleared.
DX: The topic of race certainly surrounds you though. For instance, when your name comes up, its pretty typical to hear comparisons to Eminem. How much of that is legitimate and how much is just a knee-jerk reaction because youre white?
Asher Roth: Eh I think its too easy. A white emcee with a sense of humor and a political side? Oh, lets compare him to Em! Theres only a handful not even a handful, theres probably like, three or four white rappers that actually had an impact on Hip Hop and Ive been making strides so that I can be considered a contender and have an impact on Hip Hop as a whole. It is what it is, but as far as my content and my image, I think were different artists. I have nothing but respect for him though; he made it possible for me to be here, he opened the doors, but we come from an entirely different inspiration.
DX: So these days, theres the usual list of outside projects that a rapper apparently has to have, so can we expect an Asher Roth clothing line? Liquor? Movie? Videogame?
Asher Roth: [Laughs] You always wanna explore your possibilities. This is still a capitalistic country. My chase is for freedom and you have to be financially free in this country to get that. Of course theres gonna be some side entertainment here and there but I dont like, need to put out a line of tuxedos or anything.
DX: Speaking of the possibilities of Hip Hop capitalism, tell me about when you met Jay-Z
Asher Roth: Aw man, that was crazy. I got into Hip Hop when I was 13 or 14 years old as I was starting to be cognizant and form my own opinions and Jay was the first rap CD I ever bought. That was Volume 2. It wasnt even Reasonable Doubt, it was Volume 2. Thats how late I got into Hip Hop. When I met him, I walked in and I thought I was gonna go rap for some girls. I was with [Def Jam VP] Shakir Stewart and we talking about Hip Hop and he really liked what I was doing so he was like I want you to come rap for one of my friends. I thought we were about to go rap for these females so I clear my throat and sure enough, I make a hard right and Jay-Zs [click to read] walking towards me with his like, aura glowing. I just walked out of the room like oh shit, but I regained my composure and came back and rapped. He was taken aback; he really liked it and was like Youre nice, man, youre nice. I paid my homage and told him where he came into my life and that I appreciated him and that was that.
DX: Obviously youre a fan of Jay but it kinda sounds like you were taking a few swipes at him on the Roth Boys freestyle.
Asher Roth: You know, everyones gonna have their own competitive edge, thats just human nature. When I rapped for Jay, I really wanted him to just hug me and shed a single tear and say I was the best thing that ever happened but it didnt work out that way. This is the music business, after all, and some of the decisions that were made were kind of a slap in the face to me as an artist but Jay doesnt have a regret in the world; hes living the life. Like, THE LIFE, bold, italics, underlined. Jays very influential and I just wanted the hug and the single tear but it didnt happen.
DX: So when you were rapping on his track and said this is the same thing that happened on Renegade
Asher Roth: [Laughs] Uh, you know, I mean... I went off on that beat, I blacked out.
DX: Okay, okay, well leave that one alone. So how did that transition into your deal with SRC?
Asher Roth: Steve [Rifkind] didnt want me to leave the building. He had me battle one of his interns for him - shoutout to Gordo - and he asked everybody what they thought. They were like Hes dope, hes real dope, so we closed the doors and talked about it and Steve gets it. He just wants me to be me. He wasnt like This is the next Em, he understood that I was who I was and no ones gonna be able to change that. He told me to go make the music and he allowed me to be creative. He just told me go do you and Im here. I got your back. In a day and age where artist development no longer exists, theyre just going for that single or that ring tone, its very important that artists get to be themselves.
DX: With the role of record labels changing, it definitely means that you have to take up the slack for things that the label or MTV used to do. Once the buzz on the web wears off, how will you make sure people still care?
Asher Roth: You cant pussyfoot you gotta come out and you gotta be yourself because you only have one or two shots. I built a loyal fan base around home so I may have had a lot of friends in my home town that would be like "Ash is dope, Ash is dope but by the time it got out to the internet, you only have those first three songs your MySpace before people say Awesome, Im gonna keep tuning in or Eff this, Im not hearing it. Theres just so much going on that people dont have time. I get these long, six paragraph emails from people and its like I cant read all that so its the quick, six-word ones that Ill be more likely to respond to.
Its the same thing with your music. I want people to be able to listen to my music and understand it. I grew up loving lyrical music and I think its important to have lyrics and substance, but at the same time, if people dont understand me, that doesnt make me creative. Its not dumbed down at all, but I was definitely in a phase for a while where I was writing so much intricate shit that I had to step back and examine it and I wasnt realty feeling it. I was looking at it like Yo, this guy is lyrically nasty but I didnt feel the music. For this past year or two, I was able to sit down and be like What do I want to accomplish, who do I want to be? and it really helped me simplify my music and making it more relatable.
DX: So how does that play into your plans for the album?
Asher Roth: Its gonna be good, honest music. Its gonna be very true to me. Ive heard people say I wake up in the morning and listen to this one song every day or When Im having a bad day, I play this. Thats what I wanna do with my music. It explains moods. I just want to make livable music.
DX: So itll be more conceptual rather than a collection of singles?
Asher Roth: Theres definitely continuity to it. The mixtape was kinda just me rapping over rap beats; this album is very much an album. Im not just going off and rapping about anything. Regardless of where you come from, youll be able to relate to the questions Im asking myself. Also, the musics good Im not trying to drown it out with some big production and 808s so you hear it and youre just like Oh, Ashers got some hot beats. Its very lyric driven and very concept driven. Itll be an honest record its important when you come out that you come honest because its gonna be hard to be hard to go back. Youll either be living a lie for the rest of your life or working to dig yourself out of that hole.