Success has been easy for Asher Roth, but respect is proving more elusive. A 21st-century MySpace star, Roth owes his success almost entirely to the Internet. Hailing from suburban Morrisville, Pa., Roth was first discovered on MySpace by producer Steve Rifkind. Without a song on the radio or a video on TV, Roth had a widget of his infectious song “I Love College” downloaded 2.7 million times. He thus has some grounds for his bold claim to late-night host Carson Daly that “this is what the people wanted,” and with his new album “Asleep in the Bread Aisle” released last month, Roth may indeed be the next big thing. Yet his sudden rise has not been without its dissenters.
At first glance, Roth, who will perform May 16 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater as part of KROQ’s Weenie Roast Y Fiesta, resembles a domesticated Eminem, but as he says himself, that’s “too easy.” He’s not a white kid successfully representing the ’hood; he’s representing the suburbs. And Roth talks tackles when it comes to describing his appeal: “I’m representing the 80 percent of kids who actually buy these rap albums but really can’t relate.” Such honesty may be part of the reason that he received a warm reception from such top African American stars as Akon, Ludacris and Andre 3000. He explained in an interview, “I’m not making anything up, so they’re happy to co-sign something that is genuine.”
Rather than trying to be a white rapper as hard and as “down” as any other hip-hop artist, Roth revels ironically in his position as a “normal” white college student making party music for the recession. He doesn’t hesitate to relate, for instance, that his first musical loves were Billy Joel and the Dave Matthews Band. At the age of 14, when he began to walk around his home reciting rap lyrics, his father would tell him to “shut up,” accusing him of having “rap Tourette’s.” Roth certainly did not become what was at first expected of him.
“I Love College” is basically about the college party cycle of drinking, copulating and sleeping. “The country is in pain right now; everyone is bummed out. Why not listen to some music that is going to bring some joy into your life?” Roth said. He has been criticized for producing exactly such music, to which he answers, Zen-like, “Criticism is good for balance.”
With the last name Roth and a first name that is one of the tribes of Israel, it is not surprising that he is taken for Jewish, even if he himself may not publicly identify as such. Although Roth has a Jewish father, he is quick to point out that his mother is Presbyterian. In fact, the “Jewish question” is quite sensitive for him. Just a cursory glance at the Internet, and on discussion boards, one will find such phrases as “G-Unit meets Jew-unit,” “Jews are cutting out the middle men and finally doing the rapping themselves” and “this is proof that tall Israelis are really running rap.”
Such intense labeling has provoked some backlash from Roth himself. When asked about any discrimination he may have encountered because of this perception, Roth replied that if anything, it may come from Jews themselves. “People have a negative reaction when I explain I am not Jewish,” Roth said. He related the scene at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where he played a show headlined by Matisyahu. “He attracts a Jewish crowd, and they were bummed out [that I wasn’t Jewish]. But if I lost that fan, I don’t think I wanted that fan to begin with,” Roth said.
He is clearly focused more on overcoming the “white-black” divide rather than negotiating the Christian-Jewish difference. Reaching out to a new demographic that hasn’t traditionally been drawn to hip-hop, old timers of rap joke about how he is bringing “high-heels and Vespas” to hip-hop shows. Roth is looking for a wide field of new people to bring in, while trying to convince many others that he himself belongs there at all. When he says, “I’m turning believers into nonbelievers ... I wake up in the morning and prove some people wrong,” he’s referring not to religion, but to the plausibility of a white, suburban rap star.
“Hip-hop is still alive. I am living proof,” he says.
Maybe so, but Roth’s resurrection of the genre is thus far based on a convincingly entertaining portrayal of the utopia of college idyll, where the greatest worry is finding breakfast in the afternoon. In times like these, one can easily imagine the appeal. Whether rapping about a post-adolescent idyll will bring Roth respect — the one thing he craves above all — remains to be seen.
Reprinted by permission of The Forward.