“He ain’t tryin’ to be mean, he just wants to be seen.” – Rufus Thomas, referring to an overzealous spectator during his Wattstax performance, 1972.
“He ain’t tryin’ to be mean, he just wants to be seen.” Truer words have never been spoken when it comes to the case of individuals other than African-Americans who attempt to record hip-hop music. I’ve argued that there’s nothing more exciting and ultimately, cool in the world than being a young black male, and mainstream culture would tend to agree with me. However, when young white males, given black/white North American social history, attempt to “swagger jack” young black men, and do the “cool walk,” and do so without black people knowing, being aware and consistently cosigning such a move, likely since that white youth’s birth it would stand to reason, it raises eyebrows. Obviously, with heightened scrutiny, any and every mistake clearly becomes the worst.
And with the above quote, thus and so hopefully ends the cautionary tale of Asher Paul Roth, and the end of the beginning of the most unusual and absurd time in the history of hip hop. At least with Vanilla Ice, he wore sparkling satin genie pants. We saw this guy from ten miles away, and knew he did us harm. Every record that “Ice Ice Baby” sold, and every listener consistently perturbed by the insipidness of “Havin’ a Roni” knew what the score was. Mainstream culture cashing in on urban fads 1, Hip Hop 0. But, to the I-C-E’s favor, he never called black women nappy headed hoes in public, and in our nanosecond driven media culture of 2009, especially not on Twitter. And that’s where Asher, and our new hip hop paradigm, failed, and failed miserably.
Eminem, well, he was groomed for years by the industry. He knew what could be done and what was sacrosanct for someone of his skin color. Sure, there have been leaks of his expected idiocy in the years following, but, by the time he reached the mainstream, they were not readily accessible. Instead of a white guy who felt the need to drop an n-bomb to prove his authenticity, he instead was honed by constant rhyming, becoming at his height one of the most killer, battle tested and lyrically intense emcees of all time. A storyteller par excellence, and the standard by which other “white boys who wanted to do the cool walk” were to be measured.
And, no lie, Asher falls short. He admits to such on his album with the Chester French assisted track “As I Em,” where he basically fellates his initial lyrical hero, and eschews any comparison between Eminem and himself, or approaching Em’s prodigious track record. For the kid whose likely initial rap CD purchase WAS his mother buying the Slim Shady LP, there’s absolutely no way on numerous levels that he’s going to attain his level of respect for or talent within the most hardened of hip hop circles. Instead, Asher has been cast as so far removed from that, that it’s hard to hold him in the same light.
I’d probably go so far as to argue that Asher is the first of his kind, the first of a generation of white kids who come to hip hop from the Napster generation, the Limewire line of kids, adolescents not driven to buy albums, but who just like hot tracks, whose flows didn’t come from years of listening to rap albums til the grooves wore out, who weren’t there to see Busy Bee, or even remember the furor of the Kool Moe Dee v. LL Cool J rap feud. Sure, it’s part of a history of the music he chooses to record, but it’s not a part of HIS history of the music he records. Somewhere, cats like MC Serch and Pete Nice are beating their heads in. Somewhere while cashing another royalty check from Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” and Jigga’s “99 Problems,” Rick Rubin probably reflects for a second on just how hard he probably had to initially work to impress Russell Simmons. In their day, white boys couldn’t just “do the cool walk.” There was a cool crawl, a cool stand, and finally a cool step, whereas Asher Roth, well, he’s just been able to stand up and hit the ground running.
And therein lies the stupidity. Hip hop’s out of control. There’s too many influences now, and with no A & R reps out there apparently really hustling, a guy like Asher Roth can put tracks up on Myspace and get signed pretty much comparatively scot free. Because a 19 year old kid in flip flops in his college dormitory who passed English 101 just barely has access to the internet and writes a blog, and can influence other just as easily influenced at that age kids, who then can hoodwink 31 year olds in musty gym shorts doing the same thing, we end up with a talented emcee with some really catchy hooks, with seemingly nary a true clue of what he’s REALLY gotten himself into, who can nonchalantly attempt to rip Don Imus and cause an uproar, simply because he has ultimately no reason by which to know any better.
But this is where we’re at. The genre of hip hop is officially wide open. There are no expected norms by which an artist is expected to be judged anymore. Hip hop damned sure isn’t “black” music anymore. With Asher’s “I Love College,” it’s just as white, suburban and upper middle class as ever, just as “Paper Planes” makes it political and Sri Lankan, Yo Majesty’s “Kryptonite Pussy” makes it outlandishly lesbian, Adam Tensta’s “Dopeboy” makes it racially angst ridden and Swedish, and Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” makes it lovestruck amd Canadian.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, there’s a certain happiness that has to come from this. Hip hop is a universal language now, a living and breathing thing, where people can seem to be apparently clueless of anything racial, and still be viable in the game. That’s a far cry from Public Enemy for sure, and, as we always must remember, anytime you take one step forward, it’s just as easy to take two steps back.
White boys and apparently everyone else gets to do the “cool walk” now. The consequences of such, even the negative, are as apparent as ever.
ed. note: The author, Marcus Dowling’s other work can be found at his site, TGRIOnline.com, True Genius Requires Insanity. He can also be followed on Twitter at twitter(dot)com/marcuskdowling.