Esham Heightens Profile With Label Signing

After ten years of releases on his own label, the rapper pushed to gain more recognition.

After ten years of independently releasing his music on his own label, Overcore, 25-year old Detroit rapper Esham (born Esham Smith) signed a deal with TVT Records to boost his national profile.

"I was about to have a nervous breakdown," explained Esham from his Detroit home. "We needed a bigger engine to push our car and get us to where we got to go."

The deal inked by TVT and Overcore's distributor, Overture Music, may have potent after shocks. "Esham has great support in the Detroit-Chicago area. It's time to explode him on the national level," said Rob Scarcello, vice president of distribution for TVT.

TVT will distribute his new enhanced CD, "Bootleg" (From the Lost Vault) — Vol. 1 (March 28) and re-release WWW.com (WicketWorldWide.com, Feb. 1), the latest from his band NATAS (Nation Ahead of Time and Space).

Esham's "Bootleg" will contain lost tracks, never-before-released songs and others which span the rapper's decade-long career. The album includes "As I Rock n' Roll" (RealAudio excerpt) and the controversial "KKKill The Fetus" (RealAudio excerpt), the title track from his 1999 album.

"It was a pro-abortion song," Esham said. "'Kill the fetus if you can't handle the pregnancy. Teenage pregnancies — it's uncalled for. It's babies having babies.' That's all it was saying, yet, people took it the wrong way."

For a decade, Esham sold hundreds of thousands of NATAS' and his solo efforts, including the first rap double CD, KKKill The Fetus, on Overcore (which will be re-released April 25 by TVT). Esham's unique fusion of rock and hip-hop (which he coined "acid rap") and his maverick mentality have made him a cult hero.

"He is such a big draw," said promoter Maria Cukr, who booked Esham's December '99 show at the popular Pontiac, Mich., venue Clutch Cargo's. "He's got a lot of history."

The underground hip-hop legend has been an influence on Motown rappers Eminem, Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse. "I'm a cross between Manson, Esham and Ozzy," Eminem said on "Still Don't Give A Fuck," from his Slim Shady album.

Born in Copiague, N.Y., Esham moved to Detroit with his family when he was three. He was shipped back and forth from Detroit to New York until finally settling in Detroit when he was a teen. To make ends meet, Esham's brother James, now 29, dealt drugs.

"I didn't deal in that stuff 'cause [James] didn't want me to," Esham said. Instead, Esham was more interested in music. While attending Detroit's Osborn High School, he learned the flute, trombone and clarinet.

Jeffrey Smith, Osborn music teacher, remembers the aspiring rapper. "He was very inquisitive and always pressing his rap thing," Smith said.

By age 15, Esham formed Reel Life Productions with his brother, self-released Boomin' Words From Hell and hit the streets. "We were meeting people, shaking hands and kissing babies," Esham said.

He quickly gained fans from Boston to Texas and went from rags to riches without the help of a major. "In those days I had to damn near walk over broken glass barefoot just to get noticed," he said.

APX of the Detroit band Born Suspicious, said it's still difficult for Detroit rappers. "We have to get a major label [in Detroit]," he said. "There used to be Motown, now nothing. I bet you could turn someone into a multiplatinum seller."

That's what TVT and Overture are betting on. But Esham, who hits the road with ICP in June, tries not to get caught up in that. "I'm just trying to bring some hardcore sh-- to the table," he said.