None of those things are the thing about Asher Roth, though I suspect all of them have something to do with what happens whenever I ask real hip-hop fans and critics about him — they sort of get quiet, kind of look at the ground and mutter something like, "Yeah ... he's ... yeah." Roth is basically everything these people are supposed to despise about hip-hop today. By his own admission, he has very little street credibility, and he has paid very few dues, yet he already has a crossover hit and has been the subject of several dozen "Next Big Things" pieces (including our MCs to Watch series). He raps about goofy things like Teddy Ruxpin and pizza, he doesn't have a thuggish bone in his body, and his lyrics have the depth of a kiddie pool.
And yet none of those things should really matter. Because no matter how hard people want to hate Asher Roth, no matter how quick people are to dismiss him as some sort of bed-headed media construct, they really shouldn't. Because here's the thing about Asher Roth: He is proof that hip-hop has won.
For years, detractors have tried to pass off hip-hop as music made "by a people for a people." This is terrible, and it sort of makes my head hurt, because it's simply not true. I grew up in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida, and I knew plenty of white kids who bought nothing but hip-hop, who lived, breathed and ate it, despite never having witnessed one-tenth-of-one-thousandth of the stuff N.W.A or Biggie were talking about. There has also been an oft-quoted mystery statistic that says "70 percent of people who buy rap music are white," though it's never really been verified and is perhaps best left alone. Because, now, thanks to Asher Roth, we don't need shady statistics. We have definitive proof: Hip-hop is the soundtrack to suburbia.
He is the living, breathing example of 21st-century hip-hop culture. He grew up in the kind of place where — conventional wisdom goes — rap music dare not tread. And yet, here he is: a lanky, college-educated white kid who not only discovered the music, but ditched school to pursue a career in it and somehow ended up under the tutelage of Steve Rifkind, the dude responsible for the careers of the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep.
And this has less to do with the fact that Roth is white — a hurdle that doesn't seem to exist in the wake of Eminem — as it does with the fact that he is unapologetic about who he is and where he's from. Unlike Em, who Roth is rather lazily compared to (although, yes, the two do sound alike), Asher grew up in idyllic conditions. He did not have to battle and scrap to earn his stripes. He did not have to fight for credibility. There was no hustling or grinding. Basically, Roth just went to college. What you see is what you get.
He makes no attempts to boost his street cred or add dramatic, "Scarface"-ish flourishes to his upbringing. He's a suburban kid who fell in love with hip-hop — just like millions upon millions of other suburban kids. The rest — the attention, the hit, the fame — just sort of happened. And this is important, because if we are to really believe that hip-hop has conquered the world, has invaded every crevice of our culture, then we need to realize that rappers can be born anywhere. There is not a manual, there is not a "build-your-own" MC kit. Stuff like background and credibility and machismo don't matter one bit. Talent does.
And Roth is plenty talented. So much so that he seems to go out of his way to hide his gifts. He peppers his deft lyrical touches with boner jokes, litters the colorful stories he spins with weed references and odes to intoxication (this is basically "I Love College"). If anything, he's trying very hard to hide behind the whole "stoned roommate" shtick, for reasons not really clear to me (except that maybe he really is someone's stoned roommate).
After I saw him last week at South by Southwest, I wrote that "there's no denying that Roth was the biggest star ... by a mile. Whether or not he chooses to seize the opportunities available to him remains to be seen." Having thought about him for a few days since, I still believe that to be true. But perhaps he doesn't have a choice in the matter. He needs to seize those opportunities, because he's also carrying the entire future of hip-hop on his skinny little shoulders. He's the Hip-Hop Goodwill Ambassador, and he has to succeed.
And you thought college was tough, Ash.
Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.