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Interview: Asher Roth

6th February 2009

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It’s 3:45pm on a typical spring weekend. While the majority of Britain is socialising, shopping or avidly following their sporting heroes, Asher Paul Roth can be found by a desk in a foreign land, staring at his laptop.

Asher RothInstead of settling down to an afternoon of internet porn amongst a sea of crushed beer cans, used condoms and bags of weed as his debut single (and frat-boy anthem) ‘I Love College’ suggests, he instead picks up the phone and wearily accepts an incoming call from another journalist.

It’s his fifteenth (and final) phone interview today. As the 23-year-old Pennsylvanian shrugs off the relentless promo schedule with a simple “You know, it happens,” the notion of Roth being a moronic graduate from the American Pie era slowly ebbs away.

In some ways, he’s more akin to Kanye West’s ‘College Dropout’ than Stifler and co. He left West Chester University in his sophomore year after being spotted by soon-to-be manager Scooter Braun, a then vice president at Atlanta-based So So Def Records in 2006.

Things started to snowball after he then moved to Atlanta. Courted by major labels across the States, Roth later found himself unexpectedly auditioning in front of Jay-Z, before signing up with Steve Rifkin (who gave the Wu-Tang Clan their break) at Universal soon after.

A free online mixtape entitled ‘The Greenhouse Effect’ appeared soon after on Roth’s website, The Daily Kush - named after the family pet - before attentions turned to the debut album, and THAT song.

While Roth wants to be known as an artist with both a serious and a funny side, releasing your first single about drinking, sex, smoking weed and tales of fresher humour will enamour few, and irk many more.

To his credit, he’s fully aware of this. He admitted in Chicago’s Time Out magazine that he “might have screwed myself” on reflection, and that even he isn’t the song’s greatest fan. How can he hope to win people over when first impressions count for so much?

“That song is very much a gift and a curse,” he admits. “It got the exposure, but at the same time, obviously, first impressions are everything. Time is going to be my best friend; the more exposure I get as I grow up, people are going to be able to grow with me for one, and two I think they’ll have no choice. I’m going to force it upon them to understand there is a lot more to me than just ‘Hey, I love college’”.

The other reason why ‘…College’ has attracted its fair share of criticism is due to Asher’s background. He’s a white, middle-class guy who grew up in Morrisville, Pennsylvania; the epitome of the suburbs.

Instead of the struggles in Brooklyn and with police brutality, Roth was influenced by “Top 40 music, whatever’s on the radio and mainstream music, because that was the stuff that we were exposed to in the suburbs. Especially if you weren’t in the scene,” he states.

His first tape was Billy Joel’s River of Dreams, whilst his first CD was Crash by (American rock group) Dave Matthews Band, released in 1996. It wasn’t until 1998 that he finally got hooked on hip-hop after hearing Jay-Z’s ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’ in the back of a Subaru.

It means Asher is only too aware of his key demographic. Instead of the hostile looking crowds that are associated with main media comparison Eminem in Hollywood biopic ‘8 Mile’, Roth’s crowd is surprisingly younger than first thought.

Asher explains: “I understand that my main audience is going to be 10 to 14 year olds. When I was 10 to 14 years old, listening to hip hop music, they were telling me how to dress, what to look like, what to do in my spare time, and that’s kinda the role and responsibility that we have now and it’s going to be important to steer those kids in the right direction.”

It’s a completely different market to those of drunken students at house parties. On first look, it’s a slightly worrying moral prospect, as it would appear Roth is targeting impressionable children who are dangerously under any legal age restrictions. But taking another look at what he calls his “project” starts to reveal an intriguing plan.

During the interview, Roth twice states that he believes “Time is going to be my best friend” during his career. It’s not a startling revelation, but he is keen to stress the emphasis of patience, with a near predetermined outcome. With what is essentially a ‘novelty record’ in ‘…College’ that will never become outdated, and a young troupe of followers aspiring to be freshmen (and women), being a hit for young teenagers doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all. From a financial perspective, at least.

Monetary gain is itself a contradiction in Asher Roth’s terms. One of Roth’s synonymous moments prior to ’…College’ has come in the form of remixing Lil’ Wayne’s hit, ‘A Milli’. Instead of waxing lyrical about wealth and grandeur like the original, Roth flips it in its head, denouncing that “Self-centred humans be the root of all evil,” and how it has no place in hip-hop.

With these contrasting values, where does Asher’s heart lay? Somewhat ironically, the answer can be found back at college, where he was originally studying to become a teacher.

“[Teaching is] definitely something that I’m into, as far as it’s one of the few occupations that I would be able to do after having a dibble-dabble and success in the mainstream!” jokes Roth. “If I go back, I’ll teach 5 to 10 year olds that have no idea who I am - we’ll see what happens. It’s absolutely something that tickles my fancy, but at the same time there’s kind of a direct correlation between teaching and this hip hop thing; it’s just the look of the classroom and the curriculum has changed a little bit.”

Seeing a direct correlation between hip-hop as a positive influence and teaching children - would he ever be interested in being a political spokesman or figurehead?

“Politics is a very scary word for me, as in it’s very tainted - it’s kind of a mess, if you will. There’s a lot of stuff involved that people don’t understand - that I don’t understand - that I’m very ignorant to, so I don’t know about politics.”

“Using my voice as a positive influence? Absolutely. Whether that means politics and the literal sense of the word, or just in terms of leaving the world a better place that when I came in. Bob Marley didn’t run for president, but he very much impacted the world in terms of mentality and attitude, and that’s something that I look forward to.”

Does he feel that he spends most of his time in interviews on the defensive?

“I’m pretty much desensitised to it now, it just is what it is. I’m a 23-year-old kid, putting my first album out with my [producer] Oren Yoel who’s never had a placement before in his life. It’s so drastically different of a project, that as people slowly get to wrap their heads around it and the more exposure that I get, I think people will start to understand it’s really different.”

During the interview, Asher portrays himself as an articulate, optimistic individual who can put across his feelings well, and it was his final answer that raised the most intriguing result.

He’s not been backward in coming forward about his views on marijuana in his songs, nor in the press, but with his stock rising (and with the memory of East 17’s Brian Harvey still looming large today), he could be advised to be careful over the wording of his argument in an over-sensitive press.

When talking about what the average individual gets from hip-hop these days, Roth matter-of-factly says: “I have eight year olds telling me they want to go to college because of my [single], and the reason why is incentive. We have to get these kids interested in learning; you can’t just force feed them knowledge; you have to relate the information.”

“That’s what we’re going to have to do to really get these kids interested and to have some sort of incentive - and if that means rolling up and having a drink with them, then so be it.

He continues: “The thing about marijuana - first of all, I’ve never done a hard drug in my life, if anyone’s going to tell me that outlawing a plant - marijuana - it’s a plant that grows and has been around forever. What it comes down to is people can get on me all day about drinking beer, but I never promote binge drinking, I never promote unprotected sex, it’s all about moderation and knowing your limits, and that’s going to come down to their discipline, it has nothing to do with me.”

“But, drinking a beer and smoking a joint now and then is not the end of the world, and if it takes that to get these kids to listen, to really the underlying message, then I’m all for it.”

While it can be seen that Asher is portraying his own - and only his own - opinions; in a manipulative world with papers to be sold, it could easily be spun into an all too ugly headline.

With his career still on the rise, and little interest in polarising opinion in a way Eminem and the Beastie Boys have done, Asher leaves himself in a dangerous position of having his ’nice-guy’ viewpoint attacked with little mercy, or worse still, completely disregarded.

And while his generally scruffy appearance and positive perspective may have its charm, it’s also something that - rightly or wrongly - the media turn their noses up at too readily. While he has every right to view the future with a positive outlook, he may yet have to graduate into the wider world.

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