When the Lower Manhattan–based White trio the Beastie Boys released their debut album, Licensed to Ill, in 1986, it became the first rap album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. It was a watershed moment for hip-hop and an early indicator of the impact that White America’s acceptance of a rap act—White, Black or otherwise—could have on that performer’s success. This was again evident with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” in 1990, which soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 but created a backlash in its perceived disrespect of the culture. 3rd Bass, a trio with two White MCs (MC Serch and Pete Nice), took shots at Ice on their 1991 single “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The video was even harsher. In it, 3rd Bass beat up an Ice look-alike, who was played by punk-rock icon Henry Rollins. The group soon disbanded, but 1992 was the third straight year that a White rap artist or group made noise on the Billboard Hot 100, as House of Pain’s party anthem “Jump Around” peaked at No. 3. There was then a lull for White MCs, however, until 1999, when Eminem arrived.
To say Em was different from the White wordsmiths who preceded him is an understatement. Lyrically maniacal and unhinged, street validated by Detroit’s famed freestyle community, and with his own crew, D12, and eventually rap legend Dr. Dre in his corner, Em sent every A&R and record executive scrambling to find the next great White hope. “When they see something, they try to mimic it,” says Kawan “KP” Prather, senior VP of A&R at Def Jam and president of Gheto-O-Vision Entertainment, which signed Yelawolf in 2007. “That’s kind of what our industry has been based on.”
The search has been on for the last decade-plus for The Next One. But hip-hop might not have been open to that new pale-faced rap star until now. Yes, there has been a handful of White MCs who have bubbled on the underground—from Slug, to Apathy, to Ill Bill, to Esoteric and more—but rarely has there been a chance to crown the next mainstream superstar. It wasn’t Bubba Sparxxx, the LaGrange, Georgia, native who signed to Timbaland’s Interscope Records–distributed Beat Club and scored a hit single, “Ugly,” and a gold album, Dark Days, Bright Nights, in 2001. It wasn’t Paul Wall, a grill-wearing MC from Houston’s Swishahouse camp who was key in H-Town’s 2004 burgeoning rap scene. Though his 2005 Asylum/Atlantic Records debut, The People’s Champ, hit No. 1 on Billboard 200 and R&B/Hip-Hop charts, his circumstances were unique. “Being that I was part of a movement, [the Eminem comparisons] kind of passed over me,” says Wall.
Asher’s hype has been the closest. Because of his voice, cadence and delivery, Roth drew countless comparisons to Slim Shady, but for Asher, the expectations didn’t live up to the hype. “It’s not fair to Asher [or] Em,” says SRC Records president Steve Rifkind, who signed Roth to SRC in December 2007. “Asher grew up listening to Em.” Indeed, the correlation between Em’s success and the recent explosion of White lyricists is palpable. A generation of fans grew up with a White MC as arguably the most popular rapper, and along the way, more became participants in the culture. It’s a reflection of rap’s changing landscape: Hip-hop was created in the South Bronx, but it’s global now. “Hip-hop [has] gotten more multicultural as it’s grown,” says Rap Coalition founder Wendy Day. “And I think that there are more White fans who say, ‘Wow, I want to be part of that.’ Or, ‘Oh, I could do that.’”
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