Eminem, whose movie '* Mile' took in $55 million on opening weekend.
England's new sensation The Streets (Mike Skinner).
The Miami Herald
Posted on Tue, Nov. 12, 2002
Do the white thing
BY BAZ DREISINGER
Special to The Herald
Back in the day -- well before 8 Mile raked in nearly $55 million in its opening weekend, hip-hop ruled the airwaves, and graffiti went suburban -- pale-skinned MCs merited a double take. At its best, white rap was a creative oddity (the Beastie Boys), while at its worst it was an embarrassing marketing device (Vanilla Ice).
But nearly 30 years into the hip-hop generation, white teens -- weaned on 2Pac and Biggie -- are at home with rap music. And five years into the era of Eminem, who has been crowned hip-hop's hero, it's no scandal for them to pick up a mic.
''Here's a new concept that works/Twenty million other white rappers emerge,'' Eminem taunted on the hit single Without Me. But while Em might envision a future depicted in his Real Slim Shady video -- in which look-alikes, sporting white T-shirts and bleached-blond hair, are manufactured like canned food -- he may be only half right.
Yes, white rappers are growing in number. And yes, some of them -- like Vishiss, the 21-year-old, blond, Detroit rapper whose album will be released by DreamWorks in 2003 -- bear an uncanny resemblance to Slim Shady.
But being white and in the rap game does not a wannabe Eminem make. The styles and approaches of this wave -- including Poverty, MC Haystak, MC Paul Barman, El-P, Anticon, Sage Francis, Bubba Sparxxx, Necro, Johnny Blanco, and England's new sensation The Streets, among others -- vary. Meanwhile, Eminem's success and his commercial coattails have some observers crying foul. They say that, as in rock's early days, black culture is being pilfered.
Still, plenty of today's white rappers were around before Slim Shady. El-P, the New York underground rapper whose album Fantastic Damage was released on Def Jux this year to critical acclaim, put out his first album in 1997 and resents talking about white rap. ''It's not a subject I feel like validating anymore,'' he told Rolling Stone.
Rappers like El-P insist that such a genre as ''white rap'' does not exist, that just as there's more than one way to be white, there's more than one way to be a white rapper. In the underground scene, for instance, ''honky-hop'' merges hip-hop with spoken-word inflection, highbrow references, and an aesthetic that's so high-art it verges on nerdy.
The Anticon crew unabashedly features its whiteness. As Sage Francis, who's affiliated with Anticon, declares in Different, from his upcoming album Personal Journals, ``I had no dead homies to honor/ while pouring out the liquor I don't drink.''
If today's generation of up-and-coming white rappers proves something, it's that whiteness comes in more than one shade.
In the South, it has a country twang and a local uniform. ''Now let's get this straight: I'm a white boy who's been wearing Dickies my whole life. I wore 'em because they sold 'em at Wal-Mart,'' declares MC Haystak, the Nashville rapper who recently released his third disc, The Natural. Haystak remembers his first sight of Bubba Sparxxx, the now-popular white rapper from Georgia, on MTV.
''I thought some A&R rep had seen my country style, and stolen it for Bubba,'' he says. ``But then I realized: How foolish of me to think I had patented being white and being country and being a rapper!''
Since then, Haystak and Bubba have joined forces on three fronts. They recorded a track, Oh My God, for Haystak's album, and together head two coalitions, both of which they advertise via prominent tattoos: the New South Movement, which dispels misconceptions about life and race in the South, and the Crazy White Boys Crew, comprised of white rappers from Southern states.
Reared in Nashville by his grandparents, Haystak, 27, began writing rhymes while on house arrest as a teenager, and eventually recorded two albums, Mak Million in 1999 and Car Fulla White Boys in 2000. ''Being a white rapper is like being a crippled point guard,'' jokes Haystak, who raps that he has to ''get this white boy thing out of the way so I can compete with everybody'' and that he's ``holding it down for lower class/'Fore it was cool to be white trash.''
It's become de rigueur for white rappers to boldly address their whiteness in this way, a task Eminem has mastered: Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby, just like yourself/ If they were brown Shady Lose, Shady sits on the shelf, he quips in White America. Queens rapper Johnny Blanco, who's often told he looks like Bubba Sparxxx and sounds like Fat Joe, decided to let others do the job.
''I invited my people into the studio, and I told them to go at me,'' he explains from the Queens hub of 2OG Entertainment, which put out his album, Y'all About to See, last month. ``I said, pretend you see me on stage, a white boy with the mic, and speak on it.
''I've gotten to the point where I'm like, yo, because I rap, because I'm white, everyone is gonna nitpick. So before they get a chance to dis me, I dis myself,'' laughs Blanco, who has opened for chart-topping black rappers such as Ludacris and Mystikal.
Growing up in Queens, a mecca of '80s hip-hop and the most diverse borough of New York City, Blanco got his start as a teenager when he approached Kool G Rap in the supermarket. Like Staten Island rapper JoJo Pellegrino, who initially was signed to Violator Records but is currently between label deals, Blanco is Italian. His father, John Ellsworth Sr. -- who, the story goes, left a sack of cash on the kitchen floor and vanished when Blanco was a boy -- was eventually indicted for mob-related activity.
Pellegrino and Blanco proudly feature their ethnic identities, identities that make them slightly off-white, so to speak. 'Me an' this mic go together like pasta and bread,'' rhymes Pellegrino, whom Details has called ``the big Ragu of rap.''
Poverty, on the other hand, has trouble claiming any one street, because he has, literally, lived on many. Born in Massachusetts, Poverty (a k a Tom Ferris) was homeless in five states after he took to the road with his mother, who struggled with prostitution and drugs. His rhymes, delivered with the streetwise passion of a Nas or 2pac, were his only solace.
''I remind people of what they hide from,'' he explains. ``Bling-bling music is about fantasy. It lets people imagine Escalades or Cristal or fly women. My music is depressing and truthful, and for that reason, I'm still amazed I have a record deal.''
Poverty was living in a Portland, Ore., homeless shelter when his current manager spotted him at an open mic session and delivered his demo to former Interscope Records chief Ted Fields. Fields quickly signed Poverty to his new ArtistDirect label -- and then signed him the advance check that took him off the streets.
''My mission is to stay sane until the day I die, and the only way I can do that is through hip-hop,'' declares the 23-year-old, whose album will be released in January.
Being a white-boy rapper from the city is one thing. But being ''three twenty-something white suburban feminists doing hip-hop like it ain't no thing'' is quite another. Hesta Prynn's description of Northern State, the rap trio consisting of Prynn, Guinea Love, and DJ Sprout, captures what the group is not: no ghetto fabulous; no bikini tops or brand names; no claims at streetwise authenticity.
Instead, they flaunt their middle-class Long Island roots, naming themselves after the highway that cuts through Half Hollow Hills High School, where they met. Often described as the Beastie Boys' feminine incarnation, their four-song EP references Chekhov and Gore, rhymes ''vegetarian'' with ''humanitarian, imaginarian, not a libertarian,'' and has been lavished with praise by Rolling Stone.
To the ladies, who are currently at work on their EP but are already fielding label offers, it's all worthy of a smile. What started ''in a spirit of play,'' recalls Guinea Love -- after college, the trio began free-styling for fun -- has taken on a life of its own.
Having opened for various hip-hop and punk acts, including their childhood heroes (and fellow Long Islanders) De La Soul, Northern State is vying to be the first white female rap act to hit big. ''It's hard enough being a woman in hip-hop, but being white and a woman? Forget it,'' says DJ Sprout with a laugh.
But as hip-hop turns multicolored, Sprout may stand corrected. ''Eminem opened doors,'' says Johnny Blanco. 'He broke the monotony of `all white rappers are wack,' especially after the sour taste Vanilla Ice left in everyone's mouth.''
Not everyone, however, sees Eminem's success in rose-colored glasses. Radio host Star, of New York's Hot 97 (WQHT-FM), fumes over the ''Eminem hype machine'' that surrounded the 8 Mile release.
''I don't hate Eminem because he's white,'' Star says. ``But to say that he's the best this art form has ever seen is a slap in the face to the ones who've created and pioneered this million-dollar industry. History repeats itself, and this is Elvis all over again.''
Like Elvis, Eminem may be the start of a trend -- but he may also be an exception to the rule. According to Necro, the hard-core rapper from Brooklyn who has been putting out records since 1990, Em hasn't changed the playing field at all.
''I'm white, I'm Jewish, and I'm rugged, and all that has worked against me,'' he explains. ``Being white in the rap game is like being black in '50s Hollywood. And with or without Eminem, that's still the way it is.''