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“Untangling Yourself While Moving Forward”: Asher Roth’s Whispered Transition From Frat Rap to Hip[Pie] Hop

This article was originally published on Respect My Region

Choosing a major that dictates the rest of your life is a lot to take on at a young age. Likewise, most musicians get one clear shot at the long haul, if even that. At just 22, Asher Roth went major and instantly became the poster child of “frat rap” — a brand that belied his attributes to such an extent that he was forced (of his own volition) to go back to the drawing board and carve out a separate, less-travelled path for himself that allowed him to breathe at a pace that matched his heartbeat.

Make no mistake, “I Love College” was the song of 2009 for kids both in out of school — he’ll be the first to embrace that — but it did the merest justice to his character.

Entertainers thrive off of greatest hits; artists spend the rest of their careers trying to escape them. Asher is a student of hip-hop and its adjoining disciplines, and there’s no other way to put it. He’s a decent, unpretentious wordsmith with an exemplary vocabulary that has equipped him with the hippie wizardry to convey the happenings of a very complicated world in the most digestible ways … and he just happens to have a hit about partying that led many to believe there isn’t much else to him.

Using the leverage of his early success to quietly steer away from the lane he was pushed into, the Pennsylvania native took some time off after his sophomore album to rethink his strategy and position himself to triumph in ways that don’t compromise his spirit.

After reemerging from the enlightenment, he’s back in the game and doing things exactly his way. This ranges from paying close attention to the kids and offering them a platform to forming alliances with seasoned musicians who share the same vision. At 38, Asher Roth is exactly who he was always meant to be — someone who loves making music for himself as well as those who appreciate people who love making music for themselves.

You’re four months into fathering your first child …

Asher Roth (AR): Yeah, little baby girl too. It’s interesting because you hear people be like, “This child saved my life,” and I can totally understand that if your life is off the rails because that type of responsibility helps bring you back to center. For me, it’s a welcome addition … being a father, being present and being available are all very important to me, but I’m still as ambitious as I’ve ever been in the world of music and communication and performance, so balancing those two things has become a new piece of the puzzle. Family always comes first, and I’m now integrating my music more with what feels like “real life.”

Ageing in hip-hop is a fascinating phenomenon. On one hand, you have André 3000 saying he hasn’t much to offer at 48, but then Danny Brown drops one of the most introspective albums of the year that was born from the wisdom of experience.

AR: Hip-hop is rooted in knowledge of self and wisdom, so in a lot of ways, the youthful stuff is more raw and fun and entertaining. Earl Sweatshirt was talking about his Doris project and how he was so young at the time, like what am I going to tell listeners at 18? But there’s some innocence there, which is beautiful, and I even look back at my early stuff with that in mind. I actually feel more drawn to rap right now and the art of communicating my experiences. I read the NPR article on André and I love that he’s communicating through just music because I do feel like words get in the way a lot of the times.

Have rap and music always been the go-to mediums of communication for you?  

AR: No, I don’t even know how I got myself here, to be honest with you, especially when some of the kids I hang out with are virtuosos who can play multiple instruments and have a deep understanding of music theory. In a lot of ways, I feel like an imposter, but people still tend to open up to me, so the conversations end up getting rather deep and there’s something therapeutic about that. For me, the words don’t necessarily need to rhyme. I’ve been more focused on things like this: one-on-one interactions and being present. In the early stages of being in the music business, you’re always trying to figure out how to talk to as many people as possible, all at once, which you don’t really have the energy for once you grow up. So it’s actually been calming and enjoyable for me to scale it back and get to something that’s much more sustainable.

You were noticeably absent for a few years after your second album, Retrohash. Did that have anything to do with you figuring out the way in which you operate today?

AR: It’s so tough to talk about that period because there’s so many sides to the story. The sewer system of my music’s business and foundation was so screwed up from my early experience in the industry that I had to go back in and essentially re-do the whole thing … I don’t mean to turn that into an excuse, but when that’s happening, it’s very uninspiring.

So I was with Blended Babies in Los Angeles during Retrohash, which was also when I was really planting my independent flag. Because that was happening, there was no real support from the old guard I was working with — they weren’t on board with what I believed was best for me — and that experience is what has me adamant about artist development; y’know, allowing people the space and time to bloom and become who they are, because that stuff doesn’t happen overnight. I just really wanted to get all my outlets organized to make sure my music was getting to the right places. Untangling yourself while moving forward is really hard, because you’re not getting the support in what is very much a team sport.

Also, I was like 26 at the time. Astrology’s a little goofy but there’s something called your Saturn Return, which is around when you turn 27. It’s a really interesting time, regardless of what people believe in, because that’s when a lot of us start experiencing our first conundrums.

There’s an irrefutable sincerity with which you approach the craft, which is why it makes so much sense that you’ve been cooking new music with Logic. How did that crossover come to fruition?

AR: His manager actually reached out to a buddy of mine from college and was like, “Bobby’s trying to get a hold of you; is it cool if I give him your number?” So he shot me a text and he was actually also commenting about artist development, the Discord that I started and putting kids on game. He mentioned that it was very admirable, and so we just stayed in touch on a real human level. Y’know, he’s a thoughtful, really sweet person, and I know some people can say overly so, wherein you overextend yourself and people take advantage of that.

Anyway, so we linked up after his show in Philly and were just kind of hanging out when he was like, “Yo, I got like so many beats” … so we started going through them and he just had these joints that were right in my wheelhouse. When you talk about having fun with the craft — as far as a priority, that’s moved to the forefront for me just because of what I’ve experienced before. I really value the power of spoken word and music, and I never wanted to misuse that. I sound naïve, but people be saying stuff without realizing that they’re casting spells, so I became more mindful as I got older. Bobby seemed drawn to the fact that I was saying that out loud, which is why we connected.

He played me a bunch of beats, I took them home, he went back to Oregon and I sent him back some of my sketches. You’re the first person to hear how this is actually going to turn out, but it’s kind of like a beat tape with raps, so it moves really fast and is held together like a quilt.

I’ve always wanted the relationships I develop in the music industry to be authentic, and the one with Bobby is rooted in him being a good person rather than “what can you do for me?” Also, I can’t do anything for Logic — he’s much larger than I am in terms of audience — so it’s just dope that he appreciates who I am and what I’m doing, and we can work together just based on that. It doesn’t happen a lot, like putting your hand back out once you get on. That’s why these kids on Discord are just blow away that I’m down to have them on a tape and put it out together.

The Spring Semester project that you just released is a product of you collaborating with aspirants on Discord — it began with Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3, which you followed up with Fall Semester, and it’s now turned into a recurring concept in your timeline. What’s the scouting process for that?

AR: There’s no scouting process at all, actually. It happened during the pandemic — I really wanted to do Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3 but I didn’t want to be beholden to DJ Drama and Cannon [who produced the first two volumes], and whatever they had going on. I decided to rethink my play by making a tape with followers and fans and friends, because there’s so much talent out there, but it’s really hard to get a firm chance. It was really just an open invite using Discord for organizational purposes. I would just be sending out acapellas, they would come back with beats and then we’d vote on them; just a very democratic process. It went over a lot of people’s heads because I don’t think they realized what exactly was going on when I was constantly posting about it, which is fine because I’m doing it for me.

And so I just wanted to keep that going … the thing is that album was mostly me over beats from all these different people, but there were also so many rappers who were trying to get a feature. Now, obviously I can’t promise to jump on a track with everybody, but what I can do is help curate their work from an A&R standpoint. From just encouraging people to be creative and collaborate, Fall Semester happened and now we got Spring Semester too. Sure, not everyone makes the project because it does come to cohesiveness at the end of the day, but we’re still looking to put out two tapes every year. It’s really a collaboration with people who make music but aren’t really in the music business, and we’re doing it digitally with tools everybody has.

The latest Greenhouse Effect might actually be your strongest yet — the beat switch on “Bad Apple Magic” is immaculate.

AR: This is what’s so great about our Discord. People just come through, make beats, discuss music — y’know, just being fans first. So that’s how I met Heather Grey, the dude who does “Bad Apple Magic,” and what happens? We start making side projects and ended up dropping Why’s It So Grey Out in 2021, and now we have a follow-up to that called Temporary Heaven that’s coming out at the top of next year. Even the “4GOD” and “DIMMA” joints with Guala came from the same place. It’s just been so much fun giving these kids opportunities.

Why’s It So Grey Out is held together by a distinct tone, mood and pace. Will the sequel follow that same pattern?

AR: A lot of people try making catchy tunes, but Heather’s allowed me to just be bar-forward; like let’s go with raps first. It’s been nice to see audiences comes around to it. Granted, it still might be niche stuff, but it seems like that lo-fi stuff is having a moment — anything Alchemist, right? At the same time, I’ve always been a lyrics cat, and the [hip-hop] heads know Asher’s always been rapping. With the early success of “I Love College,” I kind of got lumped in as an act, but Heather has known who I really am as an artist for a while. As a fan first, it’s really nice to meet people who have dope beats but also understand what you’re trying to do.

Have you tried your hand at production at all?

AR: Going back to our conversation about communication and that being really important to me, I always strayed away from production because I didn’t love interfacing with computers. This was about five or six years ago, and I’d always tell myself that I’m going to start on production once I start a family and I’m home more. Over that time, I was researching some of the stuff I’d want to make beats on and the SP-404MKII is a great tool that I actually use in my concerts. Shoutout to DJ Recognize, who’s held me down for so many years and is a fantastic turntablist, but rather than just having a DJ who is playing tracks for me to rap over, the live show that I’ve put together now involves triggering and breaking down samples to show people what we’re actually doing there. Then, we also have a trumpet player and a drummer, which is incredible.

From using the 404 as a live performance tool, I ventured into using it to make beats as well. As of now, it’s more of a hobby and just me kind of nerding out about music, but I do have my first production credit on Spring Semester through, as I mentioned before, a democratic process. It’s a song called “Tea Break,” and then I have two beats under my producer pseudonym, AP, that I just released as How’s My Driving? It’s very amateur, but everyone’s got to start somewhere and it’s nice to kind of start this producer arc that allows me to at least be in rooms and speak that jargon. 

It’s important to just put out anything you create at first, because you set up an expectation for yourself to be better and consistent in your output.

AR: For sure. I really got over myself and realized that we’re here to share stuff and enjoy each other. So many terrible things have been said about me during my early come-up that I just don’t consider that stuff important anymore. Again, I don’t want to be naïve because we live in such a gnarly time right now with a lot of the darkness coming to light — stuff we need to experience and uncover and talk about. On this podcast I did with Fly Fidelity, he asked me what it’s like to talk about these things. It’s important to me to look around, see what’s going on in the world and work it out … even just for myself because the raps are really just journaling, and you can’t be embarrassed to share that stuff. Sometimes, I’ll listen back to my work and decide it’s worth sharing because I wonder what somebody else thinks about it.

You’ve got a stacked catalog of gems that you never officially released. Do you ever plan on uploading joints like “Muddy Swim Trunks” and “Wrestling Is Fake” to streaming services?

AR: For the longest time, I was trying to find a clean outlet for my music. “Wrestling Is Fake” is from that period of time and I actually still perform it, but there’s no reason that song won’t come out on streaming services at some point … but those are the gems, right? I’d just casually release those and people were like, “Dude, this is fire.” That’s what’s so fun about this art form — these are chapters in our little memory bank. You can play me the video of “Muddy Swim Trunks” and I could tell you exactly who was where, what time it was and all that.

With all this music to you credit, there’s stuff your fans are privy to but then you also have all these incredible songs you dropped on the down-low that most people have never heard of. With that in mind, how do you go about curating setlists before you take the stage?

AR: I would say it’s a chronological narrative of sorts, because I try to tell my story to people who’ve been following along as well as those who have no idea. That’s why some people I chat with after the show tell me, “Dude, I had no idea [what was going on in your life].” It’s kind of like the conversation you and I were having about what happened after Retrohash, like why was there this black hole there? I like talking about that through the music so people can understand where I’m coming from. For instance, I perform “Taking My Time” and people don’t really know that Asher Roth joint, which was off the late-EOM’s Sunrain album. It’s a great one to repeat given how these are such fast times, like you put an album out and it’s old the next day. That’s pretty tough on artists like me, because I’ll spend months and years just living my life, and then I put it down once I’ve processed it all. So for anyone who’s curious what I’ve been up to, a live show is really a dope way to get caught up.

Then, there’s also some space we leave open for improv — an opening act, somebody in the crowd, rappers I know who might be in town — just because it’s so much fun when a show isn’t the same. Those segments, specifically with musicians, always make the sets feel new.

Before we wrap up, what are you listening to right now?

AR: There’s this group called The Gents, who I’ve been meaning to listen to because my buddy’s been telling me. And then CocoRosie, also on my about-to-check-out list, so I’d encourage others to do the same.

When you scroll down on an artist’s streaming profile on Spotify, there’s a “Fans Also Like” section that recommends musicians  on the same wavelength. Who would you be flattered to see suggested on your page?

AR: You know who’s actually been on there, who I’ve always appreciated and I just think is on a level few others are on, is Lupe Fiasco. I’ve always appreciated Lupe — a smart cat. Yeah, he ruffles feathers but that’s what we’re here for, y’know what I mean, to challenge people and give them information. I just think he’s an incredible writer and artist, so I’m always happy to see his name there. We did an incredible show together at Temple University [Philadelphia, PA] in 2009 and the vibes were amazing. I know we have mutual respect for each other.


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