A new army is infiltrating hip-hop.
Its soldiers are white, wealthy, and some can’t legally drink. Although rap still has its star lineup (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Akon, among others), the doors have opened for unknown artists to break in. They don’t just take advantage of the obvious outlets (MySpace, YouTube), but also use iLike, Last.fm, Pure Volume, and Reverb Nation to make their songs go viral. They post videos and watch the hit counts multiply in a matter of minutes and they broadcast touring news on Twitter.
Social media is only the vehicle; it’s the lyrical content that hooks college fans. Asher Roth, for example, entered the spotlight in summer 2009 with the lead single “I Love College”, in which he raps about drinking Miller Lite, playing beer pong, and bringing girls to his dorm room. This is not the stuff of ‘80s and ‘90s gangster rap. It’s even a far cry from Kanye’s showy material about fashion labels and fancy cars.
Roth’s success, along with that of Mike Posner, a 21-year-old senior at Duke University, has paved the way for a third artist to round out this unintentional triumvirate: Sam Adams (real name Samuel Adams Wisner), 22, a native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and senior at Trinity College in Connecticut. Ironically, Adams first got his name out with “I Hate College”, a direct parody of the Asher Roth hit. A video for the Adams song has over a million views on YouTube. “I heard ‘I Hate College’ at a party, and my friend gave me the YouTube link,” says Matt Mancz, 21, a senior at SUNY Cortlandt. “I was a huge fan in about three minutes.”
On Thursday, March 4, Adams released his first official EP, Boston’s Boy, on the iTunes store. By the weekend, it had hit #1 on the Hip-Hop Albums chart and he was playing his first major New York City concert, performing at Hiro Ballroom in Chelsea, sharing the billing with Divine Rhyme, a fellow white hip-hop act out of Lehigh University that met and performed with Adams in Nantucket (where else?) last summer.
Patch Culbertson, 25, who works in A&R at a major New York record label, says that at the moment, “Not many examples exist of known, white, college-age rappers aside from Asher Roth, Mike Posner and Sam Adams,” but expects many more to come in 2010. These artists invite new fans into a genre that in the past, “white people have appreciated but could not relate to.” The Beastie Boys and Eminem may have laid the groundwork for these kids. But the Beasties, now in their mid-40s, don’t have a big web presence, and today’s young listeners can’t identify with Em’s tales of spousal violence.
Many college kids prefer songs like “Tab Open”, the second big Sam Adams hit, which has the refrain: “All the fellas nod their heads, all the ladies fall in love, or in lust, either one, I don’t give a fuck.” This and songs like “Drug Dealer Girl”, in which Posner sings about the girl who sells him weed, are a way for these young men to reach out and share their fun with those who currently share the same lifestyle. Culbertson points directly to the lyrics as a selling point: “Less talk of jail time, pimping, and gats. If anything, they’re mocking their lack of gangster qualities.”
Of course, the musical content only gets these artists halfway there. To really blow up, web manipulation is crucial. This is where the blogosphere comes in. College kids with more interest than the average fan are helping their favorite artists by pushing their stuff online. “The really committed hip-hop heads spend all day on the blogs,” says Adams, who believes blog coverage is to thank for the 25 independent gigs he was paid to play at colleges nationwide in 2009. Indeed, while watching Divine Rhyme, eagerly anticipating Adams, Alessa Broeksmit, 23, said: “I heard about him on the music blog Hype Machine. One of his songs became one of my top 25 most played within a week.”
Max Gredinger, 19, takes on his role as a rap blogger with discipline. A student in the Bandier Music & Entertainment business program at Syracuse University in New York, Gredinger runs a hip-hop blog called Hold My Coat, on which he incessantly posts news about mash-ups, downloads, and other hip-hop goodies. In addition to blogging, he did marketing work for Mike Posner when he was first starting out.
Gredinger notes that the new artists have a nerdy appeal. “I think it’s nerdy that these up-and-comers are talking about things that happen to them on a daily basis,” he says, “as opposed to putting on an act to fit into that ‘gangster’ role hip-hop tries to force upon them.” Indeed, one need only check out some of the song names to see Gredinger’s theory in action; two tracks off Asher Roth’s debut album were called “Lark on My Go-Kart” and “Sour Patch Kids”.
Adams would be more hesitant to label himself among Gredinger’s perceived group of “nerd” artists. He raps harder than some of his predecessors, spitting lyrics Eninem-style where Mike Posner mostly sings, Usher-style. Adams adopts a real swagger, bragging on a new track, “Girls frontin’ like they won’t have sex with me? Ha, yeah right.” He wants to be as close as possible to the gangster rap that has come before him, and titled one of his new songs, embarrassingly, “Swang Your Drank.”
Yet, in his way, Adams is just as much a geeky white boy as Roth and Posner. He struggles with his dress code, going for a street look with a flat-brimmed Sox hat on the cover of his album, when just beneath it is a plaid button-down shirt, a standard East coast preppy staple of any Trinity College student’s wardrobe. At times on the album, this conflict shows through; he tries too hard. “That good weed make a shackled man feel free,” he raps in a particularly cringe-worthy line from “Just Love Here”.
The fans, meanwhile, feel conflicted—they love rap, but they’re white, affluent, and safeguarded. They can’t sing along to a 50 Cent song about shooting cops. “College kids don’t want to hear about stuff they can’t relate to… they want the truth,” says Adams. “Chilling, hooking up with girls, getting hammered and waking up with a headache, these are things every college kid does every weekend.”
This level of connection was starkly evident at Adams’ show in New York. Of the nearly 200 people that showed up, less than five were not white. His fans, meanwhile, embrace this homogeneity: “I like how he’s reppin’ for the Caucasians,” said Brittany Lannan, 23, with pride. “I really like that he’s a white dude, and that he went to a NESCAC school,” concurred Matt Wheeler, 26, a graduate of Wesleyan University. Wheeler came from Denver just to see Adams perform.
Because nearly everyone in the house looked and acted the same, Adams’ concert felt at times like a high school graduation party, or school dance—kids from the same background, jumping around excitedly, hormones high. Adams is a good-looking kid. Many of his female fans might not even like rap so much; they like his face. “He’s got the cutest little button nose I’ve ever seen!” raves Linleigh Smith, 24, a bartender in Manhattan. Smith and other girls lined up by the stage in front, trying to reach out and touch him as he rapped. He played to the crowd, hopping around the stage toward them, and they loved it. But even men wanted a piece. “Sammyyy!” shouted one guy standing in the front row during “Coast to Coast”. His girlfriend was with him, grinding up on him, but he seemed more interested in catching a glance from Adams.
Guys like him because they’re seeing a down to earth kid who seems like people they know. For them, it’s bro rap. For the girls, meanwhile, he’s cute, and that’s enough to follow his career. People are seeing the same performer in a different light; everyone’s happy with their own idea of Sam Adams.
No moment exemplified the “white house party” feel more than when Adams paused to give his parents a shout-out. At this point all of the kids present actually turned to clap for his father, Chuck Wisner, and mother, Kata Hull, who admitted after the show that “sometimes it’s weird” to hear her son rapping about smoking weed and having sex. “My mother’s still alive, she’s 87, and she’s so proud of him,” Hull said, “I just tell her not to listen to the lyrics.” Adams’ parents are simply too proud to feel awkward about what their son is doing. After the show, down in the club’s basement, Adams sits for an interview with a small hip-hop news source, and his parents watch with smiles as he smokes a joint on camera. It’s a moment that feels symbolic of a new era, somehow.
Being an anomaly in rap—white, affluent, and sheltered—Adams comes with some controversy. In between the second and third song, he addressed recent accusations against him from the blogosphere, jokingly calling himself “Scammy Adams” to show that he isn’t fazed. In the week after Boston’s Boy released, numerous rap sites accused Adams of charging the entirety of his album’s first 75,000 purchases to one credit card. “Whiteboy Trust Fund Rap”, read one especially virulent article headline. Adams sent around a spreadsheet thousands of pages long that documented proof of all 65,000 early sales from all over the United States. Almost all of the stories have now been taken down, some of them openly retracted, with stunned apologies.
Adams, to his credit, anticipated such reactions from some sectors of the rap world. On the track “Just Love Here”, Adams complains of people that, “stay runnin’ they mouth, reactin’ to what they say with a handful of doubt.” Then he whispers in a softer voice: “Ouch.” He’s a wounded kid that just wants to be loved, which is, of course, the condition of so many ambitious students at fancy liberal arts colleges.
Meanwhile, despite the look and feel of his New York crowd, Adams doesn’t like to see any racial limitations to his music or his following. As far as he’s concerned, he’ll keep gobbling up fans by posting personal content, like promotional images or more relaxed videos in which he freestyles for friends in their dorm rooms. “Social media is going to continue to help me reach out and touch my fans,” he says, “white or black”.
It doesn’t matter how Adams chooses to judge his fan base. It doesn’t matter if some more unforgiving rap fans keep criticizing him on rap blogs. He’s carving out a niche with white college students, and they’ll continue to show him love.
At least until the next new kid comes along.
// Notes from the Road
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