Asher Agonistes

The Suburban Rise of Asher Roth

by Robert Costa

13 April 2009


Once he got to West Chester, Roth stayed in the Pennsbury loop, since the school was under an hour’s drive away. During his sophomore year, he posted a couple MP3 recordings on MySpace. The turn of events following this innocuous upload are slowly becoming legend and have been recounted by Roth many times on his current publicity tour.

In short, after he posted his tracks, Scott ‘Scooter’ Braun, a fast-talking Emory University student who was a rising star in the Atlanta nightclub scene and aspiring hip-hop impresario, scooped Roth up as his newest client. Braun had built an impressive portfolio in only a couple years, tying his club promotion skills into the Atlanta rap world, which remains a hotbed for new hip-hop talent. Braun introduced Roth to the rap executive circuit, scoring sit-downs with everyone from Jay-Z to Steve Rifkind, the chairman of SRC Records, an imprint of Universal, who ultimately signed Roth to his major-label deal.

Roth dropped out of West Chester after his sophomore year to focus on his music and turning his high school and college hobby into a career. At the same time, he kept in touch with his Bucks County roots, coming back to perform at Pennsbury in 2007 at his alma mater’s world-famous prom. It was one of Roth’s first live gigs, a slot that only three years prior was being filled by John Mayer. Not a bad place to start.

Rifkind, Braun and Roth plotted their next move. They decided to release a mixtape of Roth rapping over famous beats on the web as a digital EP to get Roth’s music out there and spread as a grassroots effort. That group of recordings, entitled The Greenhouse Effect, was released last summer and produced by respected rap stalwarts Don Cannon and DJ Drama. Thanks to the viral nature of the online rap community, the mixtape generated enormous buzz almost immediately.

Then Roth recorded “I Love College,” and ode to the beer-fuelled antics from the West Chester life he had left behind. Since it was released online in 2008, “I Love College” has been played over 15 million times in various incarnations on the web. It now sits in the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and is considered to be, at least according to thousands of Facebook profiles, the song of American college life in 2009.

So, the skinny kid from the Bucks County ‘burbs is quickly gaining fans beyond the Philly rim and he is doing it his way. Roth has said that he has taken care to never be cajoled into releasing anything sounding forced. I’ve listened closely to The Greenhouse Effect and his recent interviews, trying to pick-up on anything that sounds like publicist advice. Roth, admirably, and perhaps for his own sanity, never tries to create an image in his rhymes or his to-and-fros with reporters and deejays. From the romps off his EP like “Roth Boys” to the recently released “Lark on My Go-Kart” track off his upcoming record, Roth is being Roth—a fun-loving suburban guy who likes to downplay his talent and turn up the fun, be it in a game of beer pong or in a recording studio. That upcoming record, Asleep in the Bread Aisle, is released next week, on April 20—otherwise known as Cannabis Day. It’s a coincidence one hopes even prickly Eminem fans can enjoy.


At SXSW 2009 / Photo: pHat Minorities

Without saying it, everyone in that Pennsbury parking lot in 2003 knew Roth was different than the countless lame frat boys at West Chester and elsewhere recording covers of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” to make their girlfriends swoon over clumsily strummed chords. Roth also lacked the raw, super-driven ambitions of the plethora of start-up local bands mailing demos to faceless record executives in New York, dreaming of glory. Before he met Braun and Rifkind, he never had an angle, no ploy. He wasn’t trying to get into someone’s pants or get a deal. Well, maybe the former. It was about whether he could keep his friends’ attention and share some original songs.

Roth, almost always unsaid, was also trying to make us think without making it a lecture. For all the praise slathered on him by his peers even then, I always found Roth to be quiet and thoughtful, qualities which made him believable. They’re also qualities that will sustain a career beyond a hit single focus-grouped for college kids.

Before I headed back to catch the tail end of the football game, I looked again at Roth, slumped in his seat, immersed in his homemade music. The cute girls were now grinding with each other as another roar was heard from the adjacent high school stadium. Roth was oblivious. He was listening to each bump in the beat, each of his inflections, singing along but also self-critiquing.

After one track ended, he looked at me, eyebrow slightly arched. “This is great stuff,” I said. He turned away. He wasn’t looking for my local newspaper critic angle. He appreciated my time and was glad to catch up. But I could tell. Roth, for all his social ease and local popularity as a white kid who could actually rap, was not trying to be the life of the party or the center of attention. Unlike so many local artists, he didn’t ask for a write-up. The marching band kids, with their horns slung over their orange-and-black pads, walked by. To them, Asher Roth was a joke—nothing more than a dreamer making corny MP3 recordings in a basement with ‘Footie’. They had heard about Roth but they never took the time to listen to his music. Their loss.

Having a dream in the suburbs is a complicated thing. You can’t reveal too much. You’ll be told it’s impossible. Asher Roth never gave a damn. Be it during EOP or on a grimy West Chester futon, he was always thinking, not scheming. Every time a friend sent me a clip of his new music, I’d find myself increasingly impressed with the nuance he weaved into rhymes. As one friend memorably told me, it was like Roth had grown from the crude humor of South Park to the best days of The Simpsons. Some critics call Braun’s discovery of Roth off MySpace a stroke of luck. Maybe. Anyone who heard Roth at Pennsbury years ago knows that it is Braun and Rifkind who are the lucky ones. Roth’s skills will make their careers, not the other way around.

It’s funny now to hear that other rappers are challenging Roth to battles, like he must be some marketing creation without any real skills. They don’t know the real Asher Roth, the rapper who burned down the Philly suburbs with sick spits and a smile. They don’t know about the guy who hunched unheralded over hundreds of notebooks during high school refining his rhymes. They don’t know about the rapper who can rap eloquently about the thousands of American towns where Wal-Mart and the mall may be the community center, but not its heart.

They will though, soon enough.

Robert Costa, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, was a Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal last year, covering rock, pop and politics. He can be reached at [email protected]

Topics: asher roth
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