Asher Agonistes: The Suburban Rise of Asher Roth

Nearly six years ago, Asher Roth was sitting in the front seat of a beat-up sedan. Its doors were open, the radio buzzing forgettable disc jockey chatter. We were in the parking lot of Pennsbury High School, a concrete behemoth in the suburbs north of Philadelphia. A football game roared a hundred yards away, mosquitoes and cheerleaders dancing under the Friday night lights.

Roth—slightly built and loose-limbed—held court amongst a coterie of high school characters. Potheads, rap geeks, lanky basketball players in Sixers tees and student government types in Abercrombie dotted the mix. Roth, for his part, was rocking jeans and an anonymous ash-colored hooded sweatshirt. Dads in loose ties, rushing towards the bleachers straight from work, paid our gathering crowd little attention.

Although I was still a senior at Pennsbury, Roth had graduated the previous spring. Like many college freshmen in their first autumn away, Roth had decided to come home for the weekend. He had driven back to Bucks, the way we all describe our county, from nearby West Chester University, where he was studying to become an elementary school teacher. Roth had brought home more than his laundry.

He said hey, we shook hands. “Turn it up,” I said as Roth reached for the console and slipped in an unmarked CD. The speakers started crackling out bouncing syncopations. The handful of attractive young women that always seemed to permeate Roth’s world began swaying their hips in low-slung unison like they were in the center of a club, creepy rent-a-cop a couple feet away be damned.

As a wannabe Lester Bangs for the teen section of the local paper, I kept my feet still, listening for the beat. Roth, too, remained steady, his neck grooving slowly with the rhythm, his lips softly mouthing along the words. “Isn’t this amazing?” squealed the girl next to me. I nodded. This was good.

Roth seemed to have added a canon of barbed insights since I had last heard him rap in high school study hall. His new music, laid with love over popular rap beats he had downloaded from the web, was striking in its ability to twist the unbridled apathy of his suburban life into a fresh amalgamation of pop, hip-hop, political commentary and a bit of tongue-in-cheek razzing.

Everyone huddled round the car dug the beats Roth had laced with his rhymes. What caught my ear was his sense of lo-fi irony. Most of Roth’s friends at PHS celebrated his rap skills like he was some sort of enlightened class clown with a snappy vocabulary. Yet his music, although relaxed and upbeat, was far from a collection of crass party jams. Instead, in every sense, his music then, as it remains now, was the rhapsodized diary of the smart kid at the back of the class—observational and almost journalistic.

Roth’s lyrics kept oozing out of the car speakers. It was hard to keep up. If you laughed at one line you missed the next, be it a rant on school rules or a soliloquy about a Saturday night. None were boring indictments of politicians or parents. They were clever musings about the experience of living through a world of where MySpace ruled, dating was dead and drugs were forbidden—though almost every kid, prescription or not, was on some sort of pill. It was like ‘The Wonder Years’ updated as a Bush years soundtrack.

Watching Roth circa 2003 mull his lyrics about grocery stores and dorm floors was akin to catching a young Jerry Seinfeld brood over detergent bits in the late Eighties. It appeared mundane but it resonated precisely because Roth was not talking about his 25-inch rims or his hoes in different area codes. He was rapping about our lives, not the lives we wish we had. As track bled into track, I thought it all sounded a bit PG-13. Then again, no one at Pennsbury, or West Chester, was living a life that could qualify for an R-rating.

Still, most of the ‘serious’ hip-hop community at Pennsbury, known best for the thug-wear they stole from the local mall and their questionable embrace of Ja Rule, tended to ignore Roth due to his pale complexion and supposedly unforgivable lack of P. Diddy garb. Same with the angry jocks who blasted Eminem tracks as they pulled out of Pennsbury’s parking lot each day, trying so hard to look tough as they rolled by the field hockey team doing stretches.

Nonetheless, Roth never seemed to mind the haters. As he sat in the front seat, the graduate back in his old haunt, I watched him observe each of us listen to his music—looking for smiles, raised eyebrows and head shakes. Each lyrical aside that generated a reaction was noted by Roth with a nod. He was taking notes.

At SXSW 2009 / Photo: pHat Minorities

Musicians, of course, have always been popular in the halls of high schools and college campuses. Roth rose to prominence at Pennsbury around 2002 and 2003, when his basement rap recordings became a hot commodity. His first disc was made alongside Brian Sellers, a charismatic soccer player whom everyone called ‘Footie’. Copies of that CD, which Roth and Sellers dubbed Ezia Sed Den Dun, are still floating around Bucks. Note to aging Pennsbury soccer moms: you can throw away the baseball cards but Johnny wants you to keep his rare Roth record.

When Roth first started proffering Ezia around PHS, the word-of-mouth was unbelievable. Pennsbury, like most high schools, had a student body highly suspicious of anyone trying, well, anything. When Roth won over the jaded Pennsbury masses, he knew he was onto something. Sure, some people hated. Some haters were clowns high up on the honor roll that didn’t actually listen to his music but despised anyone stealing their spotlight. Others mumbled mean-spiritedness but they hated everything above average anyway so Roth didn’t pay them any mind.

Selling 250 copies of his first effort in two days wasn’t enough for Roth. He likes to recount now how he blew the money he made on weed and Reebok classics. Typical of Roth, he modestly plays off any notion of seriousness. However, Roth didn’t just pocket the money and newfound popularity. He decided to cultivate a hip-hop scene at Pennsbury that was about what one spit in a freestyle battle. Period. The days when being a member of Pennsbury’s hip-hop community required only a trip to Hot Topic to get a Tupac T-shirt were over.

Roth’s close-knit crew at Pennsbury included many basketball players and athletes, some who had stopped playing organized ball years ago but still harbored competitive streaks that emerged in Mario Kart tournaments and rap battles. They were an easy-going group of friends, with nicknames like ‘Footie’ and Pat ‘Big Timbs’ McNeil. Critics can crow about Roth’s current celebrity but one thing that’s refreshing is that it’s evident to all in Pennsbury world that Roth’s friends from high school still remain close with the rapper. In many ways, Roth never left the world of Pennsbury. Then again, he never seemed to be trying to escape. He wanted to articulate the suburbs of Bucks County, not eviscerate them.

During his senior year at Pennsbury, the growing crowd of rap aficionados with Roth at its center found a home during study hall in the classroom of English teacher Frank Sciolla, the head basketball coach at Pennsbury, who still teaches and coaches the Falcons in Fairless Hills. Sciolla, a tall thirtysomething former college basketball player, was a fan of hip-hop, especially classic artists from the genre’s early days. Study halls at Pennsbury were called ‘EOPs’, a bureaucratic acronym for Educational Opportunity Period. Sciolla, whose deep knowledge of Shakespearean sonnets matched his enthusiasm for rap, recognized that Roth’s group of restless students needed a forum besides basket-weaving or debate club. ‘Mr. Sciolla’s Supa-Flo’ was born.

Every Wednesday during EOP, Roth would host rap battles in Mr. Sciolla’s room on the second floor of Pennsbury High. The room was a windowless concrete block with peeling inspirational posters, rickety steel chairs and little else. The rumor was that PHS was designed by the same architect who designed Bucks County’s jail. Crusty teachers jeered that’s where we’d all wind up. True or not, the reality of Pennsbury’s ambience has never let that rumor die.

Ignoring the poor aesthetics, Roth plowed forward, garnering a larger crowd each week—slackers, young women twirling their hair and nodding along, even some green teachers straight out of state college. It was a lively event. Hall aides would constantly harass the rap battles and Sciolla would take care to make sure that curses didn’t fly . . . too often. The spirit of the whole enterprise was pure fun.

Sciolla, wearing his English lit hat, would praise those who could string together coherent, witty sentences. Anything that was dull was booed. Roth, although acknowledged as the school master of rhyming skills, never dominated or tried to be the star of EOP rap battles. He would often sit alongside me and others, laughing and calling out as others battled. I always got the sense that he enjoyed being on the sidelines as much as being on-stage. Not that Roth was shy. As I remember those aimless EOPs, I can’t recall one moment when Roth was not laughing or playfully chiding his friends.

One day, to get in the spirit of the EOP battle sessions, Sciolla, with his typical humor, dressed up in a cheesy throwback Washington Bullets jumpsuit, the kind of thing one could rightfully assume a young Ice Cube may have donned. Sciolla’s antics were appreciated by Roth and company but I don’t remember Roth ever dressing up to rap. For him, it was all about the wordplay. Others could do the imitations.

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]