Music

Asher Roth:Asleep in the Bread Aisle

He may be pretty fly for a white guy, but he's got a long way to go if he wants to hang with the big boys longer than his album is in the charts.


Asher Roth

Asleep in the Bread Aisle

Contributors: Busta Rhymes, Slick Rick, Oren Yoel, Beanie Segal, Chester French, Don Cannon
Label: Universal Motown
US Release Date: 2009-04-20
UK Release Date: 2009-04-20
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"Our subject isn't cool, but he fakes it anyway / He may not have a clue, and he may not have style / But everything he lacks, well he makes up in denial"

-- The Offspring's "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)"

This album has doom written all over it. The fact that Pennsylvania fratboy Asher Roth was discovered through MySpace should send shivers up your spine alone. Thankfully, this pasty, womanizing, privileged party boy has a little more talent than that "Chocolate Rain" dude. Yep, if you get enough virtual friends, the majors may one day drove up to your front door with a garbage truck full of cash advance and a list of label contacts.

When the truck stopped at Asher's frat, he quickly put down his bong and started smoking the poles of myriad mainstream hip-hop artists, trying to get anyone with an established name involved in his debut record. YouTube is currently swamped with footage of Ash accosting the ear of anyone his label could put him in a room with. He's seen grabbing dinner with Ludacris, getting Cee-Lo to bump his premasters in his car, and going so far as to tell Akon that he wrote the album with him in mind. However, from a single listen of Asleep in the Bread Aisle, it is blatantly obvious whom Roth actually had in mind when he dribbled this record, and that man is named after a candy coated chocolate.

As I join the thousands in accusing Asher of biting Slim Shady's style, it is important to note that Roth is fed up with the constant comparisons he has drawn to Marshall Mathers since before his first single leaked. In a Skee TV interview, he tried to brush it off by saying, "There's very few reference points for people to compare white rappers to. And since I talk from up here, you know what I mean, I'm making hip-hop music, and I'm a white kid, those are pretty much all the elements you really need to start comparing me to someone like Eminem, who is so successful in the mainstream. There's very few white rappers."

Fair enough, there haven't been as many white rappers through rap history as there have been pretty much every other shade of humanity. But there has been Sage Francis, Lil' Wyte, Buck 65, Brother Ali, House of Pain, Aesop Rock, Mad Child of Swollen Members, Vanilla Ice, the Beastie Boys, Sixtoo, Mike Skinner (a.k.a. The Streets), Bubba Sparxxx, Evidence of Dilated Peoples, Marky Mark, EL-P, Atmosphere's Slug, Insane Clown Posse, Scroobius Pip, Kyprios, Paul Wall, MC Chris, Ugly Duckling, Haystak, MC Serch, Tom Green, Sole, MC 900 Foot Jesus, Cage, Jel, and many others. There are dozens of white rappers available for reference. The reason critics continue to compare Asher Roth to Marshall Mathers is not that Mathers is the only other white rapper. It is because, like Adverse of Dorian Three, Ash consistently sounds more like Eminem than any of the aforementioned Caucasian emcees, only without Em's trademark intense lyricism and verbal dexterity.

Granted, Marshall is a misogynistic, homophobic sociopath that the world would be better off without, but he is a compelling storyteller and showman who battled through the ranks, built himself from the ground up, and earned his record sales. Asher Roth is more like the Lyte Funky Ones version of Slim Shady, a Johnny-on-the-spot hipster preppy with the right song at the right time to be handed a gold record and a token two album deal, then fade away into bad reality TV shows and "Where Are They Now" specials. Watching him struggle in interviews, in his best Ebonics, to explain the difference between himself and Em brings to mind the interview where Vanilla Ice miserably failed to explain the difference between the melody from "Ice Ice Baby" and the identical riff from Queen's "Under Pressure". The Asleep in the Bread Aisle preemptive strike "As I Em" does nothing to stop the bleeding.

Lyrically, Ash is clearly different from Em in a few key areas. Roth doesn't appear to be a homophobic psychopath like Shady, aiming to be a likeable rather than scary. While Eminem made a habit of murdering his mother in every other track, Roth's "His Dream" is a loving ode to the intellectual sacrifice his father made to put food on the table for his family. That beacon of parental honor is one of the album's few highlights. Much of Asher Roth's debut is dedicated to stupid stoner party and sex anthems. Em made the lyrical rape and murder of wives and girlfriends as pedestrian an activity as playing Grand Theft Auto, but it's clear that Roth only wants to dink them. So there is that difference, and the fact that Roth can't string together three sentences of a story.

The whole album is a string of references, jokes, and bad ideas, with nothing holding them together. The opening "Lark On My Go-Kart" sounds like Ash went to Wikipedia and clicked random links until he filled out the verses. Endorsing idiocy, "Blunt Cruisin'" is about driving around while hot-boxing a car, employing the word "homie" half a dozen times in the process. Equally moronic, his novelty hit "I Love College" is a pure preppy douchebag theme song on the level of LFO's "Summer Girls" and, to a lesser extent, "Teachers Suck" by Tom Green. The intellectual level of that song is pretty well summed up by the line "I love college, I love drinking, I love women, and I love college" and its "chug chug chug" breakdown.

Jealousy-free hating aside, there are a couple things working in his favor. Surprisingly, Roth actually has something of a social conscience. He slips in some support for wearing condoms and frowns upon date rape in "I Love College" (of course, he said he learned those things, so it may be an accidental admission of guilt). "Sour Patch Kids" goes the farthest left, hitting on the theme of capitalist greed, with its profiteering wars, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the environmental damage it causes. While promoting the selfless act of donating, Roth truthfully says "Poverty is probably our biggest problem / And it ain't gonna stop with Obama / To save the world, we must start at the bottom." Coming from someone who wants to spend the rest of his life in college and has the means to do so, it is doubtful he would even know where to start looking for the bottom, but he demonstrates that he is at least vaguely aware of the world's problems.

Furthermore, he avoids the typical hip-hop posturing by showing himself on the cover of his debut wearing a basic tracksuit, comically passed-out face down on a grocery store shelf. I've never seen him wear garish bling or showcase his gang tattoos (we'll see if that lasts once the units start shifting). Instead, he is most often seen wearing a big bead necklace with a T-shirt, jeans, and simple grey hoodie. Unlike so many misguided rap egos, he appears to live according to his own message. His ability to laugh at himself betrays a humility that is virtually revolutionary in mainstream hip-hop today. Most of the album is focused on his sense of humor rather than politics, though, and that humor mainly revolves around the pedestrian activities of diddling "whores" (as he calls them) and getting high. Sadly, Roth is more Afroman than Redman, and even Afroman doesn't want to be Afroman these days.

Fighting in his corner, newcomer Oren Yoel produced much of Asleep in the Bread Aisle, and damned if his beats aren't full of choice samples and tight beats. There isn't a moment of gun-clap grandstanding. Instead, Oren flows smooth grooves through a rich tapestry of funk, reggae, soul, and old school rap influences. Even as an unknown, Yoel's beats surpass the repeat listening quality of Scott Storch and Eminem (who needs to stop making beats). Oren knew the world would be watching this album, and he delivered worthy instrumentals.

That said, his old school boom-bap flavored beats aren't tremendously challenging either, and neither is anything coming out of Roth's mouth. He only has the one bluntly political track, and it's not exactly a revolution. Coming down in 2009 with Obama in the White House, it could be interpreted more as opportunistic than anything else. Plus, encouraging people to drive around while passing the dutchie on "Blunt Cruisin'" combined with his constant relegating of women to the status of sex objects in every other track works to undo much of the record's social responsibility cred. All told, Asleep in the Bread Aisle is a brainless summer record with flashes of conscience. Roth can do better or, at the very least, discover his own voice.

Asshole or not, Eminem had to fight to get where he is, and Roth is a privileged trust fund kid who got his break by surfing the web on his parents' dime. The way Roth speaks, coming from a position of power, undermines any effort towards "keeping it real" in its truest sense. It's hard to take any of his vaguely positive messages seriously when we cannot trust that he is the one talking or if it was all a major label marketing plan pinned on some hapless honkey. If Ash can find a way to project his social positivity through a voice that is inarguably his own, if he can cut through his own bullshit and be real, Ash may be able to create something lasting next time around. We all know how novelty hit champions end up, and making something more notable than "I Love College" is his test.

Ash, buddy, you had better find and bring the real you soon. Asleep in the Bread Aisle is a piece of Dubble Bubble that loses its flavor before you're done reading the comic. You don't want to be remembered as a Bill S. Preston, Esquire. You want to stick around as a Ted "Theodore" Logan. Keep your head and up your game or lay face down, allow a major label to brutally penetrate your cashhole, and accept your role as this generation's Vanilla Ice. It's your choice.

3

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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