Asher Roth is unabashedly and proudly a reflection of the man and artist he wishes to be. He has traded in his gelled, frat-boy haircut for a long, untamed mane. Wearing comfortable clothes and tube socks emblazoned with pineapples, you’d never guess this was the same person who produced what is arguably the ultimate party anthem for college kids across the country.
“The ‘I Love College’ stuff, setting aside its success, came with a certain facade and image that I had to uphold. ‘I Love College’ was just a journal entry,” Roth says. “I had moved to Atlanta with my college buddies. I had just left school after two years, and I was like, ‘Damn, I miss school.’ I wanted to go back to West Chester. I’m 21 years old — why am I here in Atlanta? Next thing I knew, the song blew up because people related to it.”
Outside of the coincidence that we were born six days apart in the summer of 1985, Roth and I grew up about 25 minutes away from each other in Bucks County. We share a similar life education. We share fanaticism and connectivity with hip-hop music.
Hip-hop is a saving grace in my turbulent life, an escape from the grind of the mundane. Sometimes fun, oftentimes dark, but always a connection I’ve experienced on a primal level. I can recall moments growing up through my adolescence when I immersed myself in hip-hop, understanding implicitly the themes of sadness, grief, strife and triumph. That early footing led me to a weekly column in the Bucks County Courier Times, producing pieces about hip-hop and profiling local artists.
Roth’s roots in hip-hop eventually led to a modest brush with fame, fortune and limelight. As we enjoyed several Yards Brawlers on a warm August afternoon at Silk City, a fabulous diner on 5th and Spring Garden in the beautiful tapestry of life known as Philadelphia, I found that our worlds were more connected than I anticipated, even if our journeys were different.
When we talk about West Chester University — a school we both attended in the early aughts — Roth recalls his time there fondly. A smile creeps across his face as he remembers some of the best haunts in town.
“Well, I know Jake’s Bar doesn’t have 50-cent drafts and Riggtown Pizza doesn’t have dollar slices anymore.”
The life-shaping moments of that time are still tangible, even though it feels like an eternity ago. It appears to take him back to a comfortable time, before things became complicated by fame.
“I was there on and off for about two years," says Roth, who grew up in Morrisville and graduated from Pennsbury High School in 2003. "I left because I knew I could always go back to school but the opportunity to do music was a narrow window. I was halfway done with college and in a place where I needed to start taking either music or school seriously. That’s when I got the call from Scooter Braun.”
When Braun, then a rising young music executive, called early one morning, Roth and his friend Tom Boyd, who managed Roth’s Myspace account, thought it was the cops. They hung up on him.
“Scooter called back and said to Boyd, ‘Yo, this is the most important call of your boy’s life, put him on the phone.’ At that point I was utilizing the Yes Theory,” Roth explains, “Just say yes and go with it.”
Roth flew to Atlanta to meet with Braun, who introduced him to some people he knew. One song Roth had written — a sharp-edged a cappella piece called ‘Just Listen’ — caught the ear of Jermaine Dupri, Chaka Zulu and other heavy hitters in the Atlanta rap scene. Suddenly, Roth had an opportunity he didn’t even know he was looking for.
“Scooter was not a manager yet, but he was an obvious move maker,” Roth says. “I’d seen him in photos with Ashton Kutcher and Big Boi. That’s enticing to a 20-year-old. I was like, ‘I want to be there.’ ”
Roth’s early music wouldn’t categorize him as a socially conscious rapper.
“People don’t understand that when ‘I Love College’ blew up, we had to make sense of that stuff. We had to build an album around a popular single. I thought we (expletive) nailed that mission with (2009 debut album) 'Asleep in the Bread Aisle,' regardless of what anyone thinks about the album content-wise, or as far as imposing on hip-hop’s mission statement.”
Roth’s follow up to "Bread Aisle," however, was his criminally underrated 2011 single “G.R.I.N.D.” The song marked the beginning of Roth’s turn toward creating more socially engaged music. "G.R.I.N.D.," which stands for “Get Ready, It’s a New Day” and was produced by the ensemble 1500 Or Nothin,' is an organ-infused head-nodder, with a hook that will have you whistling it for days. Underneath its catchy sonic appeal, its message is one of struggle, purpose and a call to action for the real richness in life: loving what you have now, in this moment.
“We were able to shoot a video for ‘G.R.I.N.D.’ because Rich Isaacson (of LOUD Records fame) championed the hell out of that song and stood behind me.”
In the video, Roth abandons the frat-boy look of "Bread Aisle." His hair is grown out and disheveled, and a red-blond goatee adds to his new rakish appearance.
The song was a departure from Roth’s “I Love College” vibe and marked the beginning of his re-education. He was about to learn how difficult it is in the music business to make the music you want to make, rather than the music your label and your fans want you to make.
“G.R.I.N.D.” was not a financial success for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being a lack of support from his label. But Roth still believes in it.
“It’s a beautiful song, and I have to laugh because people say to me, ‘ "G.R.I.N.D." is such a great song!’ And I think, ‘Where were you guys six years ago?’ ”
The song allowed him to spread his artistic wings and begin to find his unique voice in a sea of hip-hop artists mostly talking about the same thing — themselves.
“When you listen to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or The Roots, they’re telling other people’s stories. I don’t want my music to be all about me," he says. "Everyone was like, ‘Dude, you’re in the business of being famous, you need to own up and be Asher Roth and tell that story.’ But there is so much cooler (stuff) going on. My story is like, whatever.”
Roth talks about how he wants to be a vessel, to put himself in a position where he can talk to other people and see what they’re going through. To truly master your message, he says, it has to come from an authentic place. He feels he’s mastered that from the beginning.
“I think authenticity is what got me in the door in the first place. I was this kid wearing flip-flops and I think that was endearing to many people, because it wasn’t a persona, it was just me. The hardest thing to do in the music industry, and also in the entire entertainment industry, is to just be yourself, and find out who you are.”
Roth followed “G.R.I.N.D.” with his most creatively fluid project to date: 2012’s "Pabst and Jazz." A masterpiece in eight songs, it features the most sonically soothing backdrops to Roth's melodic, melancholy approach to rhyming produced yet. It allowed him to flex his muscles on the mike and provided the listener the experience of hearing his artistic growth in real time.
Roth’s frequent collaborator and best friend, Chuck Inglish (The Cool Kids), provided the best scoring to his voice, specifically with the bouncy cut “In The Kitchen.” DJBooth.net, the internet’s premiere place for all things hip-hop, said the record legitimized Roth’s status as a rapper to be taken seriously. Five years after the release, it remains the genesis of Roth’s independence.
“ 'Pabst and Jazz' was so uninhibited,” he says. “It’s just a reflection of who I am. It’s where I found my voice. I was the ripe old age of 27. You start becoming an adult at that time.”
It also marked the beginning of the end of his blink-and-you-missed-it affiliation with Def Jam. Roth jokes, “I want a T-shirt that says, ‘Remember when I was on Def Jam?’ ”
Not long after leaving the label, Roth parted ways with Braun after several years of stagnant career moves. Roth insists there is no bad blood. The experience gave him a larger and much more in-depth understanding of business and the industry. It set him on his path of internal searching, perhaps more than he expected or intended.
“I lived in Atlanta, then in NYC, then did the LA thing for four years. I’ve seen and done a lot — a lot of awesome, exciting stuff and a lot of nonsense. Now I want to make sure I concentrate my efforts on the right things — becoming a well-rounded individual and surrounding myself with supporting and loving relationships. The fact that I can ride my bike here and walk in, and I don’t have to have a bodyguard, I don’t have to roll in with an entourage — that makes me a happy, wealthy person.
"It just came down to priorities. Def Jam and Scooter had their own priorities and I had mine, and we just weren’t mission-aligned.”
Roth’s not concerned with the past. He’s hyper-focused on the now and beyond, creating his own lane in a system that has seemingly closed every access point available to him.
His new media outlet, RetroHash, is the nexus for his innovative and original ideas — uninhibited and unfiltered. Created for the masses without any label oversight, Roth has his sights set firmly on this project and its untapped potential.
“It’s going to be a place that has original programming, so one day we’ll do our 'Radical Magical' Podcast. Tuesday, we’ll do live streaming with Twitch, then we might throw in an episode of the 'Lemonade Stand' series I started in L.A. or the Bongress stuff we’re doing to educate people about marijuana. It’s all about fan engagement. I decided that I wanted to create my own sandbox, which is what RetroHash is.”
Roth is also fully invested in advancing the Philadelphia hip-hop sound. He co-headlined the All Love Summer Block Party with Chuck Inglish in July. The festival, a brainchild of Roth and 91Republic, featured a hand-selected conglomerate of musicians from the Philadelphia area, including rapper Voss, another throwback to our West Chester days. Roth has ideas on a grand scale for this city.
“I didn’t come back to hang out. I came back to Philly to build off that 'Pabst and Jazz' sound. We want to do more direct-to-consumer stuff. We’re focused on engaging with 500,000 empowered people who want to interact with us instead of 5 million kids who are casually listening to your stuff and don’t even know who we are.”
I press Roth on his aspirations for his second act, and the conversation quickly turns to bigger issues.
“We need to stop opening prisons and start opening schools. We need to invest in public education. Things like Charlottesville, or the kids who have been picked off by the police — yes, these things have been happening forever, but now with social media and our smartphones all of these things are right in front of our faces all the time. How we react to it is important. I just want people to be compassionate, inform themselves, stay educated, and be present.”
He goes on to talk about the significance of his return to Philadelphia as a home base for this new endeavor.
“I came back to take everything I learned on my journey and instill it with that spirit of Philadelphia. This city is amazing. I know that at the end of the day, this is a long-term, sustainable thing we’re building — being homegrown and being about education. I know that it’s going to work. It’s going to take a while, but we’re in it for the long haul.”
I ask what point or message his journey has presented to him, what his takeaway is, and what he thinks is the most pertinent message he’d like to convey.
“The most important story to be told,” Roth says, “is one that is about progression and growing up — finding and bettering you.”
I finish my beer and place the empty bottle on the table, feeling more inspired and creative than before this meeting. Roth’s enthusiasm is contagious. As we’re wrapping up, he stops mid-sentence at the sight of good fortune.
“Dude, is that penny on the ground heads up?”
I look to my right. Sure enough, the shiny copper coin is grandly displaying Abe Lincoln’s face.
“Scoop it up, man!” Roth insists.
If this is any indication of what his future endeavors hold for him, then Roth’s got the universe on his side.