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Podcast Episode 04: Asher Roth (with transcript)

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Work by 10011

Interviewer: I'm here with Asher Roth. In my experience growing up in this American culture, you're a big deal. You remain a big deal. I recently caught up on your entire catalog, so before we get into this, I just wanted to give you props for still being out here. This new record really feels like a first record in many ways, a very strong statement.

Roth: Thank you

Int: So we've had some technical difficulties getting this going, but we're here now.

Roth: That's communication in the twenty-first. Face to face is still ideal, but we work with what we've got.

Int: It's interesting how that's manifested on such a scale that it's advised for our health to not see each other.

Roth: Yeah, I respect it though. In a way it's opened up communication on a larger scale, with the conversations people have, the uncomfortable ones that people have put off having for hundreds of years in some cases. In a weird way it's been beautiful for communication. We have this growing up, you've probably experienced it too, of being embarrassed in a  conversation. Being in the room with somebody and saying something and that--that body language kind of helps you get your shit together. It makes you say, ok, I don't want to feel that again, let me educate myself.

Int: For sure. How do you feel the internet has been an outlet for anyone who has been trying to escape the consequences of growing up before it? You have to go back to school, you're still in the neighborhood, people still see you around. I don't know, it's kind of different now.

Roth: I'm really into that conversation, I've been looking for data and facts to back it up. Theoretically it's like "no,duh", riding our bikes and skating around and being together was straight up how you formed social intelligence and the same things could be said about high school. I wasn't learning anything in high school, but I did learn how to read people, and learned about the hierarchy of life, how the people who are connected and come from this, they get to the lunch line first, etc. But there's part of me that's like, yo, these kids are frickin' brilliant, you know? Setting up discord. Kids who are straight wizards with it. When it comes to the fact that it's like another language with it, and you know personally for me--and I know you and I spoke about this before briefly--but the earlier work, and the recent work, you're right, it's like a first tape again. And for someone to listen to that, and hear that in it, and to not necessarily be connected, well our journey is there. And you see these kids on the internet, and the way that they're reacting and communicating so fast. I signed onto tiktok for literally sixteen seconds and no way. My brains are not even there. These kids are on a completely different frequency. And I respect it, I do. I remember when I was going independent and really taking that route of, I'm going to do this on my own. So Asleep in the Bread Aisle was '09, after that I really didn't get much help. I was living in New York--you guys are in New York, right?

Int: Yeah, where were you?

Roth: I was lower east side, Second Street between First and A. It was rad. It was great, but it just wasn't home. I had fun but I was living this kind of-- not my life. I have a lot of love for New York, I have family there, my sister.

Int: You grew up in Pennsylvania right?

Roth: Yeah, so I'm back in Philadelphia right now.  Did the runaround, and New York was such an interesting chapter for me, it was again one of those social intelligence things where I didn't have the grind, real life of New York. Like if you grow up there, and fighting the fight of making something from nothing, and riding the subway, and being an adult by the time you're fourteen, you know? But I did get to see what their relationship with money and New York was. And behind that curtain of what money can do. It's interesting because it's the same thing as the music business, it's so driven by money and power and stature and not actually music, so I learned that underbelly stuff, not through the evils of New York, but through the reality of it.

Int: If you think of capitalism, and any critiques you may have of it, or just the realities of it, a farmer dealing their crop, you know. That's magnified to the umpteenth scale in New York. It's New York not for the United States, but New York for the whole planet. It has this mystique in our culture, and the world--and I did grow up here--it's kind of shocking to leave, and everyone has some idea of where you're from.

Roth: Can I ask you about--I don't want to get political here, but what were your observations of the mood of our generation? We're talking about the kids that might not necessarily be involved, even the kids when I was a teenager, somebody who is self absorbed, not even interested in politics. I think Barack Obama, maybe even Geroge W. Bush, I was old enough to vote in those elections. What was the mood in New York? Now, pandemic and protests, you've got kids who are in the thick of it.

Int: Well New York has been very hot. Very involved. People who have been doing organizing work in the city have been getting more attention, that they deserve this time. What's interesting about this time in particular--like, the Bush era is still quite recent and that's what I grew up in before Obama, and there was kind of a disengagement almost from the East Coast. People being like, "Obama is our president, we can lean back and trust that the general vibe is good or whatever, that people are ok" that kind of superficial calm that Trump broke for a lot of people. I think it's a really long history leading up to this moment. I grew up politically conscious, going to public school in New York you notice certain kids put into the gifted program verses kids who fall by the wayside over time, just because the government doesn't have time or the funding, people don't have the emotional bandwidth ultimately to take care of the community. In my generation, even younger, I see people taking on the work deferred by generations past. Even on a legal and emotional level.

Roth: It's true. Everybody's a little bit right. Kind of wild, so red and blue. There's so much that led up to right now

Int: Even your music, I'm listening to it and the way that you're part of it. Listening to it as a consumer in 2020, versus who I was as a consumer in 2010, and considering how that's fit into my life story, as a person can expect, and it's like you're talking about things men can't or shouldn't talk about. Right now the number one song is WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, and that's important because you fit into that tradition too, in  a post-genedered thing. It's like this post-racial thing, which was an idea I think people had in the Obama era that was almost real.

Roth: That was on the Greenhouse Effect, Volume 2, on the sour patch kids remix. This is the post racial society. And you know, not for nothing, that was out of the conversation around me and hip hip too, and while I was sitting with Qtip, he thought it was so interesting, ok here's a white kid--and he got to know me off of some of these acapellas I was rapping in New York, sort of open mics, and he heard me do some of the just listen stuff, basically about equality, and it was like, there's never been a white dude who was allowed to speak the truth. He was basically saying, white kids and rap music essentially always have to wear the clown mask. And here we are outside the Beasties, and it was funny recently watching the Beastie Boys documentary Spike Jones did in a theatre, and seeing what they went through as white kids in rap music. Imitating Run DMC and their voice and bringing in the punk and rock influences. The conversation around me in 2009, 2010 was this unapologetically white kid rap music. As much as the eminem comparisons were there, there still isn't this level of whiteness that had been portrayed in rap music.

Int: That's what I loved about the Greenhouse Effect tapes. Seared Foie Gras. Those records were you rapping your ass over classic beats and just being unapologetic about who you are and how you fit into hip hip.

Roth: I wish I could always do that. Self-awareness is actually a tool. A way to navigate the world. That attitude I had in the early works, part of it gets sucked out of the albums, they're so conscious of songs. Whereas my strength is not as a classically trained musician. I have serious imposter syndrome when it comes to going into the music industry, in terms of peers and the people I love, not so much in terms of the business of music. I speak their language almost more than a musicians language. Being a "tweener" do to speak,  moving forward I want to help musicians tell their stories, because the ones I'm close with, they don't have similar level social intelligence or self awareness. They just want to make fucking music, you know? And he business has kind of preyed on that you know? I've always cared, even on the first records.

Int: Definitely. I think that something that for me growing up was inspiring about your wave, Kid Cudi, DOB, this group that was very empathic about people knowing things, that was the currency. I want people to know that I know things and that it's important to know things to navigate the world.

Roth: Yeah, that it's cool to know things.

Int: exactly. Especially rap being a genre so motivated by righteousness and about leading by example, and being the emcee, the master of the ceremony. It guided the path for me.

Roth: Knowledge of self, for sure. It's funny because Pitchfork just roasted me again, it was just a hit piece, they roasted me for giving a shit. Not even about the music, just roasting me about having a little awareness about what's going on, pretending and acting like I've never done that before, just because I lIke College accidentally went double platinum, you know.

Int: Pretty much. You can tell reading reviews if a person writing them even knows the artist.

Roth: My buddy called me, and I don't usually care about reviews, I'm pretty thick skinned, and said, what I thought was so cool about reading that is that people still don't know how to define you. And I thought damn, that's kind of ill. Pros and cons.

Int: People are used to this diary kind of thing from their artists. You listen to a record and you know what to expect, whereas you have a lot more exploring to do. You approach this idea of "for sale" differently, rather than hip hip which still has a weird place culturally within music, it's still innovating its form. That's on par with the structural experimentation you're hitting on this. I can't wait to see what you do next. This album felt like a real fuck your expectations kind of moment.

Roth: I appreciate your saying that. Those were some intentions I put into this. That's another beautiful thing about music. With this record, I wanted to set myself up to do it for another twenty years.

Int: I see you hooked up with someone you haven't put out records with before, Rob, your producer. What's the story there?

Roth: I went back to pennsylvania. The Asher Roth story is objectively an interesting dory, because of the entry level and connotation, nobody wants to tell. When I tell people what on one they're like what the fuck, what a story. That run 2009-2011 was for people like us, we were all growing up together through that, and now being an adult, so to speak, where your priorities do change. My sister had a child, which was my catalyst to move home. I was in LA on the other side of the country, not fully committed, nothing keeping me there. I remember getting feedback after the record was done, Seared Foie Gras, that no one was interested, and that was my fuck all record. I was very aware people are only on your team if you do certain things. Have a famous girlfriend. Write songs that are controversial in a way. I realized I'm not going to wear the clown mask, I'm going to grow, be human, music will be something I use, not something that uses me. So I moved home, and I always wanted to make a record in philadelphia. My niece is what brought me back, and through the motions of being home, I met up with a kid CJ, who was from my school district. We got along having come form the same area, and he told me, when I was younger, I was listening to you, sun god free, was the sign I needed not to rap. But we were connected in some way, and they have a little place, Rob Deckhart, my producer and CJ and Tey, they're a group called Best Friends. Working with those guys, doing sessions, we started to speak the same language. And rob likes to do his own thing. He's not out partying, he's a real music guy. When it was time to make another full length, I knew he could handle the bulk of it. We recorded about 17 songs and about 12 are the album. Philadelphia is loaded with talent in the music and culinary scenes. It wasn't hard to find great help with the musicians and instruments. Om Things change, I'm setting up talking about we're going to do this however it feels right. Just intuition and intention. Having fun with it. These guys turned me on to the technicality of what are called mumble rappers, these young kids, they're unbelievable. The way they understand music is something people should admire. Once it came down to the pandemic it became, let's just release it, let's not wait for a label or anything.

Int: When did you complete this record?

Roth: April 2020, the mixing was its own beast. We finished the bulk in 2019, and then we started mixing it early 2020. 2019 was a lot of the recordings, but they held up. When we heard them in a time when the seams were starting to come undone, the music was about being disenchanted and disengaged with everything going on, and still finding something inside of you to care.

Int: The fatigue was already part of the content.

Roth: It's been such a trip. As being a storyteller, I've been very fortunate. To have been brought in from that earlier level, and see where we're at now, and be excited about where this is going. I've always thought if you know what you're getting when you click on an Asher Roth song, I've screwed up.

Int: I'm glad you have that outlet. It's what keeps it fresh, every project has its own flavor. The album has seventeen song--did you work on this sequentially? How did you land on twelve? When you work with a tight crew, it's sometimes easier to agree. You're together for the whole process

Roth: Yeah, it's just Rob and I. Rob's a little more of a R&B guy, that's what brought us together.

Int: You have plenty of R&B ventures, I think in your catalog.

Roth: I'm definitely an R&B head, but there were a couple joints I had to talk him off of, that didn't fit on the record. I'm still really interested in writing for other people, there are these joints where here's the lyrics, and the track and it's really dope, but there's just somebody else it's for. I have a little folder that's "for somebody else"

Int: That's for you, bro! Some of the best work is what people do for themselves, they get into. Like look at what Tyler is doing in the last few years. The last record, a lot of that content was for other people, but no one would take it. He had to do it for himself, you know? That's a big moment.

Roth: It's true, man. Just finding those sweet spots, and timing. To not be too close tot he music. Let it be what it is.

Int: How much of it is a broader thing, an industry thing, versus you and your fans?

Roth: A lot of it. In music and art in general you need a lot of tortured souls. People that are going through it. I went on an autobiography kick, I needed some light reading, I was on a mythology kick and philosophy and all this jazz. So I needed some light reading. So my buddy brought me Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, so I've been reading that. I'm fresh off of Andre Agassi's autobiography. I read the Rock's autobiography for a while. The Bourdain stuff is interesting because he talks about cooks. The people that the culinary attracts, these pirate types. In the same way, it's like our most revered artists are miserable, completely tortured, and luckily for me, I come from a good family, my parents are still together, I had a relatively stable upbringing. So I've had to find my art more so through observation than through confession. That might not always be avant garde but it's honest. Taking a role as a commentator, not just on how I'm feeling in these dark dimensions that borders on schizophrenia.

Int: I think the ambition of an artist is suggested to be demanded. It's not necessary, that's just a romantic notion, I think.  

Roth: That's true, and we get that projected onto us, that kind of imposter syndrome I think is more popular than led to believe. I think a lot of people feel they're not any good at what they do even though they're doing it. It's asked of us to go in, and I think that's a really hard thing to do. It's guinea work to really go in. WE spend a lot if not all of our time distracting ourselves.

Int: I hear that.

Roth: It's tricky man. In rap music there's this conversation of, is this eb\ven legitimate? And then you're a white dude in that, and what am I doing with my life? And then you get older, and youre' talking about security and safety.

Int: You don't get the same kind of attention.

Roth: Yeah you have thoughts, you're responsible for other people. It's not meant to be complicated, but it can be. It's strange, to this day, I don't know if I classify myself as an artist or as a rapper.  

Int: Is there a difference? With a writer, it's more of a conflation, maybe. Listening to all these records, and in my experience as sahip hip fan, I've seen so many styles come and go, like with painting. The way it's classified and historiographed, there have ben movements.  I don't know what we call what you've been or continue to be part of, but I do think it's important to allow yourself to be elevated and denigrated in that way. Artists are nasty people in their own right.

Roth: Seriously, such a competitive world. Just because you write a book, are you a writer? Yes, but once you're in that world, no you're not.

Int: How does a writer carry themselves constantly, consistently?

Roth: I guess they just write all the time.

Int: Does a rapper rap all the time?

Roth: Exactly. It's another thing that lends itself  to me. I'm not obsessed with making music in general. It's very fluid, almost seasonal. I don't spend all my time, eight or ten hours a day in a studio, which is what's promoted. No sleep, grind all the time. I think there's some truth to the pau off, but there are other elements to myself as a human being. I remember that kind fo early speech they give you in your initiation in the music business, is do this now so you can retire at 35

Int: now I think you're in a position to make so much money, I don't want to pry, but there's a heavy conversation in your catalog about choices you made not for your money, but for your soul.

Roth: Dude, I can't tell you even.

Int: As far as the band of outsiders thing goes, you have these tapes that feature a lot of people. There's a camaraderie I feel you chose over certain pop decisions you could ahve made or business deals you could have made.

Roth: You nailed it, it's hard to get into the soul side of things. It's a mentality. I think there's a lot of duelding forces, pros and cons to everything. Obviously financial security frees up a lot of stuff but if I was retiring from creativity at 35 to play dominoes and smoke cigars I'd feel like I beat the game way too early. Positioning myself to have those communcial rewards, shared experiences, so I went ath route. Our art form is validated by outside influences through those numbers, which can be manipulated. And people know about algorithms and if you're part of that world you know somebody else is getting paid off of what you're doing. I've been stubborn about going it by myself. From a business standpoint I wanted to know who I was really speaking to. Instead of 900,000 views week one and not really understanding that 750,000 might not even be fans of my stuff. I'm still ambitious. I'm still competitive, and I want people to know the work we're doing is professional, but when you're not doing those numbers, unfortunately the business I'm in just doesn't pay attention.

Int: You say you don't work in the studio ten hours a day noq, but did you before?

Roth: Yeah, and the studio should be a place that's safe. I remember going to the studio to record that song that Sammy Adams did called Sunset Boulevard written by Ryan Tedder, this no brainer smash record, and it was just work. Instead I used the studio time to record The World is Never Enough, which is a Charles Bradley flip about the Ukranian revolution.

Int: Commissioned vs. Conscious work.

Roth: Yes! When you work with people you don't love, you end up so tired. When you work with people who invigorate you, it's so fulfilling. I didn't sign the best recording contact--we all have those horror stories--but I was lucky not to have gone down the road too far.

Int: Even down to the making fo your product, you don't have to do as much to make it anymore, right? Living in a world where what you see is what you get.

Roth: It's so bizarre. I couldn't imagine singing a song I didn't write for the rest of my life. It means nothing to you other than a business move. It's like agreek mythological punishment.

Int: Are you signed to a major label now? Beholden to any multi year plan?

Roth: No, no manager, no publicist, but keep in mind, we still have to keep the lights on. There needs to eb some level of structure to be in the business of music. If I'm just going to release music for the hell of it, I've set the foundation for it. At the same time, I don't own a home, I rent, I still have bills to pay, and you're not going to do that off Spotify money. The music business is changing, the digital experience, the pandemic. Would you pay $2 to watch a concert that streams? If you can't go to a show for another two years, will you pay to stream the show?

Int: That sounds strangely appealing, but there is a market for something like onlyfans, right? A market for different types of work.

Roth: People are literally streaming themselves eating for fifteen hours a day. And they're getting paid, but for me, I'm a little old school. I'm not prepared to stream myself for 8 or 9 hours a day. To let people into my day.

Int: Like us trying to get this recording going. My idea of this next generation, the future of entertainment is this streaming thing. Every moment on record. Everything used against us, guilt and shame, it's for the birds at this point. We have instant replay on life now.

Roth: I'm not going. It's like Mars, everyone wants to go to Mars, and it's like, motherfucker, earth is amazing, why do you want to go to Mars?  No one wants to fix the old. I'm a little nervous where that's going. So I've set myself up to do it at my pace. Rather than the industry making decisions for me. Relationships are all we got. Entertainment in general is so self absorbed. You feel like you're important, like what you do matters, in a way that's really polluting. I'm an eternal optimist, and I think there's been a lot of good to come out of things right now. Where, hold up, one second, we finally got to a place where we can breathe. There's so much positive in that. We're looking at everything. Defund the police, right? Get rid of that, get rid of this, it's a matter of if we're going to do the work now and fix what's broken, or just plow ahead and keep it moving. We;ve been talking about social inequality since 2010, about the wealth gap, for a decade. All I'm here for is just to have these conversations. It's not about right or wrong, it's about productive fun. For someone to disregard all that we do, for the sake of clicks--not for nothing--people want to see a good old witch burn at the stake. It doesn't help in having a healthy discourse.

Int: Like what is the assignment wasn't to review Asher Roth's new record? It was, learn how to love this album, no matter how hard that is for you? What's that journey?

Roth: I get it, I'm a white male in rap music, I'm gonna get roasted from all directions. But there's valuable information in that conversation. I'm not going to be the one promoting myself, I got over that, it wasn't rewarding. I do think there's a conversation to be had about our respective experiences.

Int: It's a reality check. Your first album was called Asleep in the Bread Aisle.

Roth: That's what I was going to say, I did not realize what I was getting myself into. Scooter knew he needed a white thirteen year old rapper. He knew his market. I had no idea, I just wanted to be a part of the community.

Int: It seems like that's always been you. All you were doing was joining the party, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Roth: I'm feeling pretty good about it. In a world where everybody's getting cancelled, I'm so far so good. They haven't come for my head, and respectfully so. I went about my work honestly, and that lets me go on.

Int: Do you have anything immediately planned for the future?

Roth: Just talking to you.

Int: What about after this?

Roth: My attention has been towards this outdoor venue, a park called Sunflower Philly. For the last few years, I've been focused on providing a space for people in North Philly, and now it's one of the few spaces people can still go. We have a stage built out of pallets, it's meant to be artist development, we've had Who Run It, an all women's curated painters event, we had cannabis events, a lot of conversation in this odd bermuda triangle of a space. A lot of my attention is making sure we're promoting musicians and graffiti artists and local businesses. Wanting to be a resource, to help other people legitimately. Empowering people with tools to do what matters.

Int: Becoming part of the workforce.

Roth: The music is secondary at the moment. But it's the catalyst for interest. I don't think if I was just a random guy there would be the same interest in Sunflower. Using my powers, you know I'm a half-breed.

Int: What does that mean?

Roth: You know my mom's a straight up and down witch, so.

Int: I see you,

Roth: Making something out of nothing, alchemy with people. I can put the right people in the right room. I choose my producers the same way. We might be different, but do we blend well? A lot of my attention is with the community. Making sure my friends and family are alright. And it's not like a major record label is knocking down my door to sign me, so its like, let's build our own.

Int: Are there other artists officially associated with Retrohash?

Roth: No, not yet. Until I figure out some things. I don't want to sign someone and be predatory.

Int: Taking time to consider it as an opportunity to show people the world. I do think now's the time for these ecommunity spaces to be there more for people than anything else.

Roth: We look at the issues with the cops, with policing neighborhoods they don't even live in, right? This is similar to us being citizens of these neighborhoods and it's our responsibility to take care of them and make sure they're represented. From a political standpoint most people don't know who their local representatives are. So there's a certain responsibility I feel--made up or not-- to make sure people are interested and involved. That's what Sunflower Philly is about to me, to make sure people know what's going on. Retrohash musically I haven't figured out how to set up. I want to offer guidance, not necessarily sign someone. These young kids, they're wicked, and what they're going through, the music that they make, that they don't know how to get out in the world. So when we have a conversation it can help with their overall clarity, and find out where they're going. I can't imagine being seventeen with snapchat. Like, what? I'm grounded. I'm coming from a place of integrity, doing work that energizes me, there's no clear path for me now. Figuring out the publishing side of things. If there's a way to help these kids get figured out.

Int: That would mean a lot to Philly.

Roth: Not to speak for Philly, but coming back here there's a lot of music business here, everybody dips, all the talent in the world. You have to go to LA or New York. Trying to get an incubator here. Just trying to be a speed boost. We'll see how it all plays out. My intentions are good, I've battled with the greed ghouls, and as strong as they are, I have the early experience that I can let these kids know, this is what to expect.

Int: I love that throughout your work your motif, the thing you harp on, is to be a good neighbor.

Roth: There's so much value in that. Like in that bar across the street, just doing trash club, taking care of things around the way. I don't have to pay for beer. You know what I mean?

Int: Citizenship

Roth: Citizenship. Love thy neighbor. Take care of the world around you. See what's right in front of us. This is the trouble with the internet. We're inundated with people, things, places, that aren't even in our immediate world.

Int: We think we're part of something we're not.

Roth: All you need is the internet shut down, and you see that that doesn't belong to you at all.

Int: To claim it, takes work or a lot of transgressive behavior. Which Is all good. The world is changing as far as what that even means.

Roth: So what did you end up eating for breakfast?

Int: A chocolate croissant. I work at a pastry shop.

Roth: Nice. Are you a coffee drinker?

Int: Only since I left college, I don't have an office job, I had to cover my ass with a whole bunch of things and I needed to be awake much more than I did in college. Getting money is a whole other object than getting good grades or knowledge.

Roth: I'm really getting interested in having some financial literacy, in learning about money. That's how you get super rich. You have money that makes money.

Int: And money is old bro!

Roth: Old money, power structures are still in place. I get the freak out the "old guard" is having that the "progressives" are coming through, but to me, again, I guess from a political standpoint it feels inevitable. The irony of when five people ahd fifty percent of all the wealth nobody cared, and when they had seventy five percent nobody cared, and now that they have ninety nine percent it's a problem. When was it enough? I know people are freaked out by socialism, but it's just some social programs that help people out. I get the whole, sorry, you're out, you missed the ship thing, but I thin with all the abundance we have, and a small change in ideology, I think our age group and the kids younger than us, I think good things can happen.  

Int: Realizing how much really isn't' out of anyone's control.

Roth: They got us arguing with bots so once were done arguing with bots, we'll probably get to the eral work. In the meantime we have to know what we're talking about. And we get there by having conversations like this.

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