Hashing It Out with Asher Roth

Brock Fetch

The "I Love College" rapper graduates from major label darling to indie gadfly.

“It’s tough. Oh, it’s hard, man,” says rapper Asher Roth about his journey from major-label darling to indie gadfly. “After having all this initial success, I’ve had to go back, and really dig deep as far as connecting with a genuine audience - connecting with that core fan base, not just the ones that were there because they heard me on radio. That’s really what I’ve been concentrating on recently and I think that Retrohash is really speaking to a brand-new audience that’s different from the ‘I Love College’ crowd, kind of building from the ground up. I really connected with people when I came out. It was like, ‘Hey man, let’s talk and do nothing. Let’s smoke pot and do nothing.’ Retrohash is more like let’s smoke some pot and do something.”

Retrohashis Roth’s highly anticipated follow-up to Asleep in the Bread Aisle, which after its April 20, 2009, release soared up the Billboard charts to No. 5 on the strength of the hit single, “I Love College.” Steve Rifkind signed Roth to Universal Motown and Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager, took over Roth’s career. After the success of his debut, Universal paired Roth with Pharrell Williams. They recorded eight songs, but it wasn’t the direction Roth wanted to go.

“I have the utmost respect for Pharrell,” Roth says about the hottest singer-producer currently in the music business. “I learned so much working with him. We recorded some phenomenal songs. But that’s not always the be-all, end-all. It’s not always put the hot rapper with the hot producer and you’re going to have major success.

“I’m understanding and open-minded to the business of music. But when it came to, ‘Hey Asher, sing this song that you didn’t even write and then we’re going to put it all over radio,’ and that’s the song you’re going to become most known for with the second record, it just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t OK with that. My relationship to music didn’t allow me to be up there singing songs that meant nothing to me, but would allow me to be a little more commercial and make some money.”

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This situation, plus corporate changes at Universal, spurred Roth to ask out of his deal. “I don’t know if that’s believable or not, but I was just in a stalemate,” he explains. “We never really got on the same page. With Retrohash, I didn’t want to have that excuse. I believe in myself, in the work that I’m doing. It’s really hard. It’s definitely DIY. It’s not a beautiful business. It’s hardly a business at that. It’s very political, run by a lot of outsiders. They talk about how the greatest stories are never told. Well, some of the greatest songs have never been heard. I’m just kind of finding my place in all of this. Have I done that yet? No. But I’m definitely in a better position. I feel like I have a better relationship with myself. I have some quiet time and it’s been really nice.”

That time for introspection is due to Roth’s recent move to Los Angeles, where he recorded Retrohash (it’s an anagram of his name) with JP Keller and Rich Gains (a.k.a. Blended Babies). An East Coaster, Roth grew up in Morrisville, PA, about 40 minutes north of Philadelphia. After stops in Atlanta and New York, he settled in Hollywood.

“Coming out to California, although it’s a little slower, has been very interesting,” the sandy-haired rapper observes. “It has really allowed me to have that alone time. You’re not hit with too many distractions just by stepping out of the house. You can go to the mountains, you can go to the ocean. Having that variety in your backyard is an inspiration.”

Most of the music on Retrohash was made in Roth’s house. “We’re chillin’, go for a walk, go get some tacos and a beer, come back, the microphone’s on and I just started playing around,” he says about the recording process. “It created itself. I just tried not to get in the way.”

The 10-song cycle starts with a homage to Philly soul, “Parties at the Disco.” Curren$y joins Roth on the stony second track, “Dude.” While “Tangerine Girl” is about his newest paramour, Roth’s most proud of “Fast Track,” which tells the story of a friend who overdosed on heroin. “It was a breakthrough in many ways for me,” he notes. “Rapping, in general, is very I, I, I. Me. ‘Fast Life’ is one of the first times I’ve really been able to concentrate on somebody else’s story.”

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An avid supporter of marijuana legalization, Roth says he uses pot “as a vehicle for continuing to build on the relationship I have with myself. I found myself having a lot of moments of vulnerability and self-doubt. Like, what am I doing? That kind of stuff is paralyzing. At some point, you end up in sweat pants not leaving the house. I want people to believe in themselves, to be confident in themselves, to go out and do something. That’s really it. Retrohash isn’t anything more than me making something. Hey, I made this with my friends and I’m offering it to you guys. This is a genuine expression of myself.”

Now that’s he’s no longer with a major, Roth’s big concern is getting his new music to listeners. “You’ve got to do live shows,” he advises. “That’s going to be the main thing. Just get out and play this music live. When people hear it, they see it and they feel it, that’s when it becomes valuable. How do we get people to those shows? It’s a constant battle, but I combat that with quality music, content and making it available. And I just hope it finds a place.”