I Loved College, But.. The Reinvention of Asher Roth
Every college has its stories, its word-of-mouth folklore that seems to take a life of its own. There is a tale perpetuated by the students of Penn State—especially those who attended Main Campus from 2009 to 2011—about the origins of Asher Roth’s 2009 collegiate party anthem, “I Love College.” So the legend goes, Roth, a West Chester University student from the Philly ‘burbs, visited friends at Penn State for a typical college weekend of drinking, toking up, and chasing women. He was so blown away by State College’s party ethos that he headed back to Chester County to pen “I Love College,” an earworm that pioneered the modern frat-rap genre and quickly achieved larger-than-life status on college campuses around the country.
But none of this is true at all.
“That’s a myth that Penn State inspired ‘I Love College,'” Asher Roth tells me. “West Chester University is 100% solely responsible for ‘I Love College.'”
It’s a Friday afternoon in June and Roth is in the BroBible conference room reminiscing. “I wasn’t very into the whole college thing in high school. I wasn’t applying to a bunch of schools early. For me it was either Temple or West Chester. I wanted to be in the city at Temple, but when I went to visit West Chester, I was walking down the street and this guy was just on top of a car surfing like ‘Whooo!’ when he drove by. I was like ‘I’m going here’ and that was it.”
Now 27, Asher Roth has been out of college for five years. Priorities have a funny way of changing the further one gets from leaving school. This applies to business majors as it does successful rappers: You grow up. You mature. You change. You sorta stop giving a fuck about college because it’s less and less important to your day-to-day life, sans reminiscing with friends about treasured memories and shared experiences. You know, the time you booted and rallied in a bar bathroom, amazingly didn’t get kicked out, and even got that girl’s phone number with a vomit stain on your shirt.
Roth, now the same age as myself, has college long in the rearview mirror. “We’re 27 now, we don’t have the luxury as young professionals to be doing keg laps and waking up at 1:30 in the afternoon,” he says. “We have responsibilities now, to ourselves, to our loved ones. Some people our age now have children. I’m fortunate enough to not have popped out any kids yet.”
Just because he’s wiser and more mature, however, doesn’t mean he can’t still let his hair down and rage. And let’s be honest: Roth has plenty of hair to let down these days: “It’s about growing up and not losing that little kid inside of you. There are moments where things were very serious. It’s like, ‘Damn I’ve gotta pay bills’ or ‘There’s death in my family’ or something like that. Things that you have to deal with. I think it’s always super important to take things on the lighter side. But from an evolution standpoint, my roots are always going to be a happy, fun, college kid. That’s where I come from and I don’t want to lose that. I’m not trying to deny who I am, it’s just grown-up now.”
If it feels like Asher has been out of the music game for a while, that’s because he has been. A few years back, things got complicated with his previous music rights management representation, UMG, sidelining him from releasing any new music since 2011’s critically-acclaimed mixtape, Pabst & Jazz. The last two years have put Roth in a music-releasing limbo of sorts, with Asher silenced by bullshit legalese and music industry red tape while things were being sorted out. Still repped by Scooter Braun—perhaps the most powerful name in pop music thanks to Justin Bieber—Roth is being licensed through BMG, and is free to release as he pleases, as long as it’s free. His first artistic gift to the world since being unmuzzled is The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 2, a sequel to his first mixtape, 2008’s The Greenhouse Effect.
“For me, it’s really just about trying to find my place and find my mission statement. With that being said, I really just went back to doing what I love to do, just doing my thing but getting to introduce new music. To, like, rap over “Pass that Dutch” and just stuff that I like. So I’m just getting back to having fun with with it, man.
“I’m more concerned about my fans, they’re my boss. So as time began to elapse and we were still stuck in kind of a legal struggle, I’m like “Screw it, I’m just going to continue to put out free music” and even with Pabst & Jazz, we’re not gonna get caught up in the vortex. We’re just going to continue to put out free music, because at the end of the day that’s pretty much what it’s all about anyway.”
I ask if it’s fair to say he’s going back to “party-rap” Asher. He pauses.
“There are elements, there are definitely elements. But at the same time, I’m growing up as well. I’d like to think that The Greenhouse Effect is a little bit of something for everyone. There’s a song on there called “Pearly Gates” that really tells my story: ‘They thought I made a million dollars off of “I Love College”/Got a model for a bride and retired to Bahamas/I probably should have, my goodness no idea what I put up with/A bunch of lame excuses from the suits up in the music biz.
“Like I came here (into music) with the sole purpose of just having fun, enjoying this, and hanging out with good people. And then you start to realize when you get into this music business, suddenly you’re in places you don’t want to be and around people you don’t normally hang out with. I think the most important thing for me is just enjoying the journey. So I just wanted to make sure I was getting back to music that I loved and I believed in. So there’s a party element and there are also ponderous elements.”
Music fans, especially young music fans, tend to have a static image of who Roth is. These people think “I Love College” Asher Roth is the only Asher Roth, ossified completely as a partyboy rapper at age 22. It’s the double-edge sword of success that comes when acertain generation of college students make your hit single the soundtrack to the best four years of their lives.
Asher isn’t quite content with the mass idea. Nor should he be: “They have this idea of who Asher Roth was, and then something like Pabst & Jazz drops and it almost splits the room…. You have like ‘I Love College’ Asher Roth and Pabst & Jazz Asher Roth. I think that’s interesting because it’s not like one’s better than the other, it’s just that there’s multiple sides to people. And music allows you to kind of convey that. You could be in a bad mood on Tuesday and on Thursday you’re feeling great. And I think music really in general about capturing those emotions.
“There are casual music lovers who only get their music from the radio, and they’re like, ‘Aw man I haven’t heard anything from you since ‘I Love College.’ I’m sorry, but we dropped ‘I Love College’ on MySpace and always catered to the Internet. I’m not just going to suddenly start catering to radio. If you start doing top-40 music, it’s a very specific formula for the most part. You might have things like Goyte that will break through, but you look at that top 40, it’s a pretty specific formula that gets played on the radio. But for me it’s about just finding what I’m passionate and what I believe in and what really works for me. So that’s really where I’m at.”
Roth’s project with Blended Babies, Pabst & Jazz, is his most-obvious departure from party-rap to-date. It sounded like somebody who listened to a lot of WRTI, Philly’s nighttime jazz station. It oozes a distinct, Roots-esque Philly Soul vibe that bleeds into the production. I ask how Greenhouse Effect, Vol. 2 draws from the same elements as his last mixtape.
“I think it’s about just playing to what I like, and when you talk about Philadelphia Soul Music, it’s something that’s deeply rooted in me whether I chose consciously or not. Growing up where we grew up, especially right outside Philadelphia, it’s just around and what I was attracted to. My mom is a huge jazz fan. I just find myself gravitating towards jazzy cats. The improv of it all, it’s structurelessness. I think you can bring those rules into hip-hop, because hip-hop became so structured for a bit. Why does a verse have to be 16 bars? Why can’t it be four bars or why can’t it be 36 bars? Kind of embracing no rules.
“The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 2 for me is more a project that’s fun and summer-driven. I have a project coming out later called Retrohash. That stuff is more focused on songs and ideas and feels. I’m not trying to pull a fast one on anyone, I’m just doing stuff that I know is why people fell in love with me in the first place.”
“If you just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again you may be able to collect some checks, but longevity to me is the most important thing. So that might dwindle the fan base down a little bit, even if I get to nurture a fanbase that really believes and is down to follow me, I think that is the most rewarding thing.”
It’s important to note that Roth isn’t just ideating about how to make music for an American fanbase. He’s thinking globally in reach:
“I want my music to be able to speak to just people in general like all over the world. And I think that, to me, music is the most powerful thing in the world. It can get people from all walks of life under one roof. That’s what was so crazy about ‘I Love College,’ we would go do a show and it was blacks, whites, Asians… It didn’t matter, it was just about this feel. It was about this vibe of carelessness and having fun. We did a run recently where I was playing a lot of the Pabst and Jazz stuff but still broke out ‘I Love College’ to end the show. We were kind of doing a new jazzier rendition of it. But it set it off.
“I think there’s something to be said for that feel. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be like a specific song, but that vibe of positivity and that youthfulness. And, like, not worrying what tomorrow brings but just being in this moment right now. That’s just what I’m trying to capture through my entire career. And the cool thing about college specifically is that they’re very impressionable at the same time.”
I tell him he’s preaching to the choir. Roth is happy to talk about college, but I feel admittedly silly and uncomfortable asking about it, knowing the dude has evolved so much beyond it, just as I have. Toward the end of our discussion, I ask him about his most memorable party schools:
“Syracuse is up there, I had a blast in Syracuse. I had fun in Arizona State but I wouldn’t rank it super-duper high. Tallahassee… Florida State and Florida. Marquette was hella fun too but it’s just from my experiences. Milwaukee’s such an amazing place to be. Same thing – food, beer, just people enjoying it. You know what’s also been a blast? Boulder. It’s a different type of party though. Like I would say the Florida parties that I know are like rambunctious, and then the Colorado parties are just like… you know.”
But what about college makes it so special to an artist who’s kinda over it?
“You get all these kids centralized in one location, then when summer break happens they all disseminate all over the country. So it’s really incredible if you can tap into that market. But also at the same time at that age, if you can really speak to them and they’re listening to you, you really have an opportunity to start focusing on the right things.”
What does Roth mean by the right things? Essentially, he’d like to use position as an popular artist for activism.
“I was watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi the other day. It’s an amazing, amazing documentary. But there’s that moment in that documentary where they show how our seas are completely overfished—we’re eating like youth fish and there’s no balance between profit and conservation of natural resources. It’s a tough metaphor for everything, but at the same time we need to be conscious about what’s going on and I feel like our priorities are a little bit to the right right now. So I think if we can set them back up through music, we can make things right.”
At this point you may think we’re getting deep for a conversation about frat rap. But that’s the point — though Asher’s often credited as a godfather of modern frat-rap, he’s on a whole different level from the rest of the genre. I rattle off a few names who are big in the scene and ask him about the triviality of the college rap:
“I have no problem with it as long as like the talent and the passion is there,” he begins.
“It’s always interesting when people get on just because they’re white. Do you know what I mean? And that’s real. This is… very real. It’s a very real thing. And I remember watching a documentary on hip-hop and Aesop Rock was like ‘One day we’re gonna turn on the television and all the emcees are going to be white. And not saying it isn’t a good thing, just saying it just felt like where hip-hop was going. It would be really unfortunate if that was the case.”
I ask him if he feels a sense of responsibility for the direction of the genre.
“I uh… I took a lot of heat, that’s for sure.”
Me: “You did!”
Asher: “My head was on the chopping block and I definitely took the brunt of the criticism. It’s cool because I can handle that stuff. I’m comfortable with who I am. I think more so when you talk about it and my friends talk about it they’ll be like ‘You know it’s your fault, right?’ But I think like, damn, I can’t really get caught up in it. It comes up sometimes. I know from a chronological standpoint, I was definitely doing it before other cats were and doing unashamed white boy shit. But there’s cats that came before me like Paul Barman, MC Paul Barman, even when the Beastie Boys first started, to a certain extent they were very much, like, white boys—but their music was super cool so it’s kinda different…. For me, it’s just that people are going to make it into whatever they want, but I just hope from a musical standpoint, the music doesn’t suffer. That’s the most important part.”
It’s all about keeping intentions pure.
“I don’t hate on any of those guys you’ve named at all, I’m fans of some of them, some of them not so much. I just want to make sure that the guys that are coming out of this so-called “college rap”/”frat rap” are doing it for the right reasons. I know that it’s just a category and people do it to kind of make sense of stuff. I don’t necessarily call it that, but I do understand that it’s geared towards white college kids, sure. But it’s just like with anything: If you’re doing it on a major level, it’s about contribution and not just taking and taking and taking. Because I do feel there are some people that are just doing it for notoriety purposes and cash without actually understanding how powerful and influential they can be to white college kids, just as one demographic.
“With the college rap stuff I just hope that the cats that do come out who are younger, that they realize the power of music, because it’s super important.”