Pop & Hiss

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Roth, Rifkind ride 'College' to Top 20

March 12, 2009 |  6:26 pm

Asher2 Well, look who just cracked the Top 20. Just six months ago, few outside of hip-hop heads who stumbled across the artist’s MySpace page or blog had heard of the up-and-coming rapper. Now, thanks to a seemingly unstoppable single (“I Love College”), savvy marketing from Scooter Braun and maybe even the fact that the 23-year-old's pals helped take down a madman on an airplane earlier this year, Asher Roth somehow has made music fans forget all about Eminem’s comeback this year.

“I didn’t know 'I Love College' was gonna be ‘the one,’" Roth said, somewhat sheepishly, from Atlanta earlier this month.

The charismatic college dropout (he was an elementary education major at West Chester University in Pennsylvania) is connecting with teens and twentysomethings on campuses nationwide this spring, thanks in no small part to his laid-back, laconic delivery and lightweight lyrical content. (Checked the news lately? It's all about escapism on radio in 2009).

“I was mostly there for the experience,” Roth said of his college years. “Everybody partied there... I didn’t do the fraternity stuff, though.”

Roth got his start rapping over other people’s beats and selling mixtapes for $5 when he was a senior in high school. "We just used to download beats off the Internet and we thought we were cool.” 

This year, his circle of friends aren’t the only ones who think he’s cool: “I Love College” is now one of the most downloaded songs in the country with sales in excess of 350,000 paid downloads. A quick glance at his Myspace page reveals that he is a tireless networker intent on proving himself to other rappers, haters be damned. 

So how did the average-looking, average-sounding white rapper manage to sneak his way into the Top 20 this week?

Setting aside rich production from Ben H. Allen for a moment, enter music industry impresario Steve Rifkind, the man who helped make Akon a fixture of urban radio.

“Rifkind is the kingpin,” said Roth. “It’s undeniable what he’s brought to the game.” So when Roth had a chance to impress the SRC records chairman in 2007, he stepped up his game. “I walked into his office in New York and I just started rapping.”

“I said, 'You got five minutes,'” Rifkind recalled from his Florida home of their first meeting. “I didn’t hear any music. He just did a freestyle. There was just something about him. I mean, the freestyle was cool.”

After a few minutes, Rifkind signed Roth to a five-record deal.

“We knew we had something special with him over the summer last year,” Rifkind continued, perhaps hinting at the number of downloads of Roth's 2008 mixtape, "The Greenhouse Effect."

“Now, all formats are really embracing him, you got rock, you got pop, you got crossover… the kid can spit.”

According to Rifkind, the SRC team is "just kicking in right now" behind the scenes to take Roth to the top of the charts. "We’re firing it up on the radio level, we knew we had something on the alternative side, and we’re just taking chances right now [at urban radio].”

It seems as if momentum is on Roth's side, despite mixed critical reaction. This month, Rifkind has Roth hitting key college markets such as Boulder, Colorado and College Park, Maryland. Earlier this week, he filmed a “Spring Break” special for MTV in Panama City, Florida. And later this month, he has a string of shows lined up at SXSW in another college town, Austin, Texas.

Next month, Roth will drop his anticipated full-length, “Asleep in the Bread Aisle” on April 20 (that would be 4/20, naturally). SoCal residents curious to see if Roth can hold it down live will have their chance next month: The Morrisville, Pennsylvania native was recently added to the Bamboozle Left line-up.

So how does Roth stack up against other rappers?  There's really only one way to tell until his full-length drops: check his "A Milli" freestyle against a host of others. We'll leave it up to you to decide if he's "nice."

--Charlie Amter

Photo by Mario Panebianco