Don't Let Him Kid You

Natalie Nichols is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Kid Rock knows that people make assumptions about him. Given all the potty-mouthed braggadocio and tales of excess on the Detroit-based rock-rapper's Top 10 album "Devil Without a Cause," how could they not?

"The way I talk might really shock the [expletive] out of you," admits the 27-year-old Kid, a.k.a. Bob Ritchie. "But I'm probably one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. I don't disrespect people.

"Even if I'm with a groupie at a show, and I have sex with her or something, I'm not mean to her. It's something we both wanted to do, and so it's like, 'Nice to meet you' and everything, not, 'Get the [expletive] off my bus.' I'm not like that at all."

Despite his freewheeling attitudes about sex and drug use, the blue-eyed musician-producer is in some ways a model of American values. A middle-class lad who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Romeo, he's strong-willed, well-mannered, self-confident, cooperative and responsible enough to have full custody of his 6-year-old son.

It's Kid Rock's skillful, organic blending of rap and hard-rock elements that has won over mainstream listeners and made the pop world take notice. It's put him at the forefront of a new generation of stars who were raised on hip-hop as well as rock--a group that also includes such hitmakers as Rage Against the Machine, Korn and Limp Bizkit.

These acts are being watched closely to see whether it is simply a momentary fascination or the start of a movement.

Kid Rock has been developing his fusion of metal, hip-hop, funk, pop and country since releasing the first of his five albums in 1990, back when "white rap" meant the lightweight stylings of Vanilla Ice. But that label never remotely fit him anyway, and perhaps now, after the success of Rage, Korn and the other rock-rap hybrids, audiences are better prepared to enjoy his music and less likely to pigeonhole him.

A bigger ego might find such comparisons annoying, but Kid Rock just shrugs it off. "I don't expect everybody to know [my history]," he says. "When kids come up and say it sounds like Rage or Korn or something, that's cool. I like those bands, so I just take it as a compliment."

His early recordings, including a 1996 album on his own label, Top Dog, did garner critical praise, as well as attention from various rap and rock artists. The breakthrough "Devil Without a Cause" was favorably reviewed by some rock publications when it was released by Atlantic/Lava/Top Dog in August 1998, but the Kid's star really began to rise when MTV started playing his videos and featuring him on such specials as last year's New Year's Eve show.

"MTV has been a major key to the record's success," says Jason Flom, president of Lava Records and a senior vice president at Atlantic. "They championed him from the beginning."

Flom says that although such grass-roots marketing moves as giving away cassette samplers when Kid Rock performed on last year's Warped Tour also helped generate a buzz, ultimately the artist's charisma is his hole card. "He's a rock star," Flom says. "When people see him, live and on video, he's a captivating performer. He walks and talks and looks like a star. And that's something people need."

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Remarkably laid-back amid the chaos backstage before his performance at the recent KROQ Weenie Roast concert at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, Kid Rock amiably carries out the duties of a budding rock star.

Sitting in the cramped half-trailer he and his band have been provided for the day, Kid Rock proudly shows his mom, who's visiting from Detroit, the latest magazine covers he's landed. Ambling over to a meet-and-greet with fans, he smiles when a little boy with a sprayed-stiff Mohawk hairdo yells, "You're my idol!"

After finishing his on-air interview from the radio station's remote stage, he signs T-shirts and concert programs for countless adorable teenage girls until his handlers practically drag him off.

"It sucks when you gotta walk away and people still want [autographs]," he says later, sounding genuinely bummed out as he relaxes in the trailer, smoking a cigarette. "That's hard to do. I want to stay there and sign every one of them."

Pretty sweet for a guy who, although insisting he's "clean as a whistle" when home being a dedicated dad, on the road is an unabashed party animal. He says his favorite thing about groupies is having sex with them, and claims he can "snort a bunch of cocaine and then get up the next day and do all my work."

His venal escapades are writ large in such hits as "I Am the Bullgod" and "Bawitdaba," which blend metallic guitar crunch with hip-hop hooks, but those tunes and the new single "Cowboy," a country-fried rap with the chewy twang of '70s Southern rock, also reveal a savvy pop craftsman who's anything but dunderheaded.

Growing up, Kid Rock gained a love of classic country from his parents and a fondness for hard rock from FM radio. After discovering such hip-hop innovators as Run-DMC, he spent the better part of the '80s hanging out in the projects of nearby Mount Clemens, honing his deejay skills and making himself heard at predominantly black talent shows. "I never got any static, because I was talented," he says with matter-of-fact pride. "I got respected because I knew I was a little corny white kid who . . . was really good on the turntables, and I wasn't trying to be anything else."

Still, he was cocky enough to show people just how deceptive looks could be. "I'd go to a party with my records around my shoulders, the only white kid there," he says, laughing. "A lot of people in the community knew who I was, but they'd always have a deejay from the inner city come out [too]. So I'd say, 'Hey, you wanna battle for like $50?' And he'd be like, 'Whaaat?!? Ah, check this out, man, my man over here wants to battle. Oh, I ain't gonna take your money, dude.' And his friend would say, 'Take his money, man!' Then I'd do my thing." Inevitably, the challenged turntablist would, indeed, not walk away with Kid Rock's money.

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Though his connection to hip-hop culture means a lot to him, the Kid's live show feels more like old-school rock. His brief Weenie Roast set features guitarists, a drummer, a keyboardist and a turntablist (but not his usual backup singers). It's a dynamic, arena-rock-style display that has nothing in common with the endless audience-participation shtick and tedious canned beats so common at hip-hop concerts.

In sharp contrast to his easygoing offstage demeanor, Kid Rock is a dervish onstage, whipping his shoulder-length blond hair in a distinctly David Lee Roth fashion while the band expertly navigates the stylistic twists and turns.

Less lyrically extreme than fellow Detroit-area rapper Eminem (who guest-stars on "Devil"), and nowhere near as cartoonishly stupid as the metal-rap buffoons of the Motor City's Insane Clown Posse, Kid Rock also isn't afraid to display some depth and even, yes, sensitivity, which makes him more of a real person, in spite of his persona.

The album's cautionary "Black Chick, White Guy" describes his rocky relationship with his son's mother in agonizing detail, and he's even convincingly pensive on "Only God Knows Why," a mournful ballad of hard luck and perseverance.

"I had a bunch of songs like ["Only God Knows Why"], and obviously the record company was a little scared of them," he says. Even though the label let him make a diverse album, he adds, "they were still like, 'Be careful, not too diverse.' "

Other objections were intended to protect him from his own impudence. "They weren't so sure I should say I'm going platinum," he says, referring to his boast on the title track that he would sell a million albums, for fear he would be attacked by critics. "I said, 'No, I'm saying it. That's how much I believe in this.' Now it's almost double platinum, so. . . ." He trails off with a satisfied chuckle.

Success may fuel Kid Rock's natural cockiness, but it hasn't made him cynical. His tour as opening act for Limp Bizkit winds down with an appearance July 24 at the Woodstock festival, and he's really excited. "I've been talking to Run from Run-DMC," he says. "I think they're gonna do a cameo appearance with me, maybe a cover of 'King of Rock.' That [would be] a dream come true. They're some of my heroes."

Because he's so honest about his partying, Kid Rock even frets, in his way, over his own role as a hero. He recalls the kid in Columbus, Ohio, who wanted to smoke marijuana with him. "He said his mom gave it to him and said, 'Go ahead, go smoke it with Kid Rock.' " He whistles in amazement.

"What can you say in that position?" he continues. "So I said, 'Look, dude, I can't smoke that with you because you're 12 years old, No. 1. But what you want to do, man, if you're getting high, is you wanna beat the system. Go to school and get A's. Because if you do bad, you're making all of us look bad. So beat the system, and nobody will be able to tell you anything. You can do whatever you want, as long as you keep it going.' "

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