No Rap on Eminem: He Gets His Shot, His Opportunity, and Doesn’t Let It Slip

Times Staff Writer

Hey there’s a concept that works / 20 million other white rappers emerge / But no matter how many fish in the sea / It’d be so empty without me

-- from “Without Me,” by Eminem

Rapper Eminem’s lyrics exaggerate the number, but the best-selling solo rap artist in history crisply captures the music industry’s quest to copy his cross-racial success.

Record labels have spent a small fortune signing about half a dozen white rappers with names such as Tow Down, Genovese and Hot Karl. Undoubtedly more will be coming with the smash debut last weekend of Eminem’s loosely biographical movie “8 Mile.”


But the road ahead for these aspiring stars probably will be a dead end, much as it has been for others who already have tried the trip to the top of the charts.

Tow Down and Genovese, for example, have been dumped by their record labels. Hot Karl ended his contract after his label refused to release the album he recorded.

“A white rapper has to work under a much finer microscope in a very competitive field. If the black audience isn’t with it, it’s not going to happen,” said Elektra Entertainment Group Chairwoman Sylvia Rhone, the only African American woman to run a major record label.

It’s not surprising that labels would try to replicate Eminem’s success. In the entertainment business, if a concept works once, it’s assumed that it will work to wearying excess. That’s true whether the medium is film, TV or music.

Record labels saw Eminem’s sales and said, “ ‘Oh, a white rapper can make money. Let’s get our own white rapper,’ ” said Stephen Hill, vice president for music programming at TV channel Black Entertainment Television. What they didn’t see, he said, was that the controversial singer was not a novelty like early white rappers Vanilla Ice and Mark Wahlberg, whose music careers quickly flamed out. In contrast, he said, Eminem is “a person with an amazing ability to connect with his audience.”

That connection is so powerful and unique that the 30-year-old Detroit rapper was able to transcend the roots of the genre, no small feat for a white speed rhymer.

Rap began more than two decades ago as an art form among urban blacks confronted with poverty and discrimination. Since then, its appeal has spread to young music fans of all colors who embrace the fiercely rebellious nature of the lyrics and wrap themselves in the grittiness of a life that may or may not resemble their own. Record industry surveys have consistently found that about 75% of rap music is purchased by U.S. white, Latino and Asian consumers.

Even with an overall slump in the music industry, rap remains a commercial and cultural power, generating an estimated $1.6 billion in domestic record sales. Eminem’s three albums -- filled with lyrics that critics call misogynistic and homophobic -- have sold 19.8 million copies in the U.S. That’s more than rap’s other biggest stars, including the late Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg or Jay-Z. Eminem’s latest album, “The Eminem Show,” is expected to be the top-selling record of the year, and the soundtrack from “8 Mile” entered the pop chart last week at No. 1.

Just five years ago, Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers, was searching for credibility by competing in rap contests and circulating recordings of his clever, penetrating and, at times, hostile riffs. While growing up, he had been influenced by such acts as the Beastie Boys, a white rap act that achieved a degree of street credibility in part by touring with rap trailblazers Run-DMC.

The credibility Eminem needed with black audiences came from Dr. Dre, the acclaimed record producer and rapper, who had been handed one of Eminem’s demos. Dre began touting Mathers as his protege and produced three tracks on his breakthrough album, “The Slim Shady LP.”

That kind of cultural entree also has benefited the only other white rapper to make a respectable, albeit modest, run at rap radio audiences.

Rapper Bubba Sparxxx, born Warren Anderson Mathis, had the backing of a celebrated rap producer, Timbaland. He stewarded the Georgia rapper’s CD and appeared in Sparxxx’s first video, which received heavy play on MTV and featured the burly newcomer with farm boys wrestling pigs.

The album, “Dark Days, Bright Nights,” has sold 600,000 copies, a fair showing for a new artist, but well below the projection of his label, Interscope Records, which also releases Eminem’s albums. Sparxxx’s second CD is due out early next year.

Without the support of rap’s biggest names, the odds of failure are high for white rappers, who must still have the skills to win fans on rap radio stations.

Hot Karl was a USC communications major who planned to write movie scripts when he was signed by Interscope. The rapper, whose real name is Jensen-Gerard Karp, was raised in Calabasas and decided to pursue a music career after winning a local radio station contest in which he called in each day and ad-libbed a few rhymes.

Hot Karl, who keeps his hair spiky and wears black-rimmed glasses, said Interscope paid him a five-figure advance, plus $3,500 a month for living expenses. Interscope spent an estimated $400,000 to record Hot Karl’s first album, in which he raps about Los Angeles nightclubs and pokes fun at gangsta rap and auction Web site EBay.

Last summer, after six months of waiting for the release of his album and the anticipated promotional campaign that would catapult him to stardom, Karl began to press label executives. When they told him the record wasn’t ready, he asked to part ways.

Hot Karl, 23, said he recently signed a six-figure contract with record conglomerate EMI to write songs for himself and others. But Karl doesn’t see himself taking center stage soon. Although labels routinely sign hot prospects only to drop them, Karl believes that other artists are given a better shot at success because the record companies are willing to show more patience.

“It seems like white rappers have to do it off the first single,” Karl said. “The bar is so high, and if you don’t come up to the bar, you don’t have a career.... I wasn’t really given the chance.” Executives at Interscope declined to comment

Houston rapper Tow Down, whose real name is Bryan Theriot, has been trying to build a following for years.

Flavoring his raps with references to stylish cars, marijuana and country-western culture, Tow Down developed as a local hit in Houston’s rap circles. He sometimes promoted his music by dropping in unannounced on radio disc jockeys broadcasting from other performers’ concerts. Two years ago, he began persuading stations in Tyler, Texas, and Shreveport, La., to play one of the songs from an album he had recorded on his brother’s tiny independent label.

On an earlier collection, produced by his brother, Tow Down was part of a trio of white rappers who tried to downplay their race by placing a photo of three middle-aged black men on their album cover.

The airplay on his solo record caught the attention of a talent scout at Elektra.

“When they found out I was white, it was like, ‘Fly up here tomorrow and come hang out with us,’ ” Tow Down said.

Elektra flew him and three friends to New York, picked them up in a limousine and got them into the MTV Video Music Awards, he recalled. He soon signed a deal to release a single from his “By Prescription Only” album through Elektra, which made superstars of such rap artists as Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes.

Elektra spent an estimated $250,000 to film a Tow Down music video -- featuring him behind the wheel of an orange Mercedes modeled on a car from the “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show -- and to fly him to meet radio programmers at a Miami convention.

But the relationship quickly soured. Rap radio programmers didn’t like the song and the label seemed to lose interest. Tow Down recalled that a label executive once called and left a message inquiring how “Low Down” was doing. Elektra soon notified Tow Down that it would not release the album.

“Some things connect, and some things don’t. Unfortunately, this didn’t,” said Elektra’s chairwoman, Rhone.

Tow Down is still living off his Elektra advance and is busy performing back at his Houston haunts. One of his latest songs accuses the staff of his former label of being “amateurs” who subsist on sales of the decades-old Eagles catalog.

Like Interscope, Universal Records also made a run at developing a white rapper -- New York-based Genovese.

A rap fan since the fifth grade, Genovese performed at clubs and appeared on tapes circulated in New York’s rap underground. But it wasn’t until a few months after Eminem’s 1999 debut, Genovese said, that a major label expressed interest.

Universal paid the Yonkers performer a five-figure advance and spent more than $200,000 on marketing and a music video shot in New York’s Little Italy, playing off of Genovese’s Italian roots. Label executives also introduced him to East Coast radio programmers and pitched him to rap magazines.

The first song from Genovese’s “My America” album garnered modest airplay in various markets, including Phoenix. But based on the tepid early response, Universal decided not to release the album.

“You come so far, and then you get sent back,” said the 26-year-old rapper, whose full name is Joseph Genovese. “I still haven’t gotten a shot.” Today, as he tries for another record deal, Genovese performs in local music clubs. He recently appeared at a theater in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

“We felt Genovese was a tremendous talent. And we’re frustrated the marketplace didn’t respond better,” said Universal Records President Monte Lipman, who took the helm after Genovese was signed. “At the end of the day, people respond to music. People don’t buy Eminem because he’s a white rapper. People buy Eminem because he makes great music.”



White rhymers

Most rap stars are black artists, but Eminem has sold more albums than any other solo artist in rap music history. Record labels have signed white rappers to try to copy his success, but their sales have been disappointing.

* Eminem

Three albums released on Interscope Records.

Sales: 19.8 million copies

* Bubba Sparxxx

One album released on Interscope Records.

Sales: 600,000 copies

* Tow Down

Two albums released on D.I.M.E. Records; dropped by Elektra Records.

Sales: 15,675 copies

* Genovese

Album never released; dropped by Universal Records.

Sales: 0

* Hot Karl

Album never released; let out of contract by Interscope Records.

Sales: 0

Sources: SoundScan, record labels