Kid Rock has an 8-track mind

Kid Rock’s new album has been praised for opening “a new era” in heartland rock.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Kid Rock has sold 20 million albums but he still mystifies a lot of people. Who is this guy? What is this guy? Is he a white rapper, an arena-rock hero or an outlaw country star? We can make it simple: Kid Rock is the muscle car of American music.

Like a Dodge Charger, he was bolted together in Michigan, with a suspension for the ‘70s and pride in his excessive consumption. He also looks perfectly natural tearing out of an Alabama roadhouse or idling in front of a San Fernando Valley strip club. At any given moment, there’s a good chance Lynyrd Skynyrd or Bob Seger is rocking in his 8-track mind.

Those classic-rock influences have never been clearer in Kid’s music than they are in his new album, “Rock N Roll Jesus,” which arrives Tuesday and finds the rapper living up to his old boast: “I ain’t straight outta Compton, I’m straight out the trailer.” The 36-year-old, sitting recently in a studio at the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood, chuckled when asked about his affinity for pulling on three genres and creating music that manages to have clang, twang and scratch.

“I’ve never pigeonholed myself. I’ve loved all music, all genres, from rock to rap to Motown. It’s what I loved as a kid and it’s in my music now,” he said. “And I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been in my whole life. I feel like the stars are aligned right now. I feel stronger than ever. Musically, I’m going to new levels.”

If so, it might be due to the presence of two top producers. The album was produced by Rob Cavallo, who has guided Green Day throughout its career and most recently helped the trio deliver “American Idiot,” the group’s punk-pop masterpiece. Then there’s Rick Rubin, the guru to the late Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys and Neil Diamond who challenged Kid to write something more than a lap-dance soundtrack.

“He basically told me that he had been listening to me my whole career and that he thought I had something more in me, something relevant,” Kid said. “I thought: ‘I’ll show him.’ I went to friend’s house over in Malibu overlooking a bluff and I sat there and looked at the ocean. And I thought: ‘Amen.’ What a powerful word.”

That word gave him the title for a new song that bemoans the influence of lawyers and corrupt pastors in America even as troops continue to be in harm’s way overseas and families go hungry in Africa:

It’s another night in hell

Another child won’t live to tell

Can you imagine what it’s like to starve to death

And as we sit free and well

Another soldier has to yell

Tell my wife and children I love them in his last breath

Never short on confidence, Kid said those are “some of the relevant lyrics of our day and age.”

Maybe, but those lyrics aren’t the reason he just popped up on “Larry King Live,” is booked on “Late Show With David Letterman” tonight and has visits with Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Kimmel later this month. They want him because on Sept. 9, Kid delivered his biggest MTV hit in years -- and it wasn’t a song.

He was in Las Vegas attending the cable channel’s Video Music Awards when he found himself facing an old rival. Kid was returning to his table when he noticed his seat had been taken by Tommy Lee, the Mötley Crüe drummer and on-again, off-again love interest of Pamela Anderson, Kid’s ex-wife. The two have plenty of history, all of it sour. Lee has said he was sucker-punched, but Kid said he should have seen it coming.

“When someone runs their mouth for so many years, just this level of disrespect for so long, and then you see that person, you don’t just act like all that went away,” Kid said. “Sit at my table and smile at me? After all that? No. He deserved those lumps.”

Some people instantly described the brief one-way fight as a battle for Pam by her two ex-husbands. Kid said his relationship with the actress and model, which included a four-month marriage, was “destroying his soul.”

“The best thing I ever did was get out of that relationship. It was pure evil.” That sentiment led to a song on the new album, a honky-tonk number called “Half Your Age,” which brags that he has hooked up with a new woman who’s “half your age and twice as hot.”

Kid has zero regrets about Vegas. Well, maybe one: “If I had known the attention it would get, and right before my album is due, I would have thrown a few more punches.”

Kid Rock was born Robert James Ritchie to an affluent family in Romeo, Mich., but spent most of his teen years prowling the projects of Mount Clemens, where he found friends and hip-hop. He instantly gravitated toward the microphone and had a gift for rhyme, but it was hard out there for a white pimp.

At one point, in the early 1990s, he had finally found a label home with Jive Records, only to be bounced out the door after the Vanilla Ice fiasco made every white rapper radioactive.

By the end of the decade, rock-rap was surging as a new mainstream sound and Kid was there as the white-pimp figure of the scene, a sort of upstart Hank Williams Jr. channeling Snoop Dogg. His 1998 album “Devil Without a Cause” yielded hits such as “Bawitdaba” and “Cowboy” and, at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, his sonic identity was perfectly framed in performances with both Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.

In the years since, he’s veered more toward the twangy country sound that has echoed so strongly in his native Michigan, thanks in large part to Southerners who trekked north in years past to work in the factories.

Sitting in the Capitol studio, Kid said he can look back on his career and measure his success not by the volume of chart hits but by the number of heroes he’s performed with on stages.

” Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Hank Williams Jr., Sam Moore, ZZ Top, Run-D.M.C. . . . Those are all the people I grew up listening to, the people who gave me so much of what I understand about music,” Kid said. “These are people I can learn from. And they are people who I definitely want the respect of.”

Respect hasn’t always been easy for Kid to find, but it seems to be turning around now. He’s on the cover of the new issue of Rolling Stone, which will surprise casual pop fans who thought he had gone the way of fellow 1990s rap-rocker Fred Durst. Those fans might also be surprised by the four-star Rolling Stone review for “Rock N Roll Jesus,” in which Anthony DeCurtis praised the album for opening “a new era” in heartland rock.

Acknowledging his varied constituencies, Kid will visit MTV’s “TRL” on Tuesday and then, on Oct. 25, he will be at the Gibson Amphitheatre to tape a CMT tribute to Hank Jr.

Kid said that he can handle the spotlight, but that he would rather be at his home in Michigan, shooting hoops with his old buddies. Most of the people who work for him are family. He may have a Malibu mansion with a stripper’s pole in the living room, but he sees his aura as that of a blue-collar hero.

“My fans know that and appreciate it,” he said. An example: After a recent show, he was waiting behind the venue for a helicopter’s engine to warm up. He scanned the crowd of fans watching him and he smiled. “There was a girl with no shirt waving a Confederate flag towel, a couple of bikers, a lot of teenagers, a lady with a newborn baby standing there, folks in their 50s and 60s,” he said with pride. “There’s always a lot of older married women, they really dig me. It was mostly working class, but it was also all classes. The demographic of my fans is incredible.”

That scene might not impress non-fans, but Kid is past caring about the haters. “Look, I’m no saint, but I believe in what’s right. Work hard, stand up for what you believe in and have an even better time because of it.”