Death Rap

Erik Schrody, whom you may know better as Everlast or as his occasional moniker Whitey Ford, has made a record that sounds so, well, black. It's the kind of record that transcends the usual boundaries hip-hoppers have chalked up to white wanna-bes. Where does he get off? This is, after all, the same guy whose first post-House of Pain solo album in 1998, the wildly eclectic Whitey Ford Sings the Blues (a tongue-in-cheek comment on the white-men-can't-rap mind-set), made it clear he was only slightly ahead of his time -- and not exactly some Michelangelo of pop.

Still, Whitey Ford, with its genre-bending blend of folk-rock, soul and rap, racked up the accolades and landed on critics' year-end Top 10 lists. But with the release of his follow-up disc, Eat at Whitey's (Tommy Boy), set for mid-October, Schrody raises the bar even higher. Hell, the last time a white dude sounded this black was during the 1960s when pop singer Tom Jones would arrive at New York City black clubs and managers would ask him when the brother named Tom Jones was going to show up.

If rap and hip-hop are all about boasting and issuing challenges, then in his own way Schrody has done the genre one better by issuing himself the ultimate challenge: to not follow industry trends. He says it's easy to copy another rapper and just as easy to assume some thuglike persona. But it takes some big brass ones to take the armor off, stand up and walk your own path into new metaphorical territory. Now that's cool.

The results can be heard on Whitey Ford, and even more so on Eat at Whitey's. Though his record company initially thought he was crazy to believe rap and songs with melodious vocal lines could coexist on the same disc, Schrody has proved the suits wrong: He has created a record with a powerful, authoritative vibe without resorting to shouting or clichés.

"I got what I wanted: songs that rocked, but weren't angry," he says. "Anger for no reason is wasted energy."

The dark, haunting elements that made Whitey Ford memorable are preserved by the Stimulated Dummies (a.k.a. producers Dante Ross and John Gamble) on Eat at Whitey's. They've added a string section to the mix this time, often used in juxtaposition with the melody line, like on the '60s R&B-flavored "Love for Real" (which boasts Schrody's stab at some Soul Train guitar licks) and on "One and the Same," both featuring vocals by N'Dea Davenport.

The lead-off track, "Whitey," lets a cello carry the melody in a stripped-down arrangement with drum loops, while Schrody takes swings at those who suggest his sound lacks credibility. (Hey, he is a rapper, you know.) Meanwhile, "Black Jesus" picks up where his new-jack-hippie sound on Whitey Ford's "What It's Like" left off: with a cheesy guitar lead-in that quickly fades into the back of the mix.

"Black Jesus," not expected to be adopted as a theme song by the religious right, is more of the same off-the-cuff rapping that Schrody prefers. He doesn't write out his lyrics, instead preferring to create and store lines in various brain cells and spit them out from memory. He thought the idea of a black Jesus was jarring enough to be the focal point off which he could riff. "If you're a Christian and Jesus is your God, what's going to happen if you found out he was black?" Schrody says. "It's pretty much fact that [Jesus] wasn't white, so would that really change it for those Bible Belt people if he was still Jesus, but black?"

Though Eat at Whitey's is clearly the best of 2000 to date, Schrody concedes that he never thought he had the ability to compose songs until he was recovering from a massive heart attack at the end of the Whitey Ford sessions. He now refers to that old session as some kind of fluke, a stream-of-consciousness gig in which he started off making a solo rap album but ended up with a quirky hip-hop folkie hybrid instead.

It's no surprise that the guy who started rapping under the name E Rock E (Erik Rock Everlasting) back in the San Fernando Valley in 1987 would mature just a little bit after a near-death experience. The theme of death is covered directly and indirectly in six of 13 tracks on Whitey's, including "One, Two" (his rap collaboration with Kurupt), "Deadly Assassins" (with Cypress Hill's B-Real), "We're All Gonna Die" (based on a conversation Schrody's mom had with him after his pet turtle died) and "Graves to Dig" (featuring rapper Cee-Lo of Goodie Mob as background vocalist in a song that laments mothers who have to bury their sons).

Schrody confronts his fear of death directly on "I Can't Move," in which he describes how he felt paralyzed by the notion that the lights really will go out for good someday. But he ultimately beats those feelings back and accepts life's just rewards.

And finally on "Babylon Feeling," which features guitar work from Carlos Santana, Schrody uses a beautiful woman as an unsettling metaphor for death: "My spirit's weak / my lust will thrive," Schrody sings, "I got a thing for this bitch / said her name's Alive / she controls me with her fears / and my prayers fall on her cold deaf ears."

Schrody still may feel uncomfortable in the loose embrace of life, but the rapper has certainly found acceptance, maybe even a little love, in other areas: hip-hop and mainstream circles.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr