A new-school punk rock festival like The Warped Tour is one of the last places on earth where one would expect to find old-school racism, but such is the insidious nature of intolerance hitting when and where you least expect it. For underground rap legend Esham, who's touring with Warped this summer, the bigotry isn't blatant but it's certainly there.
"The Warped Tour is cool, but you got some bands lookin' at us like, 'What are you guys doing here?'" he says phoning from backstage somewhere in California. "There are some cool bands: H20, Rancid, 311, Pennywise. A lot of 'em even come up to us and be like, 'No you guys are the REAL punks.'"
This summer's Warped Tour has a setup similar to other outdoor so-called alternative festivals, where a rap or hip-hop artist is added to an all-rock or all-punk bill to spice the show with a bit of multicultural flavor and street credibility. Unfortunately, this dynamic can easily lead to the reverse: a clear cut division between two worlds. Does Esham, on the road supporting his recent release "Tongues," feel like the "token rap artist" on Warped this year?
"Almost," he admits. "This ain't 'Up in Smoke,' that's for sure. If it wasn't for Kool Keith, we wouldn't be on this tour and that's just straight up. For the most part it's all cool they been showing us love, but we gotta play way in the back on some milk crates. We can't even do our full show. If these people seen us out here with our band, it would blow their minds. We'd be like Metallica. Yeah, I said it, Metallica! Can't nobody (expletive) with us if we're like that. We're like Voltron: We come together as the big robot when we got all our band members, and we just rock our show. Nobody in the music business or in music history can touch our show at that point."
Esham, born Rashaam Smith, came up on East 7 Mile, one of Detroit's most notorious ghettos, spending summers with his grandparents, who lived right next door to the infamous "Amityville Horror" house on Long Island, N.Y. Rather than falling prey to the street life that consumed so many of his peers, Esham turned to rapping at age 10, rechristening Detroit "Amityville" and concocting sonic tales from the dark side that mixed horror-film imagery and rock instrumentation with more traditional rap fare.
"There was no Detroit music scene, so me and my brother decided to start a record company," he recalls. "I started going into the studio and I had a particular style. No one was rapping about suicide or talking about things that Ozzy Osbourne or Nirvana were talking about. So we incorporated all this dark imagery into our rhyming, and we'd sample things like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden and stuff like that. Nobody would help us with this type of music. Everybody was scared of it. It wasn't quite gangsta rap; it wasn't rock. They didn't know what category to put it in."
In 1990 at age 13, Esham was able to issue his solo debut, "Boomin' Words From Hell," which launched his career in Detroit, making him an instant legend amongst the high school set. Notably, "Boomin'" was written and produced entirely by Esham and released on his own label, Reel Life Productions. Tracks like "Devil's Groove" and "4 All The Suicidalist" provided a glimpse into the sound that the young rapper would grow into, though he'd probably just as soon forget goofy ditties like "Dream Girl" and "Kissing Bandit."
"You gotta realize I was like 13-years-old," he says. "I was saying anything I wanted. I had an immature outlook on life. I didn't know nothing. I wasn't going through anything. So I had a pretty one-track mind. But I came up with some pretty hard, dope music dark and mysterious."
Rather than resting on his laurels, Esham continued to release a string of solo albums and EPs throughout his high-school years, eventually founding the horrorcore supergroup Natas (Nation Ahead of Time And Space or satan spelled backwards, depending on who you ask) with fellow Michigan natives Mastamind and TNT. Together, the trio pioneered a sound they dubbed "acid rap," a combination of distorted guitars, Zeppelin-esque drums and heavy-flowing rhymes that bands like Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse have taken to the bank in recent years under the guise of "rock-rap."
"Acid rap is the most potent rap out there," Esham declares. "Acid rap IS rap-rock. It's modern-day blues seen through the eyes of the youth today. It's heavy mental."
Esham's point is a good one, underscoring the genuine connection between today's rappers and the blues artists that struggled in obscurity for much of the last century.
"It ain't no different," he says. "I just don't want to be 70 years old before they get it come back with the VH1 special and everything. I ain't got that much time. I'm pretty young, but for a black man I'm 200 years old. For real, dog. It's a miracle for me to even reach the age I am. We're an endangered species out here, dude. Seriously! I don't fault nobody for that because nobody had a choice in where they were placed at in this, but everybody keeps saying racism is over. I know it's not. People hide behind a lot of facades. We're beating drums and playing guitars and I'm just saying respect my music the same way you would Kid Rock or whoever. But I can't expect people to respect my music, when they don't even respect me in the constitution of America."
Lack of respect hounded Esham and company for years. Throughout the '90s, Esham and Natas continued to release albums and tour, frustrated that their big break never seemed to come. Though they had become kings of their home turf, they couldn't manage to find a major label deal anywhere.
"I'm not down with (record-industry mogul) Tommy Motolla," Esham says. "Not to say that I wouldn't be, but he's not calling me. We're an independent and we've been that way. Not by choice, but we're out here looking for the right things as opposed to the wrong things. But it's hard to be an independent."
Esham and Natas had an equally difficult time getting their music played on the radio, finding that they didn't have an easily defined place on the demographic charts and graphs that determine much of what is heard over today's airwaves.
"We're caught in a paradox with our music," Esham gripes. "We can't take our music to urban radio because it's too heavy and it's too mental for them. So we go to the alternative station and, as soon as they hear it, they're like, 'No, this is hip-hop, take this over to the urban radio station.' Just because of our skin color. If we was three white cats right now, they would be calling us Chimp Bizkit and we would be on MTV."
MTV is exactly where Esham's paler Detroit peers were finding themselves in the late '90s, as "acid rap" became increasingly big business. Michigan rock-rappers Kid Rock, Insane Clown Posse and most notably Eminem all scored big with records that borrowed extensively from the Esham/Natas catalog, right down to the horrorcore lyrics, acid rap production and dubious shout-outs to "Amityville."
"There are people inside the industry that continuously bite our music and use us for inspiration because they're worthless artists," Esham grouses. "They have no will or brainpower. Without us, they couldn't even come up with ideas. They have to look at our old back catalog and re-do our songs and re-put out our ideas. There's groups out there talking about how Detroit is 'Amityville.' That just goes to show you how far this cult following goes. Nobody in Detroit calls Detroit Amityville, but everybody knows that I grew up there. But they want to have the same wicked style. It's almost like they read my bio and they're like, 'I want to be this guy.' Anybody who says, 'I'm from Amityville,' might as well say, 'Esham.'"
Esham feels particularly betrayed by Kid Rock, the multi-platinum Detroit rock-rapper who used to come to East 7 Mile for advice in the early days.
"They call Kid Rock a rocker and he knows in his heart he's a rapper and was loving the black music," Esham declares. "He used to be the same guy coming down to the ghetto, to our neighborhood. We helped that guy and he knows it. Now he goes out here with the rebel flags on and it's just a total disrespect to everyone who's helped him in his career. For him to turn around and do that just shows you what a punk he is. We used to help all those guys. If the shoe was on the other foot, we used to wonder if they would help us. When it did get on the other foot, we got kicked."
The real Slim Shady?
As much animosity as Esham has for the Rock, he saves his strongest ire for Eminem, an artist who some say based his entire career on the Esham blueprint.
"On his first record he was swearing up and down that he was like me, Manson and Ozzy," Esham says. "Then on his next album, he started trying to attack my style talking about acid rap and how he's from Amityville. It's just all subliminal disses toward my character.
"Me and him one-on-one, I'll beat the (expletive) out of him with my bare hands. He need to quit talking about me in his raps and just quit mentioning my name. If he wouldn't never ever said my name, I would never say nothing about that guy. Now, he sees me in places he never thought he would and he damn near (soiled) his pants in fear of what I might do to him, for trying to assassinate my character and my livelihood. You gotta realize, on the streets a crackhead'll kill you for a 100 bucks. So imagine what I'd do."
It would seem, though, that the across-the-board success of rock-rap would leave plenty of space for artists like Esham to find a niche and build a nationwide audience. Isn't there room for everybody?
"Me and you know that because me and you got common sense, right?" Esham asks. "But a bitch-ass person don't know that. They want all the fame and glory to their selves. It's like the kid who had all the toys but no friends to play with. That's how most of these guys act, like that little bratty ass kid who always got his ass kicked. Like Eminem. Rapping about how you used to get your ass beat. What kind of (expletive) is that? That's some punk (expletive). You'll always be a punk. So I don't understand when you get on a record and talk about how you're tough knowing damn well you're running around here with guns that ain't got no bullets in 'em. So don't play tough with me because he know he ain't from my neighborhood; he know he ain't from Detroit. He knows they're gonna take his ass back to Kansas where he from and quit playing with grown men."
Esham's outspoken perspective is one shared by those who have noticed white America's wholesale adaptation of black music and culture, an accusation launched at everyone from Elvis to Eminem. For Esham, the commercialization of hip-hop is yet another example of this continuing phenomenon, which tends to take more from black culture than it gives back.
"N' Sync is doing hip-hop," Esham points out. "Pop music is not even pop music anymore, it's hip-hop. It's hip-POP. But they don't want to give the blacks their respect, and I'm sick of that crap. You wouldn't even have a culture without us! Come on, man! I'm fed up with this. And it's not like we're not sharing our ideas or our culture. We just want to get respect. It's the shadow of racism that we've lived in as a people since day one. I got a lot of white friends and I know 'you guys' didn't actually do it and 'we' as a people shouldn't even really be upset, but we live in that shadow."