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The First Shall Be Last

Everybody says he's pretty fly for a white guy. But they're saying a lot more than that. You can tell that Everlast is a new kind of white rapper by the fact that critics and fans aren't comparing him to the black--read "real," read "authentic"--hip hoppers he's supposed to be mimicking, but rather to big-selling white pop acts. The Village Voice reports that most CDnow shoppers buying copies of Everlast's hit Whitey Ford Sings the Blues are also clicking for product by (among others) Billy Joel and Dave Matthews. Rolling Stone Online asks, "Who would win in a fight between Everlast and Everclear?" Yesterday a friend dubiously compared him to G. Love and Soul Coughing.

Each analogy is fascinating. Like Billy, the reborn former House of Pain front-goon now aspires to self-conscious social commentary in deliberately written (if not quite crafted) acoustic guitar-based story-raps. He has traded in the burly bluster of his brutal youth for a bardish sing-speak that his Tommy Boy press release proudly compares to Willie Nelson. And to mark his evolution as the griot of the undistinguished downtrodden, there's a numbing ordinariness to Whitey, accomplished by producer DJ Dante's purposefully nondescript beats and wallpaper samples.

Like Everclear's Art Alexakis, Everlast prefers to ponder young, white pathos, and like Dave Matthews, Everlast wants us to hurt like he does, even going as far as to have his titular alter ego, Whitey Ford, shot in the song "Painkillers" midway through the album. Yet unlike kitsch-hoppers G. Love and Soul Coughing, whose faux-drawls and Ebonics serve to absolve their white, middlebrow audiences' guilt over being the last youth demographic on the planet to embrace black hip hop, Everlast has real street cred.

House of Pain, you may remember, was a pretty wonderful little fluke. A white rap group transplanted from L.A. to Boston who hit big in the summer of 1992 just as their hometown was going up in flames, the hard-core trio were credible jar-headed thug-hoppers backed by the most viable sound of the day, the tea-kettle whine of Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs. With an iconography more Danny Boy than b-boy--remember all those Celtics jerseys--House of Pain and their single "Jump Around" represented a bridge between rapidly fragmenting black and white audiences.

The band can also be read as a pack of idiots who got lucky--but that was merely another level to their genius. Unlike the Beasties, whom no one is comparing Everlast to, House of Pain weren't smart enough to see the inauthenticity of their rap shtick. In fact, they were too dumb to worry about the stigma of their conspicuous whiteness. Too hyped up on the euphoria of their adolescent aggression to care that the pain of the African-American struggle wasn't coursing beneath their rage, they imagined themselves as rappers and, like magical leprechauns, materialized as such.

The same argument cannot be presented in the case of the new and improved Everlast. When DJ-genius Prince Paul shows up on a mid-album skit to call up Everlast and pitch him a backing track that's "sumpin' like 'Jump Around,' but more on that old Lucky Charms tip," we can rest assured he won't be getting a return call from our matured b-boy.

Everlast's intended new audience isn't the hip-hop heads waiting for the sophomore joint by Prince Paul or old House of Pain fans, either, but the Dilbertian middle-class people for whom panic is just a downsize away. "What it's Like"--whose wimp-hop groove staved off my interest while it dominated the radio for the better part of last fall--is supposed to resonate like a State of the Union Address. Everlast name-checks the homeless guy at the liquor store who can't beg enough for a drink; poor Mary who rages as she tries to push herself through the protesters in front of the abortion clinic; pathetic Max who fronts thug, sells drugs, and gets shot in an alley. The rapper's sympathy may be a cop-out: He invites the listener to judge the morality of these situations while he keeps himself at a journalistic remove. And in taking the load off himself, he puts it right on us. The song's You, who "has to choose" what to make of these situations, could actually be you or, er, me. The difference between Us, the spectators, and Them, the hapless, is eliminated.

As the former frat-hopper proclaims on Whitey, he's been reborn, "wiser than Bud," and is ready to sip from cups of a more respectable vintage. The album is light on misogyny and heavy on O. Henry-like tales of reversed fortunes, which might be related to a very real fear of death our hero learned during a bout with a nearly fatal heart condition last summer. Even if he isn't as formally hard as the other contenders in the first wave of what Rolling Stone called "white rappers who don't suck"--the Wu's Remedy, Ill Bill, Brooklyn's Non Phixion--he makes the guns-'n'-hos posturing of future stars like white Dre protégé Eminem look mimetic and one-dimensional. Fully aware that "not everybody can relate to hoods," he offers a completely different vision of Nowhere.

 

With his deadpan drawl and omniscient eye, Everlast is a white-rapper-frontin' reportorial folkie in the Woody Guthrie-John Prine-John Mellencamp tradition. He sees suffering, and he tells the sad tale. So before you waste any time trying to untangle what's offensive and inoffensive about such a stance, just hop in the car and drive around until you hear one of his two hits, "Ends" or "What it's Like." Both songs argue for hip hop not as black expression or even appropriated suburban patois, but as the only viable folk idiom of the last 15 years. Consequently, Everlast seems to suggest, hip hop is also the only music worthy of Whitey's tales of white and black hard-knock living, blurring the color line as well as the one between sympathy and empathy.

There's a reason you can pump Everlast while you drive your Jeep to the beach just as easily as you can sing his acoustic-based tunes around the campfire once you get there. He wants you to use them. The fact that Whitey barely hits as hard as 3rd Bass may be a (calculated) comment on the real rap tolerance of Everlast's audience. In this sense, producer DJ Dante's soft, malleable beats succeed in creating a safe space for a nation of millions to gather and try to understand. This is the ambitiously wide target audience for "Ends," a song that follows a Harvard M.B.A. who can't find a job, ends up waiting tables, ends up on crack, and guess what, ends up dead. Each turn of events in "Ends" drives home the thesis from "What it's Like": "You know, where you end usually depends on where you start." In 1992, Everlast was busy attempting to convince the mainstream that white rap was better than mere novelty music. Despite his new themes and his new sound, Everlast is still trying to make that case.

How's he doing? you ask. Well, this second as I write this, on a nondescript morning in February 1999, some young, white blokes in my building--fools who spent all last summer drunkenly crooning along to Frank Sinatra from their front porch--are taking "Paint it Black" off the CD player to crank "What's it's Like" at top volume for the fifth time today. It's oozing through the floorboards, soothingly communicating to (and implicating?) a couple of guys, who, as far as one can tell, have previously only empathized with the class-based pain of stepping on a pop top while searching for their last shaker of salt. Woody Guthrie would be proud.

 

Everlast opens for Sugar Ray Friday, March 5 at Roy Wilkins Auditorium; (612) 989-5151.


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