Wandering Minstrel

The CDnow Album Advisor says that Everlast fans should also shop Billy Joel, the Dave Matthews Band, A Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys, Lauryn Hill, and, er, Sammy Kaye’s Best of the Big Bands— maybe the swing revival really is a conspiracy. At, recent Everlast purchasers also bought Cake, Soul Coughing, the Flys, Sugar Ray, the Offspring, and Hole, making clear which side of the modern rock/hiphop divide the former House of Pain frontman works these days. But why isn’t anyone bringing up Sublime? “What It’s Like,” the Everlast single that impelled Whitey Ford Sings the Blues to the upper charts after initial indifference in September, is the first true successor to the late Brad Nowell’s “What I Got.” Not a blatant Sublime rip-off: that’s “Fly” by Sugar Ray, whom Everlast is touring with these days. But a song that uses hiphop beats and a touch of the attitude for the purposes of minstrelsy, in the wandering sense— to communicate, with a lyric and a sound, a dialect, the lore of a distant village.

Nowell lived in the LBC, a California beach town where punks, rappers, rastas, surfers, and God knows who else bonded over drugs, squats, and a city in flames. Everlast’s home is more virtual, spliced together out of perpetually reworked alliances. Associated with Cypress Hill, whose DJ Muggs produced the first two House of Pain albums, he was one of the first credible Caucasian rappers, clinging to Irishness as a fault line between white and black (which in the U.S., for a long time, it was). He’d brag and bluster, then say “top of the morning to ya.” In 1996, he chose the release of their third album as occasion to break up House of Pain, whose lunkheaded side had stopped pumping him. He moved in two directions so divergent that only a few million albums sold could fill the divide, studying Islam, to which he’d recently converted, and aspiring to the haunting odes of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Then, when he was nearly done with the album no one had known he had in him, his heart gave out to seal up the drama.

This is a tabloid tale and the single is a tabloid tearjerker, with a homeless man begging for change, a woman whose man ran off walking through protesters into an abortion clinic, and a young guy infatuated with thugs and his .45 who gets shot down, leaving behind a wife and kids.”Ends,” the next Everlast single, hangs in the same crowd: M.B.A.-Ph.D. reduced to crackhead secures gun, only he’s “nervous with the tool” and gets shot down too. Everlast used to act demented— “jump around!”— or assume a gruff wheeze that might have taught DMX a trick or two. Now he speak-raps these stories in his most fatalistic manner and croons the choruses, empathy spraying alongside all the buckshot. Acoustic guitar caresses the funky drums or issues a mournful plaint, keyboards and flutes wink: it’s a knowing sound, a sound that raised hell in its day but doesn’t have to anymore. I prefer Sublime, where the sound was taking a break from mayhem but all too aware it couldn’t resist for very long.

But in both cases, the hits dangle out something a little deeper (cash register ka-ching!) for mainstream audiences than the next novelty or power ballad— a way of combining the sentimentality that the pop experience often feeds off of with hip-hop, one of the least overtly sentimental musical forms ever. 2pac did this for black audiences, which is why the question of his microphone skills was ultimately irrelevant. Nowell and now Everlast are pointing the way for white rappers, that still measly remnant. It’s a satisfying alternative to the usual tacks— crazed posturing, agitprop, art-school surrealisms— because the emotionality anchors the musical hodgepodges, like what the hell, maybe the music industry has seen fit to confer on us a complete human being. Ka-ching! You thought CDnow was wrong to suggest Billy Joel?

The switch-over in styles has provided career resuscitation for Everlast, who told one interviewer that “a year ago, I couldn’t even get anyone on the phone at my label.” When House of Pain broke in 1992, their sonics were fully current, “Jump Around” a spin-off of Cypress Hill’s throbbing membranes. Even the Run-D.M.C. back-and-forth of the great “Put On Your Shit Kickers” hadn’t fully dated. The next album, Same As It Ever Was, took the same textural basics deeper, but fewer people cared because hip-hop’s innovative edge had moved on. The real augur for the future, though nobody noticed, was “It Ain’t a Crime,” the first of Everlast’s story songs and yet another tale of a guy with an anxious finger on the trigger. 1996’s misbegotten final joint, Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again, stopped trying to keep up musically (DJ Lethal would eventually steal over to the rap-metal Limp Bizkit). Everlast, now far more courtly in his sex songs, shouted out to Jews, Christians, and his fellow Moslems, revealed a creeping discomfort with materialism on “No Doubt,” and exchanged B-boy street sweeping for rhetoric like “X-Files,” which sums up: “Some fiend for ass/Some fiend for cash/Some do the knowledge/Some do the math.” House of Pain fans were baffled.

Everlast didn’t start with much of a hardcore following this time; the challenge for him, as for so many rappers, was how to survive past the inevitable waning of that following— it’s called hitting 30, or maybe 25. Whitey Ford Sings the Blues isn’t especially great as hip-hop: you know you’re in trouble when your most booming track is called “Praise the Lord.” It isn’t even that great as Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, since Everlast’s lyrics don’t cut very deep and he’s far too monochromatic a vocalist. But as middle-of-the-road pop it’s homesteading barely settled territory. Hip-hop is too revolutionary not to evolve its own form of sappy singer-songwriter confessionalism. This is a start. So, verbal groaners and occasional aural clichés aside, there’s a fascination to cuts like “Painkillers,” where the ordinary person Everlast imagines descending into oblivion is himself. Or the confidently slow-paced, hiphop-
derived chord changes underpinning the sermonized parts of “Today (Watch Me Shine),” or the folding in of archetypes that makes him murmur, during “Death Comes Callin’,” “I think I hear a steam whistle/Lord, when my train gonna come?”

Too bad black artists don’t receive the same validation for their experiments. When I groove on “Ends,” I’m just exercising ears trained by Public Enemy’s roundly dismissed “He Got Game,” autumnal hip-hop at its finest. And for sentiment, what about P.M. Dawn, whose Dearest Christian, I’m So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad is absolutely drenched emotionally and has a great potential single, “Art Deco Halos”? Finally, I must mention the Coup’s “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night,” which is a story song worthy of Dylan, or at least Dan Bern. Affirmative action works both ways: for the near future, white rappers who are at least marginally qualified are going to get a stronger hearing than their relative talents deserve. That isn’t a slap at Everlast, who I bet would make a similar argument for the merits of his buddy Divine Styler. It’s just what it’s like.

Everlast plays Roseland February 19.

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