Can hip-hop be middle class?

With a culture celebrating the street and stars pockmarked by bullets, where does posh rapper Asher Roth fit in? Nick Hasted does the jigsaw
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The Independent Culture

I spent the whole of Asher Roth's first song on Later ... With Jools Holland last week wondering just what I was watching. The preppy young white American primly asking for crowd participation simply did not compute. Roth was apparently a rapper. Yet he couldn't be further from the gangsta stereotype represented by bullet-riddled 50 Cent if he was on the moon. Roth's recent debut hit was called "I Love College", and he is defiantly, obviously suburban. In a genre where the unspoken fault-line was always race, till Eminem detonated it, Roth offers hip-hop's next challenge. Can music born in the devastated Bronx ghetto ever really be middle-class?

The short answer is that a star like Roth was inevitable. Hip-hop's audience has been largely white and middle-class for almost 20 years. Ironically, both the cause and effect of this has been the vicarious thrill of black gangsta rap's sex and violence. The social conscience of early rap records has always remained. But it has been coarsened by the lure of the mass wealth waiting in the white mainstream, where fans listen wide-eyed to ever more fanciful tales of drug-dealing, rape and slaughter. Ever since Niggaz With Attitude (NWA) hit this commercial motherlode in the late 1980s, social protest has been outgunned by dark and dirty, sometimes wittily extreme equivalents to Hollywood gangster epics such as Scarface. The wider the gap between such tales and the everyday life of white US college kids, the deeper the frisson, and the higher the sales. Ice-T portrayed the trade-off neatly on the sleeve of his 1993 LP Home Invasion. It pictured a white suburban boy in his bedroom, with Iceberg Slim and Malcolm X books by his side, dreaming of a scantily clad white woman, maybe his mum, being grabbed roughly from behind by one darkly masked man, while another murdered a white man who might be his dad. The boy's records, like his drugs no doubt, were teenage kicks supplied by black kids a universe away.

Roth could be that kid. But he offers a very different angle. The 23-year-old is from Morrisville, Pennsylvania, a sleepy suburb of "trees and quiet streets, and people going for walks and pushing strollers", he has said. "When I wrote my "A Millie" freestyle, that was me listening to 10 years of hip-hop and not relating to it at all," he told Vibe magazine. "Like, damn I don't sell coke. Damn, I don't have cars or 25-inch rims. I don't have guns ... And it turns out a lot of people feel the same way I do." In the words of one of the music's bibles, XXL: "In Roth, hip-hop's buying public finally has a voice: an upper-middle class suburban kid who is more frat boy than dope boy."

Though Roth is serious about what he does, his exaggeratedly preppy image suggests his label Universal see his background as a gimmick (even if, as a man with the nerve to turn up to a mixtape session in flip-flops, Roth may have the last laugh). But his very existence still offers a small challenge to music rigidly hidebound about class. Just as much as among the Tory cabinet's Etonians, where you're from matters more than who you really are in hip-hop. Even Eminem, whose skin colour forced him from rap's usual racial themes into raging at class and foreign policy injustices with rare intelligence and venom, fudged his background early on. Though he is working class, Warren, the rundown white suburban Detroit neighbourhood where he spent much of his childhood, was hardly the bleak ghetto he suggested the day I walked through it.

Even Tupac Shakur, though born to a Black Panther mother one month out of jail who later became a crack addict, had to exaggerate his street credentials. A sensitive, slight, bookish young man who attended New York's School for the Performing Arts, his records were riven between this inner self and the self-described "thug life" of a would-be gangster. Being shot dead in 1996 sealed his perceived greatness, not the "holler to my sisters on welfare" of "Brenda's Got A Baby". The original Bronx rappers of 1979 had used the music as an alternative to a resurgent gang culture. Thirty years later, the most commercial way to "keep it real" is to be 50 Cent: a man with a carapace of muscles it looks like bullets would bounce off, and the holes in his body to show they don't.

50 Cent's blank drawl and creative stasis since his thrilling debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin' (2003) shows the sad paucity of his approach. That album's title sets out its class implications. In mainstream hip-hop, starting from the streets and arriving in a penthouse are the alternatives. Investigation of what happens on the way, or admitting your life is average, are not. As David Toop wrote in his landmark book Rap Attack: "In the early days of hip-hop, MCs who had nothing but the clothes on their backs and their verbal skill recorded wish-fulfilment raps about driving a Mercedes and drinking champagne; now rappers with five cars and a mansion were telling hard-luck stories." Jay-Z, the genre's biggest star outside Eminem, is these days a self-made entrepreneur and CEO; the Alan Sugar of rap, not its Mozart. Harsher and wilder visions, such as Cannibal Ox's The Iron Vein (2001) and MF Doom's new Born Like This, have stayed resolutely underground.

Of course, hip-hop has been a wider church than that. But though the Beastie Boys were three upper-middle-class Jewish boys, it was the parodic frat-boy idiocy of Licensed To Ill (1986) which allowed the bohemian experiment of Paul's Boutique. Beck, born to a family of successful LA artists, borrowed that record's producers for his masterpiece Odelay (1996), rooting his previous country-slacker style in hip-hop's "two turntables and a microphone", as the single "Where It's At" insisted. But his career since has left rap behind. Long Island's De La Soul, kings of hip-hop's positive Daisy Age style at the 1990s' start, are lower-middle class, and subsequent conscious rappers such as Common influenced Asher Roth more than any gangsta. But, except in OutKast's eye-popping creative fizz, this example has been submerged. Only cartoon hip-hop group Gorillaz have truly left the (lower-middle) class roots of its co-creator Damon Albarn behind.

It is in Britain, more attuned to class than the US, that Roth may find his happiest home. The Streets' Mike Skinner explored his "Barratt class"roots, and subsequent adventures in socially-mixed south London, on his 2001 debut Original Pirate Material. He then thoughtfully traced the excesses wealth allowed on later records. Dizzee Rascal, meanwhile, had the coffee-table kudos of the Mercury Prize for his fierce debut Boy In Da Corner (2003), losing him much of the support he began with around the estate in Bow, east London, where he was raised. Later songs such as "Bubbles" showed him, like Skinner, unconvinced at US rap's bling lifestyle. The video for his 2004 single "Sirens", with him hunted through a housing estate by red-jacketed hunters and hounds, playfully acted out class war. But that didn't stop Dizzee moving to a country house.

"The ones who go, 'I'm not leaving the ghetto', really it's because, deep down, they know they're never going to get a chance to," he once told me. "Why would anyone want to stay there? Street's with you forever. It's good, if you apply it to something else. It don't do much good for you otherwise. I was born in this little bit of rock in the East End. But I'm in the world now."

Asher Roth's quirky appearance adds to the variety of a rap genre too dully conservative these days as, in far greater ways, talents such as the Beastie Boys did in the past. But it's the progress of Dizzee, resolutely working-class but admitting the kaleidoscope of experience success has let him reach for, which is most heartening. Forget 50 Cent's scars. Roth's nerdy cardigan and Dizzee's satisfied smile are happier signs of hip-hop keeping it real.

'Asleep In The Bread Aisle' by Asher Roth is out on Universal Motown. "Bonkers" by Dizzee Rascal and Armand Van Helden is released on Dirtee Stank this week