Pop: The beat comes from the heart

US rapper Everlast is a man reborn. He's a little wiser, a little mellower. And he's ready to sing the blues.
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KEITH RICHARDS once explained that he wore a ghoulish skull-ring on his finger to remind him to enjoy life while it lasted. Erik Schrody, aka Everlast, has a momento mori that's rather more personal. Last February, this multi-platinum selling rapper had a near-fatal heart attack while recording the album Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. The subsequent operation left him with a huge scar which bisects his chest. "Sometimes I'll get out of the shower, and when I look in the mirror, it takes me by surprise again", he says. "It reminds me to be grateful that God gave men the technology to save my life."

Schrody's heart-attack was that wake-up call that nobody books; the one that turns your life upside-down and forces you to re-assess everything. It was, however, a process he'd already started. In 1996 he split-up his former band House of Pain (anyone remember "Jump Around" ?) at their commercial peak. Schrody had quit drinking, and this distanced him from his bandmates Danny O'Connor and Leon Dimant. He also knew that House of Pain had become a cleverly-marketed product based on braggadocio and a hard-living image. "I've always considered myself to be a person who loved music above everything else, and when I realised I was doing certain things just to make money, I had to quit," he says.

As its platinum status in the US confirms, there's far more to Whitey Ford Sings the Blues than the story behind it. A beguiling blend of samples, blue-collar politics, acoustic guitars, and the occasional Erik Satie- esque piano, it's a mature, often affecting record which goes some way towards defining the future of song-based hip hop. Think Neil Young with De La Soul producing.

In his Washington hotel room, Schrody conducts our interview with the television on and the sound turned down. He tells me that the album is about "shedding fears"; fear of loneliness, fear of God, even the simple fear of how the record itself might be perceived. "This is the most emotional album I've made, and I'm supposed to be The House of Pain tough guy, you know ?" he smiles.

"It's raw and it's honest though, and even people with an agenda are finding it hard to diss that."

In the silences between his answers I can hear a soft, metronomic ticking. Thanks to a plastic heart-valve, Everlast has become a human beat-box.

Those who know him say that he's mellowed. The night before we met, he and his band had supported Hole at the Patriot Centre in Washington. A load of their equipment had gone missing in transit and they'd had to borrow amplifiers and instruments. The Everlast of old would have made sure that whoever was responsible got a rollicking, and he might well have called off the gig. "These days, I try to be a bit more understanding", he says. "I'm more merciful towards the world because the world has been merciful towards me."

This laid-back outlook has its limits, though, and Schrody still holds forthright opinions about the politics of the music business. He describes record company employees as "weasels" whose only skill is being able to recognise a talent in others that they can exploit.

He's also critical of the current trend in hip hop to go out and hire "whoever's hot", regardless of how much it might cost. He sees Sean "Puffy" Combs as someone out to exploit this phenomenon; an extremely shrewd businessman rather than an artist, as such. The real innovators, he argues, are people like DJ Premier, "a true genius with drum machines and sampling", and also Wyclef, who first got him thinking that people might be ready to deal with a rapper holding a guitar.

Despite the Whitey Ford album's success in the States, Everlast is bracing himself for a rather more testing round of promotions over here. The record's sleeve has a shot of Schrody stripped to the waist, and to the left of his operation scar the words "Sein Fein" are tattooed on his chest.

He sighs deeply when I question him about it, and concedes that there's talk of air-brushing the tattoo from the British CD sleeve. "But then it'll just become a different question, and I'll have to answer for that, too," he says.

He goes on to explain that he's third-generation Irish on his mother's side, and that although he's not pretending to be "bona-fide County Cork", his Irish roots give him a sense of being someone other than "some white guy from America".

He repeatedly states that he doesn't condone violence of any kind, and stresses that when he got the tattoo, he was naive about its political implications.

"For me, it was just the literal meaning; that thing of you come in alone, you die alone", he says. "If people can't understand that, that's fine. Just don't kill me over it."

`Whitey Ford Sings the Blues' is released by Tommy Boy records on 1 March