By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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By Katherine Turman
By Steve Weinstein
There are few things more cringe-inducing than watching a white person rap badly. This might explain part of the appeal of the just-wrapped Ego Trip excursion into reality TV, The (White) Rapper Show. The after-party for the VH1 program's finale (won by $hamrockover the ever annoying John Brown) at Southpaw last Monday included live performances by Brown and other also-ran contestants like G-Child (think Lady Sovereign doing white-trash Americana, jumping around with mini-braids to match her mini-self) and show fave Persia, whose saucy style earned her a great many cultish devotees (including me).
Presiding over a brand that grew from a magazine into several books and another VH1 collaboration, the Race-O-Rama mini-series, the Ego Trippers (Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Chairman Jefferson Mao, Gabriel Alvarez, and Brent Rollins) are currently waiting to hear if they get a second go. With around 2 million viewersand with most of VH1's promotional muscle going to I Love New York, the channel's other new reality projectThe (White) Rapper Show did incredibly well. "Our show was big on a grassroots level," Jenkins says. "It's indicative of the power of hip-hop and Ego Trip. Once the promotional cycle gets behind it, a lot of people will embrace it. There's nothing like this for hip-hop."
No, there isn't. If the Ego Trip guys get a second shot, the embarrassment factor is just one of the many reasons I'll tune in again. Conceived and written by a bunch of exmusic journos and produced by Ken Mok (of America's Next Top Model fame), it's the smartest reality show on TV. Inside jokes, sight gags, and playful puns dot each episode, just so it doesn't get too oh-so-serious about itself. Everything from the main loft's name (the White House) to the method of eliminating someone (throwing his or her high-top Converses over a clothesline) to the sight gags superimposed over the footage (like zeroing in a rapper when he grabs his crotch and flashing text that asks what we're all thinking"WTF?") makes the show a continuous joy to watch, no matter how little you care about the characters or even rapping itself.
For those who missed it, among this season's most memorable characters was John "Ghetto Revival" Brown, who invented a catch phrase"Hallelujah, hollaback!"that seems to have actually caught on. ("He just brainwashed everybody," Jenkins says.) Brown was determined and annoying, and in the first episode, he unluckily set off Persia, a feisty Italian American with a raspy, sugarcoated voice who responded by waving a dildo in his face and using the N-word. The other combatantsamong them Sullee(who sulkily refused to dis his opponents in one challenge and quit soon thereafter) and G-Child, the aforementioned pint-sized rapperwere TV gold, if not exactly "next Eminem" material. ("Say what you want about G-Child," Jenkins says, "but you can't say she doesn't have heart."
Maybe it was her big-mama vibe, her raspy voice, or her commanding presence, but Persia's the one we all seem to want. At the party, even the show's host, MC Serch, agreed: "Everyone keeps asking me when her record is coming out," he said from the stage. "People just seem real open to her."
"For a lot of people, including white people, she represents someone who is a natural part of the culture, a natural embodiment of how white people and black people feel a white person in hip-hop should conduct themselves," says Jenkins. "She seems very credible and believable, even with her N-word controversy. [After she used it in the fight with John Brown, Serch made her wear a heavy, oversized N-word medallion around her neck all day.] Nobody thought about it twice. Nobody said, 'How dare you use that word?' She's quote-unquote so hood."
(Unfortunately, she's so hood that she's also up on gun and drug charges. Persiareal name, Rachel Mucerinowas arrested in late December in upstate New York for driving with a suspended or revoked driver's license, and possession of a loaded Ruger MKII firearm and a gram of pot. The case is still pending.)
In the end, the person who worked hardest won: $hamrock, a low-key guy from Atlanta who flaunted a prodigious grill. "Slow and steady," says Jenkins. "It wasn't totally surprising. He's really hungry. He really needs the money, he really wants success, and he really applied himself." The prize$100,000seems less ghetto fabulous than you'd expect, though. It's not exactly a multimillion-dollar recording contract. "The way the music industry is now, who wants a record deal?" says Jenkins. "With your MySpace fanbase, you can make your own merch. John Brown and Ghetto Revival are doing booking for their own shows. They've established fans and are miles ahead of the competition, and if they are smart, they can definitely parlay this into a lucrative career. No one's gonna sign Persia for a million dollars, and why would she want to do that? She'd have to sell a lot of records and put her ass onstage for five years to pay that back."
The cast stood apart from other reality show contestants in another way: Many were so concerned about keeping it real that they purposely knocked themselves out of contention. You rarely see such attempts at integrity in other reality shows (imagine Tyra's tyrants questioning whether bikini shoots are compromising), but as Jenkins explains, "Hip-hop is so hyper-critical, there's a lot of concern over what other people think, and not going against the code."
That may explain why Sullee didn't want to "snitch" on his cohorts by dissing them; meanwhile, Dasit, a rapper from Toledo, Ohio, who reminded everyone of Eminemand who many saw as the most talented rapper thereclaims that he purposefully showed up for the first challenge unprepared because he felt that he was compromising himself. (He told website hiphopdx.com that the challenge was "stupid . . . I knew the show would get corny.") But Jenkins has a simpler explanation: "He choked, which surprised everyone. We thought that guy was gonna win. We had no idea he was gonna choke."
Dasit claims that the editing didn't show things as they really happened, which Jenkins agrees with to a point: "Reality TV it's not a secret that it's a cut-and-paste collage kind of form. I was there. He choked. That's all there is to it. I've talked to him since. He's said he's gotten a great response, and his MySpace is off the chainmore people know who Dasit is than ever. But he told me if he could do it all over again he would have done it differently."
Real rappers also benefited from The (White) Rapper Show's exposure: Underground heroes Brand Nubian and Prince Paul figured prominently, as did a few old-schoolers like Grandmaster Flash. "They don't have access to national exposure," Jenkins says. "This show gives them that. Brand Nubian is a really influential group, but MTV's not trying to put Brand Nubian on TV right now. We put them on TV, and people will know who they are and what they mean to the culture." Nothing cringe-worthy about that.