Paul Wall is the first-ever famous white rapper who doesn’t talk about being white, who makes no attempt to engage with his contradictory position (white guy selling black culture to probably mostly white people). I make this point in a Pitchfork review that hasn’t dropped yet, but let me expand in it here: if you’d never seen a picture of him, you wouldn’t know he was white. His voice is a deep Southern roll rather than the nasal jackhammer flow that most white rappers have. On The People’s Champ, currently sitting at #1 on the Billboard charts after knocking off Kanye, he doesn’t make a single reference to his pale skin or middle-class background or backpack-dork background (the Texas underground equivalent of backpack-dork, anyway). He talks about college, but only in the context of picking up girls on Blackplanet.com. My girlfriend made the point that the grainy quality of his album-art photos might be intended to make him look Latino. He’s the only white face in the “Still Tippin'” and “Sittin’ Sidewayz” videos, and he doesn’t seem to think there’s a single thing weird about that. In an interview at Allhiphop.com, he had this to say:
There’s bigotry and there’s a little hatred and racism but you especially see it from the older people who come from older generations, but we live in the MTV generation where race isn’t an issue. If you make it an issue, then it’s an issue. But it’s not an issue, especially in Houston. I see it more up North and in the East, and even in the West where there’s a lot of separatism and a lot of division and there’s a divide amongst the races but you don’t see that in Houston. We’re American. We respect you for who you are or whatever you are we respect that but above and beyond all other things we’re human.
This is a pretty shocking and even ignorant thing to say (especially the “Race isn’t an issue” part), either the most self-aware or least self-aware stance a white rapper has ever taken. Paul is a smart guy, and he must at least have some inkling that his race is at least part of what landed him on a major label and at #1. So his racial silence could be a too-easy way of ducking a question he must’ve heard a million times, a conscious plan to deflect any white-minstrelsy barbs before they happen.
White rappers have been around for more than twenty years, of course, and they’ve been pushed by record labels since people first figured out that you could make money on rap. But everyone who’s risen to a certain level has found some way to address his position. A quick and incomplete history (excluding rap-rock bands and indieground backpackers who were only playing to white kids and guys like Alchemist and Scott Storch who are really just producers even if Alchemist sometimes raps):
The Beastie Boys: Classic-rock samples, rock songs, the guy from Slayer playing a solo, total lack of street-reportage songs, general insincere pop-culture humping. And two of the three of them rapped in exaggerated nasal Three Stooges bleats. When they got older, they started dropping dorm-room Buddhism into all their shit and doing a zine, and that’s all pretty white-people stuff too, but they weren’t really rappers by this point.
3rd Bass: MC Serch’s exaggeratedly spazzed-out whiteguy dancing, dissing Vanilla Ice, “must’ve been a white guy who started all that.” Also, Serch later played one of the Mau-Maus in Bamboozled.
Vanilla Ice: Used the word “Vanilla” in his name, concocted elaborately fake Miami thug-life background.
House of Pain: Wore a lot of green, had a shamrock in their logo, shot videos in Irish pubs, and generally devoted their entire careers to fulfilling Irish knucklehead stereotypes, possibly based on the idea that Irish and white might be incrementally different enough that they wouldn’t look like buffoons. May have inspired the forgotten but fascinating Italian-American rap group Lordz of Brooklyn, who released one pretty great album in 1995 and I guess were on the Warped Tour this year. Also, Everlast made three boring sepia-toned acoustic-blues-rap albums, and DJ Lethal joined Limp Bizkit.
Young Black Teenagers: Called themselves the Young Black Teenagers.
Eminem: Jesus, I could write a book. Dyed his hair platinum blonde, mentioned Nine Inch Nails in the first line of his first single, sampled Aerosmith, constantly noted in his lyrics that he wouldn’t be remotely as popular if he was black, did the hook to Sticky Fingaz’ “What If I Was White,” a million other things. Eminem is basically the most racially self-tortured pop star ever.
Bubba Sparxxx: Rode a pig in his first video, made a country-rap album.
Lil Wyte: Is named Lil Wyte, makes constant references to being the “only cracker good enough to be down with the 6.”
(If I’m forgetting anyone, leave a comment.)
After all that insanity, Paul Wall can probably be forgiven for wanting people to forget that he’s white. But these guys are all much more famous than they would be if they weren’t white, and they’re also easy targets for ridicule as a result. There’s too much here for one blog post, so I’ll leave it at this: Riff Raff recently wrote: “At least everyone under 26 has experienced rap not as an exclusively black thing, but as a pop thing.” And he’s right. But that doesn’t mean that the role of the white rapper is all of a sudden not racially fraught. As Paul Wall gets more and more famous, he’s eventually going to have to say something about the effect that his race has had on his career. He can’t go on talking about purple drank and platinum grills forever, can he?