In 2011, Asher Roth released a song called “Back Home,” a youthful, feel-good ode to home comforts like having a fully stocked fridge and not worrying about paying rent or bills. Six years, four projects and a frustrating journey through the major label system later, Asher has moved back to his native Pennsylvania, but not to sponge off his parents.
Trading in the year-round sun of Los Angeles, where he recorded independent projects like 2011’s Pabst & Jazz and 2014’s RetroHash, for a place in Philadelphia just a few blocks away from Temple University (he never could escape college), Asher returns home with a profound sense of purpose—for both himself and his city.
For starters, the “I Love College” rapper who majored in Elementary Education is combining his passions to help boost Philly’s often-neglected education system.
"Music education in regards to, ‘Hey, listen to this. How does it make you feel?’ is wild important.”
“My sister has been setting up charter schools called Democracy Prep for the past, I’d say, almost decade. I contributed to their first one in Harlem, donating to a spoken word and poetry class,” the 32-year-old rapper reveals during a passionate phone call. “It was with seventh graders and they would write what was on their mind. It was great.”
You won’t find a news article on his Democracy Prep donation anywhere online (“I never took a picture of me handing over a big check because it’s not about that; it’s just doing the right thing,” he says). Nevertheless, Asher plans to tap into Philadelphia's rich potential and set up similar music programs in schools throughout the city.
“When we start to talk about politics and policies in Philadelphia, education kinda falls by the wayside. And when they start cutting costs in education, they cut music and the arts first,” he explains. “My buddy Mason [Orfalea] out in Southern California, he set up Loud Music Program, which is more of an after school thing. I’m interested in getting it set up into public education and into charter schools where we have the opportunity to use my platform, maybe bring some of my friends through, to inspire kids. Music education in regards to, ‘Hey, listen to this. How does it make you feel?’ is wild important.”
Beyond his musical and financial contributions to schools, Asher is getting his hands dirty in the streets—literally. “I’m working on trash initiatives to help clean up Philadelphia because, especially in North Philadelphia, it’s a little neglected,” he reveals. “It’s because of the socioeconomics and things like that, but I’m not here to be like, ‘Look at me!’ What I want to do is, ‘Hey, there’s trash on the street, let’s pick it up.’”
Asher Roth technically hails from Morrisville, a middle-class borough located about a 30-minute drive outside of Philly. Yet his love and passion for the City of Brotherly Love is obvious, even through my barely-functional iPhone speakers. “Philadelphia has always been a city that’s been in my heart,” he says. “The soul music that’s come out of here, the hip-hop music that’s come out of here, the graffiti scene that’s come out of here—it’s all very special and all very real. The stuff that comes out of Philadelphia is authentic.”
Authenticity is a concept that has been somewhat sullied for Asher Roth. His 2009 breakout single, “I Love College,” was a sincere journal entry from a college kid who simply enjoyed partying. Yet the song—and the way his then-manager, Scooter Braun, and label, SRC/Universal Motown, built his image around it—has cast a keg-sized shadow over his career that has proved challenging to shake off. “People haven’t really allowed me to grow out of that typecast,” he told HipHopDX in 2014, half a decade after “I Love College” mania swept campuses across the country.
If you were pegged as the poster boy for corny frat rap, you’d probably grow your hair out, too.
"I knew it was time to come back to Philly and be a part of something bigger than myself."
Philadelphia may not be a music industry hub like New York, L.A. or Atlanta, but what the city does offer Asher Roth is a place—a home—to create and collaborate in a completely organic, authentic way. Long gone are contrived records with Chris Brown or Keri Hilson engineered by a major label; “My focus as of late has been doing things locally with artists around here instead of being like, ‘What’s the biggest feature I can get?’” he says, citing Philly acts like Alexander Charles, Bij Lincs and CJ Smith as some of his current collaborators and inspirations.
That doesn’t mean Asher Roth has abandoned his working relationships outside of Pennsylvania state lines, though. Part of his current three-year plan includes releasing a new album in 2018 featuring long-time friends like Nottz, Chuck Inglish and Like from Pac Div (good news for fans of the Rawth EP and Pabst & Jazz). He’s also reunited with Asleep In the Bread Aisle producer Oren Yoel for an adventurous side project called Tofer Dolan, the idea for which came to him during a particularly lucid dream.
“This guy had snuck out the window of a party and went into this really obsolete place where he’s all by himself. It was like an old school music video. And then the title came up in the bottom left and it said, ‘Tofer Dolan: The Obscure,’” Roth recalls. “I woke up and had this melody in my head from the song that was playing in the music video. I took it to my buddy Oren and I was like, ‘Yo bro, let’s turn this into something.’ It’s kind of an alter-ego thing for me. I’m singing, doing more falsetto stuff.”
The project has opened another window, so to speak, for Asher Roth’s career. “A couple people in the music industry have heard Tofer Dolan and they’ve been like, ‘Wow, this is really impressive. You should write for other people,’” he says. “Just recently I went out to L.A. for two weeks and was in writing sessions. It’s awesome for me because I can still play that mainstream game by writing records for other people and put nice lyrics to pop records, and then my rap shit can just be my DIY, Philly shit.”
This pursuit of a comfortable, sustainable balance—and more importantly, happiness—is really what’s at the heart of Asher Roth’s return to Philadelphia. Having spent the better part of the decade trying to make sense of the sudden fame, success and major label constraints that one hit single thrust upon him, Asher admits he’s only now getting his priorities straight. For him, understanding what is important begins with figuring out what isn’t.
“I’ve had wonderful moments of being in the limelight and being part of a celebrity culture, but I didn’t necessarily feel happy or fulfilled,” he admits. “I see how someone like a Justin Bieber tours. He’s gone for two years. It’s grueling. The relationships and friendships in your life, it’s hard to water those plants because you’re always gone. I feel like a lot of these guys end up feeling alone, even though they have millions of fans and everybody is calling their name.”
Like his beloved hometown Sixers, Asher Roth is building for long-term success, no matter how slow, small or uncertain that might be. It’s a process, one that needs to be trusted, as Sam Hinkie would say. But at 32 years old, disillusioned by the road most traveled, newly enriched by a sense of community and charity, and seeing his family grow in the most beautiful way, what matters most in life has never been clearer for Asher Roth.
“Philadelphia had been calling my name for about two years to come back home and start setting up my adult life. My sister had a baby; she gave my parents their first grandchild and made me an uncle, and to be there for that is such a wealth. If I missed that ’cause I’m working and I’m on the road, and I don’t meet my niece until she’s like four, five years old, it’s like, ‘What am I doing this for?’” he says. “I knew it was time to come back to Philly and be a part of something bigger than myself.”