Lets face it: Unless you happen to be Eminem, El-P or a Beastie Boy, its tough to be a white guy in rap music. To garner even passing notice, youve got to have some sort of readily recognizable standout characteristic that 16-year-old consumers might think is cool; youve got to be an Irish redneck with an acoustic guitar like Everlast, or a trailer-park redneck with a friend named Timbaland like Bubba Sparxxx, or an English kid with a krayzee accent like that dude from The Streets, or a geek from Jersey with a talent for talentlessness like MC Paul Barman.
Caucasian MCs who rap thoughtfully about their own environments are largely relegated to the deepest underground. Caucasian MCs who try to align themselves with the sort of street-hustler-to-bling-king experiences expressed by popular black artists, a la Vanilla Ice, are largely reviled as posers. If you're a white rapper with mainstream aspirations, you better have a quirky identity upon which to hang your name.
In short, you need a shtick, a gimmick.
Even those large-looming, melanin-challenged names mentioned back in this column's opening sentence (with the notable exception of ex-Company Flow member and Definitive Jux founder El-P) originally used novelty as a crowbar with which to pry open the door to success. It seems the most effective way for white rap artists to get famous and stay there, then, is to allow their more immediately digestible attributes to be exploited, before adeptly and/or forcefully shifting focus to their more substantial talents when the time is right.
The Pittsburgh-based duo known as Grand Buffet has arguably been perched at that right time for a couple of years now. Though the pair's lo-fi, pop-culture-reference-loaded style long ago started to showcase more than a little depth and ability, both the press and much of the group's extremely eclectic fanbase seem content to seize on the obviously humorous aspects of their multilayered style. Grand Buffet is good for more than a laugh, and tracks like the overtly satirical "Americus (Religious Right Wing)" suggest the combo is lately trying a little harder to shake its comedy-crew reputation.
The question is, will the public let them?
"I don't know if I'd say that I worry about it, I just think it kind of sucks that people need to have some rock-solid frame of reference," says GB hype-man Jarrod Weeks, aka Lord Grunge. "They need to say 'Grand Buffet, they're just a fuckin' joke band.' People are lazy, you know? It's a shame people are so clay-headed about shit."
The truth is, a lot of the time, Weeks and his partner, lyricist Jackson O'Connell, are just happy to get noticed at all. They've been together nearly eight years and spent the majority of the last three or four working the road non-stop, but have only recently been able to quit their day jobs and earn something vaguely resembling a living as Grand Buffet.
It's a benchmark many independent artists never achieve. Weeks knows it's the fans who buy the records — and, more importantly, attend Grand Buffet's entertaining and often wildly volatile live shows — making it possible. And he knows that plenty of those fans are attracted to Grand Buffet by the group's sense of humor. But he also thinks his group probably would've reached greater heights, and sooner, had it been willing to take that one particular facet of what it is that Grand Buffet does, and milk it remorselessly.
"Honestly, it's sort of a Catch-22," he says. "Not trying to pat myself on the back, but as much as there are so many people who disagree and want to throw us in with Tenacious D or [call us] a Beastie Boys rip-off, I feel like we've kind of pioneered a new take on live rock music. If we had done shit a little more pretentiously, put on our uniforms, we probably would be bigger than we are now.
"It's easy, especially in hip-hop, to read from the manual and do the fucking dance and get respect from people, because they're doing the exact same thing."
Bigger, perhaps. But such a move would almost certainly cost Grand Buffet the thing that Weeks and O'Connell are most proud of: the crazy, almost disorienting diversity of their audience. These two guys and their backing tracks (provided live by DJ CD Player) have managed to draw in one of the most disparate and eccentric conventions of humanity this side of a New Year's Eve drunk tank. To some, Grand Buffet isn't that different from an ironic indie-rock band touring the all-ages circuit; to others, it's caustic performance art; to still others, it's that rarest of things: hip-hop that doesn't suck live.
"I'm very, very psyched about the cross-section of people we get," confirms Weeks. "We didn't target any particular group of people, I always hoped we'd get a really diverse group. And that's what we get. That's what I like. I definitely wish our crowds were bigger, but a lot of the crowds we have are a zany mix of individuals, and that's what I continue to hope for."
Weeks and O'Connell probably won't ever completely shake their novelty associations. They'll probably never abandon their more artistic elements in the quest for a higher profile, either — though Weeks says he's got nothing against mainstream music if it's good, he speaks with disgust about bands having to "kiss enough ass" to land a major-label contract, and with love about the bands that inspired Grand Buffet to build their own infrastructure from the ground up. All the pair really wants is for Grand Buffet's mercurial, multifaceted nature to be recognized for what it is — a reflection of themselves. After all, what should a band be, if not the collective expression of the members who comprise it?
"It's always been an extension of the two of us as individuals; it's just who we are," says Weeks. "And that aspect has always maintained. But who we are as individuals has definitely changed a lot from seven, eight years ago. We're definitely not the same cats we were then."[email protected]