WHITEY SINGS THE BLUES
By Jim DeRogatis
Erik Schrody will never forget the night he wrote “Put Your Lights On.” Better known to the world as the rapper Everlast, he had seemingly reached the pinnacle of his career. His second solo album, 1998’s Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, had gone triple platinum, and the single “What It’s Like” had been nominated for a Grammy. But at age 29, he had suffered a torn aorta that required emergency heart surgery. Like many of his musical peers, he did not have health insurance, and the hospital bills wiped him out.
Schrody owned a beautiful home in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, the spoils of his transitory success, and he was forced to sell. The movers had taken the furniture, and he was spending his last night on the floor of an empty room. He watched the darkness envelope the city stretching out below him, and he saw the lights coming on one by one, as if in defiant response. The lyrics came in a rush, capturing the looming threat of mortality—“There’s a monster hiding under my bed”—as well as the promise of redemption. “Hey now, all you sinners, put your lights on. Put your lights on.”
“There was this sense of being torn up over having to sell my house,” Schrody recalls, “but there was also something in that song like, ‘This is just wood and cement,’ and it helped me let go. The song was very special to me even before recording it, and then being in the studio with Santana, I was so in awe of the fact that this guy was ripping it and he’d been at the real Woodstock when I was kicking around in my mama’s womb.” Actually, Schrody was born on April 18, 1969—the day after the original Woodstock Music & Art Fair ended. Almost three decades later, he’d be tapped by then-Arista Records head Clive Davis to sing “Put Your Lights On” on Carlos Santana’s phenomenally successful comeback. Supernatural sold 13 million copies, the single garnered airplay in radio formats across the dial, and Everlast came to believe in destiny.
“Carlos is a true hippie, man, to the bone,” Schrody says, laughing. “When I went to record ‘Put Your Lights On’ with him, it was a good five months before his record came out, and he was in there telling me, ‘An angel came to me in my dreams and told me to make this record.’ He said something to the extent that the angel specifically said he was supposed to work with me and Lauryn Hill, and he was like, ‘My angel told me I was gonna dominate the airwaves.’ Now, this is the first time I met him, so I was like, ‘O.K., Carlos, that’s great, man. I’m honored, glad to be here.’ It kind of left my mind until about six months after his record being out—it being like No. 1 every week—and I was like, ‘Yo, there was something to that right there!’”
There is not much difference between Schrody’s gruff speaking voice and the half-sung, half-spoken delivery of “Put Your Lights On” or his new album Eat at Whitey’s. His voice is a booming baritone with the hard yet supple quality of freshly laid asphalt. It compliments his bulked-up physique and barrel chest, which is decorated with one tattoo representing the Chinese symbol for love and another honoring Sinn Fein, the political branch of the Irish Republican Army. In between is the seven-inch scar that serves as a souvenir of his surgery.
Born to an Irish-Catholic family in Hempstead, Long Island, Schrody moved to California as a child and grew up among the strip malls of the San Fernando Valley. He occasionally attended Taft and Canoga Park High Schools, and he met his buddy “Danny Boy” O’Connor in the parking lot when they were both cutting classes. An interest in hip hop blossomed after he heard a classmate blasting Run-DMC on a boom box. He became a member of Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate posse, and the pioneering gangsta rapper produced his first album, Forever Everlasting. Released by Warner Bros. in 1990, the cover featured a sepia-tone photo showing the rapper sitting in the ring wearing Everlast boxing gear—the great white hope of hip hop.
In fact, jams like “The Rhythm” and “Speak No Evil” were competent but nothing special, powered musically by overly familiar samples from James Brown and the Knack, and sinking lyrically under a wordy barrage of macho braggadocio. “I thank God every day that record flopped,” Schrody would later tell Spin. “I could have been Vanilla Ice, dude. Then it really would’ve been over.” He split from the Rhyme Syndicate in 1991 and regrouped with his buddies Danny Boy and Leor Dimant, a.k.a. DJ Lethal. They adopted an image that came naturally—fist-pumping Irish street toughs—and House of Pain was born as a musical, Left Coast version of the Westies, the infamous street gang from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.
The trio sold more than a million copies of its Tommy Boy debut, propelled by the insanely catchy single, “Jump Around.” The track was ubiquitous on playgrounds and at house parties through the mid-’90s—“hip hop’s ‘Louie Louie,’” Danny Boy called it—and it’s still a fixture on the sound systems at many NBA games. It established House of Pain as members of a small club that also included the sardonic Third Bass and the goofy Beastie Boys—white rappers with credible skills and the right attitude, a far cry from a manufactured novelty act like Vanilla Ice. But the crew’s sudden acclaim inspired a certain amount of rock-star excess.
“House of Pain was all about drinking beers and slam-dancing,” Schrody would later say. He was bothered by Danny Boy’s drug use, but he had troubles of his own. He was busted several times for speeding and weapons charges, and for a stretch in 1995, he was confined to house arrest. The trio’s sophomore album Same As It Ever Was went gold, but Schrody decided he’d had enough. House of Pain had become a job, and if he wanted that, he’d be working construction. He walked onstage at the release party for Truth Crushed To Earth Shall Rise Again and dropped a bombshell on his bandmates. “Yo, enjoy it,” he said, “because this is the last time we’re doing this.”
Everlast was once again a solo act, but Whitey Ford Sings the Blues would be a radically different album than Forever Everlasting. Recorded in New York with the production team of Dante Ross and John Gamble, the Stimulated Dummies, it started out as a straightforward rap album. But Schrody was hanging out at Ross’s house when he began idly strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a song he called called “What It’s Like.” It sounded like Johnny Cash reimagined as a B-Boy troubadour, and Ross loved it. “At first he didn’t want to record it,” the producer says, “but I finally convinced him to do it, and it was really easy—almost like doing a rap song. I went and programmed some drums and he put his guitar down and it just fit. It was really natural, and it’s the pattern we keep working on to this day. Once we did that song and we nailed it, we were like, ‘This is what we need to do.’”
The album boasted an expansive musicality. Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher played bass, Ross added piano, and session players contributed violin, viola, trumpet, and cello. In concert, Everlast performed on an elaborate stage set up to look like a junkyard, and he hammered away on his acoustic over backing from a standup bass, pedal steel guitar, keyboards, and drums in addition to the standard turntables. “This is a hip-hop band,” he proudly said at the start of each set, and he became a leading light in a promising movement that included rappers Common, the Roots, and Wyclef Jean as well as “natural R&B” stars D’Angelo and Macy Gray—artists who were turning from sleek digital productions and computer programming toward more live instrumentation and sweaty old-school soulfulness.
“It was just a matter of time really; there’s only so many records you can sample, and a lot of them have been hits already,” Schrody says of the fundamental shift in his music. “As far as deciding to pick up instruments and stuff, cats have done it before me—the Roots have been doing it since day one. My thing was always like, people that knew me knew I played guitar and I sang a little bit—if you can call it singing—and they would always ask, ‘Hey, when are you gonna do this?’ I always used to say, ‘Well, rap is a young man’s sport. I’m gonna hold on to this until I’m too old to rap.’ I was always writing songs and stuff like that, strictly for my own personal pleasure, but the Roots were having success over the years, and then all of a sudden Wyclef came out and was like, ‘I’m gonna play rock music and be a B-Boy.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m already there. Why don’t I do it?’
“Instead of the obvious influences that influenced a guy like Wyclef, like soul and R&B, I thought, ‘Let me bring in some of the rock.’ My father listened to nothing but country when I was kid, and I’ve always loved Neil Young and Johnny Cash. I was like, ‘Let me bring all that stuff into play.’ When you think about it, it can only benefit what you’re doing, unless you’re just a scatterbrained person who can’t throw it all together. It’s like a recipe—a little of this, a little of that, but don’t overdo it.”
Whitey Ford Sings the Blues also boasted a new lyrical maturity. Schrody had always kept his personal relationships out of the public spotlight, but on “The Letter” and “7 Years,” he frankly chronicled the end of a long-term relationship, taking full responsibility for screwing up the love of his life. “That person gave me all of herself,” he told Rolling Stone. “But I was a rock star and had to fuck a lot of bitches.”
Other tunes found the artist pondering his 1997 conversion to Islam. “The fear that I was raised with under Catholicism was like a fear of going to hell, and I always disagreed with that,” Schrody says. “The fear of God to me is not a horrifying fear, it’s more like, ‘Wow, I’m not good enough to look at God,’ or the fear that I haven’t pleased my God. I’m not so afraid of hell, man. Cause you know what? At the end of my days, if I stand before my creator on the day of judgment, and he says, ‘Man, you had all the wrong ideas, brother,’ I’ll be like, ‘Well, O.K., but those were my ideas. I tried, I was going for it, and my intentions were good.’ One of the things Islam taught me is that intentions are just as important if not more important than deeds.
“Islam made a lot of things make a lot of sense to me. It makes me look at life from a lot of different sides, and it’s definitely one of the things that made me be honest enough with myself to sing and write some of the stuff about my life that I never would have let out before. When I was just rapping, it was just about rapping. There was truth in there, but what I do now, I feel like you’re truly getting me. There’s not much straining going on between what I’m thinking and what’s winding up on the records. There’s not a lot of editing, and the more honest I can be like that out in public, the more honest I wind up being in private with myself.”
Schrody had begun thinking about many of aspects of his life long before the wake-up call of his heart attack. Plagued by a congenital defect present since birth, his heart finally gave out after the final session for Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. “We were all at the house recording vocals for the song ‘Tired,’” Ross recalls. “Erik was complaining of chest pains, but he used to always eat at this funky restaurant that delivered, and I was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got indigestion. You need to do another verse; this song’s not quite done.’” Ross split with his girlfriend, leaving Schrody to finish up with Gamble. When they were done, they turned in for the night in the upstairs bedrooms. Luckily, Gamble insisted that Schrody keep his door open.
In the early morning hours, Gamble woke to hear Schrody screaming about the pain in his chest. Over the artist’s objections, he called an ambulance, and Schrody was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. He woke up four days later with an artificial valve pumping in his chest. He knew he’d survived a close call when he saw his mother and father, bitterly divorced for nine years, sitting on either side of the bed.
Not surprisingly, the experience informs much of Eat at Whitey’s, an album that Schrody says is about “love and death.” Far from being a morbid effort, it reflects a renewed respect for what’s most important in life—notably, women. “Black Coffee” is a sensual tribute to a Haitian-Jamaican lover (“She smelled like flowers, she tastes like toffee… Left me stone cold sober, just like black coffee”), while “Love for Real” is another musing on his lost soul mate (“She stepped inside of me, said don’t ever lie to me… But I just played the role, broke the heart I stole/’Cause I was young and dumb and fucked up in the head”). In the song “Babylon Feeling,” the universe itself is given feminine qualities.
“‘Babylon’ isn’t actually about a relationship—at least not a relationship with a woman,” Schrody says. “It’s like falling in love with the world, giving different worldly things womanly traits. ‘Got the hots for this honey named confidence,’ you know? ‘Got a thing for this bitch, said her name is a lie.’ It’s just kind of taking these things that we tend to get caught up in treating them like women, ’cause I guess I tend to get caught up in women.” He laughs. “It’s the thing in the universe that still perplexes me most.”
Musically, after a straight-up rap intro intended to prove that Everlast hasn’t lost his edge, the new album is a veritable smorgasbord. Santana repays the favor of “Put Your Lights On” by lending one of his trademark singing guitar leads to “Babylon Feeling,” while Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule adds a country-rock flavor to “Mercy On My Soul.” Schrody spits out the words to “Black Jesus” with a punk-rock fury; at one point, the single quotes the garage classic “Surfin’ Bird,” and at another, it breaks down into a sweet doo-wop interlude. Schrody’s friend N’Dea Davenport does a sensuous duet on “Love for Real,” and a famous voice from the past makes a surprising appearance on “Black Coffee.” Ross was working with string arranger David Campbell when he remarked that the song could use a soulful backing vocal like the one on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Campbell happened to have Merry Clayton’s number, and she came to the studio and did her part in one take.
Everlast is not without his critics. On a new song called “I Remember,” the B-side of a single from his side group D-12, Eminem disses the pioneering white rapper for remaking himself as a singer-songwriter. “I went to get your shit/Man I was into it/But then you went and took your style and switched shit/Now you sound ridiculous,” he raps. “Controversy and beef are all he’s got to hold on to,” Schrody fires back. “Honestly, homeboy is beneath me.” And though he tries to restrain himself from ranking on platinum superstars Limp Bizkit—who count House of Pain’s DJ Lethal as a member—Schrody can’t help but sneer at its leader, Fred Durst. “At least I can say about Eminem that he’s got talent,” Schrody cracks. He goes on to call most rap-rock “junk food for the soul—instant gratification, like, ‘I wanna take my ecstasy, microwave my burrito, and listen to my rap-rock.’”
Nevertheless, it’s artists like Limp Bizkit and Eminem that currently dominate radio and MTV, and Schrody is philosophical about where he fits in. “I don’t want to be Super Popstar Man,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong; I want to sell as many records as I can and make as much money as I can on the business side of things. But my true love for doing this is for the music, and I know that a fucking 12-year-old can’t fucking understand ‘Love for Real’ no matter how much they like the melody. They might know it’s a love song and they might like it, but they fucking will never know it until they’re fucking 30 years old.”
As for the future, Schrody downplays talk of a House of Pain reunion. “You know, music is great, but there’s other things I want to do—I wanna go to Mecca one day,” he says. “I don’t know when that will be, but I evaluate that every time I stop to have a breath. I might do another rap album, or if I have 20 more songs, I might decide to record those.” He smiles wide, toying with the diamond and gold pendant that hangs around his neck. “I sound a lot like Carlos when I say stuff like this, but I believe we all have angels that guide us. If you listen to them, you’ll always be able to hear them, and the way I figure, they’ll say what it’s time to do next. Right now, it’s time to get the word out that I made this beautiful record that’s really got some things that are lacking in a lot of places—emotion and feeling—and that’s enough for me right now.”
Penthouse, March 2001