After Vanilla Ice but before Eminem, there was “Hot Karl.” When 12-year-old Jensen Karp got his first taste of rapping for crowds at a bar mitzvah in 1991, little did he know he was taking the first step on a crazy journey that would end with a failed million-dollar recording and publishing deal with Interscope Records when he was just 19. In his hilarious memoir, Kanye West Owes Me $300, Karp unearths the story of his wild ride as Hot Karl, the most famous white rapper you’ve never heard of.
On his way to (almost) celebrity, Jensen shares his run-ins with rock-listening, southern California classmates and recounts his record-breaking rap battling streak on popular radio contest “The Roll Call,” a run that caught the eye of a music industry hungry for new rap voices in the early ’00s. He introduces his rap partner, Rickye, who constitutes the second half of their group XTra Large; his supportive mom, who performs with him onstage; and the soon-to-be-household-names he records with, including Kanye West, Redman, Fabolous, Mýa, and will.i.am. Finally, he reveals why his album never saw the light of day, the downward spiral he suffered after, and what he found instead of rap glory.
Jensen Karp spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright in a candid conversation touching on the lightning quick improvisation that rap requires, what it was like to be one of the first trailblazing white rappers, the art of creative collaboration, how personal loss pushed him to be bold, and the musical influences that spurred him to evolve into the groundbreaker he’d become.
Read It Forward: Music, especially rap, is very much a genre that requires improvisation. Considering that, how did you improve in your rap battles? Was it something that came naturally?
Jensen Karp: To an extent, it did. Listening to so much hip-hop and having it speak to me at a young age, I looked at it like an innocent bystander. It was music that wasn’t made by people around my hometown. It wasn’t embraced by any of the kids when I went to elementary school. I would study it the same way that kids had tutors and coaches; I was so focused on learning more and being respectful about it. After a while, I said, “I think I can do this!” So I started rhyming and rapping along to what Run DMC was saying, and writing my own stuff.
I do hear the beat, the drum, and the things I’m supposed to write over. But at the same time, it’s just practicing. Most of my middle school and early high school years, it was just me. I used to put magazines on the floor and open them and I’d battle or dis, sort of free-styling, and make fun of the people on those pages. It was the easiest way to practice without finding competition. The more I practiced, the more I worked toward making things come to my brain quicker. It obviously helped.
RIF: Would you ever battle and get that panicked feeling of not knowing what’s coming next?
JK: Oh yeah, all the time. It’s not total panic. But that’s where some of the best stuff came from. Rap battles now are all written, which is fine. It’s a different era. But back then you couldn’t write; it was all free-style. So there were times when I didn’t know where I was going at all, but you’re always—if you’re good at it—thinking a line ahead. I would make sure I wouldn’t fall into traps, but sometimes you just don’t know at all.
RIF: Being a songwriter in rap is a lot like being a poet. Did you find that writing rhymes came naturally? Were you skilled in English class at school?
JK: I was really a creative writer. Writing was my love right alongside hip-hop. I knew what beats I liked, but that wasn’t my talent. I wasn’t good at picking out beats or producing—I was good at writing. That’s what I was doing in high school and even elementary school, when I had a short story about baseball published. Writing’s always been my main thing. I don’t think I listened to LL Cool J and thought the beats moved me; I was always looking to the lyrics alone. I don’t think I really heard anything else.
RIF: I like that you published the lyrics of your songs in the book. Was it a tough choice to lay it all out there?
JK: That was painful for me, but I’m happy I did it. When we did the audiobook I was like, “There’s no way I’m reading these lyrics a decade later!” So we hired a Shakespearean actor to read them. But I think people who read the book have an appreciation because it’s not your typical rap stuff, you know? It’s a lot of metaphors, a lot of similes. I put out a two-song metaphor about my career told through the characters of Mulholland Drive. I was very detailed and specific with some of my things, so I was happy to put the words in the book because it helped people understand how dated some of it was, and where I made mistakes and where I was on track.
RIF: And often I find with listening to a song, it goes by so quickly it’s hard to hear the poetry in motion. Having it written out, you can appreciate it and say, “Oh, that’s a great line!”
JK: Things pass so fast, you don’t know what’s being said all the time, so I was happy to do it. Especially the song I did with MC Serch called Let’s Talk, and some that are a little more intricate.
RIF: Totally. Let’s talk about some of your influences. How did you catch the musical bug from artists you listened to as a kid?
JK: As a kid, my mom took me to the Warehouse, this record store chain in Southern California, and I’d buy almost everything in hip-hop. There was no real testing of the stuff, but if there was something released, I’d at least get the single so I could hear what it was, and from there I might buy the whole album. As a kid, it was everything. I was like a sponge. That’s how I heard the Fugees’ first record, how I heard “Nappy Heads.”
I gravitated most to lyricists—guys who were not only able to tell you things, but to do it through metaphor or a subtle entryway. Growing up, there were guys like Chino XL, Kool G Rap, the Gravediggaz, and Wu-Tang, those guys who were telling stories without retelling other people’s stories. I gravitated to guys who had original voices and were excellent writers. It inspired me to be better at writing, not just to find better beats. The reason I got my million-dollar deal is because I made stuff up on the spot—it wasn’t necessarily because of my music. I knew it was time to step it up when I thought, “If it’s not a good enough lyric to fit that Chino XL record, it’s not ending up on mine.” And that’s the competitive edge in hip-hop.
RIF: I feel like you’ve benefited from a few mentors who guided you. Do you feel like you had some great leaders leading you through your career? I know you’ve had difficulties with the music industry, but are there people you’ve looked up to?
JK: Looking back, I had a bunch of people who didn’t necessarily know what they were doing. Not in a mean way, I just think we were all new to it. But having Mack 10 there, a guy who’d heard me on the radio, reached out, and then ended up offering me this big deal at my parents’ house, that always felt good. We’re still friendly. He’s still excited I’m doing well, and that’s a nice thing. I wish I’d had people who were a little more seeded, so they would have known what was coming or what wasn’t. But most people I ran into during my time in the business had not even an ill word to them. I just don’t think they really knew what they were doing yet. We were all pretty young.
RIF: Collaboration can be so important both in music and in writing, and I love how many people you’ve collaborated with—or even almost collaborated with—in the book. Do you feel you’ve had great collaborators through your career?
JK: Between having a different look and sounding different, on top of having the budget that I had because of the record label’s scope, it was an easy way to get Redman and Fabolous and Kanye and will.i.am and Mýa, and all these people involved in the record. I had this open budget, which was music to their ears. And everyone collaborated really well; there was no one I had a weird experience with or anything like that. I was happy with how everything turned out in that way.
RIF: Did you feel that same sense of improvisation and collaboration you use in rap when writing your book, or was it a different experience?
JK: It’s extremely similar. I still write like I flow. Recently I spoke at Oxford, which was such an honor for me, and when I was there and reading what I wrote, it was pretty much the same thing. It just doesn’t rhyme. I’ll write and then I read out loud to proofread, and the way I read out loud is sort of asking, “Does it fit in a flow?” If it doesn’t, I’ll add a word for definition. It’s similar to staying on the beat, so it’s not much different for me now.
RIF: At one point when your label, Interscope, was gathering people and collaborators to work on your album, I know you felt almost like a cog within the music industry. At the time, did you feel slighted by the process at all?
JK: At 20 years old, I was devastated. It was the most crushing thing that had ever happened to me. But at 34 it’s like, no, that’s business. I didn’t fully understand at the time, and it sucks that I’m sort of the “victim” in this story, but in real life this happens so many times in the music industry. And nowadays in 2017, there are a million stories like that. Wiz Khalifa was on his second record deal when he blew up. Bebe Rexha was on her second record deal, and she had to write a song in order to blow up. Mine is more a fish-out-of-water story, but you’ve got to chalk it up to business. And I don’t think I was able to do that at 20, because I had so much heart on my sleeve for what I was doing.
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RIF: It’s incredible to see how quickly the industry has changed. It moves so rapidly that this book almost reads like a throwback of the music industry. Talk a little bit about how that came through in your writing.
JK: It wasn’t the goal, which is even weirder. When I first started writing, I didn’t really think of how much of a time-piece it would be, and that ended up becoming part of my writing style—just saying how we have to remember a time when there were no iPods, or how Napster came along. Painting that picture of the few days before Napster was an ancillary victory for me because I didn’t necessarily see it coming. But I’m happy to sort of tell that story of someone who got that money literally days before they decided the music business was dead.
RIF: So, tell me a bit about being a white kid in this predominately black world of rap music. It’s such an honest part of the book. You’ve never tried to sound like anyone other than yourself, and you were teased for trying to pursue this passion. Has it been interesting to reflect on your place in that world?
JK: Yeah. The hardest part about that is knowing it was a large reason why my music was hard to digest, and then seeing 2017 when every white rapper is pretty much Hot Karl. It’s not that they’re stealing my thing; they don’t know my thing exists. I’m friends with Lil Dicky, and he’s a good dude. He doesn’t know my music at all, but when he started to read my book, he wrote me and asked, “Why are there so many similarities between us?” And I think it’s because we were both guys raised on the same influences, raised in the same kind of neighborhood, and raised respecting the art form. We have the same coaches. Our styles are going to look similar.
But it’s hard for me to know that what made me most jarring is not only not jarring anymore—it’s almost the norm for white rappers. I was just ahead of my time in that way. I dig it because I worked, and I’m able to sort of be another piece of folklore in hip-hop.
RIF: It’s interesting how both the 1960s and the 1990s were hugely defining times in music, and they both saw a resurgence of traditionally “black” music coming into mainstream focus. What do you think was in the water in the ’90s that brought this music into radio stations and into people’s homes and cars?
JK: For me, it was watching kids go from bullying me for liking it to them liking it, too. I think it was always bubbling, I just don’t know if people thought there was an entry for them. Dancing helped in the suburbs. There was the Running Man, there was Roger Rabbit, and then parties started playing these songs because it was the dance music of the time. You couldn’t play Megadeth, you couldn’t play Slayer—the stuff that the kids in my middle school listened to. So it was about, when will they stop playing “Rico Suave” over and over again? And when will they start to understand where Bone Thugs-N-Harmony fits?
RIF: And now, you can’t picture a middle school dance without hip-hop.
JK: It’s funny, too—really nice restaurants now, all the foodie places, a big commonality between them is that they all play hip-hop. It seems so odd to me. I can’t think of something I would have died about more when I was younger. If my parents took me to a restaurant and we sat down and they played a rap song, I would’ve never stopped eating there. That would have been the only place I ever ate. Now that it’s the norm, seeing things that were happening as someone who was “in the mainstream” and loving hip-hop but not really getting backing, it’s great.
RIF: It’s fascinating. In writing a memoir, you have to rely so strongly on your own memory during the process. Was that tricky, or did you find that you recalled those details easily once you started writing?
JK: When I was in college at USC, I was a journalism major, so I always knew I was looking at everything with an observing eye. And the book, it really follows fifteen defining moments. It’s about doing a song with Redman, and picking up my $250,000 check, or doing summer jam with my mom onstage, or my first show at the Roxy that sold out. All those things are so ingrained in my mind as major moments that it was easy to do. But at the last minute I was like, “Oh man, what about the toothbrush battle!” That was something I had forgotten about until literally the last moment. So there were things I just had to focus in on. I made some calls to friends to fill in some holes, and then everything else sort of fit into place.
RIF: This is a bit more on the personal side, but can you talk about how your dad being sick affected you? Was it a motivator for success at all?
JK: I think it was more that I started to do well before my dad’s death, which was a blessing because he got to see that. I mean, it’s not specific to rap music, but it’s the driving force, especially for a man whose dad passes away. The day when you’re just thinking, “Oh, shit, I’ve got to do this.” Nothing can come up that’s worse than what happened. Rap battling after your dad passes becomes easier because there’s nothing you can say that hurts more than that moment.
And I feel that way about risk. I definitely took more risks and pushed harder on things after he died because, what, you’re going to tell me it can’t happen? What’s the worst you can do, dude? So that kind of thing drives me more now. But I don’t know if him dying was the drive I needed. He was a hard worker, so I was pretty influenced by his work.
RIF: Completely understandable. Do you think you’ll write a second book?
JK: No idea. I’ve thought about it. But I also don’t want to push anything, especially because I have so many things going on with the TV stuff. So I want to make sure it’s something I want to do and look forward to writing.
RIF: Not just to check off another box.
JK: Like another assignment, yeah, another project. I’m always thinking about it, and I liked what I wrote for the Oxford speech, so I thought maybe there’s something there. Either way, if it comes to me, it comes to me. If not, I’m really happy that I got to write about this and put my ending on it.
RIF: Totally. What are you working on now?
JK: Well, I have a TV show that debuts in October called Drop The Mic that I partnered with James Corden on, where celebrities rap battle against each other. I’m the executive producer and creator, and I’m really excited about that. We’re also writing the ESPY’s right now for ESPN and developing a couple of other things.
RIF: Are you a reader yourself? Is there anything you’re reading right now that you’d recommend?
JK: I’m reading Killers of the Flower Moon.
RIF: True crime!
JK: By David Grann, yeah, it’s really good. I’m excited about that, and I also just picked up the Chuck Klosterman book, X.
JK: Klosterman had a huge influence on me. It’s not cool to say that anymore, but I’m happy to say it. I don’t have a ton of time for reading, but those are two things I’m reading pretty actively.
Author Photo: Melissa Stetten