Whitey Ford almost wasn't going to be singing much of anything, the blues or otherwise. A few hours after putting the final touches on his recent solo album, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, a year ago, former House of Pain frontman Everlast suffered a massive heart attack that knocked him out for four days and resulted in emergency open-heart surgery to replace a defective-since-birth heart valve.
"It was horrifying, but at the same time it was one of the best things that ever happened to me," explains the 29-year-old Everlast (ne Erik Schrody). "You immediately have a different appreciation of just being alive. What it's done to me is yet to be known; it's only been a year. There are a lot of things I haven't dealt with yet. I don't remember a lot of shit, and I don't know why. I think your brain is really nice to you when there are things you can't handle. It will let it go a little bit at a time, so you're going to have to deal with it over time. But it's all good, and I can't complain about that."
And there's very little for Everlast to complain about these days. "What It's Like," the Sublime-like first single from Whitey Ford, is currently the most overplayed song on both modern- and mainstream-rock radio. Just try to escape it. With its scratchy acoustic guitar and even scratchier sampled breaks, "What It's Like" fits comfortably into an ebbing format that's desperately waiting, hoping, and praying for the next big thing to come along (or at least the next Beck-inspired record to mix up genres a bit). But seven years ago, when Everlast was part of the California hip-hip trio House of Pain and busting up blocks with the downtown party anthem "Jump Around," sharing a radio frequency with Cake, Hole, and the Offspring was the last thing anyone expected from this white b-boy.
But don't get the idea from "What It's Like" that the white b-boy in Everlast has left the hood for good. "It bothers me that people try to downplay the hip-hop angle," Everlast says, obviously growing tired of defending his eternal flyness. "This record is purely inspired by hip-hop. I think it's mostly a hip-hop record, and I think 'What It's Like' is a hip-hop song. It's not a rap song, but it is a hip-hop song, a new form. It's completely inspired by hip-hop, in the sense that hip-hop has done nothing but sample and recycle music into a modern shape and form. What I did was just kind of slip it around a little bit. Instead of just taking the beats and styles and mix them up, or just taking a drum beat off of a Neil Young record, I took Neil Young's style on certain things and blended them with Run D.M.C.'s style."
Named after the old-school Yankees pitcher ("In rap music, all these guys have aliases," Everlast explains. "I was trying to be really outrageous. It's supposed to make you giggle."), Whitey Ford mixes up its eighteen tracks with a near-schizophrenic cross-cutting of genres. It goes from the hard-knock street beats of "The White Boy Is Back" and "Money (Dollar Bill)" to the modern rock blues of "Ends" and "What It's Like" within the first fifteen minutes. But Everlast insists that, despite his newfound alt-rock cred, his newly reconfigured heart is still a throbbing hip-hop one.
"That's where I come from, and I'm proud of where I come from," he says. "It's about time [for] a lot of these barriers and category walls to be knocked down, because those walls were put up by some dude who's trying to sell me toothpaste. Hip-hop is as vital a music as anything on the planet today, if not more, because it communicates a little more directly with young people.
"It's the same as rock and roll back in the day. It's got a lot of parents shook. They're scared that their kids are listening to it, you know? And in some cases, they're rightfully scared. There's a lot of garbage being spouted out, but there's a whole flip side with what's going on now. It's almost a spirituality type of thing, like Lauryn Hill's record, and I think there's a certain amount of that in my record. There's a responsibility factor creeping in as a lot of these artists grow older. I'm learning more every day, so why don't I pass that on?"
Quite a change for the guy who launched his first solo record nine years ago (the little-heard Forever Everlasting) under the tutelage of Ice-T, then formed House of Pain a couple years later with pals Danny Boy and DJ Lethal (who now scratches ecstatic for Limp Bizkit). The self-described "hip-hop hooligans" were hard-asses, got into lots of fights, and took their first single, "Jump Around," to No. 3. It's an enduring slab of rap royalty, one of hip-hop's most vital tracks ever. But follow-ups either fizzled or failed to ignite altogether. After a few more years of roaming around the House of Pain, Everlast called it quits.
"Nothing really happened between us," he explains. "It was all on me, I quit. I hit a wall in my life, and I could either turn around and walk away or keep banging my head into the wall. I had to step off for my own sanity and happiness. I had a lot of personal issues I had to deal with. I didn't like the lifestyle I was leading. Everything was to the extreme. I just wanted to get back to normal.
"So I quit, went home, lived in my house, ate like a normal person, and watched TV. I wasn't even going to make records anymore; I didn't like the music business. The reason I got back into the studio was that [producer] Dante Ross said, 'Let's go into the studio for fun.' We went in and had a good time, and I was doing something I enjoyed. It wasn't because the label gave me money. And I don't think anybody was sitting around waiting on an Everlast record. That took a lot of pressure off. I didn't start worrying until the record was done, then I was like, Oh, shit. What did I do here? People are going to trip. Thankfully, they tripped in the right way."
Everlast, who plays guitar on Whitey Ford, doesn't consider himself much of a musician. He prefers to think of himself as a "mental DJ." He says his role merely consists of taking various styles and blending them with a band and his guitars. "That's the record," he states.
"To me, it's more of a hip-hop record than anything I've ever done, even though I understand it's not pure," he continues. "It definitely has singing and rock flavors on it, but House of Pain's whole attitude was a rock and roll attitude. We just never sang the songs.
"I did whatever came naturally--there wasn't, like, a plan. This album started out as just a rap record. I've been playing guitar since I was a kid for fun. After long days of working, I'd come home and play the guitar. When I was staying in New York and playing guitar after a studio session, one of my producers, Dante Ross, came out and said, 'What are you playing?' It was some stuff I learned a long time ago, just chord changes and stuff. He took me in the studio and basically worked me until I recorded it. That became 'What It's Like,' and from there I just went home for two months and wrote a bunch of songs, and we liked what happened."
Everlast says that he was hit hard on all sides by people insisting that he choose one or the other style, not both. Everlast, ever the rebel, ignored the pleas and did just as he damn well pleased--which was just the opposite of what everyone suggested--and made a record that felt right to him. One that's not quite alt-rock, not quite hip-hop, but a little of both. And some listeners don't know what to make of it.
"A lot of people pick up the record and think it's going to be a blues record," he laughs. "I'm not trying to tell people that I'm playing the blues. I'm singing the blues. The attitude and the subject matter of a lot of songs is definitely the blues. But I'm not trying to tell people that this is a Dr. John record.
"And you know what? I don't think I could have made this record until now. I quit House of Pain going through things. I didn't have to suffer to make this record, but I did have to go through some things to make it. You have to understand certain things to be able to approach it."
A band was quickly assembled after the record hit (it's been a slow start; released last September, Whitey Ford just recently reached the Top 10 and is about to go platinum) to co-headline a tour with Sugar Ray ("We're becoming more like a real band every day," he notes). Everlast contends that his next album, while not completely shunning the hip-hop programming that's defined this white b-boy until only recently, will be a more band-oriented offering.
"I keep telling everyone that the minute that this isn't fun anymore, I quit," he says. "I did it before. House of Pain wasn't in trouble when I quit. It had nothing to do with money. If it ain't fun, a paycheck is worth nothing.
"In House of Pain, I pretty much had a fuck-the-world attitude. I didn't care. I guess I care a little bit now."
Everlast with Sugar Ray. 8 p.m. Saturday, February 27, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue. The show is sold out.