By Rebecca Bulnes
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The year 1999 was originally pegged to be the point when rock officially was pronounced dead. All Detroit was supposed to be remembered for was launching white rapper Eminem, while Woodstock's attempt at countercultural revivalism left little more than a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Every hard-rock act worth its backward baseball hats was busy strip-mining hip-hop's proletarian-chic boom, but there was rust belt rock-rap sensation Kid Rock flipping 1999's dismal script and coming up with sixes.
First, after spending the better part of the year as an MTV mainstay, he stole the limelight at Woodstock and the MTV Video Music Awards. Now, displaying tastefully bizarre irony, just as Run-DMC reignited Aerosmith's career with its joint remake of "Walk This Way," Rock is returning the favor to those now career-stalled rappers: Run-DMC is mounting its own comeback with a track Rock produced and rapped on, due out in time for the Thanksgiving sales rush.
As hard rockers zig to hip-hop's baggy boom, Rock is, as always, zagging, moving away from his rap pedigree into more time-honored classic-rock territory. Lately Rock is all rock, talking enthusiastically about his upcoming nationwide tour with Metallica, and a special New Year's Eve hometown show with that group and the grizzled guitar-hero Ted Nugent. He's even helping Puff Daddy find a rock act for his Bad Boy label. But those aren't the events he's most excited about these days. "I've been talking to Hank Williams, Jr., about doing stuff," Rock says proudly. Jigga what? It's not as farfetched as it seems: Rock faithfully covered Williams's "A Country Boy Can Survive" in 1994. "And I wanna get Lynn Owsley, who played lap steel for Ernest Tubbs, to be on my next album," he continues. Huh? As with his current disc, it may take awhile for Kid Rock's moves to sink in.
His Devil Without a Cause was at first a less-than-stellar release. Six months after it first appeared in fall 1998, as fellow Detroiter Eminem's debut shipped a million copies to stores, Rock's debut had Sound Scanned a paltry 60,000 copies. Although Devilis certainly not a great record, it shows Rock speaks all age 18-25 formats fluently: He navigates everything from rollicking old-school rap ("Welcome to the Party") to Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque ballads ("Only God Knows Why"), with plenty of raptastic rock in between. "Anybody under 25 who worked at the label and heard it knew it was going to be huge," offers an Atlantic Records A&R staffer, a prediction that has been amply borne out.
With sales of more than four million to date, Devil has long surpassed Eminem's Slim Shady, edged out even chart-mainstay mall-punkers Offspring, and is closing in on teenyboppers the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, even approaching the unit tallies for populist angst-rock compatriots Limp Bizkit.
It's safe to say, though, of all those acts, Kid Rock was the only one DJing in Detroit biker taverns just two years ago. It was there that Rock assembled his own prototype of the now industry standard guitar-slingers-with-an-808 outfit, Twisted Brown Trucker, proceeding to mount a painfully slow rise.
Growing up, not unlike the Beastie Boys, as an upper-middle-class kid fascinated by the cultural "other" of hip-hop, a seventeen-year-old Rock (then known as Bob Ritchie) ran away from rural Romeo, Michigan, where his father owned the nation's largest Lincoln automobile dealership. He became a novelty act, DJing hip-hop in the largely black projects across the tracks in Mount Clemens, earning his name spinning at basement parties ("That white kid rocks!").
"I started out scratching on these fucked up RadioShack turntables," he recalls. "I didn't even know I was doing it the wrong way, but it worked." Doing things his own wrong-but-still-spirited way became Rock's sometimes backfiring m.o. He signed to a deal with the then-prominent New York label Jive Records, but promptly flopped in the wake of the Vanilla Ice backlash, despite a promisingly foul-mouthed 1990 debut. He subsequently spent the rest of the '90s drifting in and out of indie deals, founding his own Top Dog label in 1993, and releasing the before-its-time Alice In Chains-ish rap-metal "I Am the Bullgod." That song, half a decade later, became Devil's calling card to FM America. "You gotta give radio something they can understand," Rock explains, "even if it is five years old. But with my record, I couldn't go to radio and be like, well, here's an old-school rap song. I had to give 'em something they'd understand right away, something they could work with."
It's this kind of thinking that proves the instrument Rock plays most proficiently is the music business itself. Beginning with his legendary chemical bonding sessions with MTV's programming brass, moving to Devil's ingeniously tiered marketing scheme (first as an FM rock record with "Bullgod," then as a perfectly-timed Woodstock riot instigator with "Bawitdiba," now as the trailer-park take on Beck with the infectious "Cowboy"), Rock is postmodern rock's Zelig, adapting to his surroundings, unafraid to entertain, no matter how gimmicky. Witness his own Mini-Me, the crowd-pleasing, growth-impaired sidekick, 24-year-old Joe C, who proudly declares he's "three foot nine with a ten-foot dick." As rock stars and rappers huddle for celebrity-page photos, Rock humbly reminds us a nation of classic-rock FM stations can't be wrong.