“Kanye West Owes Me $300 might be the funniest rap memoir ever.” –LA Weekly
After Vanilla Ice, but before Eminem, there was "Hot Karl," the Jewish kid from the L.A. suburbs who became a rap battling legend—and then almost became a star.
When 12-year old Jensen Karp got his first taste of rapping for crowds at his friend's bar mitzvah in 1991, little did he know that he was taking his first step on a crazy journey—one that would end with a failed million-dollar recording and publishing deal with Interscope Records when he was only 19. Now, in Kanye West Owes Me $300, Karp finally tells the true 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 childhood run-ins with rock-listening, southern California classmates, who tell him that "rap is for black people," and then 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 also 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-name artists he records with, including Kanye West, Redman, Fabolous, Mya, and will.i.am. Finally, he reveals why his album never saw the light of day (two words: Slim Shady), the downward spiral he suffered after, and what he found instead of rap glory.
Full of rollicking stories from his close brush with fame, Karp’s hilarious memoir is the ultimate fish-out-of-water story about a guy who follows an unlikely passion—trying to crack the rap game—despite what everyone else says. It’s 30 Rock for the rap set; 8 Mile for the suburbs; and quite the journey for a white kid from the valley.
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Jensen Karp, formerly known as Hot Karl, is a writer, comedian, and co-owner of Gallery 1988, the nation’s leading destination for pop culture–themed artwork. He hosts the Get Up On This podcast on the Earwolf Network, co-owns Patti Lapel pins, and has written and produced for The Late Late Show with James Corden, the MTV VMAs & Movie Awards, Rolling Stone, WWE Raw, The Hundreds, and the ESPYs. As an actor, he’s appeared on VH1’s Barely Famous, NFL on FOX, Comedy Central’s @Midnight, and Candidly Nicole. He is currently an Executive Producer, writer, and coach on Drop the Mic on TBS. He was influenced by early Tom Hanks comedies, Chino XL, and Dennis Miller (before Dennis became a real piece of shit).
Read an Excerpt
Straight Outta Calabasas
I spent most of my ’80s childhood in a California suburb called Calabasas, which is about thirty minutes to four hours outside of Los Angeles, depending on what time of day you’re driving. In the past few years, this small town has become synonymous with the Kardashian family, since that’s where they live, film their TV show, and most likely sacrifice innocent children in return for fame and riches. It’s not necessarily how I want my hometown to be remembered, but since other notable local heroes include the Menendez brothers and Elizabeth Berkley, I guess it could be worse. It’s always funny to me though, that a Christian-Armenian family of superficial superstars has become the symbol for this exclusive San Fernando Valley neighborhood, since 95 percent of the area is actually Jewish. I’ll give you $100 if you can find fifty names that don’t end with “–stein” or “–berg” in my high-school yearbook. And even though I look like Zach Braff eating matzo, I’m actually only half-Jewish. My mother is Catholic and Armenian, so maybe I am more Calabasas than I want to believe.
While I spent most of my time in this posh, yet tacky, city, I actually lived in a neighboring town called Woodland Hills. Look at it this way: if Calabasas is Mark Wahlberg, I grew up in his brother Donnie. We’re technically related, but different in so many ways. Lower- to middle-class homes make up Woodland Hills, while most of Calabasas consists of guard-gated mansions. Many of my friends had last names that also appeared on food products in our kitchen or in the credits of Academy Award–nominated films, so my dad’s hard work as a car salesman stood out among the parents at my school. I was only able to attend Calabasas High School because my mom worked nearby and told the admissions department it would be a hassle to drive me to my local school every day, which at its core makes no sense but weirdly got me a permit. My parents knew that schools in rich neighborhoods got more funding, and despite Puffy asking us to vote or die, this fact hasn’t changed since the ’90s.
Growing up, I always felt like an outsider looking in. When classmates had basketball courts in their backyards or got BMWs with bows tied around them for their sixteenth birthdays, I could only laugh. My parents did all they could to get me everything I wanted, but I was always conscious of keeping my expectations in line with my own life, not my friends’.
In the early ’90s, as I approached my thirteenth birthday and bar/bat mitzvahs became a weekly occurrence, I knew I was in for some real Great Gatsby shit. Each family had to one-up the next, paying no mind to budget, modesty, or even religious tradition for this initiation into adulthood. On the other side of the spectrum, I ended up having my thirteenth birthday party in the upstairs banquet room of a local taco spot that had a DJ booth, a dance floor, and “Kids Eat Free Mondays.” Not only that, but when you don’t have a bar/bat mitzvah, you miss out on endless gifts and around $3,000 in cash from your friends and family. I’d sit at these things, listening to Noah’s Torah portion, depressed and jealous, imagining all the Cross Colours and Air Jordans I could buy with that money. I wasn’t exactly dancing the hora in excitement. But it was at one of these bar mitzvahs, as I sat, filled with envy, at my assigned table, that my life would take a surprise turn into the world of rap music.
My cousin first introduced to me to rap in 1989, when I was nine years old. I remember him showing me the album covers for Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, UTFO’s Doin’ It!, and 3rd Bass’s The Cactus Album; the artwork alone drew me in. Then he played me the music, and I’ve been obsessed ever since that first needle drop. He was six years older than I was, and because of the age gap he had access to all the age-restricted records I couldn’t buy. But, strangely, the curse words weren’t the hook that drew me in, unlike most of my friends who were jonesing for the forbidden and laughing every time Too $hort mentioned a blow job.
While I may not have directly related to rap, as an outsider I understood the passion at its heart. In the same way I get emotional while watching Rudy—despite the fact that I only played a total of five minutes on my winless freshman football team—the angst, dejection, and political commentary in golden-age rap songs spoke to me. Now, I clearly didn’t have the same struggles as Public Enemy or Grandmaster Flash. And many rappers, like Ice Cube and X Clan, made music specifically and, in most cases correctly, criticizing my race. Still, I was hooked on this alternative to the cookie-cutter suburban lifestyle around me. I knew rap music wasn’t mine, but I loved the art form dearly and tried to find common ground where I could.
I would study and dissect each lyric, and the eventual music video on Yo! MTV Raps, like I was Ralphie decoding a secret message during an Ovaltine radio spot. I thoroughly examined every issue of The Source, cutting out pictures of my favorite MCs to tape onto my wall for worship. I focused on albums like Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell or LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer, mesmerized by the hard-hitting lyrics and aggressive production. Those songs cleared the way for acts like Beastie Boys, 2 Live Crew, Roxanne Shanté, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Biz Markie, and LL Cool J to enter my lexicon, and there was no turning back. Rap music was still something a white kid had to actively search for; nowadays it’s hard to find a white kid without their own mixtape. While my classmates were engulfed in things like Little League, karate, and ballet classes, I was trying to figure out where I could buy sunglasses like Kool Moe Dee’s or what size Adidas I could comfortably wear without laces. It was my hobby at a time when most of the people around me didn’t even know rap existed.
When I performed “You Be Illin’ ” for my third-grade talent show, one teacher asked my mom, with a straight face, “What type of music is this?” Some classmates weren’t as innocent with their questions. When I started writing my own rhymes in the sixth grade, almost everyone ignored me, and when they did eventually pay attention, it was to call me “wigger” and keep moving. But no matter what they said, I confidently wore my baggy JNCOs and that one T-shirt with Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil wearing their clothes backwards without a care in the world.
This backfired on the last day of sixth grade, when I was chased around school by fifty other male students who ridiculed my love of black culture, hip-hop, and dancing. They yelled obscenities and “Vanilla Ice!” at me as I tried to find refuge in different spots on campus, but they’d eventually find me and start yelling again. The most offensive part about the attack was that I hated Vanilla Ice. But I didn’t expect them to respect my preference for credible hip-hop over commercial rap, let alone give me a second to explain the difference. Luckily for me, the bell rang and summer vacation started. I continued to write my own songs, and, that next year when I returned to the same school, I not only became friends with many of those bullies, I formed a rap group with one of them, one of only a handful of black kids in my entire middle school, Rickye. We called ourselves X-tra Large, which, yes, was a reference to our dick size.
Maybe secretly I did wish I was the kid in the chair being hoisted above his friends and family at every bar mitzvah I attended that year, but the one thing I openly loved about them was that the DJ would always end up playing rap music. Yes, we’d have to sit through “Celebration,” “YMCA,” and “Unchained Melody,” as well as the instrumental Muzak they played when food was served, but as the evening went on, the parents would sit down and the party would quickly turn into an episode of The Grind. Most of my peers were into rock music, from softer glam bands like Poison to harder metal like Sepultura, which is as likely to get people dancing at a bar mitzvah as Mein Kampf on tape. Since the DJs hired for these things were in their early twenties and from Hollywood or the greater Los Angeles area, they were itching to play Heavy D & the Boyz, De La Soul, and Dr. Dre, just as much as I was itching to hear them. With dances like the Cabbage Patch and the Robocop becoming popular, mostly with white suburban girls, you could look forward to a nice set of hip-hop, even if “Ice Ice Baby” and “The Electric Slide” had to be the entry drug. New York had the Tunnel; we had the Rosenthal reception.
And this one specific bar mitzvah I attended in 1991 was no letdown, as many current rap songs got spins. But it wasn’t until a few songs in, when Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours” played, that I sprang up from my seat, ready to do the Running Man. It was my favorite song at the time, and I couldn’t help but rap along to Dres’s words, which I had already studied to the point of knowing where every syllable and breath was supposed to sit. The MC must have seen my attention to detail, because he feverishly ran over to ask if I could do it into the microphone. I said sure, both because I was in the zone and because I didn’t understand how to avoid being bullied. But thanks to years of rapping into my bedroom mirror and pretending I was on Soul Train, I spit the verses with ease. The MC was visibly impressed and pulled me off to the side, just as the grandparents came up to light candle number eight.
Most of my gimmick at the time was that no rapper in the world looked like me. I was a clean-cut, scrawny twelve-year-old, a better fit for a Boy Scouts meeting than at a Big Daddy Kane concert. And because of that fact, the MC knew he was on to something. He immediately asked for my parents’ phone number, and after proving to them he wasn’t going to molest me, a man named Demetrius Cash became the official manager of X-tra Large.
Demetrius was one of the first black adults I ever interacted with. As crazy as that sounds, it’s true. My grandfather, who was raised in Iowa, told stories of seeing a black man for the first time in his late teens at a supermarket. He asked his father why that man was “made of chocolate,” which, although innocent, does seem like something only a Sacha Baron Cohen character would say. While I was not as isolated as my grandfather had been, not one school I attended, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, employed a black teacher. A common nickname for my hometown is still “Cala-blackless.” It’s the Utah Jazz of the San Fernando Valley. My family never really traveled beyond Nevada for vacation either, so even though I was wildly obsessed with music largely made by black rappers, I had very little firsthand experience with minorities in general.
I still don’t know if Demetrius Cash was actually born with that money-centric last name, but he was so convincing—and confident in my abilities—that I would’ve believed anything he told me. He was around twenty-one years old and dressed strictly in silk button-ups and Z. Cavaricci jeans, constantly looking like he was auditioning to join Jodeci. He was as skinny as a twig, but heavy in bravado and charm. After the bar mitzvah where he approached me with the mic, he’d call my house every day, detailing his plan to make X-tra Large a household name. Another Bad Creation and Kris Kross were at the height of their popularity, with more obscure, and hardcore, kid groups like Da Youngstas and Illegal also releasing music—so there was an obvious spot in the marketplace for our act. Demetrius Cash was ready to lead me and Rickye to that Promised Land.
Demetrius immediately rented a dance studio and started holding rehearsals, focusing on dance routines instead of songs, while at the same time coming up with a plan for our show. Even though I never took a formal class, hip-hop dancing came to me naturally. I would watch videos from Bobby Brown and the In Living Color Fly Girls, then emulate each dance step almost perfectly. Demetrius was transforming X-tra Large from a pipe dream into a full-fledged group, and we gladly followed his lead. The only rule I was adamant about, as the duo’s main songwriter, was that Demetrius couldn’t give any input or critique on our lyrical content. It’s a demand that seemed rather pretentious for a twelve-year-old, but I always knew my words were important.
There were a few outstanding issues with X-tra Large, however. Even though we’d decided what our first album cover would look like (us standing in the middle of a Parental Advisory logo holding our crotches) and what we’d wear for shows (button-up shirts and ties), we didn’t actually have any songs. I had notebooks and notebooks full of lyrics, but no beats, so X-tra Large was technically shit out of luck unless we decided to become slam poets.
To address the fact that we didn’t have our own instrumentals, we planned to open with two crowd-pleasers by current artists (the Black Sheep song that Demetrius discovered me mimicking and the then-popular Kris Kross hit “Jump”), not unlike karaoke. Then we’d surprise everyone with our new, and only, original song, “Killin’ at the Playground,” a scathing diss I wrote about Another Bad Creation, a popular kid-rap group founded by Bell Biv DeVoe member Michael Bivins. In the song, I relentlessly made fun of ABC’s names, music, style, and, yes, penis size. I had nothing against them, but I knew my real talent rested in rhyming aggressive insults, emulating battle raps I had heard from rappers like KRS-One and Tim Dog.
I also knew that targeting groups at the top of the charts would be an easy way to garner attention without much experience or music of my own. We found an existing instrumental that heavily sampled the S.O.S. Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” and decided it would be the perfect beat for “Killin’ at the Playground,” a song where I, as a preteen, claimed, “Iesha, I had her, she’s nothing,” thereby celebrating the fact that I fucked the fictitious girlfriend the group sang about on their biggest hit. Bob Dylan I was not. No matter what came out of my mouth, though, X-tra Large was ready to take the stage. We had Demetrius. We had fully realized dance routines. We had an original song that could get us beat up. We had a lot of Cross Colours. And I had a partner who would, Demetrius excitedly explained, give me the “street cred” I needed.
Table of Contents
Parental Advisory xi
1 Straight OUTTA Calabasas 7
"Killin" at the Playground" Lyrics, 1992 26
2 (818) Mile 29
3 The Best Phone Call 44
4 Mack 10's Briefcase 54
5 Tyrese Isn't Happy 62
6 Rap Game Lloyd Dobler 78
7 Caliente Karlito 94
"Caliente Karlito" Lyrics, 1999 104
8 Jimmy Iovine's Salmon Plate 109
9 My Mom Opened for Snoop 129
10 RZA Loves Happy Days, But Pink Hates Me 143
"Bounce" Lyrics, 1999 153
11 Sisqó's XXX Collection 157
12 Blind Item 163
"His Hotness" Lyrics, 1999 172
13 My Night with Gerardo 175
14 Will.I.Ain't 183
"Sump'n Changed" Lyrics, 2000 191
15 Big Checks and Very Little Balance 196
"The 'Burbs" Lyrics 2000/01 209
16 Kanye West Owes Me $300 214
"Armand Assante" Lyrics, 2000/01 229
17 Going Ham 232
18 The Worst Phone Call 248
"Let's Talk" Lyrics, 2000/01 259
19 Spring Breakdown 265
"I've Heard" Lyrics, 2001 283
Photography Credits 301
Extra Libris 305