Their very names strike fear in the hearts of white rappers everywhere: Vanilla Ice. Snow. Kevin Federline.
Though there are notable success stories — Eminem and the Beastie Boys, most obviously — pale emcees often travel a hard road to respect. "The White Rapper Show," a new reality program debuting Monday (10:30 p.m. EST on VH1), is both a parody and commentary on race in hip-hop.
The setup is simple and instantly amusing: Ten white amateurs are picked to live in an apartment in New York's South Bronx (the birthplace of hip-hop), where they must prove their rhyming skills and gain respect. The winner gets $100,000.
"White Rapper" is produced by the "ego trip" collective, which started as a magazine co-founded by Sacha Jenkins and Elliot Wilson. The magazine is now defunct, but ego trip has grown into a media company that produces books and provocative television shows ("Race-O-Rama!") often dealing with race and hip-hop.
"The power of the show is that when you hear the title, you already have images of what it's going to be, whether good or bad," says Wilson. "Most of them are thinking, ‘Oh, it's going to be some dumb nonsense.' But it's not that — it's smart."
The host is Michael "MC Serch" Berrin, known for the early '90s hit "The Gas Face" with the group 3rd Bass, who schools the 20-something contestants on the history of hip-hop and the art of the rhyme.
"This generation can't answer basic hip-hop trivia," says Berrin, 39. "Early on, there was a history that you had to know. I had to know who the Funky 4+1 was, who Sha Rock was. I had to know this because when I was coming up, guys would test me."
Still a predominantly black art formLike rock, blues and jazz, hip-hop began as a distinctly African-American expression. Unlike other genres, though, rap has remained a predominantly black art form.
The guys of ego trip (none of whom are white) are well aware that rap is now mainstream popular music, and that its record-buying audience is mostly white. They joke that the show presents a vision of the future.
"There are more white kids who are captivated by the music and the culture than ever," says ego tripper Jefferson "Chairman" Mao. "I think it's a terrific thing because music should be shared. It's for everybody — you just don't want the origins of it to be lost."
Of course, white rappers have forever been easy targets, and the show is not lacking in Vanilla Ice-style punch lines.
A female rapper from upstate New York claims during her audition, "Cows are great to rap about. It's that whole black and white thing." Another auditioning rapper speaking about her hometown of Waterford, Conn., prompts Serch to exclaim, "I didn't know it was that hard in Connecticut."
Hailing from Davis, Calif., 26-year-old John Brown immediately rubs many contestants the wrong way. In his audition, he asks, "What's really hood, man? Suburbia." Once picked as a contestant, Brown proves himself well enough as a rapper. But he infuriates castmates by repeatedly referring to a "Ghetto Revival," a personal social movement scant on details other than Brown's claim that it's a "lifestyle brand" that will support "the revival of ghettoes and all types of different struggles throughout the world."
Brown's nemesis emerges as Persia, a confrontational 25-year-old woman from Far Rockaway, Queens who describes herself as the show's "hood connection."
'Just lost'"You'll see on the show why a lot of white rappers are made fun of," she said in an interview. "Some of them are just lost. There's very few that can make it, very few that are real. ... I think if you concentrate on the fact that you're white, then so will the world."
"It's very funny how true to form they were," says Serch. "The one thing white rappers can't stand is other white rappers."
In the first episode, Persia repeatedly uses the N-word, to the dismay of several castmates but the glee of producers in the control room. Soon Berrin informs the cast, "That word don't play here, regardless" — and bestows a giant silver chain with an enormous "N-word" medallion upon Persia, who must wear it for 24 hours.
Persia tearfully promises to change her ways, although she backtracked in her AP interview. "The pain in the back of my neck kind of caused me to have a nervous breakdown," she claimed. "Afterward, I came to realize I'm from New York — it's kind of different for us. It's how I speak with my friends; it's how I'm always going to speak with my friends."
Mao insists the show isn't just trying to "shoot fish in a barrel."
"We don't have disdain for our cast," he says. "We're trying to show that there is some complexity to them."
Executive producer Ken Mok, who has helmed reality contest shows like "America's Next Top Model" and "Making the Band," says "White Rapper" is "really about race and the context of white culture verses hip-hop culture."
"Why leave it to the scholars?" says Mao. "We feel we're hip-hop scholars." A cackling Wilson quickly rhymes, "And we want to make dollars!"