Heart-Attack Man

Oddly enough, former House of Pain (HoP) member and current hip-hop troubadour Everlast is proving himself to be a crossbreed of b-boy and Johnny Cash. In his current incarnation -- as guitar-wielding Whitey Ford -- he sports a streetwise, middle-finger-in-the-air attitude matched with songs that aren't afraid to cross genre boundaries while tackling the grittiness of reality. Everlast's second solo record, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, is the resulting sleeper hit that was almost notable for a reason other than the tunes.

Everlast nearly had his name tacked on to the list of young musicians who buy the farm before their time. By all appearances, the recording of Whitey Ford just about killed him. What a tragic story that would have made -- a brilliant comeback record kills its creator before he can hear the finished product. Unfortunately (for the sensationalists), the heart attack he suffered on the last day of recording Whitey was the result of a faulty heart valve rather than the weight of the recording process.

Thankfully, the man born Erik Schrody is alive to enjoy his second round of success, though this time he is centered enough to take it in stride. The heart attack hasn't really slowed him down, as evidenced by recent Saturday Night Live and Tonight Show appearances. On the strength of the blues-inflected, alternative rap hit "What It's Like," Whitey has been creeping its way up the Billboard charts since its release last September, hovering just outside the Top 10. "What It's Like" is an empathetic tune with mini tales of homeless guys bumming change and a woman going in for an abortion, rooted around an axis of folksy acoustic guitar and the up-tempo shuffle of a drum machine. The hook belies the seriousness of the subject matter, with Everlast actually singing the chorus in a distinctive, low-key manner.

But a word to the wise: "What It's Like" is not indicative of the album, the rest of which tackles similar topics, but with a darker and heavier methodology. Mixing acoustic guitars, live instrumentation, and a rock feel with record scratching and beats, it's a cut-and-paste amalgamation stronger and more original than the sources from which it selects, earning the record strong praise from the critics.

That's a switch from Everlast's House of Pain days. The threesome took a fair amount of criticism because of their Mickey's-swilling, in-your-face antics and their skin color back in the days when they were a rare white rap group. Now House of Pain's version of Caucasian hip-hop has found its way into the heavy metal of Korn, Incubus, Limp Bizkit (with whom House of Pain's DJ Lethal now performs) and countless clones of the aforementioned. Everlast doesn't shy away from the cracker-rapper critique, even as he heads away from the raw-throated rapping that HoP employed. The title of Whitey is there to take the piss out of the race-card critics while poking fun at rappers who take pseudonyms. The record even opens with an updated version of "The Fat Boys Are Back," titled "The White Boy Is Back."

It's taken Everlast some doing to get himself to this point. He began his career as a member of the Rhyme Syndicate, a loosely knit group of artists led by Ice-T, who also produced Forever Everlasting, Everlast's 1990 debut. A typical "insert boastful lyrics here" record, it came out just a few months before Vanilla Ice's white-boy raps sold millions. Everlast's record had nothing akin to "Ice Ice Baby," a fact that hurt his sales but boded well for his career. As Vanilla tries to stage another comeback by ripping off the same metal-rap hybrid bands who are co-opting House of Pain's full-throttle attack, Everlast is maturely honing his skills as an artist.

Who would have thought the words "mature artist" would ever be used to describe a member of House of Pain, an outfit as obnoxious as the Licensed to Ill-era Beastie Boys? After his initial solo failure, Everlast gathered his group of high-school friends from Los Angeles to form House of Pain. Under the tutelage of producer DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill, Everlast, Danny Boy O'Connor, and DJ Lethal were, for a time in 1992, the second most popular white rap combo in America, just behind the omnipresent Beastie Boys. On the strength of the single "Jump Around," with its squealing horn loop and ubiquitous call for everybody to, uh, you know, the debut album was a big hit among frat boys and proud pseudo-Irish. It was a guilty pleasure at best, because Muggs' production wasn't as adventurous as his Cypress work, and the urgency of the fast flow and quick-tempo numbers was undercut by the juvenile lyrics. Using green and orange colors, three-leaf clovers, and Gaelic lettering was about as deep into Irish culture as they went. It was a one trick record that begged the question, "You're Irish, you rap. Now what?"

Rather than disappear into oblivion immediately, House of Pain hung on for two more records, fading ever faster into irrelevancy. By expanding their middle-of-the-road beats and rhymes on 1994's Same as It Ever Was, they seemed to be branching out into more complex hip-hop. If the debut was a drunken brawl, Same as It Ever Was was a PCP-induced fight with the police. With Muggs again producing but taking more chances, the record was dark and paranoid, nonetheless exuding the bravado of a group who thought they could take on the world and win. When the first single, "On Point," failed to catch on with the "Jump Around" fans, the record only went gold and fizzled quickly. Two years later Everlast quit the band the day their third album, Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again, hit stores. The record died almost immediately.

The then-27-year-old Everlast converted to Islam, a lifestyle change he has credited with giving him the confidence to branch out in his new direction, and tried to figure out what to do next. At the time, however -- having just left House of Pain and with only a lame solo record as his only self-directed work -- it looked like it might be time for him to consider another career.

But Everlast had other plans. He realized that he was getting too old for the self-glorifying shenanigans of the rap he had been shoveling. A more conscious and self-aware Everlast started writing songs that encompassed his love of rock and his knowledge of hip-hop. Strumming his guitar on the couch led him to rethink his songwriting style, and this new thought process resulted in the remarkable Whitey Ford record.

Everlast's latest endeavor is acting/rapping as a racist, crooked cop in Prince Paul's soon-to-be-released "hip-hopera" LP, A Prince Among Thieves, based on Paul's 1995 one-man, off-Broadway show. Prince Paul's production of De La Soul and time spent as a member of both the Gravediggaz and Stetsasonic (one of the first rap groups to use a live band) have made him one of the most respected names in hip-hop. Only last year did he step out as a solo artist, with the acclaimed Psychoanalysis: What Is It?! LP.

Prince Paul's Prince Among Thieves play was a smash hit and a favorite of celebrities, but Paul found it too exhausting to continue and decided he wanted to translate it into a film project. The new album is a morality play centering around a young rapper whose friend double-crosses him. (The screenplay was bought by Chris Rock, who is hoping to have it made into a film.) Everlast shares credits in a cast that includes Kool Keith (Dr. Octagon), Sadat X, the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, and Biz Markie. A fuzzed-out guitar and ominous bass line back Everlast's in-character, spittle-flying rhymes about being on the take on "The Men in Blue." His flow is just as hard as it was in the House of Pain days, and he seems to relish the harshness of the lyrics, spewing, "the police department does whatever it wants to do," as a brag.

This character is just that, an act, but Everlast's Whitey Ford personality seems closest to his own. By unshackling himself of his past, he was taking the chance of alienating the few fans he had left and not being taken seriously by those who knew and didn't like his past. The result is a hit song, a hit record, and a new lease on life -- which is a much better story than the cliched death of a young musician.

Everlast is scheduled to perform Saturday, February 13, at 8 p.m. at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, with Sugar Ray. Call 305-532-0922 for information.

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