If you were a teenage L.A. rap fan in the late 1990s, you know the legend of Hot Karl — the bespectacled battle-rap assassin from the West Valley, whose two months of consecutive victories on Power 106’s Roll Call briefly made him the city’s hottest rapper, and the greatest ever named after a filthy sex act.
The USC student’s original songs went Napster-platinum and appeared on mixtapes hawked from Fat Beats to Venice Beach. Unlike almost every other white rapper who preceded him, Hot Karl accentuated his lack of street cred, comparing himself to Milhouse and bringing his mom, dressed in an astronaut costume, onstage at his sold-out debut show at the Roxy.
“I could’ve talked about jewelry or guns, but I loved the art form so much that I knew I would hate myself had I done that,” says Jensen Karp, the man behind Hot Karl, over lunch in Los Feliz late last month. Save for flecks of gray in his beard and a few more tattoos, he looks almost the same as he did a decade and a half ago, when he regularly ripped out rappers’ souls via freestyle.
“I had to take the bullet and go, well, hopefully the fans would want to see someone that looked and acted like them onstage,” he says. “And at the time, they didn’t.”
That’s not entirely true. His local buzz grew so strong that Mack 10 offered him a briefcase with $50,000 cash as a signing bonus. Instead, Karp succumbed to the charms of Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine, who offered a deal worth $750,000, only to eventually shelve Hot Karl when it became clear that the label only had room for one nasally white rapper, Eminem.
“At 36, I’m no longer mad at Jimmy,” Karp says. “He was put in a bad position and I was on the blunt end of it.”
The story of his rise and fall, and eventual resurrection as a comedy writer, podcaster and co-owner of Gallery 1988, is hilariously chronicled in Karp’s excellent new book, Kanye West Owes Me $300 & Other True Stories From a White Rapper Who Almost Made It Big. As the title suggests, it’s full of so-absurd-they-have-to-be-true anecdotes from his years reaping the benefits of a practically unlimited studio budget. There are conversations about Happy Days with RZA, hook-ups with diseased Hollywood starlets and the accidental discovery of Sisqo’s mammoth porn stash.
Among the cast of characters are Redman, Fabolous and Kanye West — then a young producer best known as the low-budget alternative to Just Blaze. The West stories supply more than just the title of the memoir; they provide perhaps the clearest portrait ever of the icon pre-fame, when he wore preposterously baggy jeans and rapped for uninterested waitresses at Times Square chain restaurants, and his primary bling was adult braces.
“He was basically Bowfinger,” Karp remembers. “I obviously didn’t know he’d become what he became, otherwise I would’ve let him rap on my album like he wanted to.”
During those years, the pair became friends, bonding over their shared inability to blend in with the era’s reigning hip-hop archetypes.
“People are always like, ‘Is he going to be mad?’ And I don’t know why he would,” Karp says. “The book is nice to him; Kanye knows people laughed when he left the room.”
But the book functions as more than a tell-all. It’s a superbly unsentimental chronicle of growing up in the ’90s as a white kid who loved rap more than anything. It’s a classic L.A. redemption story of an artist narrowly missing stardom and failing at his first dream, but surviving to write his own second act, and ultimately, one of the best hip-hop memoirs in years.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.