RZA Loves ‘Happy Days’ and other Lessons from a Shelved White Rapper
Editor’s Note: Jensen Karp was once known as Hot Karl, a comedic Caucasian rapper from Calabasas, California with freestyle talent who developed a buzz in the music industry in the early 2000s. He was signed by Interscope and recorded an album featuring guest appearances by Kanye West, will.i.am, Redman, Fabolous and others. The project was rejected by the label and eventually released independently. Mr. Karp writes honestly and often hilariously about his music industry experiences and brushes with greatness. Once such tale follows…
Once I officially signed the contract, Interscope wasted no time in getting me back in the lab. Where my daily routine once involved rebooting the Great Gazoo and Barney Rubble, I was now splitting time between early-morning college classes and nighttime sessions with guys like One Eye, a producer just coming off tremendous success with Ice Cube’s platinum smash “You Can Do It (Put Your Ass Into It).” He was an incredibly jolly family man who got his name after losing an eye in a freak accident years prior, although you probably assumed that. He also grew a shit ton of weed in his garage, well before that kind of activity was a viable thing to do. Who could blame him? He had one eye, asshole.
The first song I recorded with One Eye was called “Bounce,” a dance song that, if anything, showed I was energetic and excited for this new phase of my career. Where I used to look for the easiest way to ridicule my opponent, I was now hoping to connect with fans through relatable lyrics, not just disparage their dirty T-shirts and shit teeth. I preached to listeners that they “only live once” way before YOLO was a thing, and spit lyrics like “Partying ain’t bad for me, what’s it gonna do to me / I’mma change it up like Bow Wow’s voice after puberty” and “When you diss this, I return vicious / Make you feel left out like Jewish kids on Christmas.”
The immediate reaction to this song, and the other few I quickly made with One Eye right off the bat, was outstanding. Weirdly, right after we recorded a handful of songs together, One Eye completely disappeared without a trace or warning. It was total radio silence for years. Then in 2014, his Facebook friend request popped up, so I accepted it and was happy to see he was doing well, now living comfortably in Texas. Although I haven’t asked, I think I can safely assume the move had something to do with what was in his garage. Which is messed up because, again, he had one eye, asshole. But whether I played this first song for Sancho, Matty, Paige, or DJ, everyone seemed to think I was finding my stride and setting up what would make a great album.
Only two months into the process, a few of my tracks found their way into the hands of MTV VJ Matt Pinfield, who in turn listed me as an “artist to watch” in Playboy magazine, my first real mention in mainstream press. I also started getting my monthly checks, and the production budget for my album was now readily available, so my life, now usually introduced with the phrase “Interscope recording artist Hot Karl,” quickly changed. With this new influx of money at such a young age, I had to be careful not to become just another story of bankruptcy. Although I tried to be somewhat cautious, I immediately purchased a Ford Expedition and a $4,000 diamond TechnoMarine watch and spent $1,200 getting a mint-condition Tapper arcade game — an obsession from my childhood — delivered directly to my house from Canada. It wasn’t quite Nic Cage, but he’d probably see it as “a start.” I was a perfect cross between your typical reckless rapper and the kid from Big when he became an adult.
No matter how much the music business has changed since 2000, an “open budget” will still make you a very popular person in the industry. It’s much easier to get a meeting with the Neptunes — or pretty much any producer or musician — with a few hundred thousand dollars in your budget than by attempting to work with them on pure merit. So when Interscope asked me who my dream producer would be, knowing the price didn’t matter, I didn’t have to think long before I answered, “RZA.”
Considered one of the most legendary figures in hip-hop history, RZA helped create and mold the Wu-Tang Clan, crafting a handful of my favorite songs while bridging the gap between rap and alternative audiences like never before. He was also a founding member of Gravediggaz, an obscure side project in the late 90s, whose debut, 6 Feet Deep, is still my favorite rap album of all time. Since he was the mastermind behind two of the groups that had influenced me most, I decided I had nothing to lose in mentioning him for the album. I would’ve never guessed that within twenty-four hours of my request, I’d actually be on the phone with RZA, ready to talk about my project.
When I was sixteen years old, my first car had a custom front license plate with the Wu-Tang logo airbrushed on it, so I tried my hardest to act cool once I realized who had just called asking for “Karl.” He said he had heard good things about my music and apologized in advance for needing to take breaks while chatting, since he was recording vocals for a new album by his alter ego, Bobby Digital, at the same time. I wanted to tell him how important his work had been in my life but figured he was sick of hearing that from dorky kids in glasses, so I held it in. We went over my history, detailing my early success and the newly signed record deal. An occasional “bong bong” from RZA was the only thing that broke up the story, a term he still seems to use in interviews to express respect.
Before I could throw around any concepts, he asked if he could put me on hold. I obliged, telling him to take his time. He placed his phone on what I assumed was a nearby stool, and for the next five minutes, I sat and listened to RZA perform ad-libs for a new song, where he would just make beeping noises or yell “Lasers!” at the top of his lungs every few seconds. One time he commanded the engineer to “bring it back,” then just repeated the same high-pitched robot sounds he’d been making since he started. It was like if Johnny Five from Short Circuit rapped. It was surreal, and, had I not known what he was doing, I would have figured it was the weirdest case of Tourette’s syndrome ever documented.
I sat with my mouth agape, seeing this as the coolest fan moment ever, akin to having Michael Jordan dunk on you over and over again in practice. Eventually the song ended, and he picked the phone back up like nothing strange had just happened.
“Sorry about that. So, let me get this straight, you’re like the Richie Cunningham of hip-hop?” RZA asked, trying to figure out exactly who he was talking to.
“Uh, sort of,” I responded. “I’m actually not THAT big of a nerd, though.”
“Oh, cool. So you’re more like the Fonz.”
I sort of understood RZA’s logic, but shrugged my shoulders at this analogy, too.
“Well, that actually may be too cool. I think I’m just trying to be myself more than anything.”
“OK, well then you’re Potsie,” RZA quickly responded.
“I’m not sure why we’re sticking to a Happy Days theme, but sure, I guess I’m more like a Potsie,” I conceded, assuming I could now pick RZA’s favorite TV show with one guess. I always liked to think he did the same thing with other rappers and maybe once told Inspectah Deck he was “a real Chachi.”
We talked for a few more minutes about song concepts, including my passion for the idea of him sampling Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind,” a song he immediately recognized by saying, “Yeah, yeah, I know that shit,” which is the response you hope for when you ask RZA if he knows a yacht rock classic. I wished him luck on the new record and we hung up, never following up to work on a song together. Honestly, though, I never really pushed to make it happen with RZA, possibly because of nerves and also because I thought I could never top that phone call. Either way, I was wrong.
As painful as this is to admit, about four years ago our paths crossed again when I found myself at a party thrown by one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for their grating reality TV show. A friend involved in organizing the event had asked me to come support his efforts, promising a gaudy extravaganza, and I had obliged. He did not disappoint.
There were semi-nude models painted green and hiding in trees, simulating an orgy; a large ivy garden where mysterious arms would pop out and hand you mixed drinks; and enough C-list celebrities to make a VH1 casting agent salivate a tsunami. To cope with these bonkers surroundings, I decided to quickly down a few cocktails and silence the echo of “What the fuck are you doing here?” that dominated my brain.
Right when I figured I couldn’t take it anymore, I noticed RZA on the other side of the party. I had never seen him in a casual social setting, and with our one brief phone interaction, mixed with the added confidence of the alcohol served to me by weirdo ghost hands, I figured we had something to talk about. So I approached RZA, who seemed to be having as hard of a time at this shit show as I was, and said hello. He was cordial when I told him that Wu-Tang “changed my life—a statement I was smart enough to withhold as Hot Karl, but now was shameless (and buzzed) enough to blurt out in my thirties. This is the moment when I should’ve adhered to a set of social standards and walked away, but restraint was not fitting me well that evening.
“We talked on the phone once,” I said to RZA, like we had an undeniable connection we could never forget.
RZA looked at me, understandably confused.
“I was a rapper named Hot Karl, and you were making noises… I mean, you were recording. We were going to work together,” I managed to explain, terribly.
“We worked together?” RZA asked me with an actual excitement to connect.
“Well, no. We almost did. Maybe. I don’t know. They woulda paid you a lot. But we talked about Happy Days.”
RZA stared at me.
“You like Happy Days, right?” I asked, happily reaching for anything he could relate to.
“The TV show? I guess,” he responded indifferently.
We had hit a dead end. This cul-de-sac of hero worship had nowhere else to go. I was now a random fan who was entering Creepy Zone. To break the silence, I blurted out, without any explanation, “Well, I’m a Potsie,” and walked away.
I never told anyone about this humiliating exchange, knowing that if I couldn’t explain it to the RZA, I couldn’t explain it to anyone else. I do know, however, that when my half-a-million-dollar budget was still open, RZA had been a real big Happy Days fan.
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Excerpted from Kanye West Owes Me $300 & Other True Stories from a White Rapper Who Almost Made It Big by Jensen Karp formerly known as “Hot Karl.” Available now from Crown Archetype at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.