These days, Jensen Karp is best known for his popular Twitter account, several podcasts (including one about The Bachelorette with Karp’s former girlfriend Melissa Stetten), and the Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles — which hosts all kinds of pop culture art shows and exhibits for the like of Kevin Smith, Breaking Bad and Star Wars. However, during the early 2000s, Karp first made his debut under a different name. Around the time Eminem first burst forth from Detroit as a popular white rapper, Karp’s “Hot Karl” persona did the same on the West Coast.
Spotify and other streaming music services host Hot Karl’s old records and singles, but Karp doesn’t rap that much these days. He’s found his calling as a comedian and writer, so the 36-year-old author decided to tell Hot Karl’s story with his second book, Kanye West Owes Me $300: And Other True Stories from a White Rapper Who Almost Made It Big. As the title suggests, it contains all sorts of anecdotal goodies about celebrity rappers, musicians and personalities Karp knew before they were famous, but that’s not all the book’s about. Instead, he traces the origins of his love for the art form, how Hot Karl came to be, and why he left the business.
Karp talked to us about these and many other topics, like a story about the hilariously offensive dance will.i.am wanted to use for the uncensored version of “Let’s Get It Started.” However, first things first, at the time of the interview, the The Bachelorette hadn’t premiered yet, so we had to talk shop.
Will your The Bachelorette podcast continue?
Yes. It’ll have a nice new twist considering we’ve broken up, but we’re definitely going to try to keep it going. [Laughs.] That’s the goal. I think it will have a nice change of pace considering that we don’t have to like each other anymore, but it will be fun for two people going through their own relationship breakup to then watch people fall in love. It’ll be a nice twist.
The contestant bios are tremendous.
They’re insane. We’re going to do a preview episode this week for Monday, maybe get it done Friday, and go through those. It’s so crazy. On Twitter, I always do this thing called “Not an Occupation” in which I retweet their pictures and the information saying what their job is. They always put up three or four people whose entries aren’t real jobs. So this time, a “Hipster” is listed as a job, which is not an occupation. And then “Erectile Dysfunction Expert,” which is not an occupation. The third one was “Bachelor superfan.” Also not an occupation. There’s also a singer-songwriter on the show named James Taylor.
It makes our lives as writers easier, but it also kills us a little inside.
They are trying to be funny. That’s the one thing I hate about The Bachelor. It’s like, don’t wink with us. I want them to take it seriously because that’s what’s so stupid and great about the show. I don’t need comedy to come from them, but everybody who’s on it is trying and I hate it. But whatever. It’s why I have a love/hate relationship with that show.
I wasn’t expecting Kanye West Owes Me $300 to begin on such a serious note about brain tumors and a possible cancer diagnosis.
When this idea was sort of thrown around, when I was first starting to do this book, I think a lot of people expected a winky, “Wasn’t it funny back in 2000 when I was a white rapper?” kind of deal. People expected me to write a snarky book. And it has moments of humor, but I really wanted this to be an earnest approach to what I really experienced. What I’m proud of the most about the book is I’m not just making jokes. I honestly wanted to be famous as a rapper in 2000 and I was given $1 million, and for me to shit on that experience now goes against everything I want to come across.
I want people to know that I was serious, that I love the art form, I was ready for this and I experienced heartbreak. I need to therapeutically tell this story for myself as much as I need to tell the audience what happened. A lot of this is a story I’ve never told. You know, I’ve opened this gallery and created a sort of successful comedy career, but this thing I’ve never faced. That was a major motivation for the book, and for there to be heavy things in it makes sense to me because it was a very heavy experience to go through.
It’s very funny. Not that having brain tumors is funny, of course…
[Laughs.] Yeah, that was the main motivation for wanting to close this chapter. That was the moment I realized, “Oh my God, this is fate.”
You mention things are fine. Is that still the case?
There’s no growth or multiplication. I’ve lived with three brain tumors in my head for as long as… They don’t know how long they’ve been there. But they show no growth, I have no symptoms and I just have to be on top of it for the rest of my life. People hear “brain tumors,” and there are brain tumors that will kill you in just a few days, but there are brain tumors that truly do nothing. We’re under the impression that mine do nothing, so that’s good.
Kanye West’s name is on the title, but your parents — especially your mother — are two of the biggest stars in the book.
She was my historian, even when I wasn’t blowing up. My mom had a small entertainment career. She was a background singer here in East Los Angeles for a bunch of bands that eventually went big, but she never entered the music or entertainment industries at all. I think it’s something she wished she would have focused more on when she was younger, so watching her son go through it, she just captured everything. My father, despite the book not having much about him… You have to understand I have every video of me rapping, which I can’t necessarily show in the book. My father videotaped almost every performance.
So I had one parent keeping everything, every piece of memorabilia… Which means nothing without the book, really; I don’t know what she would’ve done with it all without the book deal… And another parent who recorded every performance. Including the important one, the first big one I did when I was 12, that’s in the book. There were all these big moments, and they were all captured because I’m very lucky to have two parents who said I could do anything.
No kidding. She even dressed up as Nelly for one of your shows.
We had her dress up as Ja Rule. We had her dress up as Nelly. She dressed up as an astronaut once. We constantly had her dressed up as silly things for the shows, and she was always down. She never said no.
The definition of a loving mother.
Absolutely. She was never really a stage mom. If we asked her to do something, she was game.
The book avoids telling anecdotes about famous rappers and celebrities for the sake of name-dropping. Instead, the stories serve the bigger picture you’re trying to paint.
When I originally pitched the book, it was a collection of essays. There wasn’t necessarily an order to it. Crown, one of the publishers who were interested, eventually took the book and their first note was that it should be chronological. At first that was a scary thought for me, because that’s a heavy thing to do. I didn’t know if that was what I wanted. But they were right, and writing chronologically would allow me to keep the essays while still being able to tell my story. I knew the timeline because I’d lived it, but I just didn’t want to say “Here’s 50 Cent” or “Here’s will.i.am.” I wanted these to coexist with the journey I was going on because they were all going on their own journeys. We were all very early in our careers at that point. Plus, I didn’t want the book to be a gossip rag. I wanted to give them the credit they deserved while telling my story, about my journey.
Was there anything, any stories or anecdotes you wanted to include in the book, that didn’t make the final cut?
No. It’s funny. I remembered two things after I turned in the book, and that’s the thing, too. I’ll remember things and go, “Oh my God, how did I forget that?” Like I’d forgotten that Reggie Watts was on my album when he was still just a singer. He was in two bands, Soulive and Maktub, and he sang on one of my songs. And during our session together, we both admitted to each other that we no longer wanted to do music. We wanted to do comedy. He had just started to do stand-up in New York after moving there from Seattle. He was doing a lot of improv and voices in the booth and I thought, “Man, he’s so talented.”
Years later, we’re working together on something next week, and I’ve talked to him a couple of times and asked him if he remembered that conversation, and he said, “Absolutely.” That’s a weird thing for two dudes to be going through that same pattern at the same time, and end up working in different fields down the road. That’s just another train on my way to the next stop.
The other one is, there’s a will.i.am story that I guess I wished I could’ve kept. Maybe it’s for later down the road. When he first wrote “Let’s Get Retarded,” which is the song that became “Let’s Get It Started,” he brought me into the studio, played it for me and did this dance. He said it would go with the song in the video. The dance was him hitting his hand against his heart, sort of like the way that kids back in the day would say “You’re retarded” to mean “You’re dumb.” I remember saying, “That’s the most offensive dance I’ve ever seen,” and him responding, “It’s gonna sweep the nation.” I just think it’s so funny that will.i.am thought that dance was going to become the new hand jive or Macarena. The politically incorrect Macarena. He would do it at clubs and stuff.
Kanye West Owes Me $300 will be available in hard copy and digital editions at Amazon and wherever books are sold on June 7. To commemorate the book’s release, Karp released his first new track as Hot Karl, “Like Riding a Bike” with Mike Shinoda, Intuition and Abnormal. Check it out…