“We often get referred to as throwback rap,” says Foul Mouth Jerk. “We refer to it as grumpy old man rap.”
But the New Jersey native, who landed in Asheville more than a decade ago, is far from grumpy and anything but a jerk. He’s warm, personable and eager to chat about anything from politics and literature to music.
“Throwback rap” is a fitting label though. His beats have an undeniably retro feel — drum machines, lots of samples and no shortage of horns, keys and funky bass lines — and his rhymes take center stage. The subject matter, too, is classic in its own right. There are the occasional political jams and the boastful party songs that Jerk refers to as “grab your dick rap,” but mostly, his rhymes are narrative tales of day-to-day life.
“It sounds largely like the shit that I grew up on,” he explains. “I’ve been listening to rap music since I was a little kid. I started rapping in 1988, so that’s my influence. It’s not super dated, but that’s the style we work with — samples, drum machines, shit like that. Not the techno-y, dance-y, up-tempo, hipster-ish shit that gets played right now. I find that there’s a lot of grumpy old men like me still, so there’s a market for it.”
That said, this rapper is a breed all his own. His forthcoming release, The Oldest Trick in the Book, features samples from Pink Floyd, Almost Famous comedian Doug Stanhope and the 1988 political science fiction thriller They Live. It also includes a hangover anthem Jerk describes as “a rap music equivalent to Bukowski.”
A longtime member of Asheville’s funk/hip-hop collective GFE, Jerk is known as much in hippie circles as he is by hip-hop fans. He found Asheville after a stint roaming the country, busking on the streets for gas money. Not to mention that Asheville, well known for its bluegrass, jam and folk scene, is an unusual place for a Jersey-born rapper to settle.
However, Jerk could be the one to put Asheville hip-hop on the map. His albums have long featured cameos from underground heavyweights like Masta Ace and Grandmaster Caz that turn the heads of old-school rap fans. And for The Oldest Trick in the Book, he’s gone beyond the realm of cameos to become the facilitator of a long-awaited reunion.
Over a decade after their less-than-amicable split, The Artifacts — who released two iconic hip-hop albums in the ‘90s and have since remained Jersey hip-hop legends — are back. But this time it’s for a guest spot with Foul Mouth Jerk.
“It’s kind of a diabolical master plan that I achieved circuitously over a period of about nine years,” he explains with a self-congratulatory smile.
Having met Tame One and El Da Sensei (collectively known as The Artifacts) separately, Jerk stayed in contact, working frequently with each and patiently waiting for the perfect moment to put his plan into action. That window finally came last Christmas, when Tame One mentioned that the two had recently begun speaking again.
“I was like, ‘What do you think about maybe the three of us doing a little reunion thing?’” Jerk recalls. “At first he was a little standoffish, but when I got home from the trip there was an e-mail in my box saying, ‘If you can get El to do it, I’ll do it.’”
And just like that, the 13-year hiatus was over. Jerk booked a Brooklyn studio, made travel arrangements, and soon his nine-year master plan was coming to fruition.
“I could have theoretically just e-mailed tracks back and forth to everyone,” he adds of the reunion. “It probably would have been a lot cheaper and easier to do it like that, but that’s completely missing the point. An Artifacts reunion is a lot more than the song. It’s being in the studio and making that happen.”
For the rest of us, the track is more than sufficient. “Back On the Scene” is a bouncy, driving jam centered around an infectious sample of reverb-laden Chinese lute with a dark, gritty feel and the sort of effortless lyricism that kept the Artifacts relevant almost 15 years after their split. Lyrically, it’s a departure from the narrative lines and political themes of both the Artifacts and Foul Mouth Jerk, but hey, sometimes you’ve gotta boast.
“It’s a rappity rap song,” says Jerk unapologetically. “It doesn’t have a real subject matter other than, ‘We’re awesome, and we’re back! You missed us, you’re f—king welcome!’”
And if one track isn’t enough to satisfy your appetite for new Artifacts, Jerk’s got that covered too. This weekend, Tame One and El Da Sensei will appear at the Emerald Lounge to join him onstage and perform a set of their own. The whole thing will be filmed for an upcoming “Back On the Scene” video, which is also slated to include some tongue-in-cheek shots of the three cruising around Asheville in a limo.
“It’s almost a parody of rap videos,” Jerk explains. “The general vibe is that we’re going to be fancy men in our tuxedos, driving around in a limousine to really shitty redneck bars, maybe a fishing hole and the graffiti wall down by the tracks. Everything will be very straight faced, like, ‘Yeah, this what we do. We’re rappers. We ball. This old thing? This is my tux, no biggie. I’m just down here at the graffiti wall in my tuxedo walking around on the train tracks.’”
So if you happen to see some rappers hanging out the sunroof of a limo downtown this weekend, don’t worry. You’re not hallucinating. It’s just Asheville’s most original MC, Foul Mouth Jerk.
Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Foul Mouth Jerk and New Jersey-based The Artifacts, with San Francisco underground legend TopR and Greenville’s Projekt Lotus
what: Hip-hop show featuring an old-school reunion
where: Emerald Lounge
when: Friday, Aug. 6 (9 p.m. $7.)