"I'm standing in a pretty big shadow," Uncle Kracker acknowledges, talking about his sudden success. "I knew that the comparisons would happen and I don't think there will ever be a point when I will escape it, but I don't care."
Kracker, a.k.a. Matthew Shafer, is referring to the shadow of Kid Rock, whose colorful persona and aggressive sound have made him one of the most identifiable figures in modern pop. Uncle Kracker is Kid Rock's DJ and songwriting partner, and after touring and recording with him for years, he recently released his own debut album on Rock's label.
And why should he care about being in his pal's shadow? The cherubic, gold-'n'-diamond front-toothed, tattooed sidekick-turned-solo-artist is on a commercial roll. He has one of the hottest singles in the country with the twangy soul ballad "Follow Me," and his album, "Double Wide," has sold more than 600,000 copies and is in the Top 10.
Kracker and his song "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" are currently appearing in a Miller Beer commercial, and he's on the bill with Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind, the Go-Go's and others at the Fan Nation festival today at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.
Whether his record would have done as well without the Kid connection is debatable, but the melodic, groove-filled charm of "Double Wide" is undeniable, and it shows more crossover potential than Rock's heavier, more explicit "Devil Without a Cause" album did when it came out in 1998.
Despite it all, Uncle Kracker, 26, seems to be taking his success in stride. As well-coiffed news anchors and makeup-caked soap opera stars parade past his table in the commissary at NBC Studios in Burbank, where he'll appear with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" that evening, he seems positively carefree, sipping a cherry Coke and smoking a series of cigarettes. He answers "yup" when he agrees with you and "nah" when he doesn't, and his easygoing manner reflects his blue-collar roots.
"I grew up pumpin' gas," remembers Kracker, whose father owned a couple of stations in Mount Clemens, just north of Detroit. "My dad listened to George Jones and Hank Williams, and of course all the Motown stuff was unavoidable."
Those soul and country influences didn't emerge until later. As a kid, it was all about rap, especially when he bought his first Fat Boys record and started writing his own rhymes. Soon after, he ran into the person who would become the most important person in his professional life.
Kracker's older brother and Kid Rock became friends 13 years ago when they both competed in a Detroit turntable competition. But it was the younger Shafer who really bonded with Kid. With their mutual love of hip-hop, they were soon hanging out together all the time.
When Rock's DJ and MC left him right before a show one day, Rock invited his 16-year-old pal to fill in. "He just kinda threw me in," says Kracker. "At one point I was working the turntables, the sampler, the lights, the fog machine and doing backup vocals."
Indeed, Shafer (whom Rock named Kracker in the early days, adding the "Uncle" later) has always been more than just the guy who spun records for Kid Rock. He's been doing back-up raps as well as co-writing lyrics on most of Rock's compositions since they first paired up, and his contributions to the blockbuster "Devil Without a Cause" are numerous. Kracker is listed as the second credit after Rock (a.k.a. Bob Ritchie) on nearly every cut, including the hits "Bawitdaba," 'Cowboy" and "Only God Knows Why."
But before that album made Rock a star, it was just the two buddies, playing sometimes packed, sometimes near-empty clubs, hitting Denny's after Denny's on the road and dreaming of making the big time with their still novel meld of brazen rap and classic rock riffs.
When the combustible combo finally did hit, it was only natural that Rock pitched his partner to Lava Records, the Atlantic Records subsidiary that releases Rock's Top Dog label. Kracker became the first artist besides Kid Rock to record for Top Dog.
"It was always the plan that after he made it big, I'd get to do my thing," says Kracker. The pair were on tour with Limp Bizkit when the solo deal was signed two years ago, which meant that "Double Wide" had to be recorded, quite literally, on the road. They wrote all the material, then played and recorded it on a ProTools computer system in their bus--sometimes while it was moving, more often when parked.
"You can practically hear the muffler in the background," jokes Jason Flom, president of Lava Records and one of the executives who recognized the promise of Kracker's smooth, lazy rhythms--especially on "Follow Me."
"We knew that song in particular was a magical piece of music," says Flom. "It doesn't sound like anything else on the radio."