Just a few months ago, Uncle Kracker was ready to pack it in and move on after his debut Top Dog/Lava/Atlantic album, “Double Wide” – released last summer – failed to take off.
Now Kid Rock’s DJ has a smacking brand-new gold record for his patience, and a platinum record won’t be too far behind.
Uncle Kracker (born Matt Shafer) has one of the country’s fastest-climbing singles, “Follow Me” (up to No. 26 this week), and “Double Wide” is living large on Billboard’s pop chart, now at No. 75 and rising.
That’s just the nature of the business, says the quiet Detroit native.
“I was discouraged like three months after it came out,” Kracker said recently. “Mostly because people start talking, talking and talking, then suddenly they’re not talking. That’s what’s scary. You know it can’t be any good when they’re not talking about you anymore.
“The critics were digging it, but the critics are getting them things for fucking free (laughing). They don’t care; they can like it all they want, as long as they don’t have to buy it. Ha!”
Kracker co-wrote much of Kid Rock’s breakthrough “Devil Without a Cause” album in 1998 and was the man behind his turntables. Though the two share an affinity for rap ‘n’ roll, Kracker’s “Double Wide” mines more from Motown, ’70s-era funk and country. It has something for everyone, so why the slow sell for consumers?
“I still can’t figure it out,” Kracker said. “There’s a couple of things that are tied into it, like maybe bad timing on our part. We came out with a new Kid Rock record at the same exact time (‘History of Rock’), and they were still trying to release a single off ‘Devil Without a Cause’ at the same time, too.
“As soon as (‘Double Wide’s’ first single) ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’ went to radio, they came out with ‘Wasted Time’ from ‘Devil Without a Cause,’ and both of those songs are very comparable. They’re night and day, but to a program director, they’re the same song. So rather than take a chance and add my record, they go, ‘Eh, why should we add that one? Kid Rock’s record’s coming out in two weeks. We can add that and not lose our jobs.’ God forbid they play something new and cool.
“I just know that I didn’t give anyone a shitty record. You know when you’re doing a shitty song or a shitty record; you can feel it, ‘Oh, man, this sucks.’ I know I didn’t give anyone chicken shit and ask them to make chicken salad. But that’s what bums you out, you just want people to hear it.”
Kracker met Kid Rock (a.k.a. Bob Ritchie) at a Detroit teen club in 1987 and begged him to let him help out, even if it meant he would only man the fog machine. Eventually, as part of Rock’s Twisted Brown Trucker backup band, he found himself trading rhymes with Rock.
When “Devil Without a Cause” exploded, Kid Rock finally hit the big time, and he took Uncle Kracker along with him. He produced “Double Wide” and performed on it, along with diminutive cohort Joe C, and released it on his Top Dog label.
Kracker says he always wanted to do his own thing, showing off his musical roots.
“Being 15 minutes away from Detroit, the whole Motown thing was unavoidable,” he said. “That’s what I grew up with, listening to Motown, and a lot of Patsy Cline, George Jones. And that wasn’t by choice, that’s just what my dad had pumpin’ through the house. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized, ‘Wow, those were good songs.’
“I like to write songs now that when the song’s over, people are still humming it. I guess everyone could use a good hummer every once in a while.”
Kracker isn’t surprised that younger listeners are eating up his brew.
“If anything’s good enough, kids are going to latch onto it,” he said. “This kid might hate country, but if you show him a couple of good country songs, he’s going to like them. He’s not going to go out and buy every country record he can get his hands on, but he might take an interest in something you just played him. In fact, I turned Kid Rock on to Hank (Williams) Jr. when I was just graduating from high school, and he latched onto him.”
Uncle Kracker has been called the quiet yin to Kid Rock’s white trashing-talking yang. Kid Rock loves the limelight; Uncle Kracker is a family man – he and his wife have two daughters, ages 22 months and 7 months.
“It’s not hard to juggle the rock lifestyle and family life,” he said, “but it’s hard to come off the road and you almost have to put on a different face, because when you’re out there, there’s a lot of things that boast your ego, whether it be money, strippers or people wanting autographs. But when you get home, you have to put your game face on. It’s a whole different story. You gotta throw the cup on and battle it out at home.”
For all the good that has happened in the past two months, it’s tempered with the unexpected death Nov. 16 of Joe C. Born Joseph Calleja, the 26-year-old rapper had an intestinal disorder called Celiac disease.
“That’s a tough one to take,” Kracker said. “And nobody saw it coming. He was sick, granted, all the time, since birth, but he just died. The night before he died, he wasn’t feeling anything abnormal, so it wasn’t like we got a call saying ‘Joe’s in the hospital. He’s sick, he’s probably not going to make it.’ It wasn’t anything like that; it was like ‘Bam,’ he’s dead. The night before, he was a little winded, but he always got winded. He’d have to sit down and catch his breath or maybe he gets heat flashes, but that was normal for him.
“He was great, he was awesome. But at the same time, he was a little bastard. That’s the whole reason we did this last little Kid Rock tour. We did it to pay a little tribute to him and try to get it out of our heads. We needed to take that step forward before we make the next record.”
Kracker is preparing for when the spotlight inevitably goes out. The former gas station attendant and strip-club DJ is squirreling away his money.
“Those were simpler times,” he said of his old jobs, “but they were also less productive times. But, you know what, I wouldn’t give any of those things, those experiences, back. In fact, I’d love to go back and DJ at a strip club again and I’d love to go back to changing tires. In Detroit, I actually bought a bar and a tire shop. A couple of weeks ago, I was at the tire shop, and I pulled in a couple of cars and I changed a few tires. I hadn’t done it in years. When I was 21, my dad sold out of the gas station bullshit; he was going to go retire because he thought I didn’t have any interest in that. My brother didn’t want any part of it; I worked there and kind of ran it.
“Nowadays, I thought I needed to get into something different; I just wanted to know that if the bottom fell out tomorrow, there’s something else I can go do. The only other thing I know other than this is cars, so what I did was buy a tire shop and my dad runs it. It’s 8,000 square feet and I can put the cars in there; I can keep cars in there to tinker with. I don’t get much time to do any of it, but it’s still nice to know it’s there.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “A 45 by Harry Chapin, ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ I remember going to Peaches and seeing that song right next to ‘Pac Man Fever,’ and they had similar sleeves, but I went with ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ Wise move, eh?”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “The Jackson 5’s ‘Victory’ tour. I don’t even remember anything about it; I just remember it being my first concert.”
WHAT’S THE FUNNIEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME?: “I’ll go with ‘Happy Gilmore.’ That was pretty damn funny.”