We’ve always loved hip-hop,” says the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, “and we’ve always known that we could make a really good hip-hop record.” With his mountain-dude beard and heavy-lidded pallor, Auerbach looks more like an extra in a zombie movie than a rap aficionado. Besides, the five albums Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have made since 2002 are mash-ups of country blues and classic rock. And yet the first unmistakable homage to New York’s hip-hop scene during Clinton’s first term—an era when Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and Jeru the Damaja used forbidding soundscapes to chronicle the city’s declining early-nineties fortunes—comes from two white dudes.
The resulting album, BlakRoc, is notable on several levels. It’s not the dreaded rap-rock, the mere mention of which causes Auerbach to look like he’s about to vomit. And it features appearances by RZA and Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan, Q-Tip, and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard (by way of an unreleased tape), among others. “Pat and I listened to more New York hip-hop than anything,” says Auerbach. “It was super-minimal and super-gritty.”
Sure, but how did they wrangle all those rap heavyweights? With phone calls from Damon Dash, hip-hop entrepreneur and co-founder of Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella label. Tipped to the Keys by his assistants, Dash was intrigued by the duo on a business level: They’ve sold several hundred thousand albums and sell out New York shows with zero radio support or video airplay. “They don’t compromise their brand,” Dash says admiringly. Listening to their records, he was reminded of “music made before I was even born—old-school dirty blues rock. They’re not regular white boys.”
Dash suggested the Keys record in Brooklyn with another veteran, Jim Jones, which led to a host of Dash’s old-school rap friends stopping by. Prodded along by Auerbach’s eerie guitar jabs and Carney’s sulky beats, tracks like “Dollaz and Sense” and “Hard Times” are claustrophobic but transfixing, recalling the days before rappers abused AutoTune or a Lil Wayne cameo.
Any student of this era of hip-hop also knows how unreliable its stars could be. So the Keys are planning to promote the album with a few TV appearances rather than a more ambitious tour. “It would be too hard to get everyone together,” says Auerbach with a knowing chuckle. “We don’t want to put ourselves through that … agony.”