The Early Days
Known to friends and family as Matt Shafer, Uncle Kracker is the man behind the turntables in Kid Rocks Twisted Brown Trucker band.
A 13-year-old Kracker first hooked up with the young man who would be Kid Rock back in 1987. The two met at a Clawson, Michigan nightspot called Daytonas, where Rock was spinning in an all-ages DJ competition.
He and my brother were competing against each other, Kracker recalls. They became friends after that, but then me and him became best friends. I was just rappin back then and he would record me.
Kracker Learns the Turntables
When Kid Rock released his debut album, GRITS SANDWICHES FOR BREAKFAST, in 1991, he invited Kracker to join his band as DJ. The only problem was, the fledging rapper had no clue how to work the turntables.
I didnt know how to scratch records or anything, Kracker laughs, but I was cost efficient. I pretty much learned by playing at shows. I never set up in my bedroom and practiced my parents would freak if I turned it up. We did shows and it was do-or-die. Id either fuck it up or I would look pretty good.
Needless to say, Kracker learned his trade well and soon became a master at the wheels of steel. Since then, he has served as best friend and musical foil to the Pimp of the Nation, co-writing and performing songs on all of Rocks records, including the mega-platinum DEVIL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Indeed, it was the success of that record that enabled Uncle Kracker to fulfill his long-in-the-works solo debut.
Ive always wanted to do my own thing, Kracker says, and being with Kid Rock, that is a great outlet for me. Yknow, two heads are better than one. We write together, we play together. But weve always had a plan, to branch out and keep it all in the family. After DEVIL happened, it was the right time for me to do my record.
Kracker Goes Solo With Double Wide
DOUBLE WIDE was recorded at the back of the tour bus during Rocks cross-country treks with Limp Bizkit and Metallica. With all the well-documented hijinks and antics of a Kid Rock tour, its a wonder that Kracker was able to stay focused on the job of making music.
It was one big distraction, thats for sure, he laughs. Between shows and rehearsals and photo shoots and interviews not to mention the stuff that goes on the bus! But it kept me sober, because I knew there was something that had to be done.
Its hard to record while on the road, though, Kracker adds. Especially having Kid Rock as producer, hes got so much other shit happening. Hes doing remixes and movie soundtrack shit in between photo shoots and gigs and rehearsals, its crazy. It probably took only three months to make my record, only it was over the course of a year.
As the bus cruised the highways and byways of America, Kid Rock and the members of Twisted Brown Trucker including keyboardist Jimmie Bones, guitarists Kenny Olson and Jason Krause, and drummer Stefanie Eulinberg all paid visits to the makeshift studio in order to contribute music to DOUBLE WIDE.
We didnt change much, Kracker says. We just played in my style instead of Kid Rocks. It doesnt have Kid Rock Jr. written all over it. I also think that weve all grown up a little bit and gotten better, just by being on the road.
In addition, the Kid himself stepped up to the mic for a guest appearance, dropping one of his trademark raps on Heaven. Something inside me said no cameos, but its kind of unavoidable, Kracker says of Rocks rhyming. To not have him on the record, that'd just be stupid.
As you'd expect from two longtime friends, both Kracker and Kid Rock share similar musical tastes, from Run DMC's old school hip hop and radio rock heroes like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger, to classic 70's funk such as the Commodores, and country-and-western outlaws like George Jones and Hank Williams Jr. DOUBLE WIDE features eleven tracks co-written by Kid and Kracker, including the soulful stomper, What Chu Lookin At? (also included on the soundtrack to Mission Impossible 2), and the spaghetti-western groove of Aces and 8's.
"I like songs that are built to last," he says. "Instead of writing songs for today, I'm trying to write songs for tomorrow. I want it to sound like it could be from 20 years ago or 20 years from now."
Kracker Follows Up With Stranger
Kracker's second solo album, "NO STRANGER TO SHAME" was recorded in winter 2001/2002, just after Kid Rock and Twisted Brown Trucker returned to America following their acclaimed performance for the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in Ramstein, Germany. Though Kid Rock had previously played a role in the writing/production of Kracker's first album (and, of course, Kracker played an equally significant role in Kid Rock's enormous success, co-writing some of his biggest hits), on his new record, "NO STRANGER TO SHAME," Kracker holds the creative reins.
Uncle Kracker enlisted the help of "DOUBLE WIDE" producer Mike Bradford. The two decided to lay down tracks in the loft just upstairs from Uncle Kracker's attorneys, the law offices of Metry and Metry, located in downtown Mt. Clemens, Michigan. "It's an amazing space in an old building," he explains. "Hardwood floors, 14-foot ceilings. We set up a Pro Tools rig and just banged it out.
"It was a perfect spot for recording, plus I love the shock value," he adds. "This has got to be the first record ever written and recorded above an attorney's office!" The prodigiously talented Bradford (known for his work with a stunningly diverse array of artists, from Madonna to Run DMC to the Butthole Surfers,) became Uncle Kracker's main collaborator. "Bradford's an incredible producer and an incredible musician," he says, "and we're both totally on the same page as far as the kind of music we wanted to make. We were both looking for that classic country-soul vibe that we grew up listening to."
Among the highlights of "NO STRANGER TO SHAME" is a rollicking version of a country-soul classic we all grew up listening to - Dobie Gray's "Drift Away." Long a staple of Uncle Kracker's live sets, the new recording is graced by the smooth baritone vocals of Gray himself.
"It was cool, man," says Uncle Kracker of the collaboration. "I've met a lot of people whose music I absolutely love, and a lot of the time, it's really disappointing. They don't sing like they used to sing. Their attitudes are just shot. But Dobie came in, and that guy sings just lik ke yesterday. He hasn't lost it at all. That was so refreshing."
The album also sees musical accompaniment from a number of session superstars, including Twisted Brown Trucker keyboardist Jimmie Bones, guitarist Dean Parks (Steely Dan, Neil Diamond), bassist Jimmy Johnson (Randy Newman, James Taylor), and drummer Russ Kunkel, best known for his work on Jackson Browne's timeless '70s material. As if that weren't enough, "NO STRANGER TO SHAME" features a special guest shot from Uncle Kracker's longtime running buddy, Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, who lends his distinctive vocal stylings to the album's title track.
"It was like pulling teeth to get that fucker in the studio," he laughs. "I was asking him to come down for weeks, then finally I was at a studio in Burbank cutting vocals, and I was like, 'Dude, you going to come down and do this motherfucker or not?' I just wanted to have him be a part of this record because he helped me a lot on the first record, from being in my first video to asking me out on the road with Sugar Ray."
Whether he's touring as solo artist or with Kid Rock and Twisted Brown Trucker, life on the road has become a given for Uncle Kracker. The poignant "Letter To My Daughters" reflects just how much the endless highway has touched his personal life.
"It sucks, but I've missed the majority of their lives," he says. "The other day I was on the phone with my oldest daughter - she just turned three - and she said, 'Daddy, do you want to come over?' It sucks that she would ask that, but she's not used to me being there at home with her. So this song is kind of like my apology to them. It's going to be nice when they hear it in a couple of years and know how much I was thinking about them, even though I wasn't there a whole lot."
After wrapping up the "NO STRANGER TO SHAME" sessions, Uncle Kracker once again set out on the road with Kid Rock. While out in Los Angeles to film MTV's Aerosmith: Icon special, Uncle Kracker had a burst of creative spontaneity, resulting in the album's irresistible first single, "In A Little While."
"That was the absolute last song we recorded," Uncle Kracker says. "I was just going to do some mixing and decided, 'Hey, let's do a new one!' I get bored fast." The success of "DOUBLE WIDE" was a source of real excitement for Uncle Kracker, though he admits to suffering a bit of the been there-done thats, having just enjoyed a number of similar experiences as part of Kid Rock's band.
"Doing Leno and Letterman was cool, but in a way, it was like, 'I did this already,'" he says. "But when 'Follow Me' went Top 10 - which is higher than any of the songs I wrote with Kid Rock - man, that was a sweet rush."
Fuelled by honest emotions and inventive musicality, "NO STRANGER TO SHAME," firmly establishes Uncle Kracker as a singularly indefinable artist - and you can bet your bottom dollar, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't want to sound corny," he says, "but at the end of the day, it's all about the music and making music that you love. It's real important to me to try not to do what everybody else is doing. I'm just happy that at the end of the sessions, I came out with what I wanted to come out with."
Kracker Returns With '72 & Sunny'
When it comes to weather conditions, we can all agree that 72 AND SUNNY is pretty perfect. It's warm enough to get a tan but not so hot that you're sweating like a pig. It's nice enough for any outdoor activity but not so oppressive that it prohibits any of them.
72 AND SUNNY is also the title of Uncle Kracker's third album, and it's, well, pretty perfect itself. Following 2000's double-platinum DOUBLE WIDE and 2002's chart-topping NO STRANGER TO SHAME -- which launched Uncle Kracker's record-setting rendition of Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" -- 72 AND SUNNY is the most fully realized album to date from Kid Rock's former DJ and hype man. Its 13 songs offer an artistic triumph of songwriting and performance that is the best expression yet of the Uncle Kracker sound, emphasizing high-quality melodic songwriting and a unique stylistic synthesis that knits together elements of pop, rock, country, soul, blues and even doo-wop but retains a strong identity that could only belong to one singer-songwriter. Think about the warm, earnest sound of classics such as THE BAND, Rod Stewart's GASOLINE ALLEY or Little Feat's TIME LOVES A HERO and you have a sense of the high artistic mark Uncle Kracker aspires towards this time out.
Uncle Kracker (aka Matt Shafer) recorded 72 AND SUNNY with Michael Bradford, his collaborator on DOUBLE WIDE and NO STRANGER TO SHAME, earlier this year primarily at Bradford's Chunky Style Music Studios in Burbank, Calif., with additional work at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville. Bradford did the majority of the instrumental work, with drums by Jerome Day from Uncle Kracker's touring band and session legend Russ Kunkel. Country superstar Kenny Chesney duets with Uncle Kracker on "Last Night Again," returning the favor for Uncle Kracker's participation in Chesney's No. 1 hit "When the Sun Goes Down." Other guests include Poison's Bret Michaels and Nashville luminary Phil Vassar. Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter Diane Warren, meanwhile, penned the first single, "Rescue," especially for Uncle Kracker.
72 AND SUNNY blazes a new pathway for the man who, in his own words, "can write a song to make the whole world laugh or cry." With its tales of loves lost and found, redemption and good times, 72 AND SUNNY runs an emotional gamut that few artists achieve anymore and definitely leaves us smiling in the end. The forecast is perfect indeed.