Uncle Kracker pulls into the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, on a quest for orange Gatorade and Funyuns. Inside, we are scouting the snacks aisle when he holds a finger to his lips and says, “Sssshhhh.” The store’s loudspeaker is playing the Kid Rock ballad “Only God Knows Why,” a song Kracker co-wrote.
“Hear that?” Kracker says, grinning. “I just made another nickel.”
Most of what Uncle Kracker has in life comes from Kid Rock – even his name: He’s known as Matt Shafer to his family and friends, but when he was thirteen, Rock dubbed him Kracker. “Somebody wanted to call Kid Rock ‘Kracker,'” Shafer explains. “He knew what it meant, but I didn’t, so that’s when it started.” (The “Uncle” was added recently, when the rock band Cracker objected.)
Kid Rock taught Shafer how to work the turntables, how to rap, how to perform. During shows, he would scratch records and trade lines with Rock. Every day, they would hang out in Kid Rock’s basement and write a song. When Devil Without a Cause became a blockbuster (it has now sold almost 10 million copies), they went on the road together, touring the arenas and strip clubs of these United States. Kid Rock negotiated Uncle Kracker’s record deal and produced his debut album, Double Wide, on the tour bus. The disc is a mellow mix of rock, rap and country – if Kid Rock is Run-D.M.C. meets Kiss, Uncle Kracker is James Taylor introducing EPMD to Hank Williams Jr. The single “Follow Me” has a midtempo bounce, processed vocals and a chewing-gum melody. “I like to do those hum-along songs,” Shafer says. “Everyone likes a good hummer.”
Six months after its release, Double Wide has gone gold, demonstrating either that Detroit rap-rock fusion works just as well with the volume dialed down or that Kid Rock is establishing a new infallibility doctrine. “Kid Rock always had this vision, and I tagged along like a younger brother,” says Shafer. “When I first met him, he was wearing the hat flipped up and the clock around his neck. I was thirteen, he was probably sixteen. I looked up to him. I still do.”
Driving through the suburbs north of Detroit in his black luxury Mercury, Shafer is content. He’s a mellow guy who, at age twenty-six, has achieved every goal he ever had in life. He’s ordinary-looking, with stubble and an egg-shaped face – and diamonds sparkling when he grins. He cracked a front tooth years ago when he was riding his motorcycle – he landed poorly after a jump and his head smashed into the handlebars. Two years ago, he had a diamond grille installed in his mouth. “I was always accident-prone,” he says. “I was the catcher, I was the goalie – there were always hockey sticks in my mouth.”
Shafer pulls into the driveway of his ranch home and takes me inside. The only decorations on the walls are platinum records for Devil Without a Cause, which get larger and gaudier as the album progressed from single-platinum to double and quintuple. A high shelf in the kitchen holds Shafer’s MTV Roch-N-Jock bowling trophy. Shafer introduces me to his wife, Melanie, who has dyed her hair an aggressive shade of red.
“Where did you and Matt meet?” I ask Melanie.
“The enchanted forest! Ha-ho-ha-hee! It’s so beautiful!” That’s not Melanie – that’s Barney the purple dinosaur. Shafer and Melanie’s two baby daughters, Skylar and Madison, are watching the big-screen TV in a state of rapture.
“In history class,” Melanie says. “He cheated off me during tests. He’d say, ‘Haas’ – that’s my maiden name – ‘move your arm.'”
“The only thing that kept me out of college was high school,” Shafer says.
On tour, Shafer sometimes parties until 9 A.M. At home, he’s just an amiable dad playing with his kids. When he falls asleep on the couch, Skylar likes to wake him up by bopping him on the head with the toaster. Skylar is a big fan of her dad’s music: Every time she sees a CD player, she says, “Dada!” If they didn’t hide the disc, she would play “Follow Me” all day long.
Melanie’s heading out to pick up some Mexican food, so Shafer hands her a roll of cash the size of his fist. After she’s gone, he gives Skylar a bath in the kitchen sink. “Bubbles? You like bubbles?” he asks her.
“Eh-oh,” she says.
“Eh-oh,” he agrees.
Skylar’s godfather is Kid Rock. When he walks through the door, she’ll run and hide, utterly terrified. But after a few minutes, they’ll be watching Elmo together. “He’s a solid individual,” Kid Rock later says of Shafer. “He doesn’t fuck around on his wife or indulge in stuff on the road. He just sits back and laughs at me.”
Melanie returns with enchiladas and french fries; over dinner, she reminisces about her and Shafer’s wedding in Las Vegas. They wanted an Elvis impersonator, but that would have cost an extra sixty dollars, and they were living off Warped Tour per diems. In the wedding photos, they’re both beaming, both wearing gray T-shirts; Shafer’s reads BEWARE OF THE DOG.
“She’s the luckiest girl in the world,” Shafer says.
“I remind myself of that every day,” she agrees dryly. When he needs some quiet – to write a song, say – Shafer hits the road and drives for a couple of hours. Tonight, as he heads out the door after dinner, Melanie calls out, “Don’t forget, tonight’s garbage night.” She adds, “You may be Kracker out there, but you’re Matthew at home.”
Some facts about Matt Shafer: His favorite expression is “That’s hot,” which he uses to show approval. He wears a money clip on the brim of his baseball cap but mostly uses it to clean his nails. The first record he ever bought was by Eighties rap group the Fat Boys. He wrote “Follow Me” in ten minutes. When he was a kid, his father owned a local Amoco station. Shafer loved to fall asleep on his dad’s gasoline-drenched jacket.
“I grew up in gas stations,” Shafer says. “From age nine, that was how I spent all my weekends.” But once Shafer turned twenty-one, he quit the gas station to be a strip-club DJ. Detroit has a cluster of strip clubs on the south side of Eight Mile Road, just inside the city limits. “I DJ’d at one titty bar where the owner wanted me to alternate rock songs and R&B songs. But all the dancers were black, and the only rock song they wanted to hear was Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight.’ “
That job lasted only a couple of years: “I quit and devoted all my time to Kid Rock,” he says. The two first met when a local bar was having a teen-night DJ contest, and Kid Rock was going to compete against Shafer’s brother. Rock showed up without turntables, confident he could talk someone into loaning him equipment. Rock remembers his first impression of Shafer: “He was this little, chunky kid with his hat backwards who wanted to hang out with the bad boys. He used to call me up every night, bug the hell out of me. Now he’s great at helping me finish a line of a verse – a lot of times that’s because I’m lazy. He’s not very musical, but he’s not scared to say something sucks. And as a singer, he’s developed into a Mini-Me. That’s because we’ve been singing together for ten years and have the same sense of rhythm.”
“He always had a vision,” Shafer says, echoing sidekicks from St. John to Robin to Little Steven. “He was making a path through the jungle, and we were just going along. Bob never threw in the towel, so how could I?”
Bob is Kid Rock’s real name; he was born Robert Ritchie. Shafer switches between the two names in conversation, so I ask when he uses each. “I always call him Bob, except when I’m doing shit like talking to you. And then I wonder if he’ll find out.”
What’s Bob like as a boss?
“You couldn’t ask for a better friend,” Shafer emphasizes. “But as a boss …” He hesitates. “He’s kind of a dick.”
Shafer has a lot of tattoos, including a question mark on his left hand and the cartoon character Snuffy Smith, both of which he got because his dad has them. There’s also a tattoo, shared with the other members of Kid Rock’s band, reading JOE C. for the three-foot-nine rapper who died last November at twenty-six as a result of celiac disease.
“The first show we took him to was in Chicago,” Shafer says. “I don’t think he had ever been outside of Taylor [Michigan] to do anything other than visit his grandparents or go to a hospital. So we’re walking around this Chicago mall, and an old lady bends down and pinches him on the cheeks and says, ‘He’s so cute!’ He smacks her hand and says, ‘Get the fuck off of me!’ She freaked out. She thought we were demons, letting our kid talk like that. That’s hot.”
Shafer has squandered some of his money – his Rolex is covered with diamonds – but he also co-owns a local bar and a tire shop, investments for when the music career is over. His dad manages the tire shop; Shafer uses the backroom to rehearse with his band.
Double Wide was recorded with Kid Rock and his Twisted Brown Trucker Band. Most of the sessions took place on the tour bus after concerts, which accounts for the mellow vibe – they were coming down from the noise and energy of the show. Now that he’s performing on his own, Shafer has recruited a quintet of young locals. But he’s having trouble getting them to show up on time for practice – maybe he’s finding out why Kid Rock is a dick when he’s the boss.
In a chilly room reeking of tire rubber, the band runs through most or the Uncle Kracker album, plus covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “All I Can Do Is Write About It” and Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” as well as an extended riff on Guns n’ Roses’ “Paradise City.” Uncle Kracker’s own “Whiskey and Water” is a standout, with its heavy funk groove reminiscent of War. But the song that really showcases the band’s agility with multiple genres is “Heaven.” The song’s a cappella chorus, “If heaven ain’t a lot like Detroit/I don’t wanna go,” is a rewrite of a Hank Williams Jr. lyric; the band then does a funk vamp while Shafer furiously raps about the Motor City. Where did all these genres come from? “When I grew up, all my dad played was Motown and George Jones and Patsy Cline,” Shafer says after practice, smoking a Pall Mall. “The only approach I know is these big melodic hooks.” Kid Rock credits Shafer with turning him on to country.
The next day, Shafer drives me to the property where he’ll be building his new house. It’s in the same suburb where he grew up, only ten minutes away from both his parents and Melanie’s parents. In preparation for its construction, he’s had all the trees removed from the land, so when we stop by, the yard is a muddy disaster area. A work crew in the back is trying to pull out some equipment that sank into the earth – and failing. “You pay peanuts, you get monkeys,” Shafer says with a sigh. A cluster of Shafer’s future neighbors stands across the street watching the wheels spin and the mud fly. We get out of the car and join them.
Shafer’s worried that if his landscapers know who they’re working for, they’ll jack up the price. But one of the neighbors recognizes Shafer right away. He’s an old-timer in a denim jacket, holding onto the shaft of a broken golf club. He doesn’t realize Shafer’s a musician – he just knows he lived here a decade ago. “I remember you,” he says. “Shafer. You were a little fart.”
Shafer laughs. He’s home again. “That’s hot.”