In the days before he became Kid Rock, little Bob Ritchie used to stand in front of a mirror pretending he was Michael Jackson in sequins and a white glove, working out his dance routine to "Beat It."
"Everybody has their little corny stage, and that was mine," Rock says with a laugh. "Now I realize what really got me was that beat, and it was an 808 drum machine - the most prominent instrument in rap music during the '80s. It was on everything from the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, the Run-D.M.C. albums, even Marvin Gaye's `Sexual Healing.' ... Think about it: `Beat It' had that big guitar riff over that 808 groove, rap and rock together before anyone else."
Rock has spent the last decade perfecting that combination, and he has the multi-platinum albums to prove it: His 1998 breakthrough, Devil Without a Cause, recently topped 10 million in sales; the 2000 retrospective The History of Rock sold 3 million, and his latest album, Cocky, debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard pop chart.
"I make Southern rock and I mix it with the hip-hop, I got money like Fort Knox," Rock declares on "Forever," a song that, like most of the Kid's canon, turns a celebration of his bad self into the type of party that might find Aerosmith's Steve Tyler, the Beasties' Mike D and Johnny Cash sharing a whiskey bottle. Those seemingly disparate personalities might sound ill-matched, but Rock's populist appeal is founded on his ability to appeal to each of those fan bases.
He is an amalgam of simplistic rhymes, recycled boogie riffs, and low-brow attitude who hates Radiohead ("I just don't get it"), loves Hank Williams Jr. ("he's like a father to me") and understands that rappers are the new rock stars.
For all his retro tendencies, Rock is an unlikely innovator, connecting what was once thought unconnectable - honky-tonk and hip-hop - and turning it into party music. As he brags on the title song of his latest album: "Who knew the Kid would be everything from 'ol George Jones to Jay-Z?"
"I was prejudiced against country [music] when I was little, because my parents were big country fans, and of course I wanted to turn up AC/DC to tick them off," he says. "But as I've grown older I realized that country was birthed out of America just like hip-hop, jazz and the blues. I'm not doing it to get a rise out of people, I just think it sounds cool."
Now Rock dabbles in many genres, but belongs to none, and likes it that way.
"I get invited to Ozzfest every year but never go," he says. "I wouldn't go on a hip-hop tour if Puff Daddy invited me. George Strait does a huge festival every year, but it's too country for me. I hate getting lumped into one category. I never wanted to be in a frat, and I never wanted to be in a gang either."
He did attend a Hank Williams Jr. concert with his father when he was 21, though, and after spending most of his teen-age years immersed in hip-hop, "got back in touch with my whiteness" - the redneck within, as it were.
"The more country I heard, the more I liked that bluesy influence - country is the white man's blues," Rock says. "It just seemed so similar to hip-hop in that respect: the hard-life songs, the songs about women loving and leaving you, and the community where people guest on each other's records and groups are like extended families, whether it's the Wu-Tang Clan or Johnny Cash and his clan."
Rock has spent most of the last decade developing an appreciation for his musical forefathers, and says that Cocky is his roots album, with nods to slide-guitar blues ("Baby Come Home"), a George Jones-Tammy Wynette-style country duet with Sheryl Crow ("Picture"), early Detroit-style, Bob Seger boogie ("I'm a Dog"), a world-weary honky-tonk ballad that morphs into an old-school rap ("Midnight Train to Memphis") and an Aerosmith- Lynyrd Skynyrd hybrid (the rambling-man ode "What I Learned Out on the Road").
Love or hate his persona or his pronouncements, Rock is a likable straight-shooter in conversation, and an energetic crowd-pleaser in performance.
He was a hit at the benefit concert for New York City in October, throwing open his dressing room and his beer supply to the firefighters backstage. And he has taped a performance for troops overseas that will be broadcast tomorrow on MTV, For the Troops: An MTV/USO Special.
But for his detractors, Rock is the rap-era answer to Ted Nugent, Detroit rock 'n' brawl with a hard-right-wing attitude.
"He's the jingoistic pimp," says singer Natalie Merchant, whose recent album Motherland, continues her history of addressing social politics. "So we're in Afghanistan telling them we're the capital of freedom and feminism and we're here to liberate you, but what kind of liberation do Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson represent for women?"