Kanye West may have become a household name when he lamented, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" during the Hurricane Katrina debacle, but he was already one of the most critically feted rappers of all time. His debut album, 2004's The College Dropout, topped numerous year-end polls and sold nearly three million copies. In an August cover story, Time magazine proclaimed him "the smartest man in pop music."
All of this has Byron Crawford seething. "[West's] rapping skills are just this side of horrible, maybe half-a-notch above P. Diddy," he says.
Armed with keyboard and modem, the Internet's most controversial hip-hop blogger is waging war with the celebrity rapper. Crawford began the battle by excoriating the album. "Can't somebody just get him a degree from Ranken or somewhere so he can shut the fuck up about school already?" he wrote on his blog, ByronCrawford.com. He went on to call one of the tunes "the worst shit I've ever heard before in my life."
Then it got personal.
"Not to rag on people without fathers, but Kanye West is just another example of the kind of shit that happens when there's no man in the house," Crawford penned in a post titled "Let's Hunt and kill Kanye West's Mother." "You can tell his mom tried to dress him up like Alfonso Ribeiro from 'Silver Spoons' and had him doing all kinds of faggoty shit."
The 24-year-old Crawford really hit the roof when West was nominated last December for a pair of Grammy awards for his song "Jesus Walks." Crawford says he received a tip from a friend in Indianapolis that an MC named Rhymefest actually wrote the number and sold it to West -- grounds, in Crawford's mind, for Grammy disqualification. Crawford proceeded to launch an online petition to have the nominations rescinded.
"Did Kanye Steal 'Jesus Walks'?" asked the headline of a December 18, 2004, story on the Web site TheOG.net, which cited a press release Crawford sent out as its only source. Dozens of other Web sites, message boards and blogs followed suit, and more than 800 people signed the petition. Though the Grammy committee did not disqualify West, his heretofore sparkling reputation was tarnished.
"[Crawford] was the first one in on the Kanye West ghostwriting controversy," affirms Cleveland-based writer Jim Izrael, "and then he blew it up all over the fucking Internet."
West's family fought back.
"How painful it must be to be filled with so much hate," read a posting in the comments section of Crawford's blog. The comment was signed by West's mother, Donda.
Another comment, apparently from West's cousin, threatened, "IF YALL TOUCH MY AUNTIE IM GOIN KILL YALL AZZ I SWEAR ON ERR THANG I LOVE."
Yet another angry blast came to Crawford via e-mail: "you and all the other people who have nothing but negative things to say about him need to RAISE UP OFF HIS NUTS!!!!!!!!!! sincerely, kanye's former babysitter, and current friend & supporter Deneen."
None of West's defenders could be reached for comment or to verify their identities.
Finally, West struck back during a radio interview he conducted this summer in London with BBC DJ Tim Westwood.
"If you on the Internet, don't say nothing about Kanye," West said. "I'm sick of it. You can't touch me, so shut up. They try to find flaws: 'I don't feel like he should get nominated for 'Jesus Walks.'
"What I do is, I kind of have tunnel vision," West went on. "When I focus on something I completely have to kill it. If I focus on clothes, completely kill that. Focus on the Grammy performance, completely kill that. Focus on the album, completely kill that. Focus on Internet haters -- die motherfucker, die motherfucker, die!"
"I don't know that Kanye knows who Byron is," says Kris Ex, a Brooklyn-based journalist and co-author of 50 Cent's autobiography. "But Byron spearheaded something that forced Kanye to respond."
Crawford's beef with West is indicative of the bald-headed blogger's M.O. By taking on the pop culture's sacred cows in a vulgar, over-the-top manner, he draws hundreds of thousands of readers.
"I try to provide an alternative to what you would normally see in the media, whether it's music or politics or whatever," says Crawford. "It's not like I dislike [West] any more than anyone else who's out right now, but to hear some people tell it, he was the greatest thing to come along in hip-hop."
Observes Ex: "Byron is using shock value to push buttons and to have conversations that these days aren't usually allowed to happen because everyone's so politically correct. No one wants to say anything that offends someone on the record. But when people get around their friends and get drunk, it's 'nigga this, cracker that, fag this, fag that.' Byron's brought it out in the open."
It's five o'clock somewhere, and Byron Crawford is downing multiple cans of Miller High Life and flipping channels. Sitting on a beat-up couch pilfered from his parents' basement, he fends off advances from Eberhard Anheuser, his roommate's dog. The boxer's erect penis swells from his underside; Crawford insists the animal's gay.
"I've seen it get head from other male dogs," he says.
At his University City apartment on an early Friday afternoon, Crawford has made a rare foray outside his bedroom. Unlike his histrionic Web presence, in person Crawford is quiet and accommodating. He wears frameless glasses, a gray T-shirt and flip-flops, and weighs, perhaps, 300 pounds. He says he hasn't checked the scales since he was a 260-pound heavyweight on the Parkway North High School wrestling team.
"I spent the last five years drinking coffee, watching TV and using the Internet, so...." he says with a shrug.
Crawford moves now into his cluttered, poorly lit bedroom, where stacks of empty Miller High Life cans line the windowsill and baskets of dirty laundry sit at the base of his bed. Crawford figures he occupies the room some twenty hours a day -- that is, when he's not crashing at his parents' place.
"You know, the dog kind of bugs me, and I've got my computer here, with all my files on it, my music and everything else," he says. "It's kind of like a dorm room away from college."
The room's main attraction is the audio/video equipment: a PS2, Sega Dreamcast, DVD player, computer, stereo, record player and 27-inch Sony Trinitron TV currently showing MTV's Date My Mom, a show in which young studs test-drive mamas before deciding which of their daughters they'd like to pursue, sight-unseen. MTV is almost always on here; it provides Crawford with the celebutantes, gangsta wannabes, reality-series bimbos and Top 40 hopefuls he mocks on his blog.
Consuming pop culture is Crawford's pastime, and dissecting it is his occupation. He has no hobbies to speak of and lives off the $500 a month he sells in ad space on his site. He dips into diminishing savings from his previous jobs, working at Big K-Mart and blogging for a site called MyInsurance101.com. He expects that money to run out soon.
Depressing? Nah. Crawford's living the dream. "Maybe in the long run I'll get a job that pays good money -- sit in an office, push pencils around, do whatever regular people do at work," he says. "Right now I have the best job I could have."
That job is maintaining his blog, and readers flock to it, seemingly smitten by his sulfurous prose. They fill up his comment sections and link Crawford's posts to their own sites.
All told, ByronCrawford.com averages 8,000 to 9,000 unique visitors per day. While that's far short of such blogs as Daily Kos and Instapundit -- with daily readership in the hundreds of thousands -- it is now one of the most popular blogs on the Internet that's not related exclusively to politics. A survey study earlier this year found that, of blogs with readership in excess of 100,000, it was the second-fastest growing, getting about as much traffic as many sites for established print publications like Vibe and Spin. The demand is so great that Crawford recently enlisted a weekend editor, a fifteen-year-old from Dansville, Michigan, who calls himself Big Walt the Agro-Centric.
"Byron's hits are like Eminem and 50 Cent numbers compared to everybody else," says Kris Ex. "His hits are not even in the same league as anyone else's hits, he's so far ahead of the pack."
"He's a phenomenon, a one-man wrecking machine," says Jim Izrael, the Cleveland writer. "He does, in my opinion, really smart satire. He does a lot of race baiting on his site -- and it's no accident that most of his readership are young, pseudo-hip white kids who presume him to be white. It's very interesting."
Sitting down, Crawford shows off the finer points of his six-year-old Compaq Presario. He uses it to compose his approximately 300-word blog entries, which he posts two or three times a day. He writes under the name Bol -- a childhood nickname -- and uses only two fingers when he types.
One of his PC's best characteristics, he says, is that it has a small hard drive. Too small for much porn.
"If I had a one hundred gigabyte hard drive," he explains, "I'd probably never leave the house."
Matt Drudge was the original Internet celebrity. Rising to fame in 1998 by breaking only-rumored details of Monica Lewinsky's heady encounters with President Clinton, the Miami-based raconteur created a unique niche that combined traditional news and unsubstantiated gossip -- without distinguishing between them.
"The archetype of all bloggers is Drudge," says Robert Niles, editor of University of Southern California Annenberg's Online Journalism Review. "He created the template by which everybody else started to play. Even though his format isn't faithfully what has become widely known to be the blog format, he established the tone and the personality that most early bloggers aspired to."
"There's a huge market for that kind of opinionated, voicy writing, especially if it's tapping into the kind of underlying sentiments that the mainstream publications won't touch," says Elizabeth Spiers, co-founding editor of Gawker.com.
Drudge ran with innuendo that conventional journalists eschewed. Like The Drudge Report, Crawford's site has little in common with traditional bloggers; instead of writing for a small circle of friends and family, he seeks out stories concerning nationally-known figures. While Drudge zeroes in on Washington and Hollywood scandal, Crawford focuses on celebrities more familiar to urban teens and twentysomethings.
Crawford started his first blog in college. "It was mostly about Bobby Brown and retarded kids," he says of the site, which was also called ByronCrawford.com. Along with consuming copious amounts of Natural Light, blogging was how Crawford passed his time at Truman State University.
Admitted on a scholarship -- he was a National Merit Scholar semifinalist in high school -- his funding was yanked after he failed to keep his grades up. Majoring in business administration, he finally graduated after five years in May of 2004, then took a series of grunt-level jobs back in the St. Louis area, including flipping sliders at White Castle.
"I wanted him to find a regular corporate job, but I just couldn't persuade him," says his father, Byron "Joe" Crawford Sr., a St. Louis tax consultant for Price Waterhouse Coopers and amateur marathon runner.
"He never was the kind of kid that went out running up and down the street," he adds. "He's always been a trivia-buff kind of person. Music, movies, TV programs -- he has this memory for minute details."
Crawford's mother remembered when, as a Parkway East eighth-grader, her son wrote a class paper on water, in which he asked the question: "Do you ever wonder what happens when you take a dump?" His mortified teacher nearly failed him.
Crawford started his current blog two years ago. An account of his tenure at Super Smokers -- the barbecue chain where he worked in the summer of 2004 -- gained him widespread notice:
"What I'm about to reveal to you here, is the top secret ingredient which has led to Super Smokers being the only barbecue operation in the St. Louis area to win at the World BBQ Championships held annually in Memphis.
"That secret ingredient? You guessed it, human piss.
"I know, I was shocked too when I learned that the secret that gave Super Smokers BBQ its unique taste was that its employees, mostly the male ones, would pee on the pile of wood that was kept out back to be used in their smokers."
Crawford swears the story is true, but his former manager denies that Crawford or anyone else urinated upon the wood.
"Ridiculous," says Jeff Basler, now general manager at the chain's Glendale location. "I couldn't believe it when I saw it on his Web site." (Crawford's entry ranks third when you Google "Super Smokers BBQ.")
Crawford's rap-focused entries are distinguished by their acrid tones. Unlike the almost universal adoration mainstream hip-hop outlets like Vibe and XXL pay rap stars, Crawford is unafraid to take on hip-hop's elite. In one post, he declared Phil Collins' No Jacket Required to be superior to Jay-Z's The Blueprint. Another found the Gin Blossoms' New Miserable Experience better than Nas' Illmatic. "J-Kwon beats his baby's mother," screamed one headline. "The Game was a gay stripper," said another.
"I know tons of editors and writers that think an artist is stupid, and you turn around and that artist is on the cover," says Ex. "I think Byron is just reacting to that hypocrisy."
More than 30,000 people read his August post, titled "Is Andy Milonakis dying?" The entry speculated that Milonakis -- a diminutive MTV VJ -- had a medical condition that would eventually kill him. Angry at the unsubstantiated speculation, Milonakis fans e-mailed him death threats. Someone posted Crawford's phone number to a Milonakis fan site, and hundreds of fans called to bitch at him.
The only problem was that it wasn't Crawford's number -- it was his parents'. They received harassing phone calls for two straight weeks. Now, Kim Crawford monitors her son's site closely. "I'm worried that someone might knock on my door sometime," she says.
Matt Drudge and Byron Crawford have more in common than just their popular sites. They've both been subjected to vicious rumor mills.
In David Brock's 2002 book, Blinded by the Right, the author claims Drudge hit on him, an allegation repeated by actor Alec Baldwin on the Howard Stern Show. (Drudge denies that he is gay and has threatened to sue Baldwin.)
As for Crawford, nobody seems too concerned with his sexuality (he's girlfriendless, but straight). It's his race that has his readers talking.
"So for all those that have been harassed by Byron's racist campaigns, understand that he isn't the real cat that he claims to be," wrote someone called 'djhaze' in Crawford's comment section in April. "He is a white boy acting like a black man."
"Hell at this point you could be a 70-year-old Asian woman for all we know," wrote a blogger called Trader Mike.
The speculation arose partly because of racial slurs Crawford employs liberally in his posts.
"Wildly untalented R&B singer Houston, who's obviously crazy and possibly teh ghey [gay] has gone and gouged his own eye out," Crawford wrote last February. "No word yet on whether or not he actually tried to eat the eye after he gouged it out, which I know is common for jigs who go fucking around with those white people drugs."
Crawford is black but grew up surrounded by whites. When he was twelve, his family moved from University City to a Creve Coeur cul-de-sac, and he attended the largely white Parkway North High School.
"That's probably how I got so obsessed with race in the first place, just being an outsider pretty much my whole life," Crawford muses. "I feel unique within the group of people I live around. You try to use it to your advantage."
"The kids never segregated themselves into different ethnic groups," notes Crawford's father. "[Byron] looks at things colorless, I believe. He moved to an adult-level sense of humor at a very early age. He was very sarcastic as a nine- and ten-year-old, and that used to cost him, big time."
Sarcasm and racial insensitivity are trademark fare in Crawford's blogs. Few were more beguiling than the time he "came out" as white. Posting a picture of a different man named Byron Crawford -- a white journalist from Louisville -- he mischievously blogged:
"I'll go ahead and admit it: I'm white. I know, I know, it's horrible. I went to the bank today and they actually approved me for a loan. In fact, one of the bank managers ended up being my cousin and actually offered me a job. No more flipping White Assholes for me! Later on tonight, I'm going to have sex with... with... a white girl!"
(Shortly after the posting, Crawford received a cease-and-desist letter from the journalist's lawyer, which he complied with.)
"Nobody seems to know if he's black or white or Latino," volunteers Jim Izrael of Crawford. "It's part of his shtick, and it's funny because he's able to press buttons that way. His approach to blogging and satire is just classic hip-hop: 'I'm gonna put my balls on the keyboard and say what the fuck I wanna say. And if you don't want to deal with it -- fuck you.'"
Kris Ex says that even in an era of Internet anonymity, a blogger's identity is important.
"There was a lot of talks of jigs and stuff and a lot of criticism of hip-hop [on Crawford's site], and I didn't know if it came from someone who actually appreciated the culture," Ex says. "But then when I knew he was black it became a lot more amusing to me. I thought that this is someone who obviously loves hip-hop but doesn't like where it's going and wants to criticize it out of love, not out of disdain."
Ex's praise of Crawford is surprising, considering that Crawford once pulled a vicious prank on him. Angered that Ex hadn't included his site on a list of hip-hop blogs he wrote for Vibe magazine, Crawford hijacked the URL of Ex's personal blog and rerouted readers to a page called 'Kris Ex is a Douche.' "I thought it was fuckin' funny," says Ex now. "It's an honor, because his targets have always been [celebrities] like Kanye West."
"People like to see a good fight -- it's like watching a car wreck or something," Crawford says. "People wouldn't necessarily expect somebody to retaliate about something that happened over the Internet. You'd never see the Post-Dispatch try to start a newspaper war with The New York Times."
In any case, Crawford says that outside the virtual world nobody has accused him of acting white.
"A lot of the black people I grew up with were sort of similar to me," he says. "They had worse taste than I did. I might listen to the Gin Blossoms but you won't catch me at a Dave Matthews concert.
But, he explains: "I'm not embarrassed to listen to anything. Maybe when I was younger, but now I'll pull up to high schools by my house and I'll be blasting Fleetwood Mac. Young black kids will look at me like, 'What's his problem? Where'd he come from?'
"Then," he adds, chuckling at his own audacity, "I'll turn it up."
You should write a story about racist restaurants," says Jason Crawford, sitting down with some friends at Cicero's on Delmar on a recent Friday night. As Hennessys and T-ravs are ordered, the younger Crawford sibling complains that he's recently uncovered the sinister underbelly of Caucasian restaurant culture.
"The white people in the restaurant have a code word for assigning people to sections," he says, referring to the family-style chain where he recently quit his job as a server. "They call black people Canadians!"
Most of the white folk in the group confess they're aware of this phenomenon. Byron Crawford, sitting next to his thin, dreadlocked brother, chuckles. To him, race relations are just another laughing matter.
Crawford's most pointed bout of race-baiting began last October, when a journalist named Oliver Wang removed ByronCrawford.com from his own site's list of links -- that is, his blog roll.
Crawford, furious -- or at least pretending to be -- responded with an open letter to Wang on his site:
"So here's the deal: YOU put the BC dot C back on YOUR blogroll, with the description 'the best blog ever,' and I'LL stop calling you a gay chink OR YOU decide to do nothing, or create another post calling me a juvenile (dude, I'm 23 years old), and I'LL devote my every waking hour to making sure nobody takes YOU seriously ever again."
Wang didn't respond. So Crawford decided to impersonate Wang by writing an e-mail to himself and signing it with Wang's name. Then, he posted the fake e-mail to his site, under the headline "Oliver Wang called me a nigger."
"Listen here darkie, I don't know who the fuck you think you are, but the last time one of you jigs tried embarassing me in public like this, I fucking karate chopped his ass right into a wheel chair. [...] Let that serve as a warning to you that, if you attempt to come anywhere near me or my Honda Civic, I will bust a cap in your nigger ass. Two times."
Wang was exasperated. "My academic background is in race relations, and the idea that Byron is casting me as sort of this vitriolic, anti-black racist is obviously a bit unnerving on both personal and professional levels," says the San Francisco-based Wang, whose gigs include reviewing rap albums for National Public Radio.
"I think that's the reason he posted it -- he very precisely knew what he was doing in putting that up. It's an evil genius sort of thing. His site has a lot of power, whether people want to grant it it or not."
Says San Francisco hip-hop writer Clyde Smith: "I felt that what he was doing was promoting sexist, homophobic, misogynistic perspectives. There was kind of a relentless mean-spiritedness to the whole thing."
As far as Crawford's unrelenting venom directed at Kanye West, gay-centric magazine New York Blade called the postings "sickening sentiments," tantamount to "gay-bashing."
Crawford insists he's neither homophobe nor racist, and stresses that he voted for Ralph Nader last year and against Missouri's constitutional ban on gay marriage.
"The Chinese probably think I'm Louis Farrakhan, but I think most people who visit the site probably realize what's going on," he says. "It's just a lot of back and forth -- it's not me saying that one group is better than any other group.
"I think political correctness puts constraints on any kind of conversation or debate," Crawford goes on. "You never push the conversation forward. They have a lot of political correctness on network TV, but not that many people are watching network TV. Howard Stern's leaving commercial radio for satellite proves that a pretty good portion of the population doesn't care about political correctness."
USC's Robert Niles says Crawford won't be able to slander people forever.
"At some point, these guys are just going to create business opportunities for attorneys," he says. "That's why we send people to journalism school, we pass down these hard lessons from generation to generation. A lot of bloggers haven't had that training, haven't learned those lessons the hard way. But many of them will."
Crawford says bring it on.
"What, is someone gonna sue me and take away my six-year-old computer?" Crawford says. "I'm not saying I'm above the law, but I know enough to know that there's only so much you can do over the Internet. Worst-case scenario, I might have to go delete a sentence, or change a few words around."
Months after West's angry BBC tirade, Crawford is still fuming. "Kanye West vs. Adolf Hitler, A ByronCrawford.com Special Report" read the title of a September posting. It alleged "striking similarities" between West and Hitler:
"Of course Adolf Hitler eventually caught syphilis and shot himself. Will Kanye West's self-loathing due to his sheer lack of intelligence lead him to a similar fate? Because he's a down-low homosexual, I suppose he's more likely to catch some sort of VD."
Titles of other recent Crawford posts include: "Kanye West's mother is an idiot," "Kanye loves the gays," "Kanye needs to check his people" and "Kanye Kicks It With The Gs?"
Crawford says his most recent wave of anti-West vitriol has been caused, in part, by political interests that have championed the rapper in the wake of his "George Bush doesn't care about black people" statement.
"He goes on TV and says his little half-thought out statement, and the next thing you know he's the next Jesse Jackson. Ten years from now, he'll probably be running for president. People want to put him up on a level as a political figure, compared to artists who put thought into their actual work."
Crawford stresses, however, that he has a problem with the media -- not Kanye West.
"Like I said, I don't really have an issue with him personally. Let's say next year somebody else were to reach that level. Say it was [teeny bopper] Nick Carter and he won fifteen Grammys and people were saying he was the smartest man in pop music."
Crawford pauses, and you can almost see the smoke pouring from his nostrils.
"I would be like, 'No, actually, he isn't.'"