Pudgy and shy, 13-year-old Matt Shafer had an outlet in rap but few to really share it with – until a chance day he saw Bob Ritchie work the deejay’s turntable.
“Wickie-wickie-wickie,” was how the skinny, smug 16-year-old Ritchie scratched records during a deejay contest, his baseball cap’s visor flipped up and a rapper’s clock dangling from his neck.
The showman did his thing backward, even upside down.
“Everything about him was cool – the way he dressed, the way he talked. I admired him, looked up to him. He was kind of like an older brother to me,” Shafer says of the guy who soon became his pal.
Years later, Ritchie is Kid Rock, a mega-platinum rocker who took Shafer under his wing and along for the ride.
And Shafer is making his own name as Uncle Kracker, thanks to runaway hit “Follow Me” from a Kid Rock-produced debut album that has sold more than a million copies since being released a year ago.
“It feels good to see the Uncle Kracker plaques on the wall next to the Kid Rock ones,” says Kracker, 27.
For Kracker, whose songs appear on movie soundtracks like “Mission: Impossible 2” and “Shanghai Noon,” it’s a far cry from his adolescent days in Michigan, pumping gas at his dad’s Amoco station.
“We always worked believing that ultimately we’ll do something big,” he said in a phone interview while touring Germany and the United Kingdom with his mentor. “I didn’t think it’d be this big.”
Raised in Macomb County’s Harrison Township just north of Detroit, Kracker dug rap and the music his dad favored, from Motown to George Jones and Patsy Cline. By 11, Kracker was writing his own tunes and romping with older brother Mike.
After high school, Kracker deejayed at area strip bars, then quit when he was 21 to devote his time to Kid Rock, already making his rounds playing at various topless clubs and other small venues.
After five albums, Kid Rock’s meteoric breakthrough came in 1998’s “Devil Without a Cause.” Kracker helped write many of the songs, and the album sold more than 10 million copies.
“It was unlike anything they did before – so crisp, so clean,” Kracker’s brother says. “Here, they took rap and rock and mixed them together like no one had done before.”
The next year, Kid Rock and Kracker were at it again, this time on Kracker’s own debut album, recording the mellow mix of rock, rap and country on tour buses after concerts.
That album, “Double Wide,” was rolled out in June 2000. The reception was cool and its sales dormant – despite many favorable reviews.
“I think a lot of people, including me, thought we’d be able to ride Kid Rock’s coattails,” says Mike Shafer, now his brother’s manager. But listeners “weren’t looking for offspring of Kid Rock.”
Then last fall, pop radio stations got “Follow Me.”
While at home in November, Kracker was tuned in to Detroit radio when a deejay broke in: “This just in. We’re breaking the format, baby. I’m playing it.”
Along came the doo-wop, hum-along song Kracker wrote in 10 minutes.
“Follow me, everything is all right,” the finger-snapping lyrics grooved, “I’ll be the one to tuck you in at night. And if you want to leave, I can guarantee. You won’t find nobody else like me.”
Says Kracker: “That just sounded like it belonged on the radio.”
Listeners agreed, soon besieging radio stations with requests for the single that propelled “Double Wide” sales over the past several months. It has sold more than 1.8 million copies and “Follow Me” hit No. 5 on Billboard.
“It’s like my cat – it won’t die. It’s kind of hard not to hear it,” Kracker says.
Kracker’s fans come as young as his 2-year-old daughter, Skylar. When she hears her dad’s songs, she coos “Da-da.” When she spots Kracker’s video, the child does a double-take, bewildered by seeing her dad both on TV and a couch.
“She thinks I’m doing a magic trick,” says Kracker, who got married more than three years ago to wife Melanie, a former schoolmate. They have a second child, Madison, 1.
While warming to life outside Kid Rock’s shadow, Kracker doesn’t crave celebrity, even as he preps for a 42-day, 31-show tour this month with Sugar Ray, fronted by pal Mark McGrath.
When it comes to success, “it’s not that I’m mad at anybody, hate it or wish it’d go away,” Kracker says, already about a half-dozen songs into a new record that could come after Christmas. “I can take it or leave it.”
“My priority, ultimately, is still Kid Rock.”
Even before “Double Wide,” the Kid Rock-Kracker duo made both wealthy. The Shafer brothers own a suburban Detroit bar, dubbed Sunny’s Tavern after their dad. Kracker also has an area tire storehis father runs.
Given the rigors of rock, “some days I wonder if I’m better off pumping gas,” Kracker says – then quickly adds, “I would have shot myself” living the gas station life.
“Just when you think it couldn’t get bigger, something goes ‘Wow!”‘ he exclaims. “It just keeps getting better.”