As a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Eli Kamerow was an unlikely candidate for rap stardom.
He was a white Jewish kid from the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C., a guy who made the honor roll, studied in Israel during his junior year, played two sports and even served as class president.
But in addition to learning Hebrew and running varsity track, Kamerow indulged a passion for rap that started in his early teens. Borrowing his younger brother’s recording equipment, he made his first CD while in the ninth grade.
“Back then, I was really just messing around,” Kamerow says. “It’s funny looking back on it, because I wasn’t that good. I was still figuring out how to express myself lyrically.”
Sitting in a downtown Bethesda coffee shop on a rainy March morning, the 20-year-old college sophomore doesn’t look like a burgeoning rap star. He wears a plaid shirt, and keeps his designer blue jeans on his hips. But since moving south in August 2009 to attend Tulane University in New Orleans, Kamerow has been attracting attention with his “little hobby.”
While pledging Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity and taking a full slate of business courses, he recorded a few tracks at a friend’s house off-campus. Curious to get listeners’ feedback, he sent the songs to several music blogs last summer.
Within weeks, “KAM Royal”—Kamerow’s rapping persona—was featured on dozens of sites. Bloggers raved about his skillful flow and relatable lyrics.
“Can you say, ‘Dope’?” says Chris Fenwick, a contributor to GoodMusicAllDay.com, a popular music blog. “I couldn’t quit listening to him.”
In “The Lesson,” Kamerow details his experience being cut from his high school’s junior varsity basketball team. By staying true to his roots, he endeared himself to a large segment of rap listeners: suburban teenagers.
“My songs are my own take on real hip-hop,” Kamerow says. “I try to keep my lyrics authentic and true to who I am. I’m not going to rap about rolling around in a Benz, because I drove here in my parents’ Honda Pilot.”
Encouraged by his initial success, Kamerow approached his sophomore year with music as his top priority—a fact reflected in his daily routine.
After waking up at 8 a.m. most days, he heads to class, sitting in the back of Tulane’s lecture halls so he can write raps in between taking notes.
When school ends, he goes to his friend’s in-home studio to record for several hours. He then heads back to his fraternity house to cram in some studying before going to sleep.
You might think this approach would give his parents pause, but that’s not the case.
“We all have things we think about, but a lot of times people are scared to really pursue them,” says Eli’s mother, Cecilia Shapiro, a retired computer scientist. “I’ve been delighted to see all of Eli’s hard work begin to pay off.”
Since posting his debut mixtape, “Business As Usual,” for free on his Facebook and Twitter pages last November, the business major has enjoyed a wealth of opportunities.
In addition to opening for such bigname acts as Mac Miller and Curren$y in New Orleans last fall, Kamerow has had his songs played in clubs throughout the country. In March, BroBible.com—a site targeting the interests of Generation Y—ranked him No. 22 in its College Rapper Database.
“The other day, one of my buddies who goes to the University of Georgia sent me a text saying he’d heard one of my tracks in a bar down there,” Kamerow says. “Hearing that stuff is gratifying, but I’m not satisfied in the least bit. I just use it as motivation.”
Those texts are likely to arrive far more frequently in the coming months. In addition to performing concerts throughout the East Coast this summer, Kamerow released a new mixtape—“Vindicated”—in early June. He spent nearly six months working on the project, and calls it his “best work to date.”
“I think it was Thomas Jefferson who once said the harder you work, the more luck you have, and I’m a huge believer in that,” Kamerow says with a laugh. “I bet there aren’t a ton of rappers who’d quote Jefferson—but that’s the kind of rapper I am.”
Here are some links to hear KAM Royal’s music:
Connor Letourneau was a Bethesda Magazine intern and is a rising junior at the University of Maryland.