By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Updated March 22, 2009 at 08:23 PM EDT

Asher Roth is an ill rapper. Literally: The 21-year-old redhead had already been battling a minor respiratory ailment of some sort for a couple weeks before touching down in Austin, and the relentless obligations of an up-and-coming artist’s first SXSW haven’t been doing his cough any favors. “South by Southwest is definitely no joke, you know what I mean?” Roth told me when we met in the lobby of his hotel on Saturday afternoon. “It’s hectic. You gotta pace yourself. If you don’t do that, you can find yourself worn into the ground. There’s no break: You’re just going, going, going.”

The way Roth’s single “I Love College” has been climbing the charts, he’s likely to have to keep up that “going, going, going” routine for the immediate future. He wrote the requiem for the undergraduate kegger in a moment of nostalgia for his own two-year stint studying elementary education at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. “That song is very autobiographical,” Roth says. “I spent two years in college, and I’m sure if I would have spent four, I would have been like, ‘I hate college!’ But I got two years in, partied a lot, had a good time, enjoyed myself, and really found out who I was as a person.”

“I Love College” is a love-it/hate-it kind of song, all right. Even Roth feels a little ambivalent about its sudden rise to No. 17 and counting on Billboard‘s Hot 100. “It’s exciting, man. But I also don’t want to base my entire career off of ‘I Love College.’ Now it’s time for me to really build off of that. People come to the shows and they see that there’s much more than just a novelty song about college on the radio.”

With that in mind, Roth is looking forward to the April 21 release of his full-length debut, Asleep in the Bread Aisle. “We have maybe three samples on the CD. We really brought back playing music and also songwriting,” he promises. “There’s classic rock, jazz influences, there’s guitar solos, harmonicas. There’s all kinds of stuff on here. People are going to forget they’re listening to a hip-hop album.”