On a cold Thursday night at Detroit's Wired Frog nightclub, a who's who of the Motor City's hip-hop scene checks out the weekly talent showcase put on by local rap group Da Ruckus. Attention turns to the video screen when Eminem's "My Name Is" video comes on. It's a strangely exciting moment. A year ago Eminem (26-year-old Marshall Mathers) probably would have been in the audience, part of the crowd making fun of whatever won't-go-away video the MTV Jams set had speed-dialed into constant rotation that month. But a year later, he's the one with the nation's most requested video, on his way to becoming hip-hop's first legitimate white superstar.
His major-label debut, The Slim Shady LP, on veteran hip-hop producer Dr. Dre's Aftermath/Interscope label, has already shipped out platinum (over a million copies) and debuted at number two on the Soundscan sales chart its first week of release, with little sign of slowing down. Being a white rapper invites less-than-favorable comparisons with Vanilla Ice. Yet, with both the production and public mentorship of Dr. Dre, Eminem has a good shot at securing that elusive combination of chart success and street legitimacy. Indeed Dre has as much to lose here as his newest protege. "I appreciate that he's basically putting his credibility on the line for me," Eminem says. "Because if I come out wack, it could destroy his career."
As the video rolls, Em's old Detroit crew watches, and not without some grumbling. Many prefer Mathers as the gifted freestyle rapper whose sharp wit and on-the-fly improvisational raps won him every MC battle in Detroit over the goofy Bart Simpson-like figure lampooning the Lewinsky scandal on the screen. In attendance this night is Marc Kempf, Eminem's manager from his formative 1996-'97 period, when the rapper released his pivotal underground record, the Slim Shady EP. On earlier efforts Mathers tried too hard to sound like the East Coast rappers he idolized; on Slim Shady, the rapper reinvented himself by simply looking in the mirror and accepting the image of a frustrated, bored, unapologetic white kid buoyed by raw, irreverent talent. He called this reinvention Slim Shady. Even though Mathers left the Detroit-based Kempf when he moved to Los Angeles to begin talks with Aftermath/Interscope in early '98, the jilted manager still has respect for Eminem's jump to the pop charts.
"I've heard the word 'sellout' used, but his music really hasn't changed at all," Kempf offers. "The only thing that's changed is that he got a great video budget that put him out there in MTV la-la land." He's right on both points. You have to give Eminem credit for making all but the three Dr. Dre-produced tracks on The Slim Shady LP the same way he made his earlier independent records. He continued to work with his longtime Detroit producers the Bass Brothers, whose penchant for live instrumentation gives Eminem's rhymes their eerie, carnivalesque, funk backdrop. Likewise the album, in true underground spirit, took just twelve days to record.
"We'd give him a cassette of the songs we'd worked on all day, he'd take it to his room that night, then come back with three or four raps and just bust 'em out," says producer Mark Bass. "The label was like, 'Don't you guys have a life?'"
But Kempf is even more on the mark about MTV la-la-land. It's here, far away from the obscure MC battles where Eminem earned his name, that the rapper spends his time these days, signing posters for kids who line up at record stores to see anybody with a hit video. They don't know, or care, that he's competed in underground freestyle competitions like 1997's Scribble Jam, or the Rap Olympics, where he took a hotly contested second place. ("I was robbed," he says flatly.) It was those public contests that began to draw attention to Eminem. After showing up more veteran MCs live on the radio during the Wake Up Show With Sway & Tech, a syndicated underground hip-hop show based in Los Angeles, he caught the ear of Interscope Records president Jimmy Iovine. Although impressed by the demos, Iovine wasn't willing to risk signing a white rapper in the aftermath of Vanilla Ice. It took an esteemed producer like Dr. Dre to hear Eminem's unique skills--ornery but entertaining raps stacked up with complex but flowing internal rhyme schemes--and to finally deliver a major-label contract.
When Eminem's new fans get The Slim Shady LP home, they're in for a shock--or at least their parents are. On the track "Guilty," Dr. Dre is the doomed voice of conscience trying to talk Eminem's sinister alter ego out of killing his baby's mother, a topic the rapper revisits in gruesomely articulate detail on "'97 Bonnie & Clyde." On "If I Had," he flips the Barenaked Ladies' "If I Had a Million Dollars" into an exhausted blue-collar bitch list. "I'm tired of working at Builder's Square/I'm tired of eating with plastic silverware . . . I'm tired of jobs starting off at $5.50 an hour," he drones. He also takes a swipe at the Detroit radio station that ignored him when he was an unsigned rapper: "I'm sick of radio stations tellin' fibs/I'm sick of WJLB saying it's where hip-hop lives."
Eminem isn't so much putting a new face on hip-hop as asserting that the music is no longer an exclusively "black thing," but rather a "working-class thing." While the legions of suburban mallrats who drape themselves in inner-city ghetto styles add a socioeconomic twist to the equation, for a growing number of working-class whites, rap is a universal culture transcending race. In this context, where hip-hop has replaced heavy metal as the parking-lot soundtrack of choice, Eminem is more "real" than the stomach-tattooed post-gangsta rappers from the coasts.
Mathers seems almost unaware of how his white-kid-with-street-credibility success is changing the rap game. "I think I'm bringing something new to hip-hop," he offers. "My shit is somewhere out in left field. It's a breath of fresh air." Still, the fact that Mathers has rhyme skills few rappers, black or white, can match may, for now, be overshadowed by his newfound pop stardom. Underground hip-hop fans often have trouble separating Eminem the rapper from Eminem the MTV poster child, but the same mix of irreverence and talent that made him stand out in the underground rap scene is what makes him shine in the pop arena. His sudden rise to fame also serves as an update to Sun Records' Sam Phillips's famed 1954 quote in which he says that, in signing Elvis Presley, he'd finally found "a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel." You certainly can't blame a street-savvy veteran producer like Dr. Dre for wanting to replace Snoop Doggy Dogg as his featured sidekick with a kid who looks like a Backstreet Boy and can rap like the late Biggie Smalls. Critics and parents alike may balk at The Slim Shady LP's marketable mix of freestyle skills and daytime talk-show shock tactics, but Eminem could care less. "Put my tape back on the rack, tell your friends it's wack, I just don't give a fuck!" is what he raps. "Anybody who takes what I'm saying seriously is a fucking idiot" is what he says.
Adds his manager, Paul Rosenberg: "There's nothing you can say about Em that he hasn't already said about himself."
"I'm hearing all this stuff off the Internet now, that all the underground kids are talking shit about me. I knew it would happen," Eminem says confidently. "And I'm not gonna pay attention. No, I don't wanna work some shit-paying job for the rest of my life. Fuck these kids, because any one of them would be doing the same thing if they were in my shoes."
Eminem, with the Beatnuts. 8 p.m., Thursday, April 8, Odeon, 1295 Old River Road, the Flats, $20.50 ($23 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.