Has He No Shame?
It’s just past 5 p.m., which is early in the day by recording studio standards, but Eminem is racing against the clock.
The 26-year-old rap phenom is trying to jam an interview . . . a meeting with rapper and producer Dr. Dre about their summer tour . . . a quick photo session . . . and still complete a few final details on his new album--all in time to leave for the airport in three hours to catch a flight home to Detroit.
Eminem (who was born Marshall Mathers, hence the M&M; nickname) is a little stressed.
“Where’s Paul?” he shouts, sending aides scurrying in search of his manager, who has a touch of the flu and is resting somewhere in the sprawling Sherman Oaks recording complex. “We’ve gotta finish this [expletive].”
Paul Rosenberg, a burly 28-year-old, is known to Eminem fans from the humorous skit “Paul” on the rapper’s 1999 major-label debut album, “The Slim Shady LP.” Rosenberg plays a nervous attorney who pleads with Eminem to tone down some of the album’s foulmouthed, sex- and violence-laced content.
“Hey, what’s going on, this is Paul. . . ,” he says on the record, speaking into an answering machine. “I listened to the rough copy of the album and . . . I’ve got to be honest with you. Can you tone it down a little bit? There’s only so much I can explain [to the record company]. Give me a call.”
The sequence is funny because it’s clear from the language and subject matter on the rest of the album that Eminem didn’t tone anything down. Its outrage and defiance helped “Slim Shady” sell more than 3 million copies in the U.S. and turn Eminem into a major player in the crowded world of rap.
In the studio, Eminem wants Rosenberg to make another cameo on the new album, which is titled “The Marshall Mathers LP” and is due May 23.
This time, you’ll hear Rosenberg say on the answering machine--well, Eminem asks that the skit be off the record so that fans don’t read about album contents before they hear them. But Rosenberg’s character is still nervous.
It’s easy to see why.
Eminem’s records mix the bratty humor of “South Park” with the violent imagery of films such as “Pulp Fiction,” all delivered in a high-pitched, rapid-fire nasal delivery that is sure to grate further on parents’ nerves.
The plots are often grisly. In one song, his alter ego, Slim Shady, murders his wife and brings their infant daughter along while he disposes of the body--all set against a seductive hip-hop beat.
This nothing’s-sacred mix of sex and violence in the age of Columbine has lots of parents asking: What kind of madman is this? Shortly after the first album’s release, the editor of Billboard, the nation’s most influential record trade publication, denounced the disc as “making money by exploiting the world’s misery.”
But music critics generally have sided with Eminem and his fans, saying that the music is part of the rap and rock tradition of youthful independence and rebellion that has stretched from the sex ‘n’ drugs escapades of the Rolling Stones to the gallows humor of Alice Cooper. For the most part, Eminem’s tales are fictional and farcical--not approved codes of conduct.
Yet, clearly, Eminem connects with today’s young rap and rock audience. At a time when repeat commercial success is increasingly difficult in the pop world, Eminem is still heating up. Many industry observers credit his presence on Dr. Dre’s “Dr. Dre 2001" with helping push that collection past the 4 million sales mark in six months.
Eminem’s new video and spectacularly catchy single, both titled “The Real Slim Shady,” are taking off like fireworks at a KISS concert.
“The single is blowin’ up with our audience,” says Kevin Weatherly, program director at Los Angeles alt-rock radio station KROQ-FM (106.7). “I think it shows he’s someone who is plugged into the pop culture in a huge way.”
Eminem scoffs at charges his music is harmful for his fans. He even speaks about it as a positive force.
“I don’t think music can make you kill or rape someone any more than a movie is going to make you do something you know is wrong, but music can give you strength,” Eminem says. “It can make a 15-year-old kid, who is being picked on by everyone and made to feel worthless, throw his middle fingers up and say, '[expletive] you, you don’t know who I am.’ It can help make them respect their individuality, which is what music did for me.
“If people take anything from my music, it should be motivation to know that anything is possible as long as you keep working at it and don’t back down. I didn’t have nothin’ going for me . . . school, home . . . until I found something I loved, which was music, and that changed everything.”
There are reasons you shouldn’t call Eminem the Elvis Presley of rap, starting with the fact that he’d probably take a swing at you if you did it in his presence. He’s in no way defining rap the way Elvis defined rock, nor is he going to shift the focus away from the African Americans who created the genre.
But there is one reason to make the connection: Eminem is the first white rapper since the arrival in the mid-'80s of the Beastie Boys to achieve stardom and the respect of his peers.
There are lots of acts that try to fill the youthful thirst for thrills and chills these days, from the calculated stance of rock’s Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit to the more earnest fury of rap’s DMX. But Eminem stands out as the one with the most creative and original point of view. “Slim Shady” won a Grammy for best rap album of 1999, and Missy Elliott, the most respected female rapper, invited Eminem to join her on a track on her last album, “Da Real World.” About him, she has said, “He’s a suspenseful rapper. . . . He’s a star whether anyone wants to accept his lyrics or not. He’s major.”
That acceptance may erase forever the stigma of Vanilla Ice, a white rapper who was so synthetic that he almost single-handedly stopped record companies from thinking about signing white rappers.
Eminem frowns when Vanilla Ice’s name is mentioned.
“That crushed me,” he says of first hearing Ice’s smash single, “Ice Ice Baby,” in 1991. Eminem (in his late teens at the time) was living in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood and already testing his rap skills.
“At first, I felt like I didn’t want to rap anymore. I was so mad because he was making it really [hard] for me. . . . But then [the respected white New York duo] 3rd Bass restored some credibility, and I realized that it really depends on the individual. Vanilla Ice was just fake. 3rd Bass was real.”
Eminem is talking so fast during the studio interview that you can later turn the speed control on the tape recorder all the way down to 1 and still easily understand him.
It’s not just that he’s trying to speed through the interview; it’s his normal pace. He raps so fast on “The Slim Shady LP” that it takes a few times through the record to catch everything he’s saying.
But you do have to fight to get his attention as he sits on a swivel chair in the studio and keeps up a steady conversation with studio aides about various aspects of the music.
Eminem doesn’t waste time on small talk or go out of his way to make you feel welcome. Like rock’s Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, Eminem suffered from low self-esteem as a youngster and it’s hard for him now to think people are really all that interested in him. He greets you with the same questioning scowl he shows in photographs.
“I don’t trust nobody [now] because anybody I meet is meeting me as Eminem,” he says, somewhat defensively. “They don’t know me as Marshall Mathers, and I don’t know if they are hanging out with me ‘cause they like me or because I’m a celebrity or they think they can get something from me, see what I’m saying?”
The main surprise is that the session is so businesslike. Often, the atmosphere during a rap or rock recording session, especially during the final stages, is more like a party than a workplace.
Eminem certainly can party. He reportedly downed a fifth of Bacardi during a Rolling Stone interview last year amid his first burst of fame. But he says he’s toned down since, possibly influenced by mentor Dr. Dre, a party-animal-turned-family-man.
“I think a lot of people think of Eminem as a reckless, crazy, careless rapper because that’s the character he plays on the record,” Rosenberg, his manager, says during a separate interview. “He’s lived through a lot of [expletive] and he’s had a lot of other [expletive] thrown at him since he began selling records. But I think he’s handled it well.
“He has fun, but he’s not out of control. One thing that may help is that he never had money, so he doesn’t know what the hell to do with it and he’s scared to spend it. His idea of splurging is spending $500 or $600 at Nike Town.”
Marshall Bruce Mathers III describes his own background as “white trash.” He was born in St. Joseph, Mo., on Oct. 17, 1973, and never knew his father, who split when Eminem was just a few months old. He says he and his mom moved a lot, living with relatives and friends when the money ran out.
Unlike the Beastie Boys, who started off as a punk band before turning to rap, Eminem is purely a child of hip-hop. He fell in love with the excitement and energy of the music when his uncle gave him a copy of Ice-T’s single “Reckless” when he was still in grade school.
His uncle was around the same age as Eminem, and he was his best friend. Eminem has his name, Ronnie, tattooed on his left arm. His voice slows a bit when he talks about the day that his uncle killed himself, apparently after an argument with a girlfriend.
“I still can’t understand what happened,” he says about the suicide. “I’ve been depressed and had situations when I took too many of this or too much of that, but never really wanting to kill myself. I’ve got a daughter and I want to look after her. I think if Ronnie had someone in his life like I have [daughter] Hailie, he would still be here today.”
Eminem raps a lot in “Slim Shady” about hard times, both getting picked on in school and an often troubled relationship with his mother. Indeed, the relationship remains contentious.
Angered at being portrayed on records and in interviews as an unstable, lawsuit-happy drug user who moved about aimlessly during the rapper’s formative years, Debbie Mathers-Briggs filed a $10-million defamation of character suit against Eminem last fall.
“I have to be careful about what I say about my mother because I’m sure her attorneys are looking,” he says, when asked how he feels about being sued by his mother.
“How does it feel? It feels like [expletive]. How would you feel? One thing I can tell you is that every single word I said about my mother and my upbringing was true.”
The young Eminem had a love for storytelling and dreamed of being a comic-book artist until he got absorbed with rap. He’d spend hours studying rappers’ styles on record and reading a dictionary to expand his vocabulary so he could pull off better rhymes. “I was a smart kid, but I hated school,” he says. “I failed ninth grade three times. I just wanted to rap.
“I’d go to friends’ houses and rap, or I’d stay in my room all day, standing by the mirror and lip-syncing songs, trying on different clothes, trying to look cool. I knew every song by LL [Cool J] and Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys.”
The Beastie Boys’ 1986 album “Licensed to Ill” was a huge influence on Eminem.
“When I first heard them, I didn’t know they were white,” he says. “I just thought it was the craziest [expletive] I had ever heard. I was probably 12. Then I saw the video and saw that they were white, and I went, ‘Wow.’ I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ ”
By his mid-teens, Eminem was entering open-mike competitions, the only white kid on stage.
Rosenberg was in law school when he first saw Eminem at one of these performances. Unlike Eminem, Rosenberg was a kid from the suburbs. He didn’t want to be a rapper, but he loved the music and he hoped someday to work in the music business.
Even after Rosenberg moved to New York and went to work for a law firm, he kept in touch with some of the Detroit rappers, including Eminem, who in 1996 sent a tape of his first record. Released by a small Detroit label called Web Entertainment, “Infinite” sold only about 1,000 copies.
“That first album was very different from what he’s doing now,” Rosenberg says. “He was just starting out and he was trying to get airplay, so he made a record that he thought fit into what was happening at the time in rap. The songs were a little more upbeat.
“When that failed, he decided to stop trying to fit in and simply make the kind of music he loved, and that’s when he started experimenting with the Slim Shady character.”
Rosenberg was excited in 1997 when he heard the new, harder-edged material, and he began working with Eminem. He passed the new tape around to record executives in New York and entered Eminem in some rap competitions, including one in Los Angeles that caught the ears of Dan Geistlinger, an Interscope Records intern who has since been promoted to artists and repertoire.
He forwarded some Eminem demos to label co-founder Jimmy Iovine, who has shown a remarkable ear for talent over the years. As engineer, producer or record executive, Iovine has been involved with artists ranging from John Lennon and U2 to Nine Inch Nails and Dr. Dre. Iovine loved the dynamic rhymes and speedy delivery.
“Every now and then, someone has a lightning rod right to the youth culture and this guy has it,” Iovine says. “He has an incredible ability to tell stories and if he keeps working that muscle, he could write movies, anything. He’s got wit and imagination. . . . He could write [the Marx Brothers’] ‘A Day at the Races’ if he ever wanted to.”
The Interscope executive gave the tape to Dr. Dre, who signed Eminem to his Aftermath label, an endorsement that helped build credibility for the white rapper. “I wasn’t worried that people would react against him because he’s white,” Dre has said. “The hardest thugs I know think this white boy’s tight.”
Eminem was thrilled being able to work with Dre, and he still seems in awe of the man who is widely regarded as the most creative producer in rap. “Dre made me better,” he says now. “He showed me how to deliver rhymes over a beat, and he showed me that you stick with something until you have it just how you want it.”
By the time the “Slim Shady” album came out early last year, Eminem had enough of a buzz on the hard-core rap circuit for the album to enter the pop charts at No. 2.
“I can’t say I thought the album would do as well as it did, but I could see the response as soon as Eminem started doing shows,” Rosenberg says. “He connects with his audience. They identify with the rebellion. No matter what part of the country or on what side of the tracks a kid grows up, he’s got something he’s upset about--whether it’s a rich kid whose parent won’t let him go out on the weekend, or a poor kid not having what the rich kid has.”
The “Slim Shady” album caught on so fast that his blue eyes were staring from the cover of Rolling Stone less than two months after the CD hit the shelves. The headline: “Low-Down and Dirty White-Boy Rap: Eminem’s Twisted Life Story.”
In hopes of maximizing the attention, Eminem did more than 100 interviews and toured constantly in support of the album.
Things were so hectic that he was doing two shows a day at one stretch during 1999. He’d finish performing in the afternoon in front of a predominantly rock audience as part of the Warped Tour, then drive hours to perform that night at a rap club, only to drive back for hours to rejoin the Warped Tour.
Near the end of the tour, he was so drained that he had what he describes as a “crackup.”
The incident, he says, occurred one night in New England when he raced onto a stage that was soaked with either beer or water, and he fell about 10 feet from the stage to the club floor, cracking some ribs.
“It was insane,” he said of the period. “I wouldn’t have time to talk to my own daughter when she would call. I knew I had to slow it down; the fall was like a reminder.”
Eminem talks a lot about his 4-year-old daughter, Hailie Jade, whom those around him call the main stabilizing factor in his life. He has “Hailie Jade” tattooed on his right arm. The reason he’s rushing to catch the plane, in fact, is that he wants to see his wife and daughter before heading to Europe with Dr. Dre on a promotional swing.
The anger in “97' Bonnie & Clyde,” the shocking song on “Slim Shady” dealing with the murder of an infant’s mother, was inspired by his own fury at his then-girlfriend, now wife, Kim. He says she was keeping him from seeing Hailie during a time when they had broken up. He funneled his anger into the song.
Eminem says he expected, even welcomed, some of the controversy surrounding the album, but he still seems surprised at the degree of outrage over “97' Bonnie & Clyde.”
“Why can’t people see that records can be like movies?” he says. “The only difference between some of my raps and movies is that they aren’t on a screen. I’m put on blast for a [rape fantasy scene in the song] ‘Guilty Conscience,’ but the idea came from ‘Animal House,’ which is a movie that everyone thinks is funny and wonderful. Dre and I were talking about doing a song about what’s on somebody’s mind when they are thinking of doing something bad, and I remember ‘Animal House’ when the girl passes out and the guy was about to rape her. He had a devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other saying don’t do it. So, we did the same thing, only a little more graphic detail.” (In the film, the rape doesn’t occur, whereas it’s not clear what happens in the song.)
Eminem’s refrain about just doing what movie-makers do is a common one in rap circles. Everyone from Ice Cube, who also makes movies, to Dre says they are just taking a page from the violence they see in movies--"Scarface” and “The Godfather” are often cited--that they loved as youngsters.
Rosenberg sees how people can draw a distinction between what’s acceptable in films and in music.
“For the most part, a movie is written and there’s a director and there are actors involved . . . , but with the record, it’s just one person who writes it and performs it,” the manager says. “So people take it more seriously, even though movies can be 10 times more graphic because it is visual as well.”
Rosenberg says Eminem is open to discussion on the material. “Like any other label, Interscope runs it through a board if it’s a hot record and they look at the lyrics,” he says. “Have there been times where we had to change stuff? Yes, on both records. Em understands that he wants the stores to stock his records or he won’t be heard, so he’ll do what it takes for the most part, unless [the complaint] is just ridiculous.”
It’s almost 7 now and things are going smoothly enough for Eminem to start unwinding. He’s pretty much got everything done on the album, and he’s even relaxed enough to talk about his future.
“I want to keep making records as long as I can, but I don’t know how long you can be taken seriously in rap,” he says. “There might be an age limit on it, if you know what I mean. I probably eventually will move over into producing.”
Eminem describes the new album as more personal, which is why he puts his name in the title.
One song, “Stan,” appears to be an attempt to separate himself from the “stories” on the record.
“The song is about an obsessed fan who keeps writing me and tells me he’s taking everything I say on the record literally,” Eminem says. “He’s crazy for real and he thinks I’m crazy, but I try to help him at the end of the song. It kinda shows the real side of me.”
The new album is another roller-coaster ride of confrontation, wit and fresh verbal mayhem. He still is guilty in a few places of the mindless attacks (in his case, unapologetic homophobia) so commonplace in rap. In the best moments, however, Eminem does show a more personal side, as in “Stan,” as well as an even higher level of craftsmanship.
The video for “The Real Slim Shady” premiered on MTV a few days after the interview, and it quickly became such a channel favorite that you’d think it was an infomercial. The song, too, is sure to be a highlight of the Dre tour, which begins June 15 at Coors Amphitheatre in Chula Vista and moves June 16 to the Arrowhead Pond.
In the heart of the song, Eminem pokes fun at parents who overreact to his music and warns that he is just a reflection of young America: There’s a million of us . . . just like me . . . who dress like me, walk, talk and act like me.
“When I lash out like that, I may be just trying to get a rise out of people or I may be expressing the way I feel,” he says. “I’m in all the songs, but you might not see me at first. I think a lot of what you see in the record depends a lot on who’s looking. No two people are going to see the same thing in it. I think some people get it, and some people don’t have a clue. My fans get it. I don’t give a [expletive] about anybody else.”
Is the future face of rap white? The arrival of Eminem and rap-rock hybrid artists such as Kid Rock has some black rappers predicting just that.
Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com