Rap Was Eminem’s Roots and Road Out of Poverty
In the small neighborhoods of aging brick houses on this city’s east side, the streets stretching into the suburbs are intersected by roads marking the distance from the downtown core. Eight Mile Road is the city limits, followed by Nine Mile Road and so on. Everybody here knows that, like rungs on the social ladder, you go up to get out.
But it was here on the lower rungs a decade ago that a young white kid named Marshall Bruce Mathers III found a different escape from urban poverty. Growing up in a tough black neighborhood, his path was to embrace--not run from--music that sprang from the anger and violence of the black urban experience.
To the world, he’s known as Eminem, the best-selling rapper who will step onto the global stage of the Grammys tonight in Los Angeles and perhaps walk off with the coveted trophy for best album.
His four Grammy nominations have caused great shudders of indignation and disgust because of the content of his work, which some see as vile and violently twisted. But his music has also been hailed as groundbreaking and bold, and, while selling 12 million albums in the U.S., it has bridged a cultural chasm between whites and blacks.
When he burst onto the scene two years ago with his “The Slim Shady LP”, critics were intrigued with the idea that a white artist could dominate a decidedly black genre and excel in a musical realm notoriously unforgiving of posers.
With last year’s release of “The Marshall Mathers LP,” the controversy has shifted to the homophobic and misogynistic content of his lyrics, even as suburban mall rats and inner-city kids continue to snap up the album at a furious pace. He is the first white artist in the history of the music to be widely played on rap radio stations in black urban areas.
To understand his appeal, go no farther than the neighborhoods where he grew up as a hybrid of two worlds--that of poor whites and even poorer blacks.
“Everyone thought he was racially confused because he would talk ebonics like black people would, and he’d wear big baggy clothes, necklaces, baseball hats backward,” said Jennifer Yezback, 25, a longtime friend. “That’s what everyone thought when you saw a white boy in that attire.”
Eminem’s teenage home was on Dresden Street--two blocks on the “wrong” side of Eight Mile Road--where last year he was hailed as a hero by a mostly black crowd during the filming of a music video.
“Coming back to the house, it was his past . . . it was [facing] the essence of what oppressed him as a young person,” said Deshaun Holton, Eminem’s close friend since they met as teenagers. “And he went back, accepted and loved.”
Much like Elvis Presley more than four decades ago, Eminem has been decried as a “white man singing black music” and a danger to the morality of youth. The rapper’s most famous role in today’s headlines is as an obscene, loutish imp, but in the years to come it may be as a nexus between musical American cultures.
“The biggest thing for him is he’s got the whites and the blacks buying his music,” said Jesse Gaston, 20, an African American who grew up playing hoops with Eminem and who still lives on Dresden.
“And I just do not got the patience . . . to deal with these cocky Caucasians who think I’m some wigger who just tries to be black . . . “
--Eminem, “The Way I Am”
Eminem had a vagabond childhood, bouncing between his birthplace of St. Joseph, Mo., and Detroit. His mother, Debbie Mathers, estimated that before he dropped out of ninth grade, Eminem attended 30 schools.
As Young Boy, He Was Frequently Beaten Up
But his cultural journey began just north of Nine Mile Road in 1978, when as a 6-year-old boy he moved into a blue-collar neighborhood of suburban Warren with his mother. They had come to take care of Eminem’s great-grandmother, who lived in an area populated by so many relocated Southern whites that it became known as “Warren-tucky.”
Some remember the neighborhood as a modest, working-class area of tiny homes.
But Carl E. Havro, 26, a former classmate of Eminem’s, said he couldn’t wait to leave. “You’d see drunks walking down the street at 7 in the morning, waiting for the party store to open so they could buy their beer,” said Havro, who works in a warehouse.
Blacks were a rarity--and for good reason, he said. “It was a real racist neighborhood . . . rebel flags in the windows, if you know what I mean.”
Whites who imitated black culture were just as unwelcome, Havro said. They were called “wiggers,” a melding of the word “white” and a racial epithet for blacks.
After the family moved to nearby Roseville, another blue-collar suburb, Eminem received one of the worst beatings of his life at the hands of a black youngster, court records and interviews show. Then a fourth-grader, he suffered a severe concussion.
The incident became the subject of Eminem’s song “Brain Damage,” which says: “He kept chokin’ me and I couldn’t breathe; he looked at me and said, ‘You’re gonna die honkie!’ ”
It was one of several beatings he suffered at the hands of blacks. But rather than turning against black culture, Eminem latched onto it through the world of rap music. Introduced to the art form by an uncle, he became mesmerized. LL Cool J and Run DMC would become heroes, replacing the comic book characters that had been his previous passion. He began reading the dictionary to bolster his lyrical prowess, but was listless when it came to doing homework.
The rapper was unavailable to be interviewed for this report, but he told The Times last year: “I was a smart kid, but I hated school. 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.”
What looked cool to him was alarming to relatives, who thought the reclusive adolescent was undergoing an identity crisis.
“He got beat up so many times by them that I was shocked to see . . . that he had joined them,” said Betty Kresin, Eminem’s grandmother from Missouri. “I told Debbie, ‘My God, what’s happening here?’ ”
His manager Paul Rosenberg, who was raised in a more affluent Detroit suburb, said he didn’t think Eminem was consciously trying to bridge two cultures, but was just trying to get along. “He wanted to be part of the landscape, part of the environment. I think it was just him assimilating.”
By that time, the late 1980s, Eminem and his mother were living on Dresden, a block lined by nearly identical matchbox homes. This would begin the period that would most shape Eminem’s art.
His Ability to Rhyme Made Him Popular
One afternoon, Eminem cut class and went to another campus, nearby Osborn High, to hand out fliers for an upcoming amateur rap show. On the sidewalk in front of the predominantly black school he met Holton, now known as the rapper Proof. The pair began “kicking rhymes” on the spot, weaving the street poetry called rap and building off each other’s phrases, Holton recalled.
“Those rhymes made us tight, and we’ve been friends ever since,” said Holton, a member of the group D-12, a side project for Eminem. “He was living on Dresden. His next-door neighbor was white, a motorcycle dude named Reaper, and everybody else was black.”
It was a different scene at Eminem’s school. Using a relative’s address, Eminem’s mother had enrolled her son in predominantly white Lincoln High, in the old “Warren-tucky” neighborhood near Nine Mile Road. He attended ninth grade from 1987 through mid-1989 before dropping out.
Eminem was an outcast the minute he arrived. Classmate Havro said the first time he met Eminem, he was wearing a plastic kitchen wall clock held around his neck by a fake gold chain--an accessory made popular by rapper Flavor Flav.
Havro had popped his head into Eminem’s classroom to say hello to a girl, and the future rapper shouted: “Get your big head out of here.”
“I asked my friend, ‘Who’s that idiot?’ ” Havro recalled. “After the class was over, I tried to confront him in the hallway. That’s when I saw two other kids wanted to beat him up too. . . . I think he liked the attention.”
But it was his music that garnered him the most notice. Former classmates said he would rap at basement parties, and a photo in the 1988 Lincoln High yearbook shows Mathers in sunglasses, rapping during a school talent show. At the end of drafting class, he would rap while everyone was putting their materials away, said Bob Blair, his former teacher and now assistant principal.
While working as a cook at Gilbert’s Lodge in St. Clair Shores, another bordering suburb, he got deeper into the hip-hop scene--performing at local clubs, traveling to New York for rap contests, writing his own songs and constantly listening to the music on headphones while he worked the grill.
“We used to send back orders to him and he’d rap them,” said Sue DuPont, 38, the day waitress.
For a youngster with a rootless background, hip-hop had become a solace and inspiration. His dream of becoming a white rapper seemed ludicrous to some, but there was cause for optimism. The Beastie Boys, a clownish former punk band from New York, had by then scored a major hit with “License to Ill,” an album that consumed Eminem.
Eminem was building a reputation at clubs and open-mike contests as a gifted, clever rhymer, earning him a rare taste of respect.
His personal life, however, was fraught with conflict with his mother and his girlfriend, Kim Scott, with whom he had a baby Christmas Day 1995.
His mother would call him at work so often the waitresses automatically hung up. After each call, the waitresses said, Mathers’ mood would darken and he’d pull on his headphones. The anger he buried eventually found its way into rage-filled lyrics he recorded and brought in for the Gilbert’s crew to hear.
In one song, he fantasized about killing Kim.
“I told him it was morbid killing your baby’s mother,” recalled Lynn Hunt, a waitress at Gilbert’s. “He told me ‘Yeah, but it will get me somewhere someday.’ ”
“I don’t do black music, I don’t do white music. I make fight music, for high school kids . . . “
--a lyric from “Who Knew?”
In 1997, a tape of Eminem’s music was handed to Dr. Dre, the rapper who helped create the lexicon of gangsta rap with the group N.W.A. Dre was immediately intrigued and sure he heard a budding star--but he was wrong about one thing. “I thought he was black,” Dre said.
Eminem did become a star with the “My Name Is,” an infectious radio hit that presented him as the ultimate class clown, mocking himself and everyone else--just like he did at Lincoln High. By the time his second album came out last year, he was the best-selling rapper in the world and infamous for his over-the-top content with references to murder, rape and incest. He is protested by activist groups and vilified by culture critics. Canadian authorities tried to ban him from the country by invoking hate-crime laws.
The themes of the rapper’s music seem to be intruding into his personal life. Last June, Eminem was involved in two incidents in Michigan in which he allegedly brandished an unloaded gun. One was resolved last week when he pleaded guilty to a felony weapon charge, and he awaits sentencing. Probation is likely, but the prosecutors are asking for six months in jail. The other case is pending.
A month after the confrontations, Eminem’s wife, Kim Scott Mathers, attempted suicide after attending one of her husband’s concerts in the Detroit area. She is a frequent target of the rapper’s comical rage during shows--he has brought blow-up dolls on stage and referred to them as his wife. Eminem has also been locked in a feud with his mother that has led to her filing a $10-million defamation-of-character suit for referring to her as a drug addict.
These high-profile woes and the malice in his music have made Eminem a villain to many. That’s puzzling to people on both sides of Eight Mile Road who knew him as either meek, silly or courteous.
Even the prosecutor in one of the weapons cases isn’t sure what to think. “We had real enigma here,” said Macomb County prosecuting attorney Carl Marlinga. “This person pretends to be an out-of-control, hate-filled maniac when he’s on the stage, but in real life, he’s polite and well-spoken and respectful, totally candid and honest in his statements.”
What is no mystery is Eminem’s trajectory on Detroit’s social ladder. After scoring his first big hit single, the former Marshall Bruce Mathers III promptly bought a big house in the upscale suburb of Sterling Heights--right off Seventeen Mile Road.
Less than a year later, with a stack of platinum records to his name, he bought a $1.5-million manse in Clinton Township--near Nineteen Mile Road.
“He’s not a sell-out,” said Gaston, who still lives on Dresden Street. “He just moved up.”
Defiant Ones: Grammy has a disturbing history of ignoring controversial pop icons, F1
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.