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To some, he’s an inspiration, the ultimate Detroit-schooled battle MC talented enough to turn his skills into cash. To others, he’s the nervous style-shifter, the “good listener” who took the advice — and some of the style — of those around him to become Slim Shady.
To his family, he’s a prodigal son who turned the dirtied-up laundry of growing up with an allegedly erratic mother and spouse into platinum records. Hell, Eminem single-handedly made domestic violence radio-friendly. But these days he’s making sure everybody’s taken care of.
That fact alone makes one wonder whether the pathology and rage that purportedly fueled his sometimes depraved lyrics were genuine. Insiders say it was.
Yet if selling 30 million-plus records worldwide has mellowed him, will he retain his edge?
Whatever the outcome, Eminem remains a singular character on the music landscape. Rap has made MCs its bitches, turning even the best rhyme-slingers into cheerleaders and hookmen for liquor and lingerie. Except for Eminem. With The Eminem Show, his Marshallness — his hissy-fit whine — makes rap his bitch.
And with the Nov. 8 release of 8 Mile, his quasi-autobiographical movie set in Motown, Eminem, né Marshall Bruce Mathers III, has a chance to take his inimitable persona to a whole new level. He became a whiter-than-white rap star thanks to crossover appeal, both in music and race. As it ever was, from Elvis to the Police, it takes a white guy to co-opt a music of black origin and have the greatest success with it.
Can Eminem transcend mediums as well?
Baby on the way
While MCs like Busta Rhymes have become oversized cartoons with each new hit single, Eminem has hijacked the genre to vent his frustrations and pains as not only an artist and performer, but as a human being, becoming a more detailed, lurid character with each album.
On “My Name Is,” his breakout single from 1999, he told us, “I just found out my mom does more dope than I do,” and left it at that. Three years later, on “Cleaning Out My Closet,” we find out there’s more to the story, and this time shit just isn’t as funny: “Just try to envision witnessin’ your mama poppin’ prescription pills in the kitchen, bitchin’ that someone’s always going through her purse and shit’s missin’.”
It’s raw, personal stuff, spelled out with frankness in speed-bag syllables. Only in Em’s case there’s an everykid appeal and shock value. Says fellow Detroit MC Hush (Dan Carlisle), “You either relate to what he’s saying and you’re all for it, or relate and you don’t wanna hear it — but either way, you relate.”
But can everything Eminem raps about be true? Sure, hip-hop’s built on hyperbole, but the pill-crazed mom? The contrarian significant other? The golden cage of just wanting to be a great MC but getting the pop life along with it? Can being the star of The Eminem Show be as bad as he makes it sound?
It depends on who you ask.
“Everything he says in his rhymes is true,” says Hush.
He’d know. Eminem and Hush were friends and neighbors living just blocks apart on Novara and Bentler streets in Detroit during Em’s most formative years as an MC and young father. The Novara Street era was a pivotal one, the time when Eminem suffered his biggest betrayals and failures personally and professionally, as well as where he developed his dark laugh-to-keep-from-crying sense of humor to deal with it.
It’s where Slim Shady was born.
Hush and Em maintain a respectful distance these days.
In the mid-’90s, they were both broke white kids with babies on the way working shit jobs, trying to get a break in rap. Em dropped a verse on the track “We Shine” for Hush’s group, Da Ruckus; Hush produced beats for Em’s Slim Shady EP. They felt the pressure of trying to succeed and provide together.
When the two became close in 1994. Em had already made Infinite, a lukewarm collection of radio-friendly R&B raps. It marked the first effort by Em and his executive producers the Bass Brothers — and it flopped.
Then he found out his high-school sweetheart, Kim, his on-again/off-again girlfriend whom he met at Lincoln High School in Warren, was pregnant.
Remembers Hush, “By summer of ’95, Em was like, ‘Man I got a baby on the way. I gotta do something, I gotta make some money or there’s no way I can take care of this shit.’ He just seemed overwhelmed. …
“I remember a few months before our babies were due riding together to do a cable TV show. He didn’t even want to go. I was like, ‘You got to promote your shit,’ but he was just angry. He’d put out Infinite, and it wasn’t doing well.” Rap radio “wasn’t real wild about playing a record by a white kid. Everybody was talking that Vanilla Ice shit. When [radio DJ] Billy T. did finally play it, he actually faded it out just when Em’s verse came up. He was crushed. He was like ‘Man, if this record doesn’t hit, this is it, I quit.’”
Adding to the frustration was Em’s struggle to provide for his new family.
“Hailie was born Christmas Day 1995 — my son was born right before that. But Em wasn’t living with Kim because he had to get his act together,” Hush recounts. “He had a car, this beat-up Mercury Tracer, and he’d get a job, making pizzas, cooking, whatever — he’d go from one job to another. But he just didn’t have the money, so Hailie had to live with Kim and her parents on the east side.”
“I went to jail for this woman, I went to bat for this woman, I’ve taken bats to people’s backs bent over backwards for this woman”—Hailie’s Song
Em and Kim wed in 1999. Their divorce was final in October 2001.
The relationship is now said to be on the mend, but the early impact of their impossibly volatile coupling on Eminem’s life and rhymes cannot be overestimated. According to people in Em’s then-inner circle, she was as bad as his rhymes make her sound.
Recalls Hush, “Sometimes he’d have Hailie for the day over at the house on Novara. Kim would just show up and grab Hailie and he’d be like, ‘You bitch!’ She was always holding stuff over his head for him to see the baby, like spending more time with her instead of his friends. He kept on saying he was gonna kill her ass. That’s what [the song] ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ came from.”
DJ Rec (Bob Claus), Em’s Novara Street roommate who produced the original “My Name Is” as well as tracks on the Slim Shady EP, says Eminem was tormented by his inability to provide for his new baby — and having to deal with Kim to see his child.
“He and Kim had to fight like once a day; it was a mandatory thing. Always in the kitchen,” Rec says. “I’d hear her smackin’ him and no matter what he wouldn’t hit her back. I hate to say it, but she kicked the shit out of him. He would never hit her. But she’s a manly chick.”
Hush: “When they were in a fight he’d scream a little but back down. There was something in him afraid of her, enough to let her win all the time. He was afraid she wouldn’t let him see his daughter.”
Attempts to reach Eminem and Kim for comment were unsuccessful. Em’s mother declined to comment.
Rec sees Em’s capitulation to Kim as a matter of pride. One might suspect it was shame.
“I think he tried, but he really didn’t provide back in the day for his daughter; she was a WIC baby,” he offers.
“Em never had much,” remembers Rec. “Just a collection of old school hip-hop tapes … He had a lot of M&M candy dispensers too. When the kid got a check he’d go get clothes. He was really into his shoes — he never bought CDs, but every three weeks he’d get new shoes.”
Unable to provide for his daughter, he had to begrudgingly let Kim make money. By 1997, she had taken a job in the Oasis Executive Spa on Van Dyke in Center Line, a massage parlor that was subsequently shut down by the Internal Revenue Service, which charged the owners with skimming. The IRS also alleged that the business was engaged in “prostitution.”
Recalls Hush, “I lived right around there, and there’s plenty of times I’d go by and tap on the glass and she’d wave to me.”
Kim’s job — and that he was the last to find out about it — was too much for Eminem to bear.
His mother, Debbie, who would become such a target in his rhymes, would step in to keep the peace.
By then, Em had left the Novara Street house and was living between Kim’s house on the east side and with his mother in a trailer park on 26 Mile Road. This arrangement only added to the friction between Em and Kim. Hush usually got the call to intervene.
“His mom called me up one day and was like ‘You gotta go get Marshall because he’s gonna kill her,’” Hush says, adding that Em had just learned that Kim was working at the parlor.
Em’s angst mounted. But by then, give or take a pistol-whipping or two in the years to come, he’d learned to distill his rage for Kim’s behavior, as he would the other betrayals of his life, into his rhymes. As he would later rap on The Eminem Show’s “Superman,” “That’s ammo for my arsenal.”
But first he had to find his voice.
Slim Shady is born
“Em wasn’t like this angry kid back in the day,” recalls Rec. “But then Infinite didn’t hit, and he wanted to quit. He got discouraged; nobody wanted to take a chance with him.
“I was telling him he needed to get more current. Like Proof; Proof sounded more up-to-date than Em. He was still on that tongue-twister style, real fast — super-fast, so fast you couldn’t understand what he was sayin’. Me and the roommates were telling him, like, ‘You need to get a gimmick. Get more metaphors and not just syllables.’ In Detroit, it’s different. You can’t be too serious; I told him to throw some dick into the party, you know, be humorous.”
Eminem’s transformation into Slim Shady came during a trip to Newark, N.J., with MC Bizarre to record with the Outsidaz, a rowdy East Coast rap crew that was down with Em’s hero Redman.
“Up until then,” Hush says, “Em thought it was all about making a radio hit; that’s all he knew. But then he got out to Jersey and played the Outsidaz Infinite and they were like, ‘This ain’t shit!’ I think they thought it was cool, but not really what he should be doing. He looked up to them …
“They put Em in the studio and I’m sure they were blew the fuck out, because he came out with some shit like they’d fed him an acid tab, just a complete 180 from what he was talking about before. When he came back, he got the tattoo and he was Slim Shady from that point on. Nobody knows that shit, though — you never hear him mention the Outsidaz.” (Hush does note that he Outsidaz’s Young Z appears on the 8 Mile sound track.)
After his persona change, Rec says, “he used to get really pissed when we’d call him Marshall.”
The change in Em’s style rippled through the Detroit hip-hop community.
Hush: “Bizarre came over to my house on Bentler and he was like, ‘We created a monster.’”
The “we” part gets tricky. Slim Shady was Em’s invention, but at the same time the real Slim Shady was amalgam of everything around him, from the fateful trip to record with the Outsidaz to his Detroit homies who had been telling him to change up his style.
With nothing to lose, Em followed his roommate’s advice and recorded as his new alter ego.
“We said ‘Let’s make a nice rough album.’ And he was down,” Rec says. “He picked the tracks he wanted to write to.” Contributing to those tracks were Hush, Denai Porter [D 12’s KonArtis] and Head. “Me, I produced ‘My Name Is,’” Rec says.
“We were the people making beats back in the day; the Bass Brothers were the money and the studio.”
“The kid had a lot of good advice.” Rec says. “He was a listener. He didn’t go, ‘Fuck you, I’m doing it my way.’ He took a lot of crap but he listened to a lot of people.”
More dope than I do
As Slim Shady, Em found an outlet. His tongue-twisting skills could process his equally twisted emotions. Trouble was, the raw material for his rhymes — his relationship with Kim and his anger at his mother — was coming at a rate that it was hard for his rhymes to keep up.
Remembers Mark Kempf, Eminem’s former manager, “The night of his [Slim Shady EP] record-release party, I don’t know what Em and Kim were fighting about, but they were fighting. She got real drunk and came into the club and tried to pull him away from the people he was talking to. He was like, ‘Relax, relax. I gotta talk to these people.’ And she broke down right there, threatening to leave him … Just wrecking his night. That’s one instance of her not understanding him: He’s throwing a concert, doing a million things, and she wants him to spend more time with her. I don’t think she truly had faith in him, she didn’t understand where he was trying to go.”
Adds Hush, “He was in the bathroom with his hands on her biceps yelling, ‘Bitch, you’re not gonna ruin this night for me!’”
When Em landed a record deal with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label in 1998, the pressure of recording with the rap mogul and having to deliver more and more led him to alcohol and drugs — specifically painkillers, insiders say.
Recalls Rec, “The kid was straight-edge back in the day. He could hardly take a hit of a joint. He messed around with the painkillers every once in a while — especially when they’re literally laying around the house.”
Hush remembers a particularly telling incident where Em was both the good brother and the bad son.
“When Em got back from LA recording the Slim Shady LP, he picked up me and Bizarre. He went to buy his little brother a PlayStation at Best Buy, then we went to his mother’s house in the trailer park on 26 Mile. His mom tried to be nice, but she didn’t look so good. I’d been forewarned by Em, but it was a bit of shock to see her so blew out,” says Hush. “But then the first thing Em does is lift up her mattress and look for pills. When he says ‘I picked up the habit’ on the Marshall Mathers LP, he means it.”
Back in LA, Em’s drug use apparently intensified.
Hush remembers, “He called me from LA and was like, ‘I’m pissing blood.’ I told my girl who worked at a hospital, she’d told me to tell him, ‘It’s from that Tylenol with codeine, you fiend!’”
Dr. Dre helped straighten him up by sending him to the gym. Hush remembers Em being buffed-out when he got back to Detroit in late ’98. But the awkward pressure of sudden pop stardom remained.
“We were riding around Detroit in a limo going to all these radio interviews and he just turned to me, ‘Hush, how did this happen, man?’ And I’m like, ‘You got a crossover radio hit!’”
Em was never comfortable with his crossover status. On a promotional tour of record stores in San Francisco he was dismayed to find crowds of teenyboppers.
For his first gig in Detroit after starting to hit big, he played at a rave, called, tellingly, Aftermath. Wearing a “Honky” T-shirt with Proof acting as his hypeman and Hush the opening act, Em did “My Name Is,” rolling around on a warehouse floor.
Backstage, according to rave attendees, he camped next to the nitrous oxide tank. Oblivious to the young girls stripping down to their bras on his lap, he sucked down balloon after balloon, blurting out “I wanna die” with a self-mocking tone.
Rec DJed for him early on in the Slim Shady LP tour. “I saw him go from a guy who could barely drink a 22-ouncer to a guy who could polish off a fifth of Bacardi a day,” Rec says.
Fueling Em’s use was constant drama with Kim. Hush discovered that Em didn’t want to hear anything bad about her — Em once took a swing at him after Hush called Kim a bitch.
Rec learned the same lesson.
“Right when the Slim Shady album came out we were on the tour bus and I had to tell him I saw Kim kissing on another guy. I don’t think he liked me being in his personal life. ‘Why are you telling me this, dog? I’m getting ready to do a show?’ he kept sayin’. I said ‘I just care, bro.’ He just said, ‘I don’t need you to be tellin’ me my girl’s out.’”
Still, Eminem tried to keep it together. In 1999, friends say, he allowed Kim to pick out a half-million dollar house in a Detroit suburb — right across the street from a trailer park.
Says Rec, “I think he always wanted to keep it together more than Kim because he never had that stability growing up.”
Makes sense. Until you talk to Eminem’s uncle.
The Todd Nelson Show
“You can’t miss it, it’s the only house with a 35-foot RV in front of it,” Todd Nelson says of the house in Warren belonging to Eminem’s grandmother. It’s where Nelson and his son now live.
It’s also where Marshall Mathers lived on and off for the three years he failed to pass ninth grade at Lincoln High. He dropped out and devoted his time first to being a graphic artist and then as a rapper with his first group, Sole Intent. Nelson, brother of Eminem’s mother Debbie (who’s changed her name from Mathers-Briggs back to Nelson), is eager to tell “the truth” about his nephew, “that everything he says about his past is fabricated.”
“He’s my nephew, but I call him my ‘F.U.’ I don’t like fake people,” Nelson says. “His movie shouldn’t be called 8 Mile — it should be called ‘26 Mile’!”
With his broad, round eyes and scooped-up nose, Nelson’s family resemblance to Em is staggering.
A burly ex-con with liver cancer caused by hepatitis C, Nelson isn’t looking to cash in off his famous nephew. He routinely gives out pages of Em’s early lyric sheets, “even though they’re worth about $1,000 apiece on the Internet.”
In the bungalow’s living room are snapshots of the rapper with family members interspersed with Confederate flags and other bric-a-brac that speaks to Eminem’s Southern roots in St. Joseph. Mo., where Marshall was born.
Nelson claims Eminem has made a cottage industry out of tapping into a reverse Oedipal complex of mother-bashing.
“Every white male regardless of his age has something against their mother, and he’s exploiting that, so all these white males can throw themselves a pity party,” Nelson says. “He tried bashing blacks and fags and when that didn’t work he started bashing his mother.”
In an attempt to prove his point, Nelson plays a tape from an early Detroit radio freestyle Em performed called “Word To Allah,” in which he repeatedly uses the word “nigger.”
“And listen — he sends out love to his mother,” Nelson says.
It’s not the most convincing argument that Em was once a mother-loving racist, especially coming from a guy who spent some of Em’s key developmental years, from 1992 to 1998, in prison for manslaughter.
Nelson portrays Debbie as an overwhelmed single parent under intense pressure — not unlike Eminem himself, which may explain why he acts so hateful toward Mom: She reminds him of himself.
Nelson recounts Eminem’s childhood. “His dad Bruce made wood veneer, you know, that they put on tables. They were married, but he moved to South Dakota. Debbie had nowhere to go. Her dad rejected her. She could’ve stayed there in St. Joe, where Marshall would’ve had no chance — people pick up aluminum cans and sell bait down there. But she decided to do it alone, and brought Marshall up North. She was overwhelmed. I remember her standing in the doorway of our mother’s house. I was like, ‘What are you gonna do? Come in or stay out.’ It was the wintertime, and she had that look in her eyes — she was so lost.”
Nelson doesn’t excuse his sister’s parenting, but he does say Debbie did the best she could.
“She ran a cab company — Classic Cab, she went to beauty school … She moved around a lot like everybody else,” he offers. “But I remember Marshall in Kmart when he was 8 years old throwing down his toys, throwing a fit until Debbie got him the Skeletor toy or comic book or whatever. And she’d get it for him — she’d write a bad check if she had to. He got his way.
“Listen, Marshall had a roof over his head until he was 26 — my sister gave him my grandmother’s trailer on 26 Mile — and he couldn’t even take care of it. I got the tickets around here somewhere — he got tickets for not mowing the grass.”
Nelson puts three light blue Lincoln High notebooks on the kitchen table. They provide a vivid glimpse of young Marshall Mathers. There’s a flubbed psychology test, its “D+” grade changed to an “A+” with a different color pen. In a yellow folder with cut-out pictures of Arrested Development and Salt ‘N’ Pepa there are the first scribblings of a young lyricist: “Let me introduce my band a gypsies … all of us hipper than hippies … I should go I take MCs on a joy ride and make ‘em dizzy as blonds/ I could rap around the world three times like vines/All in the same day but I don’t take planes/But if you wanna get nuts like a squirrel/We can take it to the stage and Ima shake it like a white girl.” Elsewhere, “you’res” are changed to “y’all” and “yo”’s added between words. There is the original flier for the “M&M” graphic design — with his mother’s phone number.
“C’mon, he had it rough? Where do you think he did that? His mother’s house!” Nelson says.
From these first raw etchings of “M&M” before he was Eminem and Slim Shady, it all seems kind of, well, innocent. Vulnerable, even. Someone who’s had the rug pulled out from under them is going to be more traumatized than somebody who never knew there was a rug.
Despite the heartbreak, Marshall, Nelson says, was too sheltered to end up a criminal.
Before he became a sensation, “The only trouble he got into with police was for shooting paintball guns on Woodward,” says Nelson, referring to when Em and a friend were picked up for shooting paintball guns at hookers in Detroit. It’s more the work of a prankster than a thug.
If anything, says Nelson, young Marshall lived vicariously through his uncle Ronnie, Todd and Debbie’s younger brother, who was Marshall’s age and who committed suicide.
“Ronnie was the one with the rough childhood — living out of garbage cans off the streets, being rejected by his dad. And then when my little brother died, Marshall went and got his name tattooed on him. But Ronnie didn’t even like Marshall,” Nelson says. “I got the last letter he ever wrote before he killed himself and he doesn’t even mention Marshall.”
Underneath the wannabe street survivor image of Slim Shady, says Nelson, was a mama’s boy.
“When he got in trouble with the gun [for pistol-whipping a man he caught with Kim in 2000] his mother was in Missouri. He called her to fly up here as fast as she could,” Nelson says.
Em’s gunplay could have landed him in prison for five years for felonious assault, but he copped to a reduced charge of carrying a concealed weapon and was placed on probation.
The phone rings. It’s Debbie. I ask if I can speak with her, but she tells her brother she can’t talk. Nelson says it’s part of a “contract … to keep her mouth shut … about the fake movie he’s got.”
Nelson apparently believes that Em is trying to pass off 8 Mile as authentic biography, which he isn’t.
Despite his resentment over Em’s treatment of his sister, Nelson does offer details of their relationship these days. He says Mathers is buying his mother a new RV.
“Why? To keep her mouth shut!” Nelson bellows. “He’s basically told her that if she keeps her mouth shut, he’ll take care of her. Why would I lie? I can’t stand that bitch half the time. But I’m not gonna have some son of a bitch sit and lie, even if it’s her own kid. But I guess as long as he’s making money and taking care of her, that’s cool with me.”
The Eminem Show
“Imagine goin’ from bein’ a no one to seein’ everything blow up and all you did was just grow up MCing. It’s fucking crazy cuz all I wanted was to give Hailie the life I never had but instead I forced us to live alienated” —Sayin’ Goodbye To Hollywood
It’s darkly ironic that after dealing with two generations of erratic women, Em would be blessed with a daughter to right his relationship with the fairer sex. These days Mathers and his daughter live with Betty and Jack Schmidt; Betty is his mother’s half-sister.
The four live with Eminem’s half-brother, Nathan, in the lone gated community in otherwise lower-middle-class Clinton Township, just a few miles from the 26 Mile trailer where so much of his drama with his mother went down. Eminem’s house is just a few miles from where his mother now lives.
According to people close to him, Em is clean, not just as condition of his probation, but because he doesn’t need not to be anymore.
Visitors to Em’s house last Christmas remembered a noticeable lack of holiday spirit.
“There were just empty Taco Bell bags and some Mountain Dew bottles, and a couple of warm Coronas. He had the outside of the house done up for his daughter, but that was it,” says one visitor. “He just seemed like someone who’d been took” — that is, cheated or fooled.
Em’s guardedness may be because a part of him doesn’t believe any of this is real. He struggled his whole life to become a respected MC — and now he’s a pop star. A tireless perfectionist, he has channeled his anger and his taste for drugs into his music and now, instead of mining run-ins with his mother and ex-wife into rhymes, he apparently just wants everyone to get along.
Kim had a second child, Whitney, fathered by a bouncer at the Hot Rocks bar where Eminem pistol-whipped a rival two years ago. When friends told Em that Kim was coming to a Detroit show by his protégé Obie Trice last spring, they worried that drama would ensue. Instead, Em made sure Kim got in and the night passed without incident.
In an even more bizarre turn of events, Em and Kim are back together—again. An US Weekly reporter discovered the pair are looking at new houses together.
But no matter where Em lives, friends say, he spends most of his time in the studio — a place he feels comfortable, a place where he has complete control. Word is that he’s working with Royce Da 5’9”, with whom Em has recorded as Bad Meets Evil, on a new album.
Hex (Gene Howell), manager of Detroit rap groups Almighty Dreadnautz and Fat Killaz, remembers going to the Clinton Township house last fall with Proof and Royce Da 5’9”, only to find Em buried in the studio. He emerged only to fume over a poor review of the D-12 disc.
“I’m lookin’ around at this house and everything he got, going, ‘Man what are you pissed off about?’” Hex says.
Hex echoes the sentiments of much of the Detroit scene — Eminem may be a pop star, but he is still one of theirs.
“He’s popular because, well, first thing motherfuckers say is his lack of melanin. But he got skills … In the whole battle circuit, he’s legendary,” says Hex. “That’s what inspires so many cats who spit for the love of spittin’, that this motherfucker actually made money from it. And he makes fun of the fact that he’s on, that he’s a pop star or whatever. He shits on motherfuckers bad — listen to ‘White America.’ But when he says ‘I lived in a car with Bizarre,’ to everyone else that’s just some rap-shit, a nigger talking. But he went through some hard times for real.”
But what about his suburban upbringing?
“People say, ‘He from Warren.’ But all the game he got come from fucking around with Proof, Royce and all them. Ain’t no open-mic in Warren — he a Shop nigga — the Hip-Hop Shop, where all them niggas came from. … Em’s part of a whole tradition, but he’s the one showing us you can get paid from it. That’s why anywhere you go in Detroit a nigger’s gonna be bumpin’ Eminem shit. He’s an inspiration. He makes us all feel like failure’s not an option.
“He gives bunch of niggas jobs for a couple months doing his movie. I seen him bail people out of jail. All right, nigga had a gun — I had a gun conviction,” Hex says, alluding to Eminem’s pistol-whipping incident. “When he does it, it’s times a million.
“But like Proof says about Marshall, ‘He won at life.’”
Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.