The Guardian wrote: It has been five years since the world last heard from Eminem, but the most incendiary rapper of all time is returning to the fray with perhaps his most stunning album yet. In his only major interview to mark the release of Relapse, he talks to Anthony Bozza about fame and his fondness for serial killers, the addictions that nearly finished his career and why he's in a better place now than ever before
It has been five years since Eminem last emerged from his Detroit compound with a new studio album, Encore. By then, the rapper born Marshall Mathers III had established himself as the most significant US artist of his generation - driving and reflecting fierce debate in George Bush's America on racial and sexual politics, violence, dysfunctional families and the pitfalls of celebrity. He survived a traumatic childhood in the racially divided lower-class suburbs of Detroit to win nine Grammy awards and an Oscar (for best song, from the film 8 Mile, the loosely autobiographical tale in which he starred); but even as critics and commentators belatedly sought to embrace him, the United States Secret Service found itself considering an investigation into the suggestion - on the 2003 track We As Americans - that he had threatened the president's life.
No one could be insensate to Eminem, or Slim Shady, those aliases born of a hip-hop tradition to which he had always been true. Shady righted the wrongs the rapper had suffered in life and ridiculed the insincerity and injustice he saw all around him. But somewhere along the way it seems as if holding a mirror up to his culture caused the real Marshall Mathers to lose his way. The stuff of his life - from his acrimonious relationships with his mother Debbie and his now twice divorced ex-wife Kimberley Anne Scott (mother to his daughter Hailie ) - fuelled lyrics that were often painfully detailed and explicit. But following a greatest hits collection - with the ominous title Curtain Call - in December 2005, Eminem disappeared from the limelight.
In the years since there have been endless rumours: Eminem was struggling with drug addiction and weight gain; Eminem had put down the microphone for good; Eminem intended to focus on acting; Eminem was too paranoid to leave his home. The truth is mixed.
Continuing:In his time away from the world at large, the 36-year-old star struggled with an addiction to painkillers and sleeping pills that had been with him for years. He gained weight, he grew depressed and he lost the creative spark that had always driven him on. The murder of his best friend and partner in rap, Proof - real name DeShaun Dupree Holton - on 8 Mile Road in Detroit in April 2006 did nothing to help his downward spiral.
I first heard Eminem in 1998, when he was an unsigned rapper freestyling on a Los Angeles radio show and I was on staff at Rolling Stone magazine. I kept my eye out for him and a year later, when he signed to Interscope records and was working with Dr Dre - one of the most infl uential hiphop producers in history - I was dispatched to interview him for a 250-word piece on the "novelty" video for his surprise hit My Name Is. The Eminem I met then was on fi re, with wit, with creativity and with a nothing-to-lose momentum that was carrying him further to the top day-today than I think even he reali sed. But as time went on, and over the course of several in-depth interviews that saw me finally writing a book called Whatever You Say I Am (Transworld) about his rise to fame and his cultural significance, I saw the Eminem I knew change.
It wasn't just the stress of success and the complicated life he chronicled so well in rhyme. In our last interview, circa the album The Eminem Show in 2002, he had grown very visibly reserved; it was a trend that seemed to continue in his subsequent dealings with the press and public at large. Soon after, on Encore, his rhymes fell short of his acerbic, acrobatic best. It sounded from the outside as if the wordsmith who was never without a pen and a pad had grown bored of his craft.
In truth, he had. He was midway through a spiral that he has finally turned around: he is now a year sober and ready to re-emerge with the feverishly awaited Relapse. His voice is clear, his speech is focused and for the first time in too long - to my ears at least - Eminem sounds like the man he used to be. The outward signs are positive: rather than remaining in his home studio to record, Eminem has built a new facility in Detroit, full of his favourite vintage arcade games, where he now prefers to work. And though he has not decided if he's going to tour this album or Relapse II, a second studio release tentatively scheduled for later this year, he has decided that he's ready to keep writing and rapping rather than working behind the production desk for other artists. It sounds as if Eminem has realised, once again, that rap saved his life and that no one should turn their back on what they're born to do - especially if they're given the chance to do it their way.Eminem:
Anthony, long time, no speak.AB:
Marshall Mathers, it is good to hear your voice.Eminem:
Yeah, I'm doing that "I am back" thing a little bit. Uh... cool. Is that all you need for this article?AB:
Definitely. Interview over. Thanks! Seriously, though, what made you want to put yourself out there again?Eminem:
Honestly, I never really put the mic down. The problem was, as I'm going to be explaining over and over again for a while, is that I had a pretty bad drug problem. I was messing with Valium, Vicodin, Ambien and anything to sleep. Basically I'd take Vicodin to get me through my day.AB:
You went to rehab for the first time in August 2005 when you cancelled the European leg of the Anger Management 3 tour, which was your first in three years.Eminem:
Right. And when I went to rehab that time I wasn't ready to go. So when I came out I relapsed pretty much right away, within a week. I was still writing at that time and trying to do my producer thing. I was sitting in rehab reflecting for the first time in a while. I felt like I needed to pull back from the spotlight because it was getting out of control. I mean, you could blame my drug problem on genetics, you could blame it on my career and the way it took off, or you could just blame it on me.AB:
Which did you blame it on?Eminem:
I think more than anything it had to do with me. You know, my career certainly played a hand in my drug use and how bad it actually got, but it was also my own doing.AB:
It sounds like you got a bit of perspective that first time in rehab, even if it ultimately didn't work. What changes did you make?Eminem:
I felt like I had to pull back from the spotlight. I thought I'd try to produce records and work with artists from my label and shit like that. I thought this would be my way to pull back a little bit and not be the front man.
Eminem wearing red polo shirt Eminem, photographed in Los Angeles, California, April 2009. Photograph: Karin CattFrom the start, growing up in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Eminem immersed himself in hip-hop culture, performing at high-school talent shows under the moniker M&M (as in Marshall Mathers). While promoting one of those shows he met Proof, the rapper who urged Eminem to challenge himself and, along with some of the future members of the group D12, inspired him to create his alter ego, Slim Shady. Eminem has remained fiercely loyal to these roots - to his hometown and to the rappers that made him the artist he is. It was clear, from my first trip to Detroit with him back in 1999, that even though the city and many in it hadn't shown him much love, he still had love for where he was from. It makes sense that Eminem turned to producing his friends during his darkest days - like his house and the city itself, they are his refuge.AB:
During your "retirement", you did release Eminem Presents: The Re-Up (2006), with Obie Trice and Proof and others...Eminem:
We did do that album during that time... you have to excuse me if my memory is a little blotchy from those four years. It's probably understandable looking back at how much I was actually using. But yeah, that album came out and it did what it did and came out how it came out. I never stopped working, but I had a problem I was hiding. I guess it was a combination of writer's block and being lazy, because I just didn't want to write rhymes any more.AB:
Really? Every time I've seen you since day one you've always had a note pad or a napkin or something nearby that was always full of rhymes.Eminem:
I don't know, I was just too lazy to write my rhymes so I started to do the Jay-Z thing. I'd just go in and freestyle whenever I did a verse. I had writer's block. For the first time in my life I couldn't write. I couldn't write a rhyme to save my life.AB:
That is shocking to me. I've seen you literally not be able to stop rhyming.Eminem:
I mean, don't get me wrong, I could write rhymes. But I wasn't able to write anything that was good and up to my standards. This went on for two, probably three years. It was the worst case of writer's block. Going through that I felt like shit. Me, personally, if I don't write all the time, if a couple of weeks go by and I'm not writing, I feel shitty. I need to write, just as little exercises to feel like I'm doing something.AB:
So you must have felt completely strange.Eminem:
It was the pills I was taking; they had my mood really fucked up. I was already depressed and with the drugs it just became a vicious cycle of depression. And as if my drug problem wasn't bad enough, when Proof died it was like, "Son of a bitch, what I am going to do now?". I went through a lot when he died. It was the worst time in my life. It just gave me a real legitimate excuse, in my head at least, to use drugs. I didn't care if my drug problem got worse at that point so I took more pills. And the more I said fuck it and took more pills, the higher my tolerance got. The higher my tolerance got, the more I needed those pills in my body just to feel normal and not feel sick. It's a vicious cycle. I got over it all last year. I ended up coming out of all that shit that was cluttering my mind and as I came up out of the haze from the pills and everything, shit started to get clearer.I met Eminem's long-serving manager and close friend Paul Rosenberg in the Shady Records offices in Manhattan, before being taken on a ride in a well-appointed Cadillac Escalade to listen to the new album at full volume. Though the first single We Made You, with its pot-shots at Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse and Sarah Palin, reintroduced the clowning Eminem to the world, the album as a whole is a darker, more lyrically fi erce aff air. In fact, Relapse contains, hands down, some of the best work he's ever done. That doesn't mean it's full of Grammy-ready collaborations or radio-friendly jingles. The subject matter is ripe with humour and horror, and injected with a dark intensity.
Getting there wasn't easy: after a few false starts, the record finally took shape in the course of a recording session with his old amanuensis Dr Dre. It didn't happen in Detroit, nor in Dre's studio in Los Angeles, but in Orlando, Florida.Eminem:
I was nervous about it. I had called him and told him I had something for him so I was nervous. You see, he and I had got together five or six times over the past few years and literally left the studio with nothing.AB:
Are you serious? The two of you have such chemistry, you really must have been in bad shape.Eminem:
Yeah. I was really nervous about that trip. I had let him down, like, five times. I wasn't sure if we were going to work on his record or mine, but I didn't want to get down to Orlando and not have anything again. A couple of weeks before the trip I was still pretty new to my sobriety. I was a few months clean but my mood was elevating and my mind was getting clearer. I started writing more and I told Dre that I had been writing songs without beats. I was making beats in my head and writing lyrics down just like I used to do. At that point I had a couple of songs and a few loose verses. In hindsight I was doing mind exercises, getting myself back into shape. I wasn't sure if I was ready but I called him anyway and was like, "Yo, homie, I think I'm starting to come out of this writer's block." He was like, "All right. That's what I like to hear." When I got to Orlando we recorded a batch of songs over two weeks. We did 11 songs and when we were done I felt like I did when we did the first two records. It was that same feeling, so the word "relapse" just kept playing over and over in my mind. It all made sense.AB:
You were relapsing back into the old ways of being yourself, just without the drugs.Eminem:
Yeah. I'd had conversations with Dre over the years about what people wanted f rom me. I was hearing all these things about what if Em comes back and the different ways he needs to reinvent himself as a completely diff erent person. Dre was just like, "Man, people want to see you, they just want to hear you get the fuck out there again." I don't know if it was the first, second, third time he said it to me but then it just clicked. Like, "He is right." I don't feel like I need to reinvent myself, I feel like I just need to go back to doing what made me me in the first place. We did 11 songs and then I went back to Detroit and I was worried about that. I was going home and I thought I'd feel uninspired to write. I thought I'd need to leave home for my mind to expand. But we came back and it never stopped. Once I got sober, man, it was a whole shit storm - these thoughts that I could not control. That really made me feel like me again. I'd lay down to go to bed and think of three lines I had to get up to write down before I forget them. It was that sort of thing.AB:
Did you change up your routine to keep you from falling back into your old ways?Eminem:
I had been recording a lot of shit at home during the past few years and got real comfortable doing that. So I got a new studio and started recording there. I didn't like doing vocals and recording at that studio at first - it took me a while to break it in, but once it got broken in, I liked it better. Now I don't record at home at all any more.Dre produced every track bar one on Relapse, many with Eminem as co-producer. The exception is Beautiful, the most revealing tune on the album, produced by Eminem alone. It follows the tradition of cuts such as Rock Bottom and Hailie's Song in frankly detailing Eminem's depression and chemically enhanced ennui. Its anthemic style is equally different from the rest of the album, too; it's more mid-tempo rock song than window-rattling rap track.Eminem:
It was a relief for me to not worry about the beats and strictly focus on writing and what the hell I wanted to say. It took a lot of the stress off. But Beautiful is a different story. That song is the only one out of a whole batch of songs - probably three or four albums' worth of material - that I recorded in the time I was gone. I did all of that when I wasn't sober and that is literally the only song that's on this record. I don't know if any of the others are going to make it to Relapse II, which I plan to release later this year, because I haven't picked out those songs yet.AB:
Is this the best of the bunch? Or is it the only one you're willing to let the world hear?Eminem:
It's the only one I could actually listen to and feel OK about. It brings me back to a time when I was really depressed and down, but at the same time it reminds me of what that space is like and what never to go back to. There is a lot of honesty in that song that I wouldn't want to just throw away. I started writing the first verse and half of the second when I was in rehab going through detox. I didn't have a beat in my head or anything like that... I wrote the verse and just knew I wanted it to be a bounce-style, I guess. I got that first bit out and finished it when I got out of rehab, when I relapsed right back into taking pills. If you listen to that song and how it starts off, I'm just so fucking depressed.AB:
Where were you exactly when you wrote that?Eminem:
I was sitting on the end of the bed in detox, not fully committed to it and not fully detoxed. They give you medicine to make your detox not as rough. I wrote it during that period - the first two days. I was sitting there not knowing where I wanted to be in my career. I didn't even know if I wanted a career any more, because this shit was too much. It just wasn't worth it.The second single from the album, 3am, is different: it marks a return to the horror fantasy that Eminem does so well. His battle rap style, born of lyrically battling rivals in high school lunch rooms and Detroit clubs, is Eminem's trademark. Whatever his subject, Eminem takes it apart, deconstructing it lyrically - usually with an extra dose of ultra-violence - as if it's his opponent. His skill with rhymed evocative language and a fearless pursuit of shock and indecency has outraged many and made fans of even more.
On Relapse, Eminem is unrepentant in this regard: on this single he is out to maim and offend. And if anyone wonders what he's been watching on TV late at night, they shouldn't be surprised to hear he's been catching a lot of serial killer films - albeit in a positive way. Really.AB:
I have to say that, Beautiful aside, there's a real serial killer theme running through this album. Did you have Silence of the Lambs on loop in your house?Eminem:
I did find myself watching a lot of documentaries on serial killers. I mean, I always had a thing for them. Oh, that's not twisted in itself at all, right? I've always been intrigued by them and watching movies like that, and I found that going back through my DVD collection and watching movies about killers sparked something in me. The way a serial killer's mind works, just the psychology of them, is pretty fucking crazy. I was definitely inspired by that, but most of that imagery came from my own mind. I did everything I could to relapse into the old me. When you relapse you go into your old ways harder than before.AB:
Is that where the story in 3am came from?Eminem:
Yeah, in that song I relapse in a rehab facility or something like it. I just black out and fucking kill everybody. I was trying to create a triple entendre with the title: relapsing literally, going back to the old days - just blacking the fuck out and killing everyone. I wanted to paint a picture for the listener, to make them feel like they are in the story and part of it as each line progresses.AB:
Are you angry at life right now?Eminem:
Honestly, I'm not really angry at anything right now. I'm OK with my life and what's going on right now. This is not really an emotionally driven album. There are a couple of songs, Beautiful being one of them, that touch on where I am emotionally, but it goes there without getting too dark. The overall theme of the record is to have a centre. I feel like I lost that on my last albums. Encore is a good record but I don't feel like it was a great record for me. It wasn't quite up to what I feel like my personal standards are for myself. It wasn't all that I'm capable of doing.AB:
Are you saying that Encore falls short musically, lyrically or both?Eminem:
It feels a little too self-loathing to me. When I go back and listen to it... it just feels like I'm pissing and moaning about whatever. It sounds like in my head I feel like I have all these things to piss and moan about. And maybe I did, maybe I didn't, I don't know, but to actually bring that kind of shit to the forefront like that, I just don't agree with it. I guess to me now it feels like I beat up the subject of what was me. That's what that record's overall theme feels like. Even Curtain Call feels like that was me then and I guess it was. That is where I was at then.AB:
Are you at the point in your sobriety where you look back at those albums and trace how you were changing at all?Eminem:
Oh definitely. Encore wasn't the start of my drug use but it was the start of the progression of my addiction. It really went to the next level between The Eminem Show and Encore - that's when it started progressing from recreation to a real problem. Even though I knew it inside, I would never let on that it was a problem. Obviously I was pretty good at hiding it because I was pretty busy. I was a functioning addict. I knew in my mind, "I'm taking these pills just for the fuck of it now." I was taking them and I needed more and more. When I think back on my mental state back then - "Oh, I wrote this because of this" - I can see what I was going through. Sedative drugs like Valium and Vicodin and Ambien, they certainly put a cloud over your head. They put a dumbbell in your mood. If something is bad in the first place, it's going to seem so much worse than it even is. A normal, thinking person would approach a tough situation in life like, "Wow! This is a really fucked-up time period that I'm experiencing right now but I'll get through it." My attitude was, "I'm never getting through with it. This is the most horrible shit." I was concerned with things like "I can't go to the fucking mall any more, I can't go to the gas station, I can't pump my own gas, how fucked up is that? I can't walk into a 7-11 store!" I couldn't do those things any more and all I did was sit and bitch and complain about it.He may have complained but he wasn't imagining it: Eminem occupies a rarefied realm of celebrity that crosses all borders. But success didn't come to him until his late 20s, only then arriving overnight. The first 24 hours I spent with Eminem saw us travel to three club engagements in New York City - booked well before the explosion of interest that followed the release of his debut single. The first gig was at a sold-out all-ages show, where his fans were so rabid to see him that their mass presence stopped traffic outside the venue. Police were required to escort us out through an alley and to part the crowd so that our car could leave. When we returned to Detroit just a few days later, however, I saw the reality of where he really came from: there was an eviction notice on the trailer he still called home and in Gilbert's Lodge, the restaurant where he'd worked for years, many of his former co-workers did everything short of mock his new-found success to his face. That was 10 years ago and the stakes have risen exponentially. Eminem has always been a private person; in one of our earliest interviews, when the attention coming his way was just starting to sink in, he told me that all he wanted out of his career was to make a living and support his family. He wasn't after fame, he wasn't after celebrity, he just wanted to make enough money rapping to get by. He also said he wasn't seeking controversy. But like everything else that has ever been a challenge to Eminem, he's shrunk from none of it.AB:
The paparazzi and all that comes with fame has driven a lot of people crazy.Eminem:
Yeah, but that's bullshit. Because would I rather be working back at Gilbert's Lodge for eight bucks an hour cooking and doing dishes having never made it? Or would I rather be like this dealing with my life as it is now? Like, what really do I have to piss and moan about? I mean, I'm not saying that I have the easiest fucking job in the world, but it's certainly better than what I was doing. Would I have been a happier person if I had never made it? Fuck no, I wouldn't! I'd be ten billion times worse than I could even imagine. So at the end of the day, what do I really have to complain about?AB:
Perhaps not so much. On earlier albums you did complain a lot about your family life. I noticed a lack of that on this album. Is that another change you've made?Eminem:
Yeah. I'm probably going to keep my family life personal from now on. The kids are old enough now - I just want to let them be kids. I don't want to comment on them too much. They're at an age where I just want to let them be kids.In the years that Eminem has been away, hip-hop has grown more candy-coated than ever. Aside from a few artists, the majority of recent rap records have focused more on the dancefloor than the lyrical weight that made artists such as Tupac and the Notorious BIG international icons . No one else can simultaneously appeal to die-hard fans of rhyme, rock fans, pop fans, young and old quite like Eminem. I'd suggest that no one else could have made an album like Relapse, either.AB:
What do you have to say on the state of hip-hop at the moment?Eminem:
Hey, do you mind holding on for two seconds? I've got to piss really bad.AB:
Wait, is that your answer to my question? Are you going to go piss on hip-hop?Eminem:
No, man! I've been holding but I can't hold it no more! . Ahh, I'm a brand new man! OK, hip-hop. Well, from what I heard on the radio while I was away the past few years I feel hip-hop went to a bad place. It got watered down lyrically, contentwise, everything. But at the same time there have been artists like T.I. And Lil' Wayne and Kanye , they've all been here doing their thing. Those guys elevated their game. All of that is making me a fan of rap again. It feels like people are starting to actually give a shit about the craft and about writing.AB:
What are you doing when you're not working to stay out of trouble these days?Eminem:
Well, I'm working all the time to stay out of trouble! Aside from spending time with the kids, it's all work for me right now.AB:
Hip-hop needs some records fans can sink their brains into.Eminem:
You know what though? Hiphop has always been like that. When I was growing up, there was LL and Run DMC and there was Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One. It was the few and far between that made the game interesting. There were plenty of rappers out there that were wack but they had a purpose. They just made you appreciate the good ones so much more. If there wasn't that variety, you wouldn't actually know it when you heard somebody that was really good. Hip-hop is ever changing but you'll always have the pack. And you'll always have those people who are separated from the pack.