Interview title: “Chocolate on the inside”
The most promising new rapper of the year is a cartoonishly angry welfare kid from the Detroit ghetto. Oh, and by the way, he’s white.
by CHARLES AARON
Give this kid a magazine rack, because he’s got a lot of issues. For starters, there’s race (he’s the “corny-lookin’ white boy” who got his lunch money stolen at his inner-city school and never forgot), drugs (he’s well acquainted with mushrooms, weed, etc.) and women (he envisions his mom as a drug addict with no breasts, fantasizes about murdering his baby’s mother and advises a husband to cut off the head of his adulterous wife). For 23-year-old Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem, a.k.a. Slim Shady, whose major-label debut, The Slim Shady LP, is the shocker pop-hit of 1999 (entering the Billboard 200 at No. 2 with more than 280,000 first-week sales), life is a bitch who needs to die, now! He’s so angry his “dance” song features a line about Kurt Cobain committing suicide. But by outrageously spoofing every fear every parent ever had about his/her child, the album also defies any pat answer as to why this runty dude is so pissed off. And it implicitly ridicules anybody who tries to label his music as either “positive” or “negative.”
Less than a year ago, Eminem was a little-known, if nastily skilled, MC from Detroit, with only an independently released album and EP to his name. Now, after hooking up with Dr. Dre (he’ll soon appear on Dre’s Chronic 2000 album), he’s been known to give shout-outs to Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine onstage. Since early ’99, MTV has been endlessly rotating the uproarious video for his single “My Name Is,” in which Eminem impersonates Marilyn Manson and Bill Clinton, as well as a publicity bit featuring Missy Elliott and Dre giving the rapper props (Interscope also bought commercial time to play the video during Howard Stern’s Saturday night CBS TV show). He’s getting spins on hip-hop radio stations, extremely rare for a white artist, and is even recording a song for Limp Bizkit’s new album. All those years he spent fighting for his right to be white finally paid off.
Spin: From listening to your album, you get the impression that your childhood was pretty much a living hell. What was it really like?
Eminem: I was born in Kansas City, and my dad left when I was five or six months old. Then when I was five we moved to a real bad part of Detroit. I was getting beat up a lot, so we moved back to K.C., then back to Detroit again when I was 11. My mother couldn’t afford to raise me, but then she had my little brother, so when we moved back to Michigan, we were just staying wherever we could, with my grandmother or whatever family would put us up. I know my mother tried to do the best she could, but I was bounced around so much–it seemed like we moved every two or three months. I’d go to, like, six different schools in one year. We were on welfare, and my mom never ever worked. I’m not trying to give some sob story, like, “Oh, I’ve been broke all my life,” but people who know me know it’s true. There were times when friends had to buy me f***in’ shoes! I was poor white trash, no glitter, no glamour, but I’m not ashamed of anything.
Spin: These were mostly African-American neighborhoods where you grew up?
Eminem: Yeah, near 8 Mile Road in Detroit, which separates the suburbs from the city. Almost all the blacks are on one side, and almost all the whites are on the other, but all the families nearby are low-income. We lived on the black side. Most of the time it was relatively cool, but I would get beat up sometimes when I’d walk around the neighborhood and kids didn’t know me. One day I got jumped by, like, six dudes for no reason. I also got shot at, and ended up running out of my shoes, crying. I was 15 years old and I didn’t know how to handle that shit.
Spin: Were most of your friends black?
Eminem: When you’re a little kid, you don’t see color, and the fact that my friends were black never crossed my mind. It never became an issue until I was a teenager and started trying to rap. Then I’d notice that a lot of motherfuckers always had my back, but somebody always had to say to them, “Why you have to stick up for the white boy?”
Spin: When did you first get into hip-hop?
Eminem: The first hip-hop shit I ever heard was that song “Reckless” from the Breakin’ soundtrack; my cousin played me the tape when I was, like, nine. There was this mixed school I went to in fifth grade, one with lots of Asian and black kids and everybody was into break dancing. They always had the latest rap tapes-the Fat Boys, L.L. Cool J’s Radio-and I thought it was the most incredible shit I’d ever heard.
Spin: What’d you think when you first heard the Beastie Boys?
Eminem: That’s what really did it for me. I was like, “This shit is so dope!” That’s when I decided I wanted to rap. I’d hang out on the corner where kids would be rhyming, and when I tried to get in there, I’d get dissed. A little color issue developed, and as I got old enough to hit the clubs, it got really bad. I wasn’t that dope yet, but I knew I could rhyme, so I’d get on the open mics and shit, and a couple of times I was booed off the stage.
Spin: Your single (“My Name Is”) is getting played on both Modern Rock and Urban radio. Are you surprised at how quickly you’re being accepted?
Eminem: Thing is, I’m not really a commercial rapper. My whole market, my whole steez, is through the underground; if those hip-hop heads love it, I’ll rise above. It’s like, you hardly ever hear a Wu-Tang song on the radio, but they rose from the underground on word of mouth.
Spin: Has being white really affected the way you see yourself as a rapper?
Eminem: In the beginning, the majority of my shows were for all-black crowds, and people would always say, “You’re dope for a white boy,” and I’d take it as a compliment. Then, as I got older, I started to think, “What the f*** does that mean?” Nobody asks to be born, nobody has a choice of what color they’ll be, or whether they’ll be fat, skinny, anything. I had to work up to a certain level before people would even look past my color; a lot of motherf***ers would just sit with their arms folded and be like, “All right, what is this?” But as time went on, I started to get respect. The best thing a motherf***er ever said about me was after an open mic in Detroit about five years ago. He was like, “I don’t give a f*** if he’s green, I don’t give a f*** if he’s orange, this motherf***er is dope!” Nobody has the right to tell me what kind of music to listen to or how to dress or how to act or how to talk; if people want to make jokes, well f*** ’em. I lived this s***, you know what I’m sayin’? And if you hear an Eminem record, you’re gonna know the minute that it comes on that this ain’t no fluke.
Spin: Did you ever come close to quitting?
Eminem: About three or so years ago, not that long after my daughter [Hailie Jade Scott] was born. I was staying in this house on 7 Mile Road, and little kids used to walk down the street going, “Look at the white baby!” Everything was “white this, white that.” We’d be sitting on our porch, and if you were real quiet, you’d hear, “Mumble, mumble, white, mumble, mumble, white.” Then I caught some dude breaking into my house for, like, the fifth time, and I was like, “Yo, f*** this! It’s not worth it. I’m outta here.” That day, I wanted to quit rap and get a house in the f***ing suburbs. I was arguing with my girl, like, “Can’t you see they don’t want us here?” I went through so many changes; I actually stopped writing for about five or six months and I was about to give everything up. I just couldn’t, though. I’d keep going to the clubs and taking the abuse. But I’d come home and put a fist through the wall. If you listen to a Slim Shady record, you’re going to hear all that frustration coming out.
Spin: Could you see why some black people might be not be so enthusiastic about a white kid trying to be a rapper?
Eminem: Yeah, I did see where the people dissing me were coming from. But, it’s like, anything that happened in the past between black and white, I can’t really speak on it, because I wasn’t there. I don’t feel like me being born the color I am makes me any less of a person.
Spin: Did you ever wish you were black?
Eminem: There was a while when I was feeling like, “Damn, if I’d just been born black, I would not have to go through all this shit.” But I’m not ignorant – I know how it must be when a black person goes to get a regular job in society. Music, in general, is supposed to be universal; people can listen to whatever they want and get something out of it. Personally, I just think rap music is the best thing out there, period. If you look at my deck in my car radio, you’re always going to find a hip-hop tape; that’s all I buy, that’s all I live, that’s all I listen to, that’s all I love.
Spin: How do you feel about other white rap fans?
Eminem: Say there’s a white kid who lives in a nice home, goes to an all-white school, and is pretty much having everything handed to him on a platter–for him to pick up a rap tape is incredible to me, because what that’s saying is that he’s living a fantasy life of rebellion. He wants to be hard; he wants to smack motherf***ers for no reason except that the world is f***ed-up; he doesn’t know what to rebel against. Kids like that are just fascinated by the culture. They hear songs about people going through hard times and want to know what that feels like. But the same thing goes for a black person who lived in the suburbs and was catered to all his life: Tupac is a fantasy for him, too.
Spin: Should suburban white kids, who don’t have any firsthand experience of the way black people live, really be identifying so closely with hip-hop?
Eminem: Well, whether a white kid goes through as much shit as I did, or didn’t go through any trouble at all, if they love the music, who’s to tell them what they should be listening to? Let’s say I’m a white 16-year-old and I stand in front of the mirror and lip-synch every day like I’m Krayzie Bone-who’s to say that because I’m a certain color I shouldn’t be doing that? And if I’ve got a right to buy his music and make him rich, who’s to say that I then don’t have the right to rap myself?
Spin: Do you think that hip-hop culture can open up their minds at all?
Eminem: I don’t know, man. Sometimes I feel like rap music is almost the key to stopping racism. If anything is at least going to lessen it, it’s gonna be rap. I would love it if, even for one day, you could walk through a neighborhood and see an Asian guy sitting on his stoop, then you look across the street and see a black guy and a white guy sitting on their porches, and a Mexican dude walking by. If we could truly be multicultural, racism could be so past the point of anybody giving a f***; but I don’t think you or me are going to see it in our lifetimes.
Spin: What do you think will happen if your album blows up and becomes a huge hit?
Eminem: I imagine I’ll go through a lot of this same racial shit, but that’ll just make my second album better-because I’ll have even more to rap about.