On a sweltering summer afternoon, hip-hop phenom Eminem works the crowd at an outdoor concert on Randall's Island, a dusty little wasteland wedged among Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx: "How many of you are [expletived] up?" Oblivious to the clouds of dust, muzzy from the heat and the Budweisers, the crowd cheers.
Eminem surveys the sweating mass before him. "How many of you are more [expletived] up than I am?"
The audience roars even louder. Eminem and his on- and off-stage sidekick Proof exchange glances and shake their heads. They respond in unison: "I don't think so!"
They might be right. Much has been made of the color of Eminem's skin--whether it matters, whether it explains why MTV played his "My Name Is" video so much or why his debut album has sold more than 2 million copies. Certainly, if you study it from all the angles, Eminem's success will tell you something about race in America. But not all that much: White kids were listening to hip-hop long before he surfaced.
A large part of Eminem's meteoric rise can be explained by the appeal of being profoundly expletived up. Both Eminem and his alter ego, Slim Shady, represent the perennial loser, the class clown who's going nowhere fast. The guy who gets beat up in the bathroom, keeps flunking the same grade and can't even keep a $5.50-an-hour job. So he checks out--blows off school and gets wasted with whatever drug he can get his hands on. It's not just his white skin and bleached blond hair that sets Em apart from the hip-hop pack. Unlike most rappers, he's harshly self-deprecating.
But with a dark, razor-edged sense of humor and genuine rhyming skills, Eminem has managed to transform hard knocks and self-loathing into a triumph. He's the smart-mouthed loser who has ended up on top. Evidently this kind of accomplishment has considerable appeal.
Cooling down in his tour bus after his set for the New York installment of the "Vans Warped" tour (which brings him to the RFK Stadium parking lot today), Eminem, 26, sips straight Bacardi out of a plastic cup. He says, matter-of-factly, that the performance was "one of the most [expletived] up shows ever. Our record was skipping and people were throwing [expletive]." He talks--nonstop--about an upbringing he presents as relentlessly lousy. In excruciating detail, he recounts the latest disagreement with his mother.
Eminem, whose given name is Marshall Mathers, stares into his plastic cup. "I need years of therapy," he says. "But I don't want it. It's kind of like, I might need this, but [expletive] it. If I lose that edge, I'm gonna stop selling records. People are gonna stop relating to me."
Eminem's debut album, "The Slim Shady LP," sold nearly half a million copies within two weeks of its release last February. Sales were boosted by the hype: Eminem is the protege of Dr. Dre, the N.W.A. alum-turned-producer who is regarded as a deity in hip-hop circles. MTV couldn't get enough of the video for the album's first single, "My Name Is," and repeatedly aired a short promo in which such established hip-hoppers as Missy Elliott talked him up. Soon came a different sort of hype, no less valuable: Last spring, music industry magazine Billboard ran an editorial by Editor in Chief Timothy White accusing Eminem and the music industry that wrought him of "exploiting the world's misery."
"My Name Is" opens with the following query: "Hi kids/ Do you like violence?/ Do you wanna see me stick nine-inch nails in my eyelids?/ Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did?" The song introduces Slim Shady, a vice-happy character whose achievements include getting wasted, masturbating, stapling his English teacher's testicles to a stack of papers, hanging himself and shooting himself in the head. In the "My Name Is" video clip, Eminem dons several disguises: He appears briefly done up as fellow pop music bugbear Marilyn Manson, then impersonates President Clinton, speaking from behind a lectern--and out crawls a beret-topped Monica Lewinsky look-alike.
"My Name Is" is not the only Eminem track that ridicules the notion of the celebrity role model. "Guilty Conscience" presents three different scenarios in which Dr. Dre plays the good conscience to Eminem's evil instigator. Eventually Em wins, and the song ends with a barrage of gunfire. In "Role Model," Eminem raps, "If I said I never did drugs/ That would mean I lie and get [expletived] even more than the president does." Then there's "97' Bonnie & Clyde," in which Eminem's 3-year-old child, Hailie Jade, provides the gurgles under the beats as the rapper portrays dad and daughter as a contemporary pair of outlaws, on the run after delivering Mommy, whose throat has been slit, to a watery grave. "There goes Mama splashing in the water/ No more fighting with Dad, no more restraining order."
Not exactly good taste, but when was the last time pop culture's edgier provinces were defined by civility? It's not hard to connect the dots from Bart Simpson to Beavis and Butt-head to "South Park" to Eminem. Pop culture keeps getting cruder--the only way to one-up the provocateur who came before you is to take it to another level. Eminem is not merely pushing the envelope. On the album's closing track, "Still Don't Give a [Expletive]," he offers a non-apology: "To all the people I've offended/ Yeah, [expletive] you, too!"
The outrage was inevitable. "The record in every sense was mean-spirited--ultra cynical and mean-spirited even down to the album art," says Billboard's White. "The entire thing was calculated to be mean-spirited, hurtful and misogynistic."
Eminem takes issue with people who have problems with his lyrics. "They're not listening. I don't know if it's a case of them not listening or they haven't lived it," he says. "It's very easy to tell when I'm joking and when I'm serious. It's very easy to tell the pain that I've been through, the [expletive] that I've been through.
"I'm a guy, and I've been through a lot of [expletive], a lot of [expletived] up relationships, so what I'm doing is reflecting what I know. You've got to live it. You've got to see what I went through. I wish I would have had a video camera following me everywhere I went when I was growing up. You got to see what I lived in."
In a Rolling Stone profile this past spring, Eminem and his mother, Deborah Mathers, presented conflicting versions of his upbringing. Eminem continues to portray a grim, unhappy childhood characterized by poverty and neglect. Mathers told the magazine that her son was telling tales "for publicity." What's not disputed is that Em was raised by his mother; he never knew his father (hence the "My Name Is" line: "When you see my dad/ Tell him that I slit his throat in this dream I had"). Em and his mother moved around between Kansas City and Detroit before settling in Detroit when he was 13.
"Every day when I would get home from school, my mother would send me to the store for a pack of cigarettes," he says. "So I would steal the cigarettes, keep the $2 for lunch because I was on free lunch at school. If a girl is standing behind you in line and you liked that girl and she sees that you're on free lunch, then the gig is up--know what I'm sayin'? And you feel really [expletive]. So I used to take the money for the cigarettes and act like I ain't on welfare."
After failing ninth grade three times, he dropped out of school. "That wasn't because I'm stupid or nothing, it was just because I never went to school. I was enrolled, but I just never went. I always wanted to rap. Me and Proof used to skip school together because we always was, like, you know, all we wanted to do is rap. I ain't gotta work, I ain't gotta go to school, I ain't gotta finish my education. I'm gonna rap. I'm gonna be a rapper one day, you know. And we had these little dreams."
The fairy godmother who made Eminem's dreams come true was Dr. Dre, a key architect of hip-hop's West Coast sound whose proteges include a slim, awkward unknown who went by Snoop Doggy Dogg. In October 1997, Eminem competed in the Rap Olympics in Los Angeles. He come in second, a bitter disappointment--he had been evicted a few days earlier and was desperate for the $500 prize money. Just before he left, a couple of guys asked him for a demo tape. "I had been strung along by so many record labels. I don't remember exactly what I said to 'em. I just know I had the worst attitude. I was just like, whatever, you want a tape? Fine. Have a [expletive] tape. I think I kind of threw it at 'em and then walked away."
Fortunately, Interscope, home of the fiendish Marilyn Manson, wasn't interested in Eminem's manners. Several days later, Dr. Dre called. When Eminem heard that "some guy who calls himself a doctor" called, he couldn't believe it. He thought his friends were expletive-ing with him.
The call was a life saver. Eminem was stone-cold broke, and the struggle to make it in hip-hop had been daunting--he had to be twice as good because he's white, he says. He had never enjoyed a happy relationship with his mother, had frequent breakups with the mother of his daughter. Perhaps hardest of all was the suicide of his beloved uncle, the person who had introduced him to rap. Eminem now says he made a halfhearted suicide try--he calls it "a dumb attempt"--on the night he recorded the song "Rock Bottom," which appears on the "Slim Shady" album.
"I just took a bunch of pills and threw up all over the bathroom," he says. "I think I was trying to get attention more than anything. It was really because this record company was stringing us along. We found out that the guy who said he was gonna give me a record deal worked in the mailroom. I had really reached rock bottom then. . . . I was just like really depressed and [expletive]. But it wasn't like a deliberate attempt. If I wanted to end my life, I would end my life."
And More Hard Knocks
If you can get past the vulgarity of "The Slim Shady LP" and really listen, Eminem comes off as a hostile, unhappy person who's angry at his parents, his girlfriend, his schoolmates and pretty much anybody else he has come across. Much of the album, he says, is inspired by his own experiences. "As twisted as it may be or as imaginative as I want to put my stories, there's always truth in what I say."
"Brain Damage," for example, revisits the time Eminem took a beating in the school bathroom. "All of it is true except for when I say in eighth grade. It was really back in grade school. I think I was in the fourth grade and he was in the sixth grade," he says. "I changed little things up just to make the story a little bit more interesting. The whole story is true up until my brain falls out of my head. "
The song names the perpetrator of the assault, which Eminem says resulted in a hospitalization. Rolling Stone contacted the guy for its Eminem profile. Somewhat contrite, the perp asked how he could get in touch with his former schoolmate, but Eminem wasn't interested in any reunion. "I don't wanna talk to that guy," he says darkly. He's still mad.
Em wrote "97' Bonnie & Clyde" during one of his breakups with his girlfriend. (It was also during one of those off periods that he got the "Kim R.I.P." tattoo on his stomach.) But he insists he doesn't really mean any harm. "You listen to the record and you hear 'bitch' on the record, it's like obviously this guy's been through some [expletive]. You know what I'm sayin'? It's just like when women make records about hatin' men and women talk about hatin' men. It's the same thing.
"But I could never hate women in general. I have a daughter. How would I sound when she grows up? That would be like me calling my daughter a bitch, and God strike me dead if I was ever to do that."
Does he ever think about how his grown daughter will feel about her unwitting participation in a song that depicts the murder of her own mother?
"She's probably gonna go, "Yeah, Dad' when I put her in a Lamborghini, a Mercedes when she's 16. What can she say? My daddy did it for me, yeah. She can take a look at my background, and the people I was raised around and the environment, look at all of my other relatives and be like, wow."
So here is Eminem in all his obnoxiousness, which is bad--but not half as bad as you might think. You'd expect him to be an arrogant little jerk. Instead, he's surprisingly polite. He may curse more than the characters on "South Park," but he says "excuse me" after he burps. He frequently accuses his mother of neglect, but someone raised him to excuse himself.
One of the images that appears as a motif on the "Slim Shady" liner notes and is part of Em's stage set is a mobile home. "What people don't realize is that there are so many poor white kids in America. They just go unnoticed, know what I'm sayin', just because of like, statistics. There's white trash in America, and as soon as they see a white-trash kid like me that's lived a [expletive] life that they can relate to, then they go buy it because they understand it.
"A lot of the [expletive] that I say is funny, but it's funny in a [expletived] up way. I don't wanna be perceived as this big comedian that's just out to make an ass of himself. I want the world to take me serious as an artist. I say some funny [expletive], but take me serious as an artist and as a human being."