Gangsta surprise

May 1, 2002 at 12:00 am

Slim Shady LP
Interscope, 1999

There were a few months in 1999 when it seemed like the world was careening toward apocalypse at a breakneck pace. The ultimate prophecy of doom was being delivered by basketball star Charles Barkley when he told a reporter that any world where the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white is plainly fucked up. Since then we have bitched about and denied, celebrated and dismissed that pill-popping, misogynistic line cook from the East Side who told every MTV viewer that his name was Slim Shady. A guy who was, in an instant, the poster boy of the new millennium. In a word: unpredictable. In another: revolutionary.

But maybe it shouldn’t have been so hard to see coming. Detroit music has been built in part by people who bent the rules on race and by 1999, the two-headed beast of East Coast and West Coast hip-hop clichés needed to be destroyed. The Slim Shady LP was just the perfect weapon. Why not a trash-talking white kid who was raised on microwaved strip-mall culture and suburban raves? It makes more sense than a cowboy actor for president.

In short, Marshall Mathers single-handedly trumped the violence of gangsta rap, kicked down the racial barriers of urban music and was transformed from a self-promoting hash-slinger at Gilbert’s Lounge in St. Clair Shores to an international rap superstar whose undeniable skill made him exempt from irony.

“It’s not so much Eminem’s music or art that has changed [hip hop], but Eminem’s fame has definitely changed it,” Mark Kempf says. The former publisher of the local Underground Soundz magazine and current label head of Silent Records knows the rise of Eminem as well as anyone. “His fame impacted the scene. Before him Detroit was a place to go sell records — and a lot of them — and never a talent pool. Detroit was not hip — not Detroit rap. There is certainly a little more focus on Detroit from the industry standpoint, and I think there are a lot more fans that take Detroit rap seriously. I’m sure that some white kids wanted to start to rap that wouldn’t have wanted to rap. And he’s talking to them too — about going to school and being white and getting picked on and stuff that white kids can relate to.”

Therein lies the magic of Marshall Mathers. Before Mathers hit with rhymes about stealing pills from his mom and being laughed at in the lunchroom, the only white faces associated with hip hop were a joke.

“I used to host a lot of the open mics and showcases and stuff, and there were really not that many white kids doing it,” D-12’s Proof says. “The nights were basically the exact same kind of thing that happens in Detroit right now, rhyming and rapping and freestyling. To participate Em had to go to clubs that were predominately black clubs. More predominately black than they probably are today. Of course everybody had that ‘Oh, look at this white boy, what is he about to do?’ thing going on. People would talk about Vanilla Ice and shit. But that was the only drama and the only thing that created problems for him.”

Those problems were put to bed by Mathers’ perseverance. After the failure of his debut full-length (Infinite) dealt a devastating blow to both him and his production team, Mark and Jeff Bass of Web Entertainment, Eminem almost threw in the towel. But when Eminem recovered by creating his Slim Shady alter ego, there was no stopping him. The Slim Shady EP (the independent precursor to the Interscope full-length which was released by Web Entertainment) started selling a few hundred copies a week (stunning for them at the time) and Slim Shady was inches from international fame.

“Back then it was like a force that was building up,” Strike from Detroit’s Mountain Climbaz says. “Motherfuckers knew it. They knew ‘We about to get on. We about to get on.’ Eminem would come in there and show his ass. He would come in and shit on people. It was like he studied the whole fucking game — he studied everybody and he mastered it.”

Like it or lump it, the mastery is evident in every twisted, hilarious, sickening, horrifyingly women-hating track of the Slim Shady LP, which chronicles a story that had never before been heard. “He is just a perfectionist,” Proof says. “He just works hard and really, really focuses on not sounding like everyone else sounds. It was the same then as it is now. It has always been like that. He is never going to change, ever.”

Return to the introduction for this special collection of music stories, where you'll find links to the other nine records on our list of Detroit discs that shook the world.

Nate Cavalieri is Metro Times’ listings editor. E-mail him at [email protected]