Hometown heroes

It’s telling that, after a year that saw Eminem, Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse put Detroit’s long-gestating suburban rap scene on the nation’s musical radar in their respective ways, all three camps these days are living under the nation’s radar altogether. While Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath (a Kid Rock labelmate) and Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst show up in Rolling Stone’s "Random Notes" gossip pages squiring movie stars to Hollywood premieres, the Detroit guys have maintained lower profiles for much of the year. They’ve stayed away from the national limelight and bunkered down in new homes at the edge of the Detroit area.

It’s nothing new for successful artists to splurge on new digs. But it is telling that in an era when fellow funky-music-playing white boys like Limp Bizkit hightail it out of Florida to Hollywood when their first royalty checks clear, Detroit’s platinum-selling local rappers want to stay local. They’ve spent the better part of their careers struggling against or being burned by the major-label machine (both Kid Rock and ICP were dropped by Jive Records) and music industry politics. Detroit’s loud and proud white rappers have been easy targets for reactionary media which prefer their rappers nappy and rockers white. So they are understandably leery of trusting or even believing their success is real, because the industry doesn’t yet quite know what to make of them. As movies such as Black and White try to nudge along the notion that white kids who a generation ago were into Guns N’ Roses now buy rap records, these guys seem to say – as Bob Seger told his Live Bullet audience at Cobo – "Shit, I’ve known that for 10 years!" For personalities who thrive on adversity, all the acceptance and industry jocking must seem surreal and fickle at best.

After all, Kid Rock may be new best friends with Metallica, but then again, they’d narcissistically jock any new blood who’s selling 5 million records with loud guitars. Which may explain why, besides the occasional lapse into SGS (supermodel girlfriend syndrome) and long-winded tales of rock-star partying, Rock these days prefers to talk about his love of country music. Perhaps he finds the less-hyped and more grounded genre calming compared to the overblown and overcommercialized rap game. And the hick ain’t no schtick. He still shows up at bars in his new hometown – supermodel in tow – where he won’t turn down an invitation to sing a karaoke version of his own "Cowboy" in between stabs at Hank Jr. songs. As he’ll tell you, there’s something more validating about having a song on the Ortonville karaoke machine than on MTV’s "Total Request Live," even though the truth is that the latter begat the former. When he says he’s hosting this year’s Detroit Music Awards "for the kids of Detroit," you believe him.

Rock went from being scratch DJ for consummate bar band the Howling Diablos to the surreal surroundings of jamming with Aerosmith and Run-DMC together. It’s no wonder he wound up at the Bear’s Den last month to jam with his old band – and announce that he’s signed the Diablos to Top Dog. One A&R guy in New York who heard the news of the signing chuckled, adding that the Diablos, in all their bar-band glory, have their picture on his label’s "Wall of Shame." To which Rock, owing to the Midwestern perspective of his years at the Bear’s Den with the Diablos, would probably say something about how it’s bar patrons, not A&R men, who buy records. At five-times-platinum, he’d know.

For Eminem, the Detroit love comes after a year of seeing his underground MC status morph into "MTV Spring Break" mascot and Warped Tour fall guy. Of course, this all had more to do with normal industry backlashes than any doubts about his talents (which still, by the way, qualify him as one of the best MCs this side of Biggie Smalls). But a year ago, as his Slim Shady LP was about to ship platinum to stores and his "My Name Is" video was being played on MTV so much that staffers have since dubbed such airplay "Eminem rotation," the rapper told Raygun magazine that "the only thing I represent about Detroit is frustration. I’m just happy to be the fuck up out of there."

But he produced much of his next record, the Marshall Mathers LP, in Detroit by himself. He’s also showing the hometown love by launching his new label, Shady Records (led by his 313 all-star rap supergroup D12, featuring MCs Bizarre and Proof), out of Detroit. In Eminem’s case in particular, there’s an uneasiness that comes with the fame. As a white MC, he had to try twice as hard to distinguish himself against naysayers, which is why so many songs on his debut ("My Name Is"; "Role Model," etc.) sarcastically and brilliantly self-referentially addressed his pop-star status. Now on his sophomore effort, he addresses it even more darkly: On one new track, an obsessed fan writes him two fan letters; Em takes his time replying; the fan kills himself. So much for the sophomore slump.

ICP has had a year of disappointments trying to work within the entertainment industry as major label signees moonlighting as WWF wrestlers, So the Clowns have become their own entertainment industry. They’ve bootlegged their own records, pushed their own Psychopathic label signees, Twiztid, and, after quitting the WWF, they’ve started their own Juggalo Championshit (sic) ‘Rasslin’ league. This June, they’ll even be taking Esham – who has secured a distribution deal with TVT Records and has long been acknowledged by the Clowns as their biggest influence – on his first national tour.

Detroit’s honky rap game seems out of step with the national trends this summer – instead of networking nationally à la the Warped tour, ICP takes their hometown favorite on tour; instead of harder and meaner, Kid Rock, knowing every town has a WRIF, but maybe not a modern rock station, is going more country-classic rock; instead of playing down his pop stardom, Eminem examines it in angry, lethal doses. But remember, it’s these guys, not some preciously cool band or techno producer, who’ve put Detroit in all its rustbelt boom back on the national map.

Plus, the city’s rockstar-spotting opportunities now extend beyond running into the occasional Romantic at Gusoline Alley. ‘Bout time. Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]. Echlin is a hometown hero and scribe at large, livin’

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