Joker’s wild

He's the "Black Hitler." He's the man who "dreamed of bloodbaths while he slept in math class." He's Esham, the Detroit rap icon who'd like to give his girl a rose, then "slit her throat and watch her shake until her eyes close."

And right now Esham's fixin' to make pretty for the camera.

It's a perfectly shitty gray winter day on the east side of Detroit. The white Lincoln Navigator is parked and idling on the street in a dilapidated neighborhood just off Gratiot. Esham and fellow Natas member TNT are in it, staying warm and waiting to get their pictures taken in their old stomping grounds, just around the corner from Esham's childhood home.

"This is the east side — the 'hood where it's all good," E says, between big hits on a blunt packed with "purple kush," a particularly stony strain of weed, and the source of E's intermittent coughing fits throughout the afternoon. The 32-year-old rapper snickers from the driver's seat as he watches the photographer, loaded down with expensive equipment, looking for a suitable spot to shoot.

"You just don't see that shit in this neighborhood," he says, watching as the photographer stops to examine a gaping, trash-filled pit that once supported a house. He laughs, coughs. Takes another hit.

Esham (born Rashaam Smith) is a Detroit institution. The aggressive "horrorcore" style that became his stock-in-trade first reared its ugly head on his 1990 debut, Boomin' Words from Hell. The 17 solo releases that followed made clear what Detroiters already knew — that murder and mayhem were the foundation of E's domain.

While pursuing his solo career, Esham also produced an album for Kool Keith, co-produced a solo album for Ghetto E (Dayton Family) and managed to put out six albums by his rap group, Natas.

Natas' seventh release, N of tha World, made its debut on Esham's Sony-distributed Reel Life/Gotham label last month. And it doesn't sound like a seventh album — more like a rock-solid debut from a hungry crew. Provocative, political and throbbing with overtures straight out of the underworld, it's classic Natas and, naturally, trademark Esham. In a word, it slams.

"We just want to be heard," E says. "We rap like factory workers, we rap like the gritty, grimy city that is Detroit."

The style, one Esham long ago coined as "acid rap," is brutal and at times sublime; a ghetto-eye view of poverty, politics and psychedelicized violence with Parliament-style funk to spare. "We decided to call our dope 'acid rap' because it was a different kinda trip," E says. "Acid burns. This was a potent kind of rap that we felt was just the rawest rap ever — it'll burn you."

Though the album was recorded with all three Natas members: Esham, TNT (Terry Jones) and Mastamind (Gary Reed), the group is suddenly a duo. This makes for some lively Navigator conversation.

"There was a third guy, but his ass isn't in the damn group no more," E says. "He chose to do something else, but he's here in spirit."

"We're just keeping it clean," TNT, 32, says of the split. "There's no animosity."

Neither one offers a reason for Mastamind's departure, but the diplomacy suddenly comes to an end. "It's not about where he is," Esham says with kush-drenched apathy. "Fuck him." In this camp, you're either in or you're out. The fight is too daunting to drag around dead weight.

Esham — born on Long Island in New York state and reared on Detroit's east side — dropped Boomin' when he was only 11 years old. His 13-year-old brother, James, was his business manager. E was inspired by Run-DMC and Russell Simmons, particularly by their "power to control your own destiny — that's what made me and my brother want to get into the game."

These days, Esham heads his business affairs alone. He owns the publishing on all of his recordings as well as the masters — both of which equal the most money for the artist.

Brother James is no longer in the fold.

"Right now, [he's] 'in college,' know what I'm talkin' about?" he says, cocking his head sideways. TNT chuckles knowingly from the passenger seat. "College" means jail — but setbacks are nothing new. The failure of Overcore, Esham's business collaboration with Overture Studios, and a recent but disastrous relationship with Psychopathic Records have done nothing to weaken his resolve.

Psychopathic (Insane Clown Posse's label) and Esham had a monumental falling-out. E won't elaborate but his Psychopathic "hatchet clown" logo tattoo on his right hand has a date with a laser. And calls to the Psychopathic office went unanswered at press time. But Esham is unperturbed; he's forging on as always.

"We bake the cake from scratch to the finished product and everything beyond that. We have to do it ourselves. These records come out and they're our kids. Ain't nobody else going to take care of them better than us. That's the difference between an independent and a major."

Esham's early DIY ethic served as a template for other aspiring rappers. "Kid Rock came over to my mama's house, when we used to live on Schoenherr, and asked us how to get records inside of Harmony House," Esham says. "He asked could we 'please help' him."

So how does it feel to still be an underdog while your contemporaries are killing at the bank?

"We respect what they're doing for hip hop," E says, "but there comes a time — just like how the whole Dirty South is rollin' together as one — that Detroit's got to really roll together as one." Esham's primary mantra is "better, not bitter." He drops it frequently.

In person, Esham is more thoughtful than thuggish. He's a Detroit loyalist who cites hometowners Iggy Pop and the MC5 as influences. He tells of things he learned at Osborn High School's music program and, surprisingly, the Specs Howard School of Broadcasting. He laments that the school programs that filled his head with music knowledge are gone.

"Those programs are no longer available," he says, "but I took advantage of it. I played the flute and the clarinet and the trombone. I learned all about that stuff — as much as I could."

He also learned to play the piano at Osborn, but don't take that to mean he's soft. In Esham's world, nothing — nothing — is sacred. When asked how the father of three girls — ages 2, 4 and 7 — rectifies rapping about "blowin' hos' backs out" as he does on the new album, he responds with typical candor: "Eventually, one day, they're gonna get their backs blew out [much laughter]. You can't stop it. You can't stop evolution. So they'll be like, 'Shit, I know about that. My daddy and them used to talk about that.' We're keepin' it real to the concrete."

Esham's goals are likely the same as those he had when Boomin' dropped so long ago — get the record out, hit the road (Natas begins touring in March) and fight the seemingly futile battle for Detroit radio play. "I'm not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel," E says. "We're just trying to make good music. We gotta just keep working every day. Working hard. It's the same struggle, just a different day."

And was there ever a time when he just wanted to say "fuck it"?

"Yeah, yesterday," he says, laughing. "Of course I've gotten discouraged over the years. But, you know, it's like you gotta fight when you don't want to fight. I'm gonna keep fighting forever. You can look and see our surroundings," he says, gesturing at the bleak, crumbing world just outside the Navigator's doors. "We gotta be ahead of this shit or this shit will take us over."

Wendy Case is a freelance writer and area musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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