Obadiah’s last word

Oct 8, 2003 at 12:00 am

What up doe, Obie Trice?

So this is your neighborhood. Lauder, off Schoolcraft, on Detroit’s northwest side. I know this hood. A lot of musical cats know this hood. Sound Suite studio was once located just two miles north, on Lauder and Puritan. It was that nondescript, beige brick building with the skinny pillars out front. Do residents know that legends like Bob Seger recorded there? Tony Greene, a Detroit bassist who recorded with Dr. Dre, put in a lot of work there. It’s a venerable landmark, but when it closed, not only did that tradition die, it wasn’t even acknowledged. It’s a hunk of shit now, rotten and dilapidated.

The hood is sad now, Obie. It’s a mix of struggling families and thugs. Actually, “thugs” is too pop a description these days. It fails to speak to the social vertigo. Too many people in your hood are just plain hardcore. The kids attend Cerveny and Cadillac middle schools, and Cooley High. All can be tough schools. After Coleman Young Elementary, it’s hard for a child in your hood to get a quality education in a peaceful environment. Cooley’s list of notable graduates speaks to the issues that kids carry into the real world. In fact, when asked to name famous or popular Detroiters who graduated from Cooley, administrators thought of just one, Roy Tarpley, the talented NBA star undone by his drug jones.

Even your street is a juxtaposition. Well-kept homes with manicured lawns sit next to vacant ones, which sit next to vacant lots, which sit adjacent to empty hulks of homes where apparent evictions have taken place. The corner of Lauder and Tyler, one block south of Schoolcraft, is particularly chilling. Two telephone poles are decorated with teddy bears, indications that possibly more than one life was lost here. One stuffed bear is burned, singed when the garage next to it burned to the ground. A few blocks north, someone’s planted a vegetable garden in a vacant lot. A stripped car sits propped on jacks, near some “Motor City Makeover” lawn signs. Hope springs eternal.

Kids growing up in your neighborhood get a bittersweet diet of joy and pain. Maybe a little too much pain. While the music studio is dead and gone, there’s a Swanson Funeral Home not far to the north. It’s alive and well. Go figure, Obie. The music business died in your hood. The death business is as vibrant as ever.

You once seemed trapped by these conditions, but you escaped, to say the least. Your debut album, Cheers, was recently released by Shady Records, a record company that happens to be the most successful indie in hip hop over the past two years. Cheers is very hot. More than 226,000 units moved in its first week.

Your boss, Eminem, has sold some 30 million albums worldwide. And your labelmate 50 Cent is the most famous thug in America this side of George W. Bush.

You’ve come a long way, Obie. The success of your first single from Cheers, “Got Some Teeth,” and your cautionary tale of survival and liberation notwithstanding, your life was typical of a lot of kids in your neighborhood. But as you say on Cheers, your life doesn’t have to be unique. It’s your life, and your story. And whether you like it or not, it’s now an example to the kids who are still there, looking at burned teddy bears and tossed belongings. So let’s tell it.

Got some teeth

Your father, also named Obie, believes his naming was inspired by the Old Testament book of Obadiah. He says someone in the family wanted to give his father that name, but the family kept calling him Obie, and it stuck. Know who Obadiah was? The prophet who gave the final word on the blood feud between the descendants of Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac.

Feuds are nothing new to you. One brewed in your own home. It lasted a pretty long time too, and threatened to damage your family. It wasn’t between you and your brother, though. This was uglier. It was between you and your mother Elnora, or “Eleanor,” as she prefers to be called. You two had some rough times.

“I could write a book on Obie,” Eleanor says. “Obie was a mess. Yes, he was.”

You weren’t always a mess, of course. She’s talking about your adolescent years. You’re the youngest of four brothers — Gerald, Terry and Damon. Damon’s your dad’s son from a different relationship. Your parents split when you were a kid. Your dad remarried, but remained a part of your life. Your big brothers were enterprising cats. You wouldn’t be the only one to experiment with low-level drug dealing, but they got wise to the dead-end nature of hustling a little sooner than you would. They went to college. Graduated. Got good jobs.

You took the road less traveled. You skipped a hell of a lot of classes at Cooley, and then dropped out in 1994, your senior year. You returned a year later, but had too many course hours to finish before reaching the state age limit for high school students.

Eleanor says Obie the kid and Obie the teen were two radically different people.

“We called him ‘Stank,’ ’cause he was a little stanker,” she tells me. “He didn’t like that. When he was 12, we were in the store, and I called him by that name. He said, ‘Mama, don’t call me that no more!’”

Where and why you went haywire is unclear, but Eleanor claims you began to rebel without provocation. She and your father believe it’s because you were coddled.

“I don’t know what happened to Obie,” she says. “Obie always had the best. He put himself in that situation.”

She’s referring to the years of defiance and disobedience at home, and to your hustling on the street. She would eventually kick you out of the house.

“The reason why Obie was sort of rebellious is because I think he’s the one that was spoiled the most,” says father Obie, seconding Eleanor. “Gerry and Terry, they were sort of self-reliant. Damon was kind of a loner, but he was focused on his future. Obie got everything he wanted. And, you know, when it comes easy, it goes easy. He didn’t learn the value of anything at that time. You know how kids are.”

You were a scary little hellion. Fortunately, you’re honest enough to try and explain yourself.

“Me and my moms used to have a good time together,” you tell me, “and, as I got older, just seein’ the transition in her face, like, you know, her lovin’ me as a little guy to gettin’ to where she can’t stand me, that shit was crazy. I was doin’ what I was doin’, though. You couldn’t tell me shit back then.”

As far as the drug thing, you would never become what the streets call a baller. And though Eleanor didn’t like you hustling, it wasn’t just the drugs that she couldn’t stand. It was the people you brought to the house, people like the girl she caught you with at 4 a.m. The girl on the couch, remember? Your mother didn’t appreciate that. She wasn’t the only girl, but as the latest in a string of unapproved houseguests, she was the only one to almost get cut. Eleanor remembers that night vividly.

“I went and grabbed a knife long as my arm,” she says, “and said, ‘Bitch, get outta my house.’”

You made some pretty harebrained decisions too. It’s hard not to laugh at some of the stories, like the condoms you tried to flush down the toilet. There’s only one problem with that tactic. Rubber floats. “He know it don’t flush good,” Eleanor says, “but he’s gonna be foolish.”

There was also that job at Kroger, the one your neighbor helped you get. You quit, remember? “You know why he quit that job?” Eleanor says. “’Cause it was cold and they told him to go out and get the buggies. He came home talking about, ‘Mama! It’s cold out there!’”

I wonder how you survived unscathed. You take the car while Eleanor’s having drinks with a friend. You wreck it. When your mother comes home a little tipsy, you don’t say anything. Next morning, she wakes up and figures she’d done it. You let it ride until her friend tells her she’d gotten a ride home.

Not everything produced snickers, though. Your antics produced a lot of harsh moments between you and your mother, who has worked in the Chrysler plant at Warren and Mound for 36 years. You threw tantrums. One time, you nutted up and trashed the house.

“She would say, ‘I think death is on his shoulder or somethin’. He just can’t get right,’” you recall. “My mentality, man, just bein’ in the hood, I just didn’t see far. I ain’t see longevity in life, you know what I’m sayin’? Everybody droppin’ off, gettin’ popped, dyin’, close to me.”

Eleanor wasn’t having that. Putting it off on deceased friends was too easy. She thought you had a screw loose, and took you to see a psychiatrist. But there was nothing clinically wrong with you.

Eleanor says you lost it one night, locked her in the back room of the house. That was over the top, and your big brother Terry interceded. He called from work and threatened to beat you if you didn’t let his mama out of the room. You unlocked the door, but Terry’s decision had been made. Eleanor says he got off work and came home to keep his promise.

But that’s Terry, right? Tough-love Terry. Even when he was attending Central Michigan University, he stayed in contact with you. He never questioned your state of mind. He just stayed on you. That’s why he’s your manager now.

“That’s the only manager I roll with,” you say assuredly. “He’s a father figure to me, but [back then] he was gone away to school. I’d holler at him over the phone, but the phone ain’t shit on havin’ somebody around you, know what I mean?

“He ain’t want me fuckin’ around. He felt like he did that. He always kept his shit from me. You get some older brothers, they put they little mens down on what’s goin’ on. He always kept his shit from me. And I just started dealing with it by growin’ up, bein’ where I was from.”

Terry took notice of your love of wordplay, your passion for hip hop.

“I always had a good grade in writing,” you say. “The rest of that shit was, like, terrible. I loved hip hop as a shorty. I was getting encouragement from Terry, like, ‘Dog, you could do that shit,’ and he’d have me rap for his mens and them.”

Your father noticed it too.

“He lived with me out in Westland,” father Obie says. “His mother thought it’d be best if he lived with me for a while. She’d had her problems with him, and I had my problems too. He attended John Glenn High School during that time. I remember one day I came home, and he had some books sprawled all over the dining room table. I thought to myself, ‘I think this guy is really getting into his schoolwork.’ He had a dictionary and some index cards, and he would ask me questions about various words. What’s this word mean, that word mean? How do you use it in a sentence? I never realized that he was building his vocabulary to rap.”

Talent runs in your family, though, Obie. Terry was the smart one who solved the Rubik’s Cube in a flash. He funded your first demo. Gerry was the self-starter who works in probation. Father Obie played saxophone and flute in his brother’s band. Safe to say that whatever creative spark got into you was probably making a return visit.

Grind it out

Terry once took you to a backyard get-together in Oak Park. This was in 1997. I don’t expect you to remember the rhyme session. You played humble until it was your turn. And then, you did your thing. But you had been doing your thing in other places. The Hip-Hop Shop. The Ebony Showcase. The C-Note Lounge. Through the years, you continued to grind it out at other venues like the Blind Pig and Lush.

“I’ve known Obie since the Hip-Hop Shop,” says your labelmate Proof, whose group, D12, was the first to release an album, Devil’s Night, on Shady Records. “That was around ’94, ’95. I thought he was incredible. Back then, he said his rap name was Obie One. I asked him, ‘What’s your real name?’ He said ‘Obie Trice.’ I said, ‘That’s your rap name.’”

As you continued to make the rounds in clubs, you kept recording songs. Your single “Well Known Asshole” gained a buzz in the underground. Your notoriety attracted another D12 member, Bizarre, who in turn put you in contact with your future boss, Eminem. On a rhyme and a prayer, you drove to a studio where the Shady one was working. You met him, and spit for him. Made an impression. He signed you to the label a few months later.

You’d later tell Eleanor that Eminem saved your life.

Damn, Obie. Things change, huh? Where Eleanor once thought that death was on your shoulder, hope now abided. Seems like yesterday that you got into that fight while doing that show in Ohio. Eleanor remembers you breaking your leg in that tussle. Unfortunately, by the time it happened, the feud between the two of you was so intense that she’d decided even a broken bone wasn’t enough to let you come home.

“I cried so hard,” she says, “but it was tough love.”

That was yesterday.

Growing up

Getting signed to Shady alone didn’t patch up your relationship with your mother. Time did that. Signing with Shady put you in league with two of hip-hop’s hardest working studio rats. Eminem and Dr. Dre. Their combined work ethic took up all the time you’d once had to be on the street. You suddenly had no time for trouble. Interestingly enough, the young man who couldn’t be told shit was now being told to do things repeatedly.

“I think Em’s work ethic is at its peak,” you say. “He on some shit right now. Em really has got this vision, and got this goal that he’s trying to accomplish, and he be on it. The drive and his momentum in the studio is crazy. I look at it like he got that from Dre.

“I went out there [California] and worked with Dre, and it’s the same thing. Over and over again, ‘Do this again, O. Do this over again.’ Like 50 million times. You gotta love that shit, though. That’s what got them to be where they are today.”

Sweat and toil, jumping at opportunity — that’s what brings success. But do the rules change once you’ve made it?

This attempt to get you on the cover and acknowledge the work you’ve all put in was met by resistance from Shady Records publicists. For the past few years Eminem, and Shady Records by default, has had issues with Metro Times. Perhaps the bad vibes stem from the cover story Metro Times ran last year when 8 Mile was released (“The Real Slim Shady,” Metro Times, Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 2002). Em wouldn’t get with us for that piece, or this one. Or maybe it’s due to a perceived lack of attention given to Em at the beginning of his career.

Whatever the case, it took almost five days to get a return call from the lady at Shady. Having interviewed Eminem three times in the past and having gone on the tube for VH1’s “Ultimate Albums: The Marshall Mathers LP,” as a character witness, I finally took matters into my own hands and got you on the line through my own contacts. Shady Records didn’t care for that, and your publicist there, Staci Brooks, let me know.

“Next time I would wait to hear from the label about doing an interview, …” she wrote via e-mail. “Shady has had beef before with Metro Times and I was waiting for their approval on the interview. We don’t want Shady to have any more problems, so let’s make sure we go through the right channels.”

I got the impression that “waiting for their approval” meant that I’d never have heard from you.

Then the people at 54 Sound studio tell us they won’t let us see any photos of you, because the label is saying this story is “unauthorized.”

Damn, Obie. Why don’t they want you on the cover in your own hood?

Regardless, we’re out for truth. And the truth is, Em’s method of introducing you to the public was the stuff of genius. Any dunce can see that. D12’s 2001 debut, Devil’s Night, provided the forum that would give you your first exposure to the world. The first words music lovers across the country would hear from you: Obie Trice/First, I took the underground over/The well-known asshole brought y’all horror/Then the industry saw interest in me/Now I’m Shady Records like Marshall Mathers’ LP.”

Slim Shady’s mentoring taught you, the wild child who threw tantrums, patience. You waited and worked, and the events of 2002 provided you with visibility. Your verse on the “Drips” single from The Eminem Show album showed your intensity, if not your promise, as an MC. Not to mention, in a move that defied logic but made perfect marketing sense, the opening line to The Eminem Show’s lead-off single, “Without Me,” is a clip of the opening line from “Rap Name,” your solo track from the bonus CD to the 8 Mile sound track. The move was enough to get the MTV crowd asking who the hell you were.

In another inspired move, the video for “Rap Name” was distributed just widely enough to gain a buzz, although it was only lightly pushed to mainstream video formats. The same teaser tactic was employed for Shady’s true debut video, “I Just Don’t Give a Fuck,” and D12’s first promotional vid, “Shit on You.”

By the time Em began popping up on awards shows wearing Obie Trice logo T’s, you’d toured 30 arenas. June 13, you got a taste of overseas touring, at the George Melches Stadium in Essen, Germany. The work changed you. Even Proof notices.

“He’s seen a lot,” Proof says, “and he’s learned when to be politically correct, and when to be completely himself.”

Political correctness might seem anathema in the Shady Records camp, but with maturity comes discretion.

The kicker in the Cheers marketing plan is the “Golden Ticket” promotion. Three lucky people who purchased one of the first 250,000 Cheers CDs will find a Willy Wonka-like golden ticket inside. That will qualify them for a grand prize, an all-expenses-paid trip to Detroit to watch the Shady One himself at work in the studio.

Promo aside, what matters at the end of the day is the quality of your CD. Will buyers be happy that they tipped their glasses toward Cheers? They should be. It’s a really good record, arguably the best that Shady Records has released.

Your rhyme flow, which is comfortably paced, inflective and honest, should keep listeners engaged. Your style doesn’t stand out as much as your attitude, which is purely Detroit, and all hood.

The production level is high. Tracks by Eminem, Dre and Timbaland complement one another, and match your intensity. Eminem is developing a signature sound, heavy on dramatic horns and spaced drum hits. His drum programming is vocal-friendly, and the quality improves with each project.

You’re surrounded by super heavyweights, but stand your ground and make the final impression by the time “Never Forgot Ya” plays.

The whirlwind that your career has become begs a question. How do you, a guy with a common story of hardship and struggle, fit in with a roster of artists who all have stories outlandish enough to be used as gimmicks? Think about it. D12 damn near revived horrorcore, and the verdict is still out on which sold 50 Cent, his music or his story. Even Chris Rock mocked him at the MTV Awards, lampooning the fact that “He got shot nine times.” Em, meanwhile, still has a hard time getting people to separate his superb talent from his white skin. There’s nothing glaring that makes you an anomaly. You, Obie, are, by contrast, regular. Still, you somehow manage to dovetail with the artists on the Shady roster.

“He fit right in from the time he was signed,” Proof says. “We have the street element with 50 and D12. What Obie has is, Obie brings the grime. He’s a grimy muthafucka.”

Being street, sans the glamour and the trappings of superstardom, could make you more believable and endearing in the public eye. Shady Records is certainly doing its share to expose you to the possibilities.

The week Cheers hit the street was nothing short of a media bonanza. First, you and Em made a surprise appearance on BET’s “106th & Park.” An appearance on “TRL” followed that Wednesday. Then came an interview on the Funk Master Flex show that night on New York’s Hot 97 radio station. The next morning, you flew to LA to perform on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show.” The morning after that, you boarded a plane bound for a promotional trip to Puerto Rico. And last Monday, a taped edition of BET’s “Rap City” showed you rippin’ the illest freestyle to grace the booth in months.

Damn, Obie. How does it feel to be grown-up and responsible?

“It’s crazy, man. I mean, you know, just trying to adapt to it and be easy with it,” you say.

“My average day? Man, I have to do, like, two hours worth of phoners. You know, interviews. Same questions over and over and over again. That’s kind of overwhelming to a brother. Then, I’ll probably have to hit a radio station right after that. Then, it’s probably a meet-and-greet type thing with the label reps. The DJs is pushin’ the album, you know. This probably takes another four, five hours. It’s a lot, man. It’s crazy. But I got it down pat. It’s like the back of my hand now.”

These are also better times for you and Eleanor. “Straighten up, Ma,” you rap to her on “Don’t Come Down.” “You can smile now, proud.” Eleanor says she never knew about the freezer bags full of dope you mention in the song. She was oblivious to the mice you rap about too. But she does remember driving by the corner you hustled on, trying not to cry. She remembers the time she rhetorically asked, “You trying to kill me, boy?” She remembers you telling her you knew you weren’t doing right. She talks about you with a sigh of relief. She even laughs sometimes.

“We cool,” you say. “She still Moms, you know what I’m sayin’? But she happy to see her boy doin’ something positive. She just wanna see a nigga do right. That’s what’s up with her.”

And your father? Eleanor says he was upset that you didn’t shout him out at your CD release party at the State Theatre. She says you didn’t know he was there, because he’d made a last-minute decision to attend.

“He a cool dude,” you say. “I see him every once in a while. I get a chance, I hook up with him, shoot some pool with him.”

Father Obie’s had some interesting moments since you began to blow up, you know, thanks to your namesake. There were the girls who drove from Massachusetts, located his home on Eight Mile, and surmised they’d found Obie Trice’s home. Well, they had. He goes to CVS and, soon as he gives the pharmacist his card, they see that name.

“Peoples’ expectations of me are a lot higher than before my son got here,” he says. “I don’t drive a big car, and they say, ‘Where’s your Benz?’ It’s becoming a little annoying now.”

Though you travel a lot, you love coming back home to the neighborhood.

“The hood got my back 100 percent,” you say. “Comin’ from that area, man, I almost didn’t make it. The D, man, that’s my home. If I’m on the Lodge, I’m lovin’ it. If I’m goin’ downtown on the weekend, and I hit the Lodge or hit 96, I’m feelin’ good.”

You have a much easier time feeding your 4-year-old daughter, Kobie, now. And you and Mom even bought a hundred pounds of whiting and threw a fish fry for your neighborhood.

If the prophet Obadiah were to give the final word on your feud, it might be a word of healing.

But Obadiah does not have that word, and you’ve got more work to do before you can count all the rags in your life riches. Moms still being Moms, she’s got advice for you. “Stay straight, and do people right,” Eleanor says. “Don’t get caught up in the wrong things. Pray every night, ’cause you’re one in a million. And thank your big brother too.”

Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]