Where hip hop lives

On a cold Thursday night at Eastpointe’s Wired Frog, a who’s-who of Detroit hip hop checks out the weekly showcase put on by rap group Da Ruckus. Tonight’s bill: Binary Star and Soulistic MCs. Attention turns to the wide screen when Eminem’s "My Name Is" video comes on. It’s a strangely exciting moment. A year ago, Eminem (24-year-old Marshall Mathers) would have been with them, making fun of whatever won’t-go-away video the "MTV Jams" set had speed dialed into constant rotation that month. But a year later, he’s the one with the nation’s second most requested video, on his way to becoming hip hop’s first legitimate white superstar with his Slim Shady LP on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath/Interscope label.

Rapper Bizarre, whose Attack of the Weirdos album Eminem guest-raps on, Eminem’s former manager and Federation Records head Marc Kempf, and Bugs and Da Brigade – Eminem’s cohorts in Detroit’s all-star MC group the Dirty Dozen – watch. There are some grumblings from those who prefer Mathers, the underground rapper who won freestyle battles at Maurice Malone’s Hip-Hop Shop, over the little goof lampooning the Lewinsky scandal on the screen.

Kempf is quick to defend. "I’ve heard the word ‘sell-out’ used, but his music really hasn’t changed at all. The only thing that’s changed is that he got a great video budget that put him out there in MTV la-la land."

"MTV la-la-land" is where Eminem’s been spending his time these days, signing posters for kids who’d line up at record stores to see anybody with a hit video. They don’t know or care what battles he’s won, just that "My Name Is" is catchy with its game show-funk hooks. They’re in for a shock – or at least their parents are – when they get Slim Shady home. On one track, Dr. Dre is the doomed voice of conscience trying to talk Em’s Slim Shady alter ego out of killing his baby’s mother – a topic the rapper visited on the gruesomely articulate track "Just the Two of Us" on Em’s 1998 indie Slim Shady EP.

No one can accuse Eminem of not speaking his mind – on or off record. On "If I Had," he flips the Barenaked Ladies hit "If I Had a Million Dollars" into an exhausted blue-collar bitch. "I’m tired of working at Builders Square/ I’m tired of not working at GM," he says, adding a long overdue, "I’m sick of WJLB saying it’s ‘where hip hop lives.’"

That the station has picked up the single only irks him more. "Man, I wanna go down to WJLB and tell them to take my record off the air," he says. "It makes me mad as fuck," he says of the lack of support from radio coming up.

"Everybody was so hungry in Detroit," he says. "I feel like I earned my stripes there. You ask Proof (winner of the Source’s freestyle competition last month), you ask anybody, they can vouch I won every battle I was in."

But for the rest of the world, he’s a poor white kid from Detroit raised on "Yo! MTV Raps" saying hip hop isn’t a black thing anymore, but a working-class thing. To which Detroiters could say, to quote Bob Seger, "Shit, I’ve known that for ten years." Insane Clown Posse built an empire selling shock-value raps to white teens. But unlike ICP – who’ve never won a freestyle battle – or even Eminem’s close friend Kid Rock – who came to hip hop as a DJ, not an MC – Mathers has rhyme skills few rappers – black or white – can match. You can’t blame Dre for wanting to replace Snoop with a kid who looks like a Backstreet Boy and can rap like Biggie Smalls as his featured protégé on Dre’s Y2K release Chronic 2000.

And though critics and parents may balk at his market-savvy mix of street-cred freestyle-skills and daytime-talk show shock value, Em isn’t having it. "Put my tape back on the rack, tell your friends it’s wack, I just don’t give a fuck," is what he raps, and "Anybody who takes what I’m saying seriously is a fucking idiot," is what he says.

Adds his manager Paul Rosenberg, "There’s nothing you can say about Em that he hasn’t already said about himself."

Back at the Wired Frog, "My Name Is" comes on again. This time the reaction’s different. "It’s giving Detroit a lot of limelight, to which I add a resounding ‘finally,’" says Kempf. "But it’s what we do from here that’s gonna change – or not change – the Detroit scene."

As for the rest of the county, Eminem’s already changing that. Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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