this looks like a job for me: the evolution of eminem
It is March 1999 and it is cold in Detroit, the kind of cold that freeze-dries sound. Snow piled in banks frames the sides of the road and grows higher the farther the avenues ripple out from the center of the city. The roads here are small highways, just two lanes each way. Far from downtown, off the interstate, the roads narrow. The lights are fewer and the trees are taller. Standing not far from one of these byways, ankle deep in snow, I hear the woosh of a lone passing car. Behind me, the trailer park is silent and as still as a morgue. It is two in the morning. In front of me, a blond guy in baggy clothes trudges up the stairs of a trailer and reads the eviction notice on his front door.
"We took care of that one," Paul Rosenberg says. "Don't worry about it."
The blond guy doesn't answer, he just rips it down and opens the unlocked door.
"He doesn't lock it?" I ask.
"No," Paul says. "They've had so much shit stolen over the years, he doesn't give a fuck anymore."
The double-wide trailer is warm, and I sit on the couch. Before me, on the floor in front of the TV, is a much smaller couch. A groggy, swirly-haired little girl curls up on it while her mother readies her bed. Above her on the wall are glossy photos in black frames: two of Eminem and Dr. Dre dressed as patient and analyst for the "My Name Is" video shoot, the other a solo shot of Dr. Dre with a scrawled note that reads, "Dear Marshall, Thanks for the support, asshole" (mimicking Slim Shady's autograph to a fan working at White Castle in "My Name Is"). The CD rack holds Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Mase,Babyface, Luther Vandross, and Esthero. On a wall by the kitchen hangs a photocopied list titled "Commitments for Parents." The first line reads, "I will give my child space to grow, dream, succeed, and sometimes fail."
"My mother moved back to Kansas City, so I bought this trailer from her," Eminem says, sitting on the couch. "Hailie feels really comfortable here, so I took over the payments. I'm paying rent for no reason because I'm never here anymore. But when I am, I need a place to stay."
Kim Scott lifts their daughter from her nest and takes her into the second bedroom. Hailie's bed is dwarfed by a mountain of toys, clothes, and boxes. Kim soothes her in hushed tones. It has been a long day that began tonight; a driving tour not sanctioned by the city's board of tourism, through the Detroit streets and neighborhoods where Marshall Mathers spent the better part of the past twenty-six years.
"Man, driving through town tonight brought back a lot of memories," Marshall says, lowering his voice. "I've been through a lot of shit, man. If I sit and think back on it, it's really fucked up. I mean, all my life has been fucked up."
"Now that you're out of that life, how much does the past bother you? Do you feel sorry that you grew up that way or just unlucky?" I ask.
"No, man," he says. "It's just my life, that's it. When you're living in some fucked-up shit, it doesn't really seem that fucked up to you when you're in it. All you think is 'What am I gonna do now?' Day to day, I'd have to think about what I was gonna do. Even though I had a job for three years, I wasn't making enough money to pay any bills. Me and my girl would get a house with my daughter; we could never stay more than three months. I would try to pay rent, always get behind, and we'd get evicted."
He walks to the kitchen to throw the eviction notice, still crumpled in his hand, into the trash. "The only houses I was able to afford were in the gutter slums of Detroit," he says. "I lived on Fairport on this shitty block and we had this crackhead that kept breaking in. Me and Kim and Hailie caught him one time. Just after Hailie was born, we walked in the house and there was a crackhead in there and all of our shit was gone. We had got robbed at the house we had been in before this one-cleaned out. So when we walked in and I see the TV gone and I'm like, 'What the fuck!' I start screaming, I set Hailie down, and then I hear all these footsteps coming down the stairs. Oh fuck! So I grab Hailie and run outside and Kim runs out. I shut the door and we're out on the lawn, wondering what to do. It was only one dude, but he was coming so fast he sounded like a bunch of people."
He rubs his eyes at the memory. "The guy walks out the back door holding a wrench or something and he sees us out there and he's like, 'I seen 'em! They went that way.' So I didn't run after him directly, I ran through the house and grabbed the first thing I could find, a frying pan off the stove, and I came through the back door after him. He ran, and I tell you, man, this motherfucker was so cracked out, he hopped over this fucking fence that was huge. He just hopped right over it, and I couldn't get up anywhere near the top. That whole time was fucked."
Kim closes Hailie's bedroom door and sits beside her boyfriend on the couch. He looks at her sidelong. "Remember the crackhead?" he says through a smirk at the recollection.
"He left ashes all over the fucking floor, had lunch, and left," she says with the kind of annoyance reserved for inefficient salesclerks.
"Yo, this guy felt so comfortable stealing there," he says, shaking his head. "He broke in three times, and the last time he did, he made a sandwich and left the fucking peanut butter and bread on the counter. And he left his coat there."
"Marshall pissed on it and I took one of Hailie's shitty diapers and wiped it all over it and left it on the porch," she says.
"And he fucking came back," he says. "We could never catch that guy. By the time he was done, he'd taken every fucking thing we had except the couches and the beds. This motherfucker took the pillows, pillowcases, clothes, everything you can imagine. He even cleaned out our silverware."
I look around at the brand-new television, VCR, and the couch we are sitting on, all obviously bought in the past six months, and I realize that Marshall already lives the entertainer's life. He won't feel afloat existing in hotels and out of suitcases from now on. He has only known flux for the past twenty years, moving from home to home, living in different cities, changing schools, and working more than he didn't, at one job or another, since he was at fifteen. His anchors in this world are here in his mother's double-wide: his daughter, Detroit, Kim, and the pen and pad on the counter. There are no mementos of Marshall's childhood here; they exist in his mind, caught in the chaos he churns into words. Those mental pictures have sold 500,000 albums in just two weeks.
It is later than late now and time for me to go. Kim gets up drowsily and Marshall puts his arm around her. I look around the trailer once more, knowing I'll never see it again. Soon enough, neither will they. A few weeks later, they will move in with Kim's mother; some of her neighbors, excited to see Eminem on their block, won't realize he is actually Marshall, Kim's boyfriend, the one who has been stopping by of and on since he was sixteen. Just two weeks after the release of a debut that will go on to sell three million copies in one year, garner two Grammys, and inspire a call to censorship by the editor in chief of Billboard, that Marshall, the one who cooked and cleaned at Gilbert's Lodge for his minimum wage, is already gone.
The cold air wakes me as I crunch through the snow on the stairs. Marshall stands in the doorway, Kim at his side, one of Hailie's blankets in his hand. He nods a good-bye. Standing there, the next rap superstar doesn't look dazzling. He looks weary, wary, and content. He's as home as he can be.
In 1996, Marshall Bruce Mathers III had already changed his stage name from his initials, M & M, to their phonetic synonym, Eminem, for obvious legal reasons. If M&M/Mars had sued him, it would have been hilarious: He was barely getting by on the five-bucks-and-change minimum wage he received hourly for washing dishes and cooking at Gilbert's Lodge in St. Claire Shores, a suburb of Detroit. At the time, he took home in a month what a top corporate lawyer makes in half an hour. That amount wasn't even enough to cover the costs of pressing Infinite, his first independent release. Yet his rap career was under way. Mathers had been signed to an outfit called FBT Productions for four years. He still is, more out of kinship than contract, and as of 2003, FBT claims production credits on thirty of the fifty-eight songs on Eminem's three major-label albums; his mentor Dr. Dre's count is twelve. FBT is the Detroit production duo Mark and Jeff Bass, two brothers from Oak Park, one of Detroit's more racially integrated areas. The Basses had been playing music and writing songs together since they were kids, their first paid gig coming when they were only seven (Mark) and eleven (Jeff), recording a Greyhound Lines jingle. The Basses grew up tough white kids who felt more at home in black social circles. They've seen their share of street fights-one of which claimed Mark's right eye, necessitating a glass one. As they tried to establish a name for themselves as producers, the pair worked as inexpensive remixers for hire in the late eighties and early nineties, on cuts like the B-52's' "Love Shack" and Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away." By this time, Mark was well into hip-hop, but his brother remained skeptical. His opinion didn't change when he met the fifteen-year-old white kid his brother was eager to work with. Mark had found this new muse while in his car listening to a group of teens rapping on the radio, on an open-mike show hosted by a DJ called Lisa Lisa. One of them was Marshall Mathers, the one Mark ended up speaking to when he later phoned the studio. Bass invited Mathers down to the brothers' modest basement studio that night. When Mathers arrived at 4:00 a.m., he freestyled with a pair of friends. It was the first time he'd ever seen a studio. The Basses then started cutting tracks with Mathers, watching him experiment with rhyme styles, from laid back to rapid-fire, until he found himself.
Mathers lived with his mother on the East Side of Detroit at the time and spent his nights after work writing rhymes until the early morning. He honed an even-flowing style laced with a gift of rhythm and a preference for intricate vocabulary inspired more by the joy of rhyming words than weaving a narrative. He began writing songs for an album called Infinite, one of the first recorded in the Bass brothers' new studio, the Bassment, in 1996. The Bass brothers borrowed $1,500 from their mom to press 500 copies of the album, signing Mathers to the label they had created, WEB Entertainment. The record landed in local Detroit stores and in the hands of hip-hop radio programmers-and was unanimously ignored.
Infinite chronicles Eminem's early days, his dreams of rap superstardom that flourished while he tried to pay the bills. While he was writing his first record, Mathers's longtime girlfriend, Kim Scott, became pregnant and gave birth to Hailie Jade Scott on Christmas in 1995. The album is laced, in skits and lyrics, with his anxiety about raising his daughter on limited funds, his hope to leave her with half a million dollars, and a fantasy future full of national tours and airplay. Though prophetic, Infinite yielded finite results.
"There was a year after Infinite where every rhyme I started writing got angrier and angrier," Eminem recalls. "That was from the feedback I got off that album. Motherfuckers was like, 'You sound like Nas and AZ,' 'You're a white boy, what the fuck are you rapping for? Why don't you go into rock and roll.' All types of shit like that started pissing me off." Eminem's frustration at being taken for a poser enraged him. He'd become a staple at open-mike nights at local institutions like designer Maurice Malone's Hip-Hop Shop, a weekly scene in Detroit where MCs battled or just passed the mike. With nothing left to lose, Eminem's battle riffs grew darker, grittier, more nihilistic. His rhymes grew crazed, drug obsessed, and more belligerent than ever. He began to win competitions consistently and became a fixture, someone to beat, as local MCs started coming to the open-mike nights to battle the white boy and make a name for themselves, whether they won or lost to him.
In 1996, just before Christmas and Hailie's first birthday, Eminem was fired from his job at Gilbert's Lodge. He was rehired six months later, this time for a few months, and then fired again, almost exactly to the year. In those interims, he worked where he could, mostly at a Little Caesars Pizza chain. It became so tough to make ends meet while raising Hailie that Eminem stopped rapping and writing for a time. Kim and Marshall fought bitterly, breaking up and making up with schizophrenic regularity. Eventually she moved back in with her family, who had long disapproved of Marshall and made it difficult for him to see his daughter. It was his lowest point, a time when Marshall Mathers saw suicide as a viable option, nearly ending his journey before it began.
Copyright© 2003 by Anthony Bozza