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by M.L. Elrick
from salon.com, July 25, 2000
He's a white boy who sounds black, a fatherless child
who hates his mother, a trailer-trash wunderkind who spent
some of his first millions on a king-size crib across from a
Freud would have a field day with Marshall Brace Mathers
III. Rapper extraordinaire, record-setting, multi-platinum
recording artist, gay-hater, murder-fantasizer, rebel and creep:
How did this onetime "Mork & Mindy" devotee become the
venom-spitting hero of hip-hop?
First came the runty Marshall Mathers, a quiet, artistic kid
bounced from school to school by his overprotective, slightly
unhinged mother. Then came "M&M," later Eminem, the
silver-tongued outcast who forsook fitting in with his white
suburban classmates to concentrate on breaking into Detroit's
overwhelmingly black rap scene. Finally, and most furiously,
came Slim Shady, the vile, rhyme-sayin',bitch-slayin' MC out
to even every score run up against his other selves.
Yet none of these personas has canceled the other out.
While Slim Shady rakes in the cash by rapping about rape,
drugs and murder, Eminem tries to explain that it's all just an
act-and 27-year-old Marshall Mathers struggles to hold
together a world on the verge of being torn apart by the stress
of success, run-ins with the law and, most recently, his wife's
His 1999 album, "The Slim Shady LP," introduced the
world to an implacable bleached-blond rapper who shot out
his rhymes machine-gun style. It sold 3 million copies. His
second album made him a sensation. "The Marshall Mathers
LP" sold more than 5 million copies in its first month of
release, becoming the fastest-selling hip-hop album of all
time. MTV declared a weekend of "EmTV"; at the same
time, some critics and gay groups began to take issue with the
rank misogyny and homophobia permeating the album.
Eminem's defenders-and Eminem himself-say it's the
Slim Shady character, not Mathers, who is the album's real
culprit. But police arrested Mathers, not Slim Shady, June 4
in Warren, Mich. He'd found his wife, the former Kim Scott,
in the parking lot of a nightclub, kissing an acquaintance.
Eminem allegedly clocked the interloper with a 9mm pistol
and threatened to kill him.
Eminem was arrested and faces an Aug. 31 preliminary
hearing at which a Warren district court judge will decide
whether there's enough evidence to send the case to trial. His
alleged victim, John Guerra of nearby Mount Clemens, sued
Eminem less than a week after the incident. As if he didn't
have enough legal entanglements, Eminem has also agreed to
stand trial in Pontiac, Mich., on charges he flashed his 9mm
outside a car audio shop during an argument with an associate
of a rival rap group, Insane Clown Posse. The prosecutor
in the Warren case seeks at least a six-month sentence.
A few weeks after the throw-down in Warren, Kim Mathers
attempted suicide-just hours after Eminem finished the second
of two performances in the Detroit area. Did she really
want to end the life her husband had already snuffed out on
both his albums? Did she want to leave the couple's 5-year-old
daughter motherless? Kim Mathers isn't saying. All she told
police who came to her rescue was, "There has got to be a better
place than this." If nothing else, the incident was another
reminder that the emotional horrors recounted in explicit
detail on Eminem's albums may be more than mere shock art.
Just how Eminem feels about all of this is unclear, but a
comment he made to the Detroit Free Press during the filming
of the video for his in-your-face anthem "The Way I Am"
might be apropos:
"Whenever something good happens, the bad always follows,"
he said. "That's the story of my life since the day I was
Life was a struggle for Marshall even before he was born. His
mother, Debbie Mathers-Briggs, says she married his father,
Marshall Mathers Jr., when she was 15; less than three years
later, she almost died delivering her first son at the end of a
"I went through a living hell," she said in a recent phone
conversation, recalling the bald, cigar-smoking St. Joseph,
Mo., doctor who charged $90 for prenatal visits, delivery and
circumcision. Marshall was a small, sickly baby.
Although Marshall was a well-behaved infant, Mathers-Briggs
said their life was never easy. The family moved to
North Dakota, where his father was supposed to take a job as
assistant manager at a fancy hotel. What Mathers-Briggs contends
was her husband's erratic behavior forced her to flee
when her son was two. She says she left with Marshall in a
rush, leaving their clothes and car behind when they lit out
for her mother's home in Missouri. The Matherses divorced
in 1975. Eminem's father, who later became a hotel manager
in California, could not be reached for comment.
After several years in which he was doted on by his father's
aunt while his mother held down several menial jobs,
Marshall and his mother moved to Michigan. The pair lived
in modest, working-class Detroit neighborhoods a notch or
two above, but never far from, the ghetto. For many years he
was the only white teen in a black neighborhood of otherwise
white and middle-class St. Clair Shores. Friends and family
said Marshall was a happy kid who had his mother wrapped
around his finger. But he was also a bit of a loner-the kind
of kid who got picked on.
As a 9-year-old student at Dort Elementary School,
Marshall suffered the first in a series of beatings that ultimately
left him in a coma, relatives say. His persecutor was
DeAngelo Bailey, an African-American classmate who played
center on the school basketball team. Bailey allegedly subjected
Marshall to a four-month reign of terror: He attacked
him at recess, cornered him in a restroom and floored him
with a heavy snowball that gave him a severe head injury.
According to a lawsuit Mathers-Briggs filed against the
school in 1982, Bailey beat her boy so badly that he suffered
headaches, post-concussion syndrome, intermittent loss of
vision and hearing, nightmares, nausea and a tendency toward
anti-social behavior. (The lawsuit makes no mention of the
Marshall's head injury "made me even more protective of
him," Mathers-Briggs says.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 1983; a Macomb County
(Mich.) judge said the schools were immune from lawsuits.
But Slim Shady settled the score 17 years later, beating Bailey
into a bloody pulp on "Brain Damage," a track from his debut
major-label album, "The Slim Shady LP."
The beefy, 5-foot-8 Bailey is now a laborer who lives in a
squalid house near the neighborhood where the pair went to
school. As Eminem's music booms out of a nearby car, he sits
in a Roseville park and chuckles at the mention of his former
"He was small, plus he had a big mouth," recalls Bailey,
who is married with four children.
Seeming friendly and soft-spoken, Bailey says he is amused
by his secondhand celebrity. He says he has signed autographs
for teeny-bopper fans and has had to disconnect his phone.
His kids are big Eminem fans; they holler, he says, when
Eminem mentions his name on "Brain Damage."
Bailey is sheepish but amused by the fruits of his former
bullydom: "Damn, that must have scarred him for life," he
Marshall's life of childhood poverty in and around metro
Detroit's hardscrabble neighborhoods continued. He
bounced from school to school: By the time he enrolled in
Warren's Lincoln High, he had attended as many as 20
schools, his mother estimates. Much of that time he lived in
his great-grandmother's home on the south side of Warren, a
gritty suburb just across the Detroit border.
Warren's residents are known for their red necks as well as
their blue collars; the town's south side is particularly low-rent.
Small houses are packed together along streets named
for long-dead auto pioneers and lined with long-dead autos.
It's a short walk to the liquor store from most homes.
Lonely hearts needn't go far to find the local adult bookstore
or, a bit further along "8 Mile," a major boulevard dividing
Warren from Detroit, prostitutes and topless bars with names
like the Booby Trap and Trumpps.
Slim Shady is the kind of tough guy who callously advocates
shooting a withered cashier and raping a 15-year-old.
But friends and neighbors remember Marshall Mathers as a
polite boy-one who comes back every so often to sign autographs
and encourage neighborhood kids.
"He was an all right kid, no worse than a lot and a lot better
than some," says Ramona Dorsey, who lives next door to
Eminem's former house in St. Clair Shores.
"He was good to his brother," says Rose Slone, another former
family friend who knew Marshall from when he visited
his mother and brother in a rundown Warren trailer park. "He
was always there for Nathan."
Former co-workers, too, said Marshall was hard-working
and upbeat, playing music and rhyming to keep things lively.
Until his arrests in June, Eminem had no adult criminal
As a 20-year-old, however, Marshall was arrested for an
involvement with a drive-by shooting-with a paint ball. A
friend was the triggerman, and the paint ball didn't even
break, police said. The case was dismissed after the alleged
victim didn't show up for court.
But his home life was seldom stable. Mike Mazur,
Marshall's manager when he worked at a local restaurant,
recalled that he crashed so often with friends-reportedly
because of fights with his mother-that he had dozens of
addresses in the more than three years they worked together.
But Mathers-Briggs bristles at any suggestion that she was
less than an ideal mother. "Anything Marshall wanted he got,"
she now says from St. Joseph, where she runs a taxi service. "I
sheltered him too much and I think there's a little resentment
from that." Mathers-Briggs says she took care of her son's cleaning,
car insurance and bank accounts until he was about 25.
But court records and interviews indicate that there was
plenty of turmoil, too. A welfare mom who volunteered in a
recent conversation that she once filed for bankruptcy,
Mathers-Briggs has a history of settling disputes with lawsuits.
While some neighbors remember her as a sweet and devoted
mother, others called Mathers-Briggs irrational or, less charitably,
"crazy" or "a bitch."
Marshall's former co-workers remember her calling him
constantly at the restaurant, demanding to speak to her son
even during peak times when he couldn't come to the phone.
St. Clair Shores police said she often summoned them with
unfounded complaints about neighbors.
Eminem does not recall his mother fondly. On "The Slim
Shady LP" and in several interviews, he accused his mother
of grabbing chunks of his paychecks, tossing him out and popping
pills. She has steadfastly denied the allegations.
But the most damning accusation came from St. Clair
Shores school officials, who in juvenile court proceedings in
1996 accused her of abusing her younger son, Nathan, now
14. Nathan was removed from her custody. Alleging that she
"exhibits a very suspicious, almost paranoid personality," a
social worker suggested that Mathers-Briggs had Munchausen
syndrome by proxy, an affliction in which a parent injures a
child to gain attention and sympathy for herself.
School officials also said she accused neighbors of beating
Nathan, blowing up her mailbox and killing her dog in a
satanic ritual. They added that she told them video cameras
were monitoring her from trees outside her house and that
enemies had sent her a tarantula in the mail.
Mathers-Briggs pleaded no contest to reduced charges that
she was emotionally unstable and had failed her son by keeping
him out of school and isolating him from other children; with
that, she regained custody. By then, Nathan had been in foster
homes for more than a year.
Attorney Betsy Mellos, who represented Mathers-Briggs
through much of the court battle, says the school brought the
charges because the mother had threatened to sue them. "She
was a pretty good mother," contends Mellos, who now prosecutes
child abuse and neglect cases for Macomb County,
Mich. "If anything, she was overprotective."
The rest of the milieu around the future star wasn't much
better. Marshall's male role models were his mother's
boyfriends-one of whom left Mathers-Briggs after learning
she was pregnant with Nathan-and his uncles. Todd Nelson,
Mathers-Briggs' brother, served six years in a Missouri prison
for manslaughter after a fatal fight with the brother of his wife.
The couple moved to Michigan after his release, but are now
divorced. Eminem is still in touch with Nelson.
But Marshall was closest to his uncle Ronnie, a sensitive
soul who family members said was so repulsed by guns he was
kicked out of the U.S. Army. Not much older than Marshall,
Ronnie introduced his nephew to rap before dying from a gunshot
wound about 10 years ago. The death was ruled a suicide.
By the time Eminem attended high school, his love of rap
and black culture were the only things that distinguished him.
"He hung around with a different kind of crowd than I did; I
don't want to say rougher, but not really a good crowd," said
classmate Eric Reiter, who remembered the otherwise unremarkable
Marshall rapping confidently as part of a duo at a
school talent show.
Another classmate, Aubrey Moylan, was less impressed.
Calling Marshall "a dork," she says, "He came off as trying to
be a poseur or a wannabe. He was into the whole rap scene
even back then, and would try to imitate their style, speech
"He was the type of person that would have me rolling my
eyes, thinking, 'Good grief, get a life.'"
Little did she know that's precisely what Mathers was
Marshall dropped out of school in 1989. Mike Ruby, his partner
from the talent show, recommended that he join him
cooking and washing dishes at Gilbert's Lodge, a rustic,
family-style St. Clair Shores restaurant. Neither rapper
planned on making a career of the $5.50-an-hour gig.
A friend and fellow rap enthusiast from this time, Jay
Fields, says that around 1990, Marshall and his partner in
rhyme began recording scores of tracks in Ruby's basement.
The future superstar was then calling himself M&M, later
modified to Eminem. Using an insurance settlement, Ruby,
who called himself Manix, set up a basement studio his crew
dubbed Basement Productions, says Fields, who now works
for a DJ service in Louisville, Ky.
"They were working on music back then, basically working
on music everyday," says Fields, who at the time was known as
Excerpted from White Noise
Copyright © 2003 by Hilton Als.
Excerpted by permission.
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