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Eminem Blows Up

In three short months, twenty-four-year-old Marshall Bruce Mathers III has gone from white trash to white hot.

November 5, 2009 1:03 PM ET
eminem 811 cover
Eminem on the cover of Rolling Stone.
David LaChapelle

The following is an article from the April 29, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available online in Rolling Stone’s digital archive. Click here to subscribe.

The Michigan rapper, who calls himself Eminem — and whose debut, The Slim Shady LP, sold 480,000 copies in its first two weeks — was a $5.50-an-hour cook in a Detroit grill before his obscenity-strewn, gleefully violent, spastic, hilarious and demented rhymes landed him in the studio with rap honcho Dr. Dre.

The blue-eyed MC is dealing with the instant fame and simultaneous criticism well enough — much better, actually, than he is dealing with the fifth of Bacardi he downed an hour ago. On a chilly Friday night in New York, he emerges bleary-eyed from the bathroom in his manager's office. "I just threw up everything I had," he says in his slow-roll drawl, which is a bit slower at the moment. "All I ate today was that slice of pisza. Feel good now, though."

His manager exhales slowly in relief. Eminem has three club gigs tonight, and the first one starts in less than an hour. The crew (nine, including DJ Stretch Armstrong and Dennis the security guard) ambles toward the elevator. Downstairs awaits Eminem's partner in rap, Royce the 5'9", who looks to be about that and has seven people of his own in tow. Em hops into a giant white limo as fellow honky Armstrong cops a rhyme from

Eric Clapton's Cream. "In the white room, with white people and white rappers," he bellows. A minute later there's a knock on the window and one of Royce's posse gives Em the first of the three hits of ecstasy he will consume over the course of the night. Down it goes in a swallow of ginger ale as the car zooms off toward Staten Island.

Out on New Dorp Lane, there is a crowd of kids, a mere fraction of the number already inside the Lane Theater. The all-ages show is packed, and Eminem is the evening's main course. The mob is being controlled by the club's security, but when the rapper moves inside, the burly dudes are no match for the crush of shouting teens. "You look good!" one girl shouts. "Oh, my God, he looks better in person," shrieks another. Everywhere, kids have tiny glow sticks in their mouths, which, here in the dark, look like neon braces. At the back of the club, up a ladder, is the minute dressing room, where the very proud owner of the club is waiting. "Hey, nice to meet ya," he says. "My daughter told me to get Eminem, so I got Eminem. It's her fourteenth birthday. Hey, say hi to her and her friends."

Eminem soon grabs four bottles of water and heads to the stage. He owns this audience. These predominantly white kids know every word, every nuance, and can't get enough. If Slim Shady's rhymes about sex with underage girls ("Yo, look at her bush, does it got hait?/Fuck this bitch right here on the spot bare/Till she passes out and she forgot how she got there") bother them any, they don't show it. In fact, the filthier the material, the louder the cheers.

On The Slim Shady LP, Eminem says, "God sent me to piss the world off." Interscope Records is Em's label — a perfect fit for a company that's home to controversial artists like the late Tupac Shakur and Marilyn Manson. Eminem has been condemned as a misogynist, a nihilist and an advocate of domestic violence, principally in an editorial by Billboard editor in chief Timothy White, who attacked The Slim Shady LP as "making money by exploiting the world's misery." "My album isn't for younger kids to hear," Eminem says. "It has an advisory sticker, and you must be eighteen to get it. That doesn't mean younger kids won't get it, but I'm not responsible for every kid out there. I'm not a role model, and I don't claim to be." On the album, his alias, Slim Shady, hangs himself from a tree by his penis, dumps the girlfriend he's murdered in a lake with the help of their baby daughter, takes every drug at once, rips "Pamela Lee's tits off" and heads out into the night yelling, "To all the people I've offended, yeah, fuck you, too!"

This hard-core attitude has won him acceptance not just from teenagers taken with his video but also from the hip-hop community. Later on, at Manhattan's Sound Factory, Em will win over a mostly black audience. He will be greeted with indifferent stares that will melt into smiles, then rump-shaking abandon by the end of his four-song set. The rapper will top off the evening — well, the morning by that point — entertaining doelike women and spiky-haired guys at the trendy mecca called Life, where a table often model types will be evicted so that Em and his friends may kick back.

Right about now, though, a roomful of Staten Islanders is going berserk. In the silence between songs, a young girl in the front row who's wearing a white baby T screams, "I love you!" Eminem walks over. "I love you, too," he says and bends down to give her a hug. Big mistake. The girl lays a kiss on his lips and sets off the girl next to her, who tears Eminem's head away and kisses him full on the mouth. "Oh, shit," he laughs. "I'm going to jail tonight!" He launches into "Scary Movies," the B side to the independently released "Bad Meets Evil" single, and the audience raps right along. When he sits at the front of the stage, his pants are pulled at and his crotch is grabbed. "I touched his dick!" one girl boasts to her friend.

Eminem is already a bona fide star, the type not likely to play a club this small again. The only reason he is here at all is that this date was booked before his debut album entered the charts at Number Two. The demand for the record at stores around the country was so great that Interscope shipped more than I million copies — extraordinarily rare for a first record. Eminem has similarly conquered MTV: Since the January release of the wise-ass video for "My Name Is," he has been on the network more than Carson Daly. And now, three months later, despite the fact that he's never headlined for any length of time, the rapper has been offered slots on every summer tour except CSNY's.

Eminem empties a water bottle on the heads of the audience, drops his pants, waves his middle finger around, and the show is over. He is whisked into a waiting car through a back alley. The police have been called to keep things orderly as the limo moves off into the night. At the curb, a girl who looks no more than fourteen shouts, "I want to fuck you," tugging suggestively at the top of her shirt and revealing her pierced tongue. "I want to fuck you, too," Eminem says aloud to himself. "But I won't."

Eminem is a White Boy in a Black Medium. He has been booed on the mike and told repeatedly by black hip-hoppers that he should stop rapping and go into rock & roll. "It's some very awkward shit," says Em's mentor, Dr. Dre, about the race card. "It's like seeing a black guy doing country & western, know what I'm saying?" Even Dre's judgment was suspect when he signed Em to his Interscope imprint, Aftermath. "I got a couple of questions from people around me," he says. "You know, 'He's got blue eyes, he's a white kid.' But I don't give a fuck if you're purple: If you can kick it, I'm working with you." Indeed, talent will overcome, and Em is having the last laugh. "A lot of the people who disrespected me are coming out of the woodwork now for collaborations," he says. "But I like doing my own shit. If there were too many other voices, the stories wouldn't go right." True enough — slipping a verse into a song about a New Wave blondbabe nurse's aide who overdoses on mushrooms and relives her father's sexual abuse, all over a partyhearty tempo, isn't exactly the same as freestyling on the "Money, Cash, Hoes" remix.

For anyone expecting more of the naughty, pop-culture-obsessed blond kid in the clean version of "My Name Is," proffered on MTV, The Slim Shady LP is some bad-trip nether world. But that world is exactly why the hip-hop underground loves Em. His off-the-beat flow, way-off-the-beat lyrics and loony-tunes presentation place him in a class by himself. Em isn't trying to be Jay-Z, DMX or 2Pac; he's trying to be the Roadrunner, turning his enemies' anvils back on themselves with split-second trickery. He's also probably the only MC in 1999 who boasts low self-esteem. His rhymes are jaw-droppingly perverse, bespeaking a minimum-wage life devoid of hope, flushed with rage and weaned on sci-fi and slasher flicks.

And in the midst of the splatter is Marshall Mathers. Songs like "As the World Turns," in which Shady "fucks a divorced slut" to death with his "go-go gadget dick," are adolescent fantasies that indicate how Em spells revenge. But songs like "If I Had" and "Rock Bottom" are where the cartoons fade away, the bravado drops and the frustrated kid of his not-too-distant past appears, fed up with life, dead-end jobs and the poverty that has made him "mad enough to scream but sad enough to tear."

"I couldn't even get into a motherfucking club just being Eminem, before the video," Mathers says, walking through Newark Airport the day after his New York club shows. "Last night they had people clearing tables for me. It's fucking bananas. Scary shit, too, 'cause you can fall just as quick as you went to the top." He is a smallish guy who walks with a subdued swagger. Em is like a class clown with a lot on his mind: When he's on, nothing escapes the cross hairs of his snottiness, but when he's off, no one is included in his thoughts. He keeps the world at bay with humor and an ever-growing list of character voices, including a roguish Scotsman, a Middle Eastern cab driver and a sleazy lech. He slips into these voices constantly, even in the midst of heart-wrenching stories about his childhood. Today he is chipper and apparently no worse for wear after just two hours of sleep and no breakfast. He is bound for his hometown of Detroit for three days off before heading to Mexico to perform on MTV's Spring Break '99, then on to Chicago for more album promotion.

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