A look inside the very private world of hip-hop's reclusive genius
Upon arriving at Eminem's recording studio – an anonymous gray hit factory in suburban Detroit – a first-time visitor will be met at his car by a large, possibly armed man named Big 8, who will have been watching from an alley across the street. "Can I help you, sir?" he'll ask, in a tone that does not suggest an eagerness to help. Only after you have proved to not be a threat will you be escorted past the security cameras and heavily reinforced metal door and into the place Eminem calls "my second home."
Inside, Big 8 is all smiles. The studio is a grown-up play land: Punisher comic books, lucha libre masks, a popcorn machine. A large painting of Biggie and 2Pac graces one wall, while a plaque leaning against another celebrates Eminem's status as SoundScan's Artist of the Decade: 32 million albums sold in the past 10 years, trouncing runners-up the Beatles. A dozen years into his career, he remains one of pop's most bankable stars – a rare feat for any artist, and, for a rapper, almost unprecedented.
After half an hour, Eminem emerges from the vocal booth, where he's working on tracks with Dr. Dre for Dre's long-awaited Detox. He's dressed in black cargo shorts and a gray T-shirt, and a diamond crucifix hangs from his neck. His features are delicate, nearly feminine, and his hair is a deep, natural shade of brown. He bears little resemblance to the foulmouthed, bleached-blond Slim Shady who once made it his mission to terrorize America.
"What up, man," he says softly by way of introduction. "I'm Marshall."
It's a rainy afternoon in October, three days before Eminem's 38th birthday. He sits in the cluttered studio office, at a desk strewn with over-the-counter pharmaceuticals – Aleve, 5-Hour Energy – and Ziploc bags of minipretzels. Much has been made of the rapper's volatile temper, not least by Eminem himself (he once spent two years on probation for felony weapons charges after an altercation outside a bar), but in conversation he's thoughtful and polite, albeit not in a way you'd mistake for friendliness. There's little evidence of the prankster you hear on his records, and when discussing his personal life, he has a tendency to retreat, gazing at the floor and covering his mouth like a football coach hiding his plays.
Our conversation is interrupted by frequent bathroom breaks. Eminem loves Diet Coke, which he guzzles obsessively from a soda fountain in the lobby. At one point, he fills a 16-ounce cup nearly to the brim, then sets it down next to another full cup he'd forgotten he had. He's a chain drinker, in other words, and as a result he pees constantly. Asked why he prefers fountain drinks to cans, he turns serious. "There's aspartame in the cans," he says. "They say it's been known to cause cancer, so I cut that shit out. There's no aspartame in the fountain."
A few years ago, an artificial sweetener would have been the least of Eminem's worries. For much of the period from 2002 to 2008, he was addicted to a dangerous cocktail of prescription medication, including Ambien, Valium and extra-strength Vicodin. He tried rehab in 2005, then fell into an even deeper tailspin the next year, following the shooting death of his best friend, DeShaun "Proof" Holton. It wasn't until he nearly died from an accidental methadone overdose at the end of 2007 that Eminem finally decided to get clean. Last month, he celebrated two and a half years of sobriety.
His latest album, Recovery, deals with addiction and his struggles to conquer it. It is, by his standards, surprisingly positive. Released in June, it sold 741,000 copies in its first week – Eminem's sixth consecutive Number One – and will probably end up the bestselling album of 2010. It has also spawned two Number One singles, the inspirational "Not Afraid" and the Rihanna-featuring "Love the Way You Lie," which topped the charts for four weeks straight. In September, he cemented his return with a series of shows with Jay-Z at baseball stadiums in Detroit and New York. All in all, it's a remarkable comeback for a man who might not have lived to make another album.
Yet for all Eminem's triumphs, it's sometimes hard to tell if he's enjoying himself. By his own account, he lives a pretty solitary existence. He has a 15,000-square-foot fortress in the Detroit suburbs that he bought from the former CEO of Kmart, where he lives with 14-year-old Hailie – his biological daughter with his two-time ex-wife, Kim – and two adopted daughters: eight-year-old Whitney, Kim's daughter from a previous marriage, and 17-year-old Alaina, the daughter of Kim's twin sister. Before our interview began, he made it clear that he preferred not to discuss his family. Still, from the few glimpses he offers, a picture emerges of a devoted, protective father trying to focus on the two things he loves most: his children and his work.
Well, that and video games. Eminem is a vintage video-game fiend. The studio lobby is filled with arcade classics: Donkey Kong, Frogger, Space Invaders. His interest grew after seeing a documentary called The King of Kong, about a mild-mannered engineer named Steve Wiebe and his quest to capture the world Donkey Kong record. (Two of Eminem's machines are autographed by Wiebe.) He says he's also trying to break Wiebe's record, and on one of his Donkey Kong games, all six high scores belong to MBM – Marshall Bruce Mathers.
The bad guy in The King of Kong is named Billy Mitchell, a loudmouthed jerk not entirely unlike a certain white rapper. Cocky and snide, he's an ideal dramatic foil for the sweet, modest family man Wiebe. "It's a perfect contrast," Eminem says of the pairing. "A hero and a villain." Just which of those two he himself wants to be is one of the many things Eminem is trying to figure out.
Congratulations on your success with Recovery. Has it surprised you at all?
I'm a little surprised. I was certainly more confident in this album than the last one. It feels good to have your work respected again. Winning awards is cool, but at this point, I'm in it for the sport.
What's been the highlight so far?
The shows with Jay-Z. Just being onstage in front of that many people, being able to command the crowd but not having to fall back on old crutches like drugs and drinking. You do get nervous – anybody who says they don't is lying. But hitting that stage now, I want to feel those nerves. To look out and actually see girls crying and shit, it's overwhelming. But not like it used to be, where I felt like I needed to [mimes drinking from a bottle].
Does fame feel different this time?
It feels like I have a better grasp on it. A lot of the problems I had with fame I was bringing on myself. A lot of self-loathing, a lot of woe-is-me. Now I'm learning to see the positive side of things, instead of, like, "I can't go to Kmart. I can't take my kids to the haunted house."
Your past few albums were produced mainly by you and Dr. Dre. On this one you worked with several new producers.
It was just time for fresh blood. There's so many talented producers I always wanted to work with, but I was never sure if it would gel. I think it was a fear of failure. Like, "What if I bring these guys out, and I don't come up with anything?" So I just stayed in my element, where I was comfortable. But I was talking to my boy Denaun [Porter, of D12] one day, and he said, "Yo, man – you gotta get off your island." I don't mean to keep going back to it, but when I got clean, I started doing things I wouldn't otherwise have done.
Your music also seems more serious now.
Around the tail end of [2004's] Encore, the songs started getting really goofy. "Rain Man," "Big Weenie," "Ass Like That" – that's when the wheels were coming off. Every day I had a pocketful of pills, and I would just go into the studio and goof off. When I went to Hawaii with Dre for [what became Recovery], there was a turning point lyrically. I was sitting in the car listening to these older songs of mine, trying to figure out, "Why doesn't the new stuff hit me like it used to?" That's when I started to get away from the funny shit and do songs that had some emotion and aggression to them again.
What are you working on now?
Right now me and Dre are busy with Detox. It's really close – I want to say we're halfway done. I'm lending an ear, helping him write, laying hooks – whatever I can do. As for my stuff, I'm just doing guest verses for other people's records. I try to stay recording, because if I don't, I get rusty. I'm very paranoid about writer's block – I had it for four years, and it drove me fucking crazy. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't think of shit. The pills had a lot to do with it. Just wiping out brain cells. I don't know if it sounds like I'm making excuses, but the absolute truth is a lot of my memory is gone. I don't know if you've ever taken Ambien, but it's kind of a memory-eraser. That shit wiped out five years of my life. People will tell me stories, and it's like, "I did that?" I saw myself doing this thing on BET recently, and I was like, "When was that?"
Did you save much of your writing from that time?
Yeah. It fucking creeps me out. Letters all down the page – it was like my hand weighed 400 pounds. I have all that shit in a box in my closet. As a reminder that I don't ever want to go back.
When did you first get into drugs?
It didn't really start until my career took off. I was probably in my early 20s before I even kicked back my first beer. But the bigger the shows got, the bigger the after-parties; drugs were always around. In the beginning it was recreational. I could come off tour and be able to shut it off. I'd spend time with the kids, and I'd be OK.
It probably started to become a problem around the 8 Mile movie. We were doing 16 hours on the set, and you had a certain window where you had to sleep. One day somebody gave me an Ambien, and it knocked me the fuck out. I was like, "I need this all the time." So I got a prescription. After four or five months, your tolerance starts building. You start breaking off another piece of the pill that's supposed to be for tomorrow. Then, when I got off probation for my felonies [in 2003], and I didn't have to drop urine anymore, the reins came off. On the Anger Management 3 tour [in 2005], I was fucked up every night.
How bad did it get?
I was taking so many pills that I wasn't even taking them to get high anymore. I was taking them to feel normal. Not that I didn't get high. I just had to take a ridiculous amount. I want to say in a day I could consume anywhere from 40 to 60 Valium. And Vicodin... maybe 20, 30? I don't know. I was taking a lot of shit.
My everyday regimen would be, wake up in the morning and take an extra-strength Vicodin. I could never take more than one and a half, because it tore up my stomach lining. So I'd take the one and a half, and it'd kind of be Vicodin throughout the day. Then, as the evening crept up, around 5:00 or 6:00, I'd start with a Valium or two, or three, or four. And every hour on the hour, I'd pop four or five more. The Ambien would put me over the top to go to sleep.
Toward the end, I don't think the shit ever put me to sleep for more than two hours. It's very similar to what I've read about Michael [Jackson]. I don't know exactly what he was doing, but I read that he kept getting up in the middle of the night, asking for more. That's what I was doing – two, three times a night, I would get up and take more.
Where were you getting it? Did you have a dealer?
When you're an addict, you find ways. In the beginning, there were doctors who gave me prescriptions – even after I got out of rehab.
Any idea how much money you spent?
Nope. And I don't want to know. A lot.
Then, in 2006, Proof was killed. Can you talk a bit about what he meant to you?
[Sighs] The best way to describe Proof would be a rock. Somebody to confide in, somebody who always had your back. At this point, it's difficult to find people I know I can trust. I still have certain friends like that, but when you lose one, man... [trails off] It hit me pretty hard.
How much do you think his death had to do with your spiral?
It had a lot to do with it. I remember days I spent just taking fucking pills and crying. One day, I couldn't get out of bed. I didn't even want to get up to use the bathroom. I wasn't the only person grieving – he left a wife and kids. But I was very much in my own grief. I was so high at his funeral. It disgusts me to say it, but I felt like it was about me. I hate myself for even thinking that. It was selfish.
What was happening to you physically?
I got up to between 220 and 230, about 80 pounds heavier than I am now. I was going to McDonald's and Taco Bell every day. The kids behind the counter knew me – it wouldn't even faze them. Or I'd sit up at Denny's or Big Boy and just eat by myself. It was sad. I got so heavy that people started to not recognize me. I remember being somewhere and overhearing these kids talking. One of them said, "That's Eminem," and the other said, "No it's not, man – Eminem ain't fat." I was like, "Motherfucker." That's when I knew I was getting heavy.
It creeps me out sometimes to think of the person I was. I was a terrible person. I was mean to people. I treated people around me shitty. Obviously I was hiding something. I was fucked up inside, and people with those kinds of problems tend to put up this false bravado – let me attack everyone else, so the focus is off me. But of course everybody knew. There were whispers, murmurs.
Did anyone ever say to you, "Em, you need help"?
They'd say it behind my back. They didn't say it to my face, because I would fucking flip out. If I even sniffed the scent of somebody thinking they knew what I was doing, they were out of here. You'd never see them again.
And it peaked in December of 2007, when you were rushed to the hospital after overdosing on methadone. Can you walk me through that night?
I can try. There are certain parts I have to leave out because they have to do with my kids. But I remember I got the methadone from somebody I'd gone to looking for Vicodin. This person said, "These are just like Vicodin, and they're easier on your liver." I thought, "It looks like Vicodin, it's shaped like Vicodin – fuck it." I remember taking one in the car on the way home, and thinking, "Oh, this is great." Just that rush. I went through them in a couple of days, then went back and got more. But I got a lot more.
My whole month of December leading up to [the overdose], I don't remember shit. All I remember is I was not able to get out of bed. At some point – I don't know if it was the middle of the day, I don't know if it was nighttime – I got up to use the bathroom. I was standing there, trying to take a piss, and I fell. I hit the floor hard. I got back up, tried again – and boom, I fell again. And that time I couldn't get up.
I've never really talked about it with anyone in detail, because I don't want to know. They say I made it back to the bed somehow. I don't remember that. All I remember was hitting the bathroom floor and waking up in the hospital.
What happened when you woke up?
The first thing I remember is trying to move, and I couldn't. It's like I was paralyzed – tubes in me and shit. I couldn't speak. The doctors told me I'd done the equivalent of four bags of heroin. They said I was about two hours from dying.
I think I'd been out for two days, and when I woke up, I didn't realize it was Christmas. So the first thing I wanted to do was call my kids. I wanted to get home, and show them that Dad's OK.
So you missed Christmas morning? That must have been hard.
Definitely. Being a father, wanting to be there with your kids. It's not a fun thing to deal with.
And they didn't come visit? You didn't get to see them at all?
No. [Long pause] I was in the hospital.
What happened next?
I checked myself out – I think I had been there a week – but I went home too soon. I wasn't fully detoxed. It had zapped all my strength – I couldn't lift the fucking salt-and-pepper shaker. I remember lying on the couch, falling asleep for literally 10 minutes, and when I woke up, my knee was out of place. I'd somehow torn my meniscus. I'm just coming off Vicodin, my senses are coming back, and it's hurting 10 million times worse than it had to. I had surgery a couple of days later, came home... and had a seizure. Because I wasn't detoxed. Boom, ambulance, right back to the hospital.
I knew I had to change my life. But addiction is a fucking tricky thing. I think I relapsed within... three weeks? And within a month it had ramped right back to where it was before. That's what really freaked me out. That's when I knew: I either get help, or I am going to die.
As a father, I want to be here for things. I don't want to miss anything else.
How did you get clean? Did you go to meetings?
I tried some meetings – a couple of churches and things. It tended to not do me much good. People tried to be cool, but I got asked for autographs a couple of times. It made me shut down. Instead, I called a rehab counselor who'd helped me the first time. Now I see him once a week.
I also started running like a fucking maniac. Seventeen miles a day, every day. Just replacing one addiction with another. I had days where I could hardly walk. In my mind I was trying to get down to – what's his name, in The Machinist? Christian Bale. Which was really fucking stupid. But I'd get a number of calories in my head I needed to burn, and no matter what, I would do it.
I have a slight bit of OCD, I think. I'm not walking around flipping light switches. But when I say I'm going to do something, I have to do it.
Who else do you talk to?
I speak to Elton [John]. He's like my sponsor. He usually calls me once a week to check on me, just to make sure I'm on the up-and-up. He was actually one of the first people I called when I wanted to get clean. He was hipping me to things, like, "You're going to see nature that you never noticed before." Shit you'd normally think was corny but that you haven't seen in so long that you just go, "Wow! Look at that fucking rainbow!" Or even little things – trees, the color of leaves. I fucking love leaves now, man. I feel like I've been neglecting leaves for a long time.
Are you ever tempted to use again?
Honestly, no. For one thing, I try not to be in a position where I could be tempted. I've performed in a few clubs where there is drinking and shit, but I think even if I'd never had a drug problem, at the age I'm at, I wouldn't want to [use] anyway. I feel like this is the time in your life where you stop doing that stuff. Time to grow up.
What's your sober date?
Let's talk about rapping some. Do you remember your first rhyme?
Shit, I think I do. I was at my great-aunt Edna's house in St. Joseph, Missouri. I was 12, maybe 13 at the most, and I wrote a rhyme that sounded exactly like LL Cool J. Something like, "...da da da da, 'cause before you can blink/I'll have a hundred million rhymes and like a ship you will sink!" [Laughs]
I was proud of it. And I didn't think it sounded like LL at all. In my head, it was me [laughs]. It's weird, man. There's certain little landmarks in your life that you just don't forget. I remember walking back and forth between my little room there and the kitchen, just like I do today. I even remember the kind of paper I wrote it on. It was small, like from a notepad, and beige. And it had blue writing at the top.
And you still write on a notepad now – no laptop, no BlackBerry...
I've seen a lot of rappers stack their ideas in BlackBerries, but it wouldn't work for me. I'd have to, you know – scroll, scroll, scroll. If it's on the pad, I can look at everything at once.
Do you still write in the bathroom?
Sometimes. I think we do most of our best thinking on the shitter. What else do you have to do in there besides think?
How do you go about putting together a verse?
Even as a kid, I always wanted the most words to rhyme. Say I saw a word like "transcendalistic tendencies." I would write it out on a piece of paper – trans-cend-a-lis-tic ten-den-cies – and underneath, I'd line a word up with each syllable: and bend all mystic sentence trees. Even if it didn't make sense, that's the kind of drill I would do to practice. To this day, I still want as many words as possible in a sentence to rhyme.
Can you give another example? Maybe write a few bars about this interview?
About this interview? How much money you got? [Laughs] I can spit a hot 16 real quick!
I don't think I can afford you.
Yeah, probably not [laughs]. Let me think about it. [At our meeting the next day, Eminem flips open his notebook to a page near the back. "I wrote it right after you left," he says. "Just some dumb shit." I ask to read it, and he says he'd rather rap it. It goes like this:
This dude doin' this interview wants me to spin a few
Lyrics while I tie my fuckin' tennis shoes in the nude
A romantic interlude in a livin' room
In an inner tube with a dude with a bit of lube
Fuck that, I'm sniffin' glue, sippin' gin and juice
And a little bit of paint thinner with my dinner too
You better pay me for my bars like your rent is due
Now hurry up and finish, dude, before I finish you
Every line rhymes with the word "interview" – some twice, and one even three times. I ask him how long it took to write. "About two minutes," he says.]
Where do you think you get your love of words from? Are you a big reader?
The only book I ever read from front to back was LL's [1998 autobiography I Make My Own Rules]. I just never really got into books. My great-aunt Edna, she would read to me sometimes, like The Little Engine That Could. And I was into comic books heavy. But as far as book-books? Nah. I think it's just listening, being a sponge. I suck at math. I'm terrible at social studies. But I've always been good at English, and I always had a lot of words in my vocabulary. Even now, I might not know what a word means, but if I hear you say it and it's an interesting word, I'll go look it up.
What's a typical day like for Marshall Mathers these days?
I'll get up around 7:30 or 8:00 and work out. I was working with a boxing trainer for a while, but now I just run, bike, hit the heavy bag. I eat breakfast – low-fat waffles with sugar-free syrup and a Red Bull – and then just get to the studio as early as I can, try to put in a full day's work so I can get home early enough to see the kids.
And in the evenings?
I watch a lot of TV. The First 48 – that show is incredible. South Park. Tosh.0 is a funny dude. Intervention, Celebrity Rehab – those are good because I can relate to what they're going through. And sports – the NFL Channel and SportsCenter are on in my house 24/7. Football is my main shit – I like the Lions and the Cowboys. And I play fantasy football with some friends. I'm in third place right now, out of eight or nine teams. Not bad.
Who do you hang out with?
I've got a few close friends. The guys in D12. Royce Da 5'9". 50 [Cent] is one of my good friends – there's an extra bedroom in the house that he'll stay in when he comes to town. But for the most part they just come hang here [at the studio]. Basically I work five days a week, and then weekends and as many evenings as I can with the kids.
In your song "Going Through Changes," you talk about living "like a recluse." Do you feel disconnected from the world sometimes?
Well, that song is about my addiction, and my mind frame at the time. I don't feel like a recluse now. I do go out and do things – it's just hard. You've got to take an entourage. It's a pain in the ass. When I didn't have a record out for four or five years, I was taking little trips down to see my great-aunt Edna, before she passed. I knew it was getting close – she was in her 90s – and I wanted to spend as much time with her as I could. Not having a record out, I could stop at a gas station, go places and not get recognized. That was actually a pretty good feeling.
It might sound weird, given that I'm always trying to get people's attention with my music, but I'm not an attention-seeker. When I'm not Eminem, and I'm just Marshall – it's hard.
What about your love life? Do you date?
Not really. As far as going out, like dinner and a movie – I just can't. Going out in public is just too crazy. I mean, I'd like to be in a relationship again someday. Who doesn't? It's just hard to meet new people, in my position.
You mean being famous?
No, I mean being gay [laughs]. Kidding.
I wonder how much your problems with your mom and ex-wife have to do with it. Do you think it's hard for you to trust women?
I have trust issues. With women, friends, whatever. You always wonder what their real motives are. I've got a small circle of friends, and it's a lot of the same friends I've known forever. Right now, that works for me.
I came out of some difficult things these past couple of years. I kind of feel like I'm just now finding my footing. So I want to make sure that's secure before I go out and do anything else. I need to keep working on myself for a while.
Has your dad ever tried to get in touch with you?
No. Well... I heard there was one instance. He had a baby book of mine, and he wanted to give it back. He was around until I was about six months old, so I guess he had pictures from then. But I didn't even know what my father looked like until I was 18 or 19, and my mother showed me a picture. I remember being a little kid, coloring in front of the TV at my aunt and uncle's house, and he would call on the phone. I would say, "Was that my dad?" And my aunt would change the subject. He had to know I was there. But I never even got so much as a "Brucie, your dad says hi."
Did that hurt?
I don't know if it hurt back then. But the older you get, you start to realize, "Fuck. I would never do that to my kids." You start getting a chip on your shoulder, getting bitter. At this point – look, I'm a grown man. I'm not gonna sit here and bicker about it. But at the end of the day, it's fucked up.
And now you have kids. What does being a good father mean to you?
Just being there. Not missing things. If there's anything important going on, regardless of what it is, I'm there. Helping them with homework when you can. At the grades my older ones are in, it's hard [laughs]. I never even passed ninth grade. They're already way smarter than me.
Why do you think you've never left Detroit?
A lot of it might have to do with moving around so much as a kid, never having stability. My kids are comfortable here – I want them to have the stability I didn't. And it's also nostalgic. Being a few miles from where I grew up, being used to the people, the mentality. I'm a creature of habit. I know one way to get downtown. I still get lost driving places and shit.
You've made your comeback. Where do you go from here?
If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I would have said I'd probably quit rapping by 30. Now I think I'll keep doing it as long as I have the spark. But I do worry about when the time comes that I need to do something else. Because it's going to be hard. What else do I know? Hip-hop is the only thing I was ever good at. What am I going to do?
More acting? Maybe go back to school?
Well, I did go back and get my GED. I don't know if that counts, but I'm proud of it.
I've never really had a plan. When I was younger, I just wanted to be a rapper. If I didn't make it, I had no plan B. Now that I am a rapper, I don't know. I'd like to refocus on rebuilding our label. Maybe doing a little producing. Other than that, I'm not sure.
Do you think about aging? In your song "Without Me" – the one where you called Moby a fag and told him to blow you – you also said he was "too old" and to "let go, it's over." He was 36 at the time. You're about to turn 38.
At the time that I wrote that, it seemed so far away. I do feel like I've grown up a lot. There's always going to be that part of me that reverts back to immaturity, but I think that's just my warped sense of humor.
"Not Afraid" has a positive message for people trying to overcome obstacles. Are you more comfortable now with the idea of being a role model?
Whatever I can be to people is fine. Some people may look up to me. Some people may consider me a fucking menace. But I'm grateful for every fan letter I get, and for every person who says I helped save them.
I don't know, man. I feel like I took a lot of time off. Not doing shit for those four or five years, how lazy I got – it's time to get back to doing what I love. I feel like I've got a lot of gas in the tank. I just want to make up for letting people down.