Since The Slim Shady LP became a worldwide smash in 1999, Eminem has reigned as a pop-culture phenomenon. The rapper's recently-released The Marshall Mathers LP 2 moved 792,000 copies in its first week of release, underscoring that Slim Shady is still a blockbuster box office draw. But despite all the multi-platinum plaques and global media attention, Em's career has its roots planted firmly in the rap underground; he spent years toiling away on the live battle circuit in a bid to build up his name and recorded widely before finally scoring his breakthrough moments. Delving back to the cusp of the Nineties, here's a run through the less-heralded regions of the pre-superstar Slim Shady's vault.
The movie 8 Mile brought the underground rap battle circuit to the masses, with its Rocky-style portrayal of Em's character, Rabbit, as the plucky but talented underdog. The flick was inspired by Em's own travels in the lyrical battlefield, and archived mid-Nineties footage from the famed Detroit spot the Hip-Hop Shop shows a shaved-headed (but not yet bleached-blond) Em spitting lines that include the barb, "Not to brag, I don't mean to boast/Look, my face is pale, but you look like you seen a ghost." Slim Shady's sparring partners include his D12 cohorts Kuniva and Proof.
As the Nineties kicked in, Marshall Mathers was part of a rap crew called Soul Intent (previously Bassmint Productions) that dropped lo-fi, cassette-only projects. Styling his rap name as M&M, his lyrical ability is apparent as he raps fleet and furious over often high-tempo tracks.
Filmed in his pre-megastar days, here a fresh-faced Slim Shady recounts growing up poor as he recalls, "Friends come over and you don't want them to see your family's on welfare, so you hide the cheese." He also distances himself from previous white rappers by vowing, "I didn't just want to be thrown out there, you know what I mean, like a Milkbone or like somebody [like] Vanilla Ice." He then drops a real-deal freestyle with rhymes prompted by words given to him by his manager, Paul Rosenberg.
Home state pride went to the fore when Eminem took to the stage at the Palladium Music Club in Michigan in 1997 and proclaimed, "Coming from the motherfucking midwest/Lift your shirt up and let me see your big breasts." Sporting a baggy coat and cap, Em's raps were part of a performance that also saw since-deceased Detroit icons J Dilla and Proof strut their stuff.
In hindsight, Eminem's appearance at the Rap Olympics in 1997 has become his most legendary battle appearance. Despite placing second in the competition, which took place in Los Angeles, his firebrand lyrics caught the attention of Interscope Records staff, who eventually palmed a copy of the rapper's Slim Shady EP to Dr. Dre, who subsequently went on a mission to sign up and work with Em. Legend has it Eminem was evicted from his house the night before the event took place.
Along with his solo ambitions, Eminem held down a role in the Detroit-based group D12. One of the ensemble's most notable members was Proof, who died from a gunshot wound suffered in 2006. Here Em and Proof trade freestyle rhymes while hanging out in a car. There's a tangible sense of kinship on display as the two of them smile their way through grisly lines and bob their heads in unison to the funkified beat. Proof tags them the rap "Tango and Cash."
Recorded live at Club Hibernia in Boston, this 1998 video interview begins with Eminem throwing up trademark middle fingers to the camera and disclaiming, "That's for everybody who don't give a fuck. That's for everybody who don't like my shit. That's for everybody who tries to test me. That's for every time I got to go through some dumb bullshit." After he's done with the posturing, Em reveals he's about to drop two singles ("Just Don't Give a Fuck" and "My Name Is") and that he recorded an unspecified song with Marilyn Manson ("We don't know if they're gonna drop that, I don't know what the deal is with that").
One of a number of pre-Slim Shady LP cameos, Eminem teamed up with the rappers Vesuveo and Able from the Anonymous collective for this 1998 release on the Good Vibe label. Em sparks the song with a spoken-word introduction that ponders, "What would it take to push a man far enough to put something material over a human life?" Then he drops rhymes over a production by Zinndeadly that begin with him claiming, "I done filled my lungs up with so much of this crack smoke," before embarking on a calamitous robbing spree.
Beyond the cartoon braggadocio of lead single "My Name Is," Eminem's The Slim Shady LP is cut through with allusions to depression and desperation. "Rock Bottom" is one of the album tracks forged from that mold. This demo version of the song comes off like a moodier and pared-down version of the final edit, as a Percocet-popping Em laments about being "broke as fuck" and how his "daughter's down to her last diaper."
Rumors abound that Eminem was close to signing to the James Murdoch-funded Rawkus record label, which came to define an era of indie rap during the late Nineties. Here he lines up alongside company man Shabaam Sahdeeq plus A.L., Kwest and Skam for the underground posse cut classic "5 Star Generals." Over a plucky beat courtesy of DJ Spinna, Em's verse includes his classic brag that he's "probably the only one crazy enough to shoot your ass with a knife and stab you with a gun." (See also: Em's turn on Old World Disorder's "3hree6ix5ive," released on Spinna's Beyond Real label.)
A purported demo tape cut in tandem with fellow Soul Intent member Chaos Kid in the early Nineties has the two aspiring rappers spitting quick-fire rhymes over uptempo, funk-infused productions. (Song titles include "Unrealistically Graphic" and "Artificial Flavor.") A phone interview with Chaos Kid that has now been posted to YouTube attempts to clarify the heritage of the recordings. Unfortunately, Chaos Kid passed away in 2011 from an apparent suicide.