Eminem steps from his suite in the posh Dorchester hotel in London wearing an oversize white parka with a huge fur-lined hood that seems to swallow him when he flips it over his head. This makes him all but invisible. As he moves briskly through the hallway with his confident strut, he’s cocooned by four bodyguards, three record-company people and one manager. “We’re walking,” a bodyguard says to his walkie-talkie. If you’d been in the hallway as they flowed from room to ? elevator, you wouldn’t have been able to get within six feet of him. But as he walks by, he looks up, and behind his thin glasses his blue eyes are rather sullen, as if he were some sort of prisoner being escorted. They reach the elevator, and the group piles in. “We’re in the elevator,” the bodyguard says to the walkie. And the door closes. Everyone in the cocoon knows that outside the Dorchester there are at least twenty fans waiting for Eminem, mostly teenage and twenty-something girls. One who waits for him for hours has a silver backward E pendant and wears Nike wristbands over her hands, just the way he does. Also nearby are four girls in a Peugeot, waiting to chase, but they won’t get far. Eminem’s caravan consists of three silver Mercedes vans and one silver Mercedes sedan, which, when needed, blocks traffic to keep away chasers or prevents the vans from getting separated, like a guard dog aiding a pack of elephants.
Eminem is in town to promote D12’s new album, D12 World, the follow-up to 2001’s Devil’s Night and another collection of gruesome rhymes calculated to offend and amuse. The night before, D12 played a concert at tiny Shepherds Bush Empire. Now the group is headed to Top of the Pops — basically the British TRL — to perform D12 World‘s first single, the hilarious, catchy and highly ironic “My Band,” which pokes fun at the stratification in the group brought on by Eminem’s fame. “My Band” is a parody, but as with any good joke, there are truths within it. For example, at the concert, an unscientific poll of people in the VIP room found most couldn’t name any of the members of D12. A few recognized Bizarre, who stands out because of his twisted imagination, and Proof, well known to be Eminem’s best friend. But two people asked me if I was a member of D12.
Eminem and his cocoon reach the studios where Top of the Pops is taped and find fifty kids camped out by the gate and another thirty or forty perched just twenty yards from the entrance. Eminem flips down his invisibility-conferring hood and steps from his van into the studio, where there’s a dressing room waiting for him. Next door is the dressing room for D12. That’s where there’s a little party going on. It’s like a minifrat house: Domino’s boxes piled three feet high, a joint going around and a Chappelle’s Show DVD playing on someone’s laptop while the five rappers all talk at once.
There’s twenty-five-year-old Kon Artis (government name: Denaun Porter), a former roommate of Eminem’s who has become a respected producer, getting $25,000 a beat. He made “P.I.M.P.” and “Stunt 101” with 50 Cent and has also worked with Sting, Snoop, Method Man and Busta Rhymes. He’s the techie of the group. Right now he’s telling twenty-seven-year-old Kuniva (Von Carlisle, whose phone rings with the Good Times theme song), “Nigga, you just learned that word download, and you about to download a ass-whippin’!” And there’s twenty-eight-year-old Proof (De-Shaun Holton), who, right now, is comically condemning twenty-eight-year-old Swift (Ondre Moore) like a ghetto judge because Proof is the founder of D12 and the glue that holds the group together, while Swift is the member who packs CDs and DVDs for road trips but no players, because he plans on just borrowing from others. “That’s his packing strategy!” Proof says to howls, clowning Swift in front of everyone.
Kon Artis leaps in from his conversation. “He’ll ask you to borrow yo’ shit while you listenin’ to it!” Swift doesn’t even try to defend himself; he just laughs. Proof says, “Where’s my lighter?” He really doesn’t know. He says, “Swifty’s pocket, I bet.” Swift empties his pockets to show he’s got nothing. But Proof searches through the clothes tossed here and there and finds his lighter in the pocket of the sweat pants Swift was wearing twenty minutes ago. Busted. “What’d I say?!” Proof says to big laughs. “Swifty’s pocket!”
On the side, a makeup girl sprays something in Kuniva’s face, and he sort of screams. The road manager says, “You kinda sounded like a little girl there.” And parked in the corner is twenty-seven-year-old Bizarre (Rufus Johnson), the class clown supreme, his hair dyed red, sporting an oversize blazer and jeans, making a mockery of the trendy style. On Bizarre’s stomach there’s an ornate tattoo of an ill clown with a revolver in his hand, edges ripping as if he’s bursting through Bizarre’s stomach. To one of the band’s minders he says, “Watch my bag. I got weed, pills and fifty dollars’ worth of Euros in there.” If you redid CB4 for 2004, it might look like D12.
The separate-dressing-room thing doesn’t bother them, at least not anymore. “It’s better that D12 have they own dressing room and Em has his own dressing room,” Bizarre says. “When it first happened, we used to be like, ‘Damn, why he get his own dressing room?’ But I’d rather have my own room and have who I wanna come in than be in Em room and be told who can come in.” Besides, many nights Eminem wants D12 in his room. “He’ll come over to our dressing room sometimes like, ‘Why don’t y’all come over with me?’ ” Kon Artis says. “Like a little kid: ‘Come play with me.'”
Back when Eminem was in Detroit flipping burgers and painting designs on people’s jeans for thirty dollars a pop, these guys were his friends. When no one else took him seriously, they helped teenage Marshall Mathers become the rhyme animal Slim Shady. “There’s a million things Em could be doin’ besides doin’ an album with D12,” Kuniva says, “but we’re the only real friends he has. We grew up together, lived together, flipped burgers together. We used to just sit on the porch and drink and think about hip-hop, think about makin’ it. There’s a bond there that nobody can break. And there’s a whole thing with him feelin’ like he owes it to us to do it. He knows without D12 there wouldn’t be a Slim Shady.” Back in the mid-Nineties, when Proof was the king of hip-hop in Detroit and everyone thought he would be the first to get large, they all made a pact that whoever made it first would pull the others up. “From ’94 to ’97, the possibilities of any of us getting a deal was good,” Bizarre recalls. “We were, like, the best MCs in Detroit. It was like, ‘Yo, whoever get on first and get a deal, come back and get everybody else.'” Then Eminem took a trip to Los Angeles and landed a record contract. “He went to Cali and called us three weeks later from a pay phone,” Bizarre says. “He said, ‘Yo, I just signed with Dr. Dre. I need y’all to come out here.'” True to his word, Eminem immediately began trying to fit D12 into the scenario. “Marshall was tryin’ to force us on him,” Bizarre said. ” ‘This is my boys! D12!’ And Dre said, ‘Wait a minute — it’s about you.’ Dre told him, ‘Build your house before you have your friends walk in it.'”
Success has only made Eminem need his friends more. “They’re my foundation,” he says. “If I lose my foundation, then what do I have? Just to be by myself on a big-ass mountain, a little lonely rich bastard? Not only are these guys my friends, I don’t trust nobody new that I meet. At all.”
It’s clear that Eminem finds fame a difficult weight to shoulder. He speaks with almost glazed eyes about the good ol’ days. “Proof would call me at one, two o’clock in the morning with just syllables,” he says, reminiscing, “like, Yo, an abominable region, an abdominal lesion.’ That’s how we fed off each other back in the day. Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Kool G Rap, whoever did syllables, we just locked on to them. That’s what my loyalty dates back to, the days of living on fuckin’ Dresden, on the East Side, in my kitchen wishin’ we could do something. From kids to now, we’re living the dream.”
In D12’S room, there’s very little bling, just small chains, minimal ice. “Nobody’s bling is like, wow, like a rapper’s supposed to be,” Bizarre says, “because we kinda value the money a little bit more. We got families. I can’t go out and spend $30,000 on a chain. That would be irresponsible on my part. I like to spend my money on my family, take a nice vacation and stay in a nice hotel. I can’t even think of the last time I went to the store and spent $1,000 on some shit I wanted. ‘Cept, like, gators for a wedding.” Almost everyone in D12 has a wife and one or two small children. Swift has three kids, and Kuniva had a daughter, Tamia, just two days before our interview. He wasn’t in the delivery room. “I almost made it,” he says. “It was rush hour. There was a traffic jam. As soon as the elevator doors opened up, they were wheeling her little ass right past me. I said, ‘Yo, that’s me! That’s my baby!'”
Kon Artis is the only one who’s childless, but until two years ago he thought he had a son. “Nigga looked just like me and everything,” he says. He took care of the boy for four years until the day the boy’s mother wanted formalized child-support payments. “That was when I first started bein’ on TV,” he says. “She just up and one day started [on me] to take a blood test. When it came back not mine, that shit destroyed me. I haven’t seen the dude that I was since then.” He had an It’s Not My Baby party, but in the two years since then he hasn’t taken a day off from work, because the wound remains fresh. “I couldn’t tell you what I’m goin’ through,” he says. Kon Artis now takes family more seriously than ever and has begun using the name Mr. Porter, because it recalls his father, Charles Porter, a singer in the legendary gospel group the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. “When I was in my mama’s stomach, my dad stopped his career to come home and raise me,” Porter says. “And but for him doin’ that, I wouldn’t be here. So I’m takin’ the torch from my dad because he didn’t get to spread his wings the way he wanted to, but he can spread his wings through me.” The elder Porter sometimes sings backup on Kon Artis’ songs and also serves as a sounding board. “My dad always been a superstar to me,” he says.
Next door, in Eminem’s room, it’s much cleaner. There’s just Eminem, a few record-company people and a half-eaten box of plain Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It’s pretty quiet. Perhaps because everyone’s watching their words. Eminem is arelentless smartass, ready to use anything you say against you. A female exec from Shady Records wonders aloud about her dying BlackBerry battery. Should she take the battery out or leave it in? It’s an innocent question. But Eminem’s expressive sky-blue eyes start to blaze and then narrow, and he goes to work on her. “Should you take it out or leave it in…?” he says, adding all sorts of sexual innuendo that wasn’t there before. There’s a heavy silence. “I say leave it in!” he advises with a demented glee.
But Eminem is just as quick to take the piss out of himself. Someone drops off a copy of Top of the Pops‘ cheesy teen mag, and he discovers that somehow his face has ended up on the free pencil included, and, worse, his face is inside a heart. “I’m on a pencil,” he says, as if in mourning. “It’s over. You know it’s over when you’re on a pencil.”
Eminem is thirty-one years old, but in many ways he’s just like a fifteen-year-old alpha boy: aggressive, playful, hyperactive, mentally sharp, yet more particular about what he wears than what he eats. Like a teenager, Eminem loves to play with the language, and during conversation he’ll spontaneously veer off into syllable play. Later, when a reporter says, “So Proof and the guys are an impact on how you became a rapper and… . . .”
Eminem interjects, “Proof and the guys on a roof with the flies.”
“Mix the truth with the lies,” Proof says. “That’s what I do for my fries,” Eminem says. “When I super-in-size.”
But more than all that, many fifteen-year-old boys have a particular sense of impenetrability and invincibility, as if the world can’t possibly hurt them. Once you start getting humbled by the world, you can never recapture it, but somehow Eminem still has it. He’s also still enthralled with all manner of scatological humor. When he finally gets onstage for a Top of the Pops dress rehearsal, instead of doing the actual chorus for “My Band,” Eminem says into the mike (to the melody of “My Band”), “These chicks with dicks can hold ’em in their own hand/And when she blows herself she feels like the man…. . .”
But when they walk to the stage to do “My Band” live for the cameras, he’s all business. He struts through the halls of Top of the Pops like a boxer eager to fight, blockaded by bodyguards in a twenty-man parade. A short record-company woman with a British accent runs about repeatedly telling everyone in the group, “This is live!” with great fear in her voice. “No swearing! No ‘retarded’!” Apparently, retarded passes for a curse in England.
Meanwhile, toward the back of the parade, is the rest of D12, getting wild like the bad boys in the back of the class. Proof is a constant clown, making sure everyone’s in stitches. As he walks, he playfully tries to trip an oblivious little girl walking past them and then tries to trip me as I write notes. But his attempts are always pulled punches. He doesn’t go all the way, making sure you don’t actually trip, letting you in on the gag.
They finally get onstage and into “My Band.” The song, which was conceived and produced by Eminem, mocks his outsize celebrity because, he explains, it’s not much fun being superfamous. “I thought this was the life for me,” he says, sounding burdened. “And in hindsight, it’s crazy. A little bit of fame woulda been great, but this much is…” The sentence just trails off. “I can’t go anywhere. Without an entourage, I can’t go just do regular things. If I hadn’t got on, I wouldn’t have college funds set up for my kids, my family, but at the same time, when does it get to be too much?”
D12 World” features seventeen songs, six produced by Eminem. The album was made, Eminem says, to showcase each man enough that those who want a chance to do a solo album can do that. Everyone acknowledges that the member who most wants and deserves to do a solo project is Bizarre, with his voice so laid-back it’s ominous, his slowish drawl on the mike and his twisted imagination. The whole freaky side of him began when he was a teenager. “I had a nice upbringing,” he says, “but from the age of fourteen to eighteen my mother decided to be a Jehovah’s Witness. So I had no rated-R movies, kinda like Ja Rule, but not fakin’ it. No sex, no girlfriends, but after the fact that I was already doing this and then had to stop because this is what my mother wanted to do.” Since then, even though he may be a relative model citizen, he can hardly stop the flow of sick thoughts in his mind. Alas, away from the stage he’s not bizarre but levelheaded and mature, one of the social anchors of the group. “I’m kinda like a big brother [in D12],” Bizarre says, “but the most reasonable one.”
D12 World’s final song is “Keep Talkin,” a blistering dis record aimed at Ja Rule and Benzino, which was released on the mixtape circuit last summer. Those beefs have gone cold, but this rerelease seems to beg a re-sparking. “I ain’t here to talk about Benzino or Ja Rule,” Bizarre’s verse begins, “I’m here to talk about little Ray Ray and what I’m gonna do….” He’s talking about Benzino’s son, but he’s also mocking Ja’s mention of Eminem’s daughter Hailie Jade on “Loose Change,” on which he said, “Em, you claim your mother’s a crackhead and [his ex-wife] Kim is a known slut/So what’s Hailie gon’be when she grows up?”
It’s definitely a violation of hip-hop battle rules to talk about an MC’s family that way, and it’s plain to see why: That’s when the beef turned personal. “That’s where I went, ‘Hold on, this shit is getting way out of control,'” Eminem said. “I really felt like the line was crossed on that shit. My daughter is the closest thing to my heart. You say something about my daughter, then there’s no boundaries, everything is open, and Hailie might come back on the record and dis you, too. So don’t fuck with me when it comes to my daughter.”
Eminem’s love for Hailie is apparent everywhere. He has a large, detailed tattoo of her on his right shoulder, and he rhymes about her so often she’s become as much a part of the Eminem cosmology as his mother used to be. “I love her so much that I can’t hide that emotion,” he says, “so it’s gonna come through my music, and I’m gonna say her name just to let the world know how much I feel for her.” He says he’s matured a lot because of her. “Having a child is gonna make you calm down,” he says. “Watchin’ that child grow and become something, it’s gotta mellow you out.”
“If it wasn’t for his daughter,” Kuniva says, “he’d probably be locked up by now.”
Around 9:30 P.M., The Gang arrives at BBC Radio 1 for a live appearance on Tim Westwood’s program, the last bit of their London promotional tour. This is the oldest hip-hop radio show in England and, frighteningly, the only national hip-hop radio show you can get in the U.K. Frightening because somehow, despite years at his job, the wiry, dorky forty-six-year-old Westwood is a terrible interviewer. As the six file into the cramped studio, Westwood tells Great Britain, “We’re wastin’ time playin’ records when we got greatness in the house!” He introduces each member of D12, then goes right back to playing records.
“You’ve got a big single,” Westwood says to Eminem when the music stops. “It’s a big moment in hip-hop.”
“We’re slingin’ hot clay!” Eminem says, using slang he invented, which leaves Westwood stumped. Someone brings in three bottles of Moët and a stack of plastic cups. Kon Artis quickly pops open one of the bottles, and Eminem dramatically pretends to have been hit in the eye by the cork.
“Do you worry about meeting girls?” Westwood says to Eminem, as if the answer might be yes. “Nah,” Eminem says. “Bitches are great.”
“Can you go out to the mall?” Westwood asks the others, as if the answer might be no.
Kuniva laughs. “Tim, nobody knows us!” he says. “I go to the grocery store three times a week, no problem!”
“Any news about movies?”
“Hellboy was good,” Proof says.
Then Eminem burps loudly into the mike. Kon Artis writes an e-mail to a listener, threatening to “Silent Bob and Jay yo’ ass.” Bizarre, who’s seminarcoleptic, suddenly falls asleep and snores loudly. Sleep tears trickle down his face. Westwood has lost control.
“How come you don’t do more collabos?”
“There’s six in the band, and it’s hard to get everyone on one track,” Eminem says with a sense of “duh” in his voice.
After some freestyles and more dumb questions, the guys get up to leave. Westwood says, “You got a key to the door! Come back anytime!”
Eminem fires back, “I’m comin’ back tonight and takin’ all your shit.” Then he pulls a little bottle of salsa with the D12 logo on it from his pocket and signs it for him.