‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Who’s Afraid of Eminem?

On this week’s episode: “My Name Is” and various other provocations, courtesy of Marshall Mathers

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60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for its final stretch run. (And a brand-new book!) Join The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 105 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re covering Eminem’s “My Name Is.” Read an excerpt below. And if you’re in Los Angeles on November 16, check out the 60 Songs and Bandsplain crossover event celebrating Rob’s new book.

Every list of the Most Underrated MCs of all time, compiled by anybody and listed anywhere, is legally obligated to include this guy. Anthony Cruz. Better known as AZ. Born and raised in Brooklyn and perhaps best known for his long friendship and professional association with Nas. AZ appears on Nas’s not-at-all-underrated-because-everyone-reveres-it 1994 debut album, Illmatic; specifically, AZ raps on the song “Life’s a Bitch.” Sorry about the bad word there, kids. So this is AZ on his own 1995 solo album, called Doe or Die. This song is called “Rather Unique,” it is produced by the great Pete Rock, and it is a fine showcase for the distinct AZ experience: the hard-nosed charisma, the polysyllabic monotone, the deceptive serenity, the willingness to make up cool-sounding words if that’s what you gotta do to fit the meter. Tell ’em about your verbals, AZ.

Any battles with this guy will indeed be tragical. AZ has enjoyed a long and decorated and intermittently high-profile career. He was in the Firm, the supergroup with Nas and Foxy Brown and Nature (they put out one album in ’97). I saw Nas in concert last night. He’s touring arenas with the Wu Tang Clan, and it was great, but the Firm didn’t come up and AZ wasn’t there. But nonetheless, AZ’s great. AZ’s underrated. And as the song says, AZ’s rather unique. But the thing about being rather unique is that other rappers, elsewhere, might get inspired.

And here he is. The zany-actin’ maniac in action. Hello. Hi. It’s Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem. Born in 1972 in Saint Joseph, Missouri, but never mind that, because he eventually settled with his mom in Warren, Michigan, in the suburbs of Detroit. Young Marshall had moved around a lot as a kid. Changed schools a lot. Fought a lot, or gotten bullied a lot. He failed ninth grade three times and then quit school entirely. His father was a nonfactor, but when he was 9 years old, his cool uncle Ronnie got him the soundtrack to the 1984 breakdancing film Breakin’, which was where young Marshall heard his first rap song, “Reckless,” featuring DJ Chris “The Glove” Taylor and some verbals by the rapper Ice-T. Young Marshall was enthralled. Ice-T: one more thing to answer for.

Young Marshall decided he, too, would be a rapper. He took the name Eminem. Marshall Mathers, M and M. He spelled it out so he wouldn’t get sued, OK? He joined forces with a close childhood friend named DeShaun Dupree Holton, a.k.a. Proof. Eminem and Proof spent every Saturday at open-mic battles at the Hip-Hop Shop, a club on West 7 Mile. Young Eminem struggled, at first, on the mic. His palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms were heavy. There was vomit on his sweater already, Mom’s spaghetti. Et cetera. Eminem would later tell Rolling Stone, “As soon as I grabbed the mic, I’d get booed. Once motherfuckers heard me rhyme, though, they’d shut up.” Eminem is white, if that hasn’t come up yet. Eminem and Proof hooked up with a few more rappers and formed the crew the Dirty Dozen; Eminem’s debut solo album, released in 1996, is called Infinite, and he don’t sound much like Ice-T, now does he?

No, on “Infinite,” the song—the only song on Infinite, the album, that’s officially streaming—Eminem’s got a lot of deep thoughts in his cerebral and he sounds a little bit like AZ, don’t he? It’s not the most gratuitous rapper imitation you’ll ever hear—it’s not like he’s doing, like, a blatant Busta Rhymes impression or something—but it’s clear enough, the empirical-lyrical-miracle lineage to which young Eminem aspires. You might say he’s using way too many napkins. There’s no more napkins anywhere in the house. Wipe your hands on your pants.

“You ain’t got the stamina / ya lackin’ the stamina.” The moment when he rhymes “the burial of Jesus” with “catch all the venereal diseases,” that’s where the Marshall Mathers we know and love peeks through, eh? Is Infinite, the album, a good album? No. Is it a commercial or critical success? No. Does it sell only 70 copies, as Eminem alleges in his 2008 autobiography, The Way I Am, which also features, like, 600 photos of Eminem flipping the bird? No, it probably sold more than that, but if we’re talking rap albums sold primarily out of the rapper’s car, young Eminem is no Too Short, all right? Talking about Infinite, Em later told Rolling Stone, “It was right before my daughter was born, so having a future for her was all I talked about. It was way hip-hopped out, like Nas and AZ—that rhyme style that was real in at the time. I’ve always been a smartass comedian, and that’s why it wasn’t a good album.”

Eminem’s daughter is named Hailie; Hailie’s mother is Eminem’s already longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend Kim; and unfortunately, you’ll be hearing more about Kim and Hailie real soon. But in the meantime, enjoy Eminem using this rhyme style while it lasts, or don’t enjoy it. Your choice.

That song’s called “Tonite,” and it reminds me of “Award Tour” by A Tribe Called Quest, but in the sense that it makes me wish I were listening to “Award Tour” instead. Do many of the relatively few people who listen to Infinite observe that Eminem sounds quite a bit like AZ and Nas? Yes, they do. Does Eminem take kindly to that? No, he doesn’t. “After that record, every rhyme I wrote got angrier and angrier. A lot of it was because of the feedback I got. Motherfuckers was like, ‘You’re a white boy, what the fuck are you rapping for? Why don’t you go into rock & roll?’ All that type of shit started pissing me off.”

And then one day he was on the toilet. This is a true story. Or this is a story Eminem tells in his first of many Rolling Stone cover stories. He said, “Boom, the name hit me, and right away I thought of all these words to rhyme with it. So I wiped my ass, got up off the pot and went and called everybody I knew.” The English language: more versatile than it first appeared.

That don’t sound like AZ or Nas at all. In December of 1997, Eminem released The Slim Shady EP; this song is called “Low Down Dirty.” Remember on The Black Album when Jay-Z goes, “I dumb down for my audience to double my dollars,” and he says, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli,” and everyone got mad at him? This ain’t that. This is not Eminem dumbing down to double his dollars, though it is arguably much dumber, and Eminem was for sure about to become a multimillionaire. But if you’re the sort of person preoccupied with authenticity, as rappers go, as rapper personas go, and if you generally look askance when a rapper flops and then radically changes up his or her style for commercial gain, first of all: Don’t be that sort of person. Don’t do that. We can find you something else to be preoccupied about.

And second of all: I think enough time has passed that we can say that this arrested, molested myself, and got convicted version of Eminem is way closer to the “Real Eminem” than the far less scatological Infinite Eminem. And the terrible genius of Slim Shady is that he’s still a spherical-lyrical-miracle who can hang with Talib Kweli or Jay-Z or Nas or Ice-T or anyone as a pure rapper, as a super-fast rhymer of words, but Eminem also raps like he’s 12 years old. He has the puerile, scatological, nigh-unbearable, please-don’t-say-that uncontrollable rage of the least controllable 12-year-old you’ve ever heard of in your life. Skills do sell, but what Eminem is really selling is a willingness to say anything and insult anyone.

To hear the full episode, click hereSubscribe here and check back every Wednesday for new episodes. And to preorder Rob’s new book, Songs That Explain the ’90s, visit the Hachette Book Group website.

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