Eminem, “We Got ‘Em, Goin'” (Originally Published January/February 2005)
Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Marshall Mathers returns to his favorite magazine to speak out on freedom of speech, satire, race, music, Michael Jackson and the President.
Pay attention, homie!
Interview: Chairman Jefferson Mao
Images: Clay Patrick McBride
In the waiting area of 54 Sound, a state-of-the-art recording studio tucked away on a typically nondescript stretch of Detroit’s 9 Mile Road, a scenario is unfolding that few hip-hop fans could ever imagine: Eminem—rap’s contentious king of pain, the pale poster boy of beef, Mr. Anger Management himself— is in the midst of being served a barrage of snaps courtesy of a fellow entertainer. And... miraculously, he isn’t losing it. In fact, he’s laughing his ass off.
“[Eminem] should lighten up,” quips Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the infamously acerbic canine hand puppet from Late Night With Conan O’Brien, on a flat-screen TV across the room. “I mean, my mom was a bitch too, but I don’t go writing songs about it!”
Slouched in a black armchair, sipping on a 7-11 Big Gulp, the bespectacled Em LOLs like it ain’t no thing as the dog pounds his public persona. A crew of handlers chuckles along.
“But I’ll leave Eminem alone,” Triumph says with mock sensitivity before adding a final punch line. “He’s just a guy trying to make an honest living… ripping off Black culture!”
The room erupts in laughter, Em’s guffaws audibly trailing off last. Maybe at some other point in the rap superstar’s notoriously combative past, such barbs would’ve elicited a less laid-back response.
But somehow this peculiar scene seems completely appropriate here and now. Having just turned 32, Eminem might finally be mature enough to take a joke at his own expense. Yet he’s still juvenile enough to enjoy the crude rants of a dog-puppet character with a funny accent. (Whereas, upon meeting him at the 2002 MTV VMAs, he shovedpoor Triumph—and comedian-creator Robert Smigel—out of his way.)
For more on the dichotomy of Em look no further than the blond bomber’s new album, Encore, an exemplary effort despite the fact that the serious-minded Marshall Mathers side and sillier-than-ever Slim Shady seem to be drifting further and further apart. On the one hand, damn-near-cinematic narratives such as “Yellow Brick Road” and “Like Toy Soldiers” address last year’s controversies involving race and beef with insight and masterful storytelling skills. On the other, thoroughly bugged-out numbers like “Rain Man,” “Big Weenie” and “Ass Like That” find him avoiding serious content altogether, playfully experimenting with off-the-wall flows and random word associations with the giddiness of a kid trying out new toys on Christmas morning. For every “Mosh,” the noble anti-Bush bash designed to mobilize young voters and inspire a complacent hip-hop nation, there’s a “Just Lose It,” the LP’s predictably pop-friendly lead single sure to irritate staunch hip-hop heads as easily as it pleases the masses and moves their asses.
Speaking of “Just Lose It,” there is a high probability that you, dear reader, are aware of the brouhaha said single set off with another oft-troubled mega-star who once repped for Motown. Taking issue with the satirical portrayal of himself in the song’s video, Michael Jackson cried foul in print and over the airwaves this past October, and a number of public figures (BET’s Robert Johnson, comedian Steve Harvey, etc.) came to his side in support. Also among the MJ sympathizers, The Sourcemagazine’s publisher David Mays and CEO Raymond “Benzino” Scott reiterated past charges that Eminem has made “a mockery” of hip-hop, and (unsuccessfully) called for him to scrap the song and publicly apologize to the King of Pop (thus, once again putting XXL in the uncomfortable position of reporting on a story that directly involves our competition).
Three days after Dubya recaptured the White House for four more years, Eminem took a few moments between screenings of Triumph’s greatest hits and his extensive production work on the latest posthumous 2Pac LP, Loyal To The Game (a project he describes as “a dream come true”), to discuss the latest batch of issues that have arisen in Encore’s wake.
XXL: With your more recent records, it seems like your producing is influencing your vocals. You’re experimenting with different cadences, rhyming in melody more than ever. Is that something you’re doing consciously?
Eminem: Um, well it kind of goes back to just my ear. I seen a quote recently from Nelly where he said that there’s rappers that stay on top of the beat, there’s rappers that stay behind the beat and he wants to be inside the beat. And that would be the best way to describe it. I mean, I don’t think me and Nelly, stylistically, are similar at all. But I would definitely agree with that quote that he gave, because that’s the same way I feel as far as just wanting to be inside the beat, just hearing the melody and locking into the rhythm. Whatever the bass line is doing, whatever the drums are doing, I want to sink right into that. On The Marshall Mathers LP I got a little better at riding beats, like staying on top of them. But on The Eminem Show I started riding the hi-hat instead of the snare or the bass drum, like with “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.” Every time I do a new song, it’s like I’m learning a new trick.
There are certain songs on this album where you seem to be more intent on having fun with flows and placing less emphasis on content. Does it ever concern you that this could come at the expense of your lyrics?
I always concentrate on lyricism, whether I’m trying to make a point or I’m just buggin’ out. A song like “Toy Soldiers” has an eight-bar drum loop that sounds like marching-band drums. I took it home and I studied the pattern that it was doing. I wrote the rhyme right to it. Just memorized the pattern and learned it by heart. I tried to make every word hit on the kicks and the snares.
It’ll usually start out, when I first start making the record, that the first five, six or seven songs will be dark, like real emotional. And then, usually at the tail end, I get in with Dre, and that’s when I start making the crazy shit. His beats do something to me. They just inspire me to say bugged-out shit. When I hear his beats, I swear his beats talk to me. So the melody, there’s no trick to it. It sounds like his beats are saying it.
Dre produced “Just Lose It,” which was one of the last songs you did for this record, correct?
Yup, it was the last song. We kinda felt like I didn’t have a first single yet with the stuff that I did here in Detroit. So [Dre and I] went down to a studio in Florida and we just banged out the rest of the album.
You obviously put a lot of care into what you do, but I feel like your personal stuff is always more compelling than the radio singles.
I feel that way too.
When I hear “Just Lose It,” I can understand why regular people like it. But it’s not the song off this album that’s going to speak to me as a hip-hop listener.
There’s a certain level where you gotta follow a happy medium. I’m not gonna put out anything that I don’t like or I don’t stand behind, but that was just another fun song. “Mosh” was the only really serious song, with a serious mood and message, that came out of that group of songs that we did [in Florida]. But you got a whole album you want to bring people to. You want as many people to hear it as possible. So if those are the tricks you gotta do to get the people to hear it, and bring them to your album…
Rap is usually based on first-week sales. Your biggest week has gotta be your first week, and then it kinda just starts declining after that. So you gotta hit ’em out the box with a single. And every now and then it doesn’t have to be a “Just Lose It” or a “Real Slim Shady.” [8 Mile’s] “Lose Yourself” came out the box and was not one of them songs that was a cheeseball—you know what I’m sayin’, meant-to-be-fun song or something like that.
But can’t you take the chance of not going for that sort of single at this point? It seems like you’ve reached a level of success where you could put out a street single that’s also your commercial single, say like a Nas “Made You Look.”
Well, you know, we had discussions about that—me and Dre. And it’s not just me running that food chain. It’s not just me always calling the shots. I’m not always necessarily my own boss, so to speak. Between me, the label and Dre it’s got to be a mutual decision. Is this gonna make a big enough impact? Do we come out with this right out the jump, comem out so serious and dark to where people don’t even know that the album’s out because it ain’t getting played on radio? Do you roll the dice like that? Or do you take a song like “Just Lose It” and throw it out there for the kids and for the clubs, and know that you got something like “Mosh” to follow up behind to say, This is what I want to say, this is my message? I got you to listen to me, I got your ears open. Now, here’s my song that’s gonna make a statement. Because “Just Lose It” ain’t really about nothing. Sometimes I get in them slaphappy moods where I just say anything.
What are your reflections on this whole Michael Jackson situation? It kind of came and went in a way, but some people did come out against you.
Well, I didn’t really think too much about it. I thought it was blown way out of proportion. I mean, there’s a line in there: “That’s not a stab at Michael/That’s just a metaphor/I’m just psycho”—basically [explaining] that I’ll say anything. That’s Slim Shady talking. But people don’t look at it like that a lot of times. [When we shot the video] we started trying to think of ’80s pop icons I could dress up as—obviously Michael being one of ’em, and Madonna— which is not the most enjoyable thing to do [laughs]. But you wanna get people’s goat, and you wanna make people laugh and all that shit.
Hey, you did it for Michigan.
[Laughs] Yeah… no doubt! I guess [Michael’s] very sensitive and he probably felt like he got it the worst. We pretty much thought it was equaled out throughout the video. I’m doing MC Hammer moves, the Pee Wee Herman thing. Obviously, this is a joke.
There are people who ran with this controversy and used it for their own purposes to try to denigrate you. But then there are also people who don’t fall into that category—say, for instance, a Steve Harvey, who said Eminem should have his ghetto pass revoked for picking on this icon of African-American music. At that point how did you—
—I didn’t know nothin’ about that.
He said that on his morning radio show.
Oh yeah? Well, that’s good for him.
So how do you react when the criticism isn’t coming from someone already on record as having it out for you—when it’s other folks?
That’s when you gotta throw your hands up, because it’s not even in my hands. I put the video out there and people take what they get from it. Whatever you get from it, you take it in and it’s up to you to make your decision. Michael Jackson sitting on the edge of the bed with little boys jumping on it at the end of the video—that’s not nothing he didn’t tell us.
Then it turns into a race issue. Then that card gets pulled. And it’s like, What the fuck? Trust me, the last thing that was on my mind was race [when I was] dressing up as everybody that I dressed up as in that video. But it’s the story of my life. Things seem to be worse when I say ’em, when I do ’em. Words seem to be worse when I use ’em. It’s just when I do something it tends to be worse. If Chris Rock says, “Michael Jackson showed up to court looking like Captain Crunch,” that’s fine. But if I do a spoof...
Some people believe, though, that you can’t take a joke yourself. Is it true that Weird Al Yankovic was gonna do a parody of “Lose Yourself” but you didn’t allow him to?
We actually did allow him to do the song. He did the parody. I was cool with it. I thought it was funny. There was some type of hang-up [with the video]. I don’t know what happened. But it wasn’t between me and Weird Al. It was some type of hang-up between Columbia and Interscope where he couldn’t shoot a video.
You also have a song called “Ass Like That” where you rhyme in the voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who you had some static with a couple of years back. What was the purpose of that?
When people look at Triumph the puppet dog, he’s saying the most outlandish shit. He’s going out of his way, pushing them buttons, and he’s like really taking it to the limit. They don’t see the man behind the puppet. They see that puppet. But with the whole Slim Shady persona, people don’t see [a character], they just see me. So it was kind of my stab back at Triumph in a poke-fun-ish type way. At the end of the song Triumph ends up saying his jokes went too far: “Get to the chopper, everybody get out/Psyche—I joke, I joke/I kid, I kid/I don’t think my joke is working/I must flee.” So he’s basically getting chased the fuck out of there for going too far.
Are you cool with Triumph now?
[With mock seriousness] Yeah, I’d say the beef is squashed. All the Source shit, it is what it is. But the streets really wanna know: What’s going on between me and Triumph? I’m completely squashing that beef. Me and Triumph smoked cigars together. It’s a big moment in hip-hop.
You discuss inheriting beef on the song “Like Toy Soldiers.” Just how far does it extend amongst your colleagues? You’re on the “Lean Back” remix and did a song with D-Block, but then Fat Joe and Jadakiss show up on the “New York” record with Ja Rule, and Ja has a few inflammatory things to say towards your camp. Are people eventually gonna have to choose sides because these problems still just won’t go away?
I don’t know. It’d be a shame if it had to come to that point. But with a song like “Toy Soldiers” I was trying to send a message: From my side of things, I just throw up my hands before somebody in somebody’s entourage gets hurt or killed. What “Toy Soldiers” meant to me, metaphorically, is sometimes you do feel like a pawn in a chess game between record labels. When beefs happen between artists, sales tend to incline. A lot of the bigger heads at the record labels are gonna go home and go to sleep at night. And meanwhile you gotta worry about when you’re going to do your next show, how you gotta man the fuck up. You gotta have an entourage that’s a hundred people deep, literally. So it gets to the point where it just gets ridiculous. And that was my message. That was my way of just saying, Look, if you guys stop, we’ll stop. ’Cause I’m throwing my hands up. I’m trying to close this chapter in my life.
We just had an election. What are your feelings in the aftermath about the decision the American people have come to?
Um… I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed and I voted for Kerry. And, you know, he lost. And from the “Mosh” record, I don’t know if I need to go even further about how I feel about Bush. But I will say that hopefully he can live up to the promises that he made during the debates and all his speeches and all that and pull our troops the fuck out of this war so that we ain’t so deep into this shit.
He started it, so maybe he knows how to get us out of it. That’s kind of the message that he’s been preaching. That’s the message the American people obviously followed. I tend to not believe that. The stats say that despite all the efforts to get the youth vote out, there weren’t any more young people voting than the last time around. Why do you think there’s so much apathy right now?
Um… I didn’t graduate high school, so you gotta tell me what “apathy” means.
Why don’t young people care more?
There’s some people I know that did vote and there’s some people I know that didn’t vote. And the common response is, [sarcastically] “Like my vote is gonna make a difference...” That tends to be the common response, especially from the younger generat ion. What the younger generation don’t realize is that A) if that draft is reinstated your ass could go. And B) your vote does count. I don’t know what the statistics are. But I think our message overall in the hip-hop world did connect with some people. I don’t think we lost 100 percent.
Do you have any regrets about not getting “Mosh” out there sooner?
Yeah, I do got a little bit of regrets about that. We got it out there as soon as we could. It was one of the first songs we mixed. But we were trying to get “Just Lose It” out there. We didn’t want to get “Mosh” out there and come off too political. Eminem’s never been too political. I never been the militant-type political rapper. I just been the type to speak my mind on certain subjects that I know about. We did our best to get it out as soon as we could. But do I wish it could have come out two weeks earlier? Yes.
We now see the country more divided, politically, than ever before in our lifetime. “Mosh” probably alienated many fans of yours.
[Flippantly] Oh well! That’s the risk you take with putting out music. There comes a certain time when you can’t worry about what everybody’s concern is and if everybody’s gonna agree with you on this. Am I gonna satisfy all the hip-hop heads if I put out “Just Lose It,” a zany -ass Slim Shady song? Or am I not gonna satisfy the pop listeners if I put out “Mosh”? If I put out a song like “Toy Soldiers,” am I not gonna satisfy either?
I’ve heard people say that a song like “Mosh” doesn’t speak to the issues of the urban audience.
It doesn’t speak to…?
I’ve heard certain New York radio personalities say, “Well, Eminem’s song doesn’t speak to the problems of Black people.”
[Exasperated] I don’t understand why I’m constantly bumping up against this race issue. It’s one of them things, like… Me and the guys from D12, we just sit and look at the world and we’re just like, Muthafuckas really don’t know us! They really don’t know us—just speaking for my crew. I mean, I look at [Dre and 50] as family too, especially Dre. I look at Dre as a lifesaver. Dre saved my life. A Black man saved my life. But with us in D12, every other member is Black. And we look at each other and we don’t care. We truly don’t give a fuck what color [we are].
The way we grew up, we learned to look past that.
This is the way I feel racism starts. Racism starts by people being ignorant of each other’s cultures, by not mixing and mingling. Let’s say you got a room full of White people. If all you hang out with is White people, and you don’t know any Black people, and you don’t know any Asian people, any Hispanic people, you’re more prone to say some shit about a muthafucka that’s not in the room, you know what I’m sayin’? You’re way more prone to say something about somebody that ain’t there, because you don’t know them. You tend to judge—if you’ve had a bad experience with one person of another race and most of your friends are this race—and that goes for any race. If all your friends are Black and you don’t know any White people, you have one bad experience with White people and you look at the way society is, you hate all White people. It goes every way, with every race. It can go any way. If you show me a muthafucka in this world that’s never made a racial slur, never had a racist thought in their head at some point in their life, when they was a kid growing up, I’ll show you a fuckin’ liar!
Oh, I never did that... Nah, I’m just fuckin’ with you.
[Laughs] You know what I’m sayin’? So when you take somebody like—and I don’t mean to reengage in the war—but the thing between me and The Source magazine, I don’t see that shit ever dying. I don’t see the beef between me and Benzino ever being squashed. Maybe there’ll come a time where we can see each other in the same place and not attack each other. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s never gonna come a time when I can sit down and talk to this man. Or Dave Mays, either one of ’em. These muthafuckas have not only tried to destroy the whole livelihood of my career, but [they’ve tried to destroy] what hip-hop has done racially in diversifying [society], trying to take it a step backward. It’s fuckin’ sick. It’s sick.
The last time you were on the cover of this magazine, the cover line described you as the “best rapper alive.” Certain readers took issue with that description and used it as a platform to vent about you and the issue of race. Did you read those letters?
Nah, I didn’t read ’em. They rip that page out before they give it to me. I can’t sit there and dwell on that. I can’t spend my energy like that. You see what the fuck I’m doing. I’m putting out music. I’m staying creative. You ain’t gonna throw me out of my zone with all the dumb shit. If you’re gonna find people out there that’s gonna be dumb enough to follow you, let them follow you. Let them six, seven, eight people out of 50 million people follow you. Let them people follow you and let them be as dumb as you. Because at the end of the day, you don’t know me.
“Yellow Brick Road” is one of the album’s standout songs to me because it’s so well detailed that the listener does get to know you by hearing your experiences as a teenage rap fanatic. Did you really throw out your Troop sneakers when you heard MC Shan say, “Puma’s the brand, ’cause the Klan makes Troop...” on “I Pioneered This”?
Yeah, we all did. All my friends did at the time. If we didn’t throw out the sneakers, we stopped buying ’em. As soon as we heard him say that on the record, we were like, We can’t wear these anymore. That was during the era where MC Shan wore the Pumas, and Kool Moe Dee had the British Knights. Then there was the rumor about the Klan owning British Knights. And we stopped buying those. So what was left to buy? Aight, let’s go to Nikes. Let’s go to Adidas. Run-DMC’s rockin’ Adidas. I went out and bought the Bally shoes when Slick Rick was [rhyming about them].
Yo! MTV Raps was the shit back then. I remember just beggin’ my mother to get cable. “Please let’s get cable!” We would rush home from school, or to a friend’s house, wherever I had to go to catch Yo! MTV Raps. Because if they debuted an Audio Two video or something [and you missed it] you were a fuckin’ loser! You missed the new shit. EPMD “You Gots To Chill”—I just remember them videos. Stezo dancing in the background…
...With them torn denim joints.
Yeah, and just doing them dances, and trying to learn ’em and all that shit.
The song also frames your more recent controversies with the doubt you felt about your place in hip-hop back in the day because of the early-’90s pro-Black movement.
Yeah, it was a crazy time back then, because it left us confused. Me with my White friends, and me with my Black friends—it just left us all confused with that movement. We didn’t understand it completely. I remember when X Clan came out, it started going a little bit sour. It was like, Fuck, I like their music. But this shit is almost... racist. It’s almost so militant that it made us feel like outcasts in hip-hop. And the way X Clan came out and bashed 3rd Bass—who was our little ray of hope for being white rappers—it kind of hurt them. That hurt 3rd Bass. I remember they wrote “3 Strikes 5000,” their response to X Clan dissing them, and it was really delicate. They felt like they had to come back at ’em, but they had to be careful. And we were a little disappointed. Not at that record in particular, but just the whole thing. It would frustrate us to the point where we was like, Do we even belong in this?
Every word in the “Yellow Brick Road” song is true. I felt like it was for people [for whom] I didn’t 100 percent clarify [the “Foolish Pride” tape controversy]. This is how I remember it. This is how it went down. This is to the best of my knowledge what events transpired, what was going through my mind, how the tape initially came about, just addressing the whole thing. People know when issues come up in my life, I gotta address ’em. And the best way for me to address ’em is not to sit in a magazine and try to explain myself. The best way for me to do it is to put it in the form of music.
Are you content with where you’re at right now, as far as your life and career?
I’m always looking to better myself in certain aspects. I wanna keep growing in hip-hop and produce more records. Like, just to get my hands on this 2Pac project is so big for me in every aspect. I’m always just looking to grow as a producer. And when I decide to put the mic down, I still wanna help hip-hop build and help the evolution of the next generation of MCs. And better myself. Better myself as a human being. Better myself personally. I never said I was perfect. I never claimed to be perfect. I’ve made mistakes. I may make more.