Having reclaimed the throne with the resounding success of Recovery, Eminem has recruited a remarkable stable of renowned MCs to revive his record label.The underground-scene supergroup Slaughterhouse: Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, Crooked I and Royce Da 5' 9". Plus rising Alabama star Yelawolf. This is shady business. Two-point-oh.

Interview: Vanessa Satten
Images: Kai Regan

Lil Wayne stole the name of Eminem's next project. Rebirth should be Em's.

Following his return to rap in 2009—after a fi ve-year hiatus chock-full of drama—the superstar MC’s fi rst release was Relapse, a brilliantly rhymed album that lacked the depth both fans and critics were eagerly waiting for. 2010 brought Recovery, a quietly rolled out follow-up effort, almost a do-over for heads waiting for the lyrical master to bequeath them with the rawness and realness he brought on his fi rst three albums. Boosted by the smash hit singles “Not Afraid” and “Love the Way You Lie,” featuring Rihanna, Recovery has sold 3.4 million albums to date and earned Em 10 nominations for February’s Grammy Awards.

Today, a frigid winter day in December, at a Manhattan photo studio, the recovered rapper’s about to kick off the rebirth of his record label, Shady Records. Inside an L-shaped dressing room with large windows overlooking the city’s west side, a major business deal has just wrapped. The rap supergroup Slaughterhouse made up of lyricists Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, Crooked I and Royce Da 5’9”— have signed to Shady.

The deal was a year in the making. Em and Royce had to bury the hatchet over a beef that started over misunderstood lyrics back in 2000, and hammering out details of four separate solo careers is tricky. Now that it’s fi nally offi cial, spirits are high. But Em’s got another trick up his sleeve, one that has remained a tight-lipped secret: In September, Shady signed the rising Alabama star Yelawolf. The assemblage of such a collective harkens back to the 1990s, when rap was dominated by crews like Bad Boy, Death Row, Ruff Ryders and No Limit.

Today, for the fi rst time ever, Eminem and all fi ve of his newest signees sit together, roundtable style, and give fans the heads up on the rebirth of Shady Records.

It’s about to get lyrical.

XXL: So can you tell us what we’re doing here today?
ROYCE DA 5’9”: Um, we’re shootin’ a cover for XXL magazine. Slaughterhouse, our new family member Yelawolf, and this guy [gestures to Eminem]. Slaughterhouse just officially signed our record deal with Shady Records. Just now.

Just now?
JOELL ORTIZ: Just, just now. Twenty bucks.
ROYCE DA 5’9”: It’s official.
EMINEM: A $20 advance.
ROYCE DA 5’9”: Yeah, our advance was $20. It came right out of his pocket.
EMINEM: To split.
ROYCE DA 5’9”: To split, yeah.

Four ways. So $5 each?
ROYCE DA 5’9”: So, after taxes, that’s what? I don’t plan on paying taxes.
EMINEM: No, it’s cash.

Seems like a pretty big deal, Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf signing to Shady. What do you think it means for hip-hop? Joe?
JOE BUDDEN: I don’t wanna go first.

Okay, forget Joe. Fuck him. One of you, what does this mean?
JOELL ORTIZ: It just feels good to put lyricism in the forefront again, in my eyes. Some of my heroes, when I came up rhymin’, were Biggie Smalls, Big L—rest in peace to all these—Big Pun. Dudes who were passionate about the way they put words together, the message they sent when they rhymed, and just bein’ ill with the pen. And I feel like this group, and Yelawolf and Em, are dudes who stand for that. And it’s good to see the pure form gettin’ shine again.

You guys feel similarly?
ROYCE DA 5’9”: I feel like we’re contributing to hip-hop. Like we’re actually giving back by doing what we’re doing right now. Because the kids are being force-fed one thing. So this is giving hip-hop a balance. It’s not to diss people who are not lyricists, but to have a whole crew of people that just only focus on writin’ lyrics. I haven’t thought about record sales yet since we been in this equation. The only thing I been thinkin’ about is gettin’ in the studio and actually keepin’ up with these dudes. And I think, the kids, they need to learn that.
JOE BUDDEN: To add to that, though, I think I speak for each member of Slaughterhouse when I say it’s even more special, because we’ve all had issues quote-unquote with the system and major labels. So I think it’s just a testament to up-and-coming and aspiring artists: If you are true to what you believe in, and if you are true to yourself, I say all the time, the alternate route may take much longer, but ultimately it will get you to the same place. So to have somebody who I, myself, and many other people recognize as the best MC look at us and see the potential in us…
EMINEM: Slaughterhouse, it’s kinda phase two of Shady. The new generation of Shady Records. And as we’re trying to rebuild our label. But it’s exciting for hip hop because everyone in the group is a solo artist, and it’s, like, all these forces coming together to make a record together, with all of everybody’s ideas and shit, like that, and what everybody’s capable of on the mic, it’s gonna be fun.

It’s also the idea that, if you’re all strong at something, you can challenge each other more and more if you’re together. That it can get better and better.
EMINEM: Everybody here, as an MC, is competitive. And I think, Yelawolf being in the family, the Shady family, it’s gonna make him hear what these guys are doin’ and wanna step his own shit up. When I hear these guys, I wanna step my shit up. And when they hear each other, I think it’ll probably be a competitive atmosphere, like, makin’ these records. And that’s better for hip-hop. It feels like, now… You know, for a few years it didn’t feel like lyrics were in anymore. It wasn’t cool to be lyrical. Where does battling fi t into that? It seems that hip-hop doesn’t have the level of competition that it used to.
ROYCE DA 5’9”: That battle edge, you gotta understand that a lot of people wanna take it directly to the streets. So it’s, like, you got different corporations; they hate each other. You got Bill Gates, and he might hate the CEO of Oracle. But they just do a friendly competition thing. Whereas in hip-hop, it’s so close to the streets that, once somebody has a battle with somebody, it can spill over into the streets and create problems. I think that’s what the problem is. I mean, back in the day, you didn’t like a dude, you said, “Boom, that’s a sucker MC.” Now they got the phrase “hater,” and they, like, “He’s a hater; he’s hatin’.” And I think that kills some of the competition, because some of the best records are born in beefs. “Hit ’Em Up.” “Who Shot Ya?” “No Vaseline.” So I think that we, as hip-hop, gotta fi nd a way to get that competitive spirit back without always going straight to the streets and trying to get crews on shoot-outs and shit.
JOE BUDDEN: Depending on how old you are, that’s where it come from.
ROYCE DA 5’9”: These kids now, they don’t even call it battlin’. They just straight up call if beef. Such and such is beefin’.
YELAWOLF: Adding to battling, it’s also regional and cultural. Because, in Alabama, in Georgia, there was never really no battle scene growing up. You know, it was storytelling. Cadillac, parking-lot rapping. Just kicking verses and shit. Nobody was going at it with metaphors and all that other shit.

It was for fun.
YELAWOLF: I mean, yeah. Well, for hustlin’ mixtapes and shit like that. It’s just a different scene. So along with that comes a different growth of music. That’s how OutKast and Dungeon Family created that. It was more of a funk, more of a story, more of a not going at each other but just making songs for the sake of making songs, you know? I’ve never personally been in any beef or any rap battle. I just made records, and that’s just what got me to where I’m at.
JOE BUDDEN: You never stood next to me.
EMINEM: Yeah, get ready, buddy.
[Everyone laughs]
JOE BUDDEN: Sorry.
JOELL ORTIZ: Gonna have the Wolf a-howlin’!
CROOKED I: “Oh, you fuckin’ with Joe? Oh, fuck that shit. I’m fi nna diss Yelawolf.”
JOE BUDDEN: They’ll be throwing shots for no reason at you.
[More laughter]

A lot of people in hip-hop have talked about how they are tired of the happy place the music is in right now. How it’s lifestyle driven and has no depth…
ROYCE DA 5’9”: I think it’s going back to lyrics. Because, if you look at everything that’s going on right now, if you look at all of the main people in hip-hop, everybody’s toolin’ up right now. Everybody’s snatchin’ up all the bullets they can fi nd. Em got this. Kanye got G.O.O.D. Music; he got a buncha bullets over there. Jay-Z got a bunch of pit bulls over there. Lil Wayne got a bunch of ’em. It’s crews again, and I can’t remember a time…

Crews used to be a little bit more organic, made up of guys who grew up together and had history. Today’s crews are about who you’re signed with. We’ve got this guy from this town, and this guy from the South, and this guy from the West and this rapper from over here. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems like crews are more of a business move than they ever were.
JOELL ORTIZ: You know what? With Slaughterhouse, like Em said earlier, we’re four solo artists. But, like, we did a record called “Move On,” where we kind of talk about the same questions being asked to us—why things fell out at the major label and the trials and tribulations and stuff— and we got similar stories. So I personally feel like the four of us grew up together—in different parts of the U.S., though, on the grind. Like, when we connected and this hooked up, it didn’t feel like we met strangers. It felt like someone knew who I was and vice versa. So this is really close. Like, when you’re talking about the other crews, this is the closest that you can get to family oriented without even meeting each other. Because we all share the same story, the same passion. All of us put our pen before anything.

So, Em, you hear Yelawolf, you hear Slaughterhouse. How do you go from being a fan of them to deciding to get into business with them? Why them, then, with all these people who are out?
EMINEM: It was a process. Me and Royce had to rekindle that friendship and get that, set all the beef and all the dumb shit aside, you know. Me and him had to work on that first… And I got excited about that first, before I even heard of Yelawolf. And then it was kinda like, as we’re going through the motions of trying to get this deal done, you know, then Yelawolf comes along, and I hear of him and start listening to his shit, and it felt like it made sense… Paul [Rosenberg] put me up on Yelawolf first. He told me about him. And then, I think, the same week, he gave me a CD—Paul did. And the same week, Jim Jonsin was comin’ in to work with me on the “Space Bound” record on Recovery. And he was like, “Yo, you heard of Yelawolf?” And I said I hadn’t heard him yet but I heard a lot about him. And he wanted to show me the video. So I saw the video to “Pop the Trunk,” and I was like, “Yo, this is fuckin’ dope.” I took the CD home that I had already had and started listening to the shit, and I was like, “Fuck, he can spit.”

So you guys get the call from somebody saying that Eminem’s interested in you guys. How do you feel? What happens?
YELAWOLF: I find out we’re going to Detroit to meet with Paul, and I—well, I’ll say this. Back before I went to go meet with L.A. Reid… I remember riding in a taxi and saying that, before we seal a deal with anybody, we really need to try to get this project to Em. I had a vision. I wanted to get it to him. And, I mean, God is good. After I signed with Interscope and Richie and Luke Wood and Todd Parker, I kept askin’, “When am I gonna meet Em?” [They kept sayin’,] “We’ll make it happen.” And so when I finally got a call that we were going up there to meet him, I was like, “Yes!” ’Cause I knew if I had an opportunity to sit down and chop it up—and I didn’t know that he was into the music like that. But still, just to shake hands and be like, “Man, I’m at Interscope, inspired by [you] and ready to rock.” Just sittin’ down and [talkin’,] tellin’ my story, it just seemed like, it started making more sense that something potentially could happen. I didn’t leave the building that day thinking I was gonna be on Shady, but I did have hopes and aspirations to possibly work with him one day. So this is over the top, and I’m just excited to be a part of a crew. I’m a fan of crews. I grew up on crews. So I’m just excited to have a monster squad.

All right, so who gets the call over here? What happens? You were ringleader, Royce, right?
ROYCE DA 5’9”: It was a different process for me, because I was more concerned about me and Em just getting back cool. You know, me and his relationship was one of the things that was hanging over my head. So, like, opening back up the lines of communication and just making shit right again.

How long was it after the Slaughterhouse album comes out that you guys got the call?
ROYCE DA 5’9”: It was not a long time. Real fast. After the fi rst-week numbers came.

So Em heard it…
ROYCE: DA 5’9”: Yeah, but we had already agreed as a group that, if we’re gonna go to a major, we need to be somewhere where we can express ourselves and keep it raw. And we all agreed that Shady would be the perfect place for that, so we kinda collectively got together—
JOE BUDDEN: Way before there was a call.
ROYCE DA 5’9”: We kinda got together and pushed for that as a group.

How do you decide that Shady is the place for that, without Shady approaching you?
ROYCE DA 5’9”: Because he says whatever he wants on the records, and he has carte blanche on Interscope. So we felt like that’s the perfect fi t for our group. So we all got together. We had a meeting, and we went to our attorney and pursued it. We asked him to pursue it. Now, through the grace of God, the stars were aligned, and Paul was already on it. He already had inquired about it. Everything just fell in place. And at the point, we started pushin’ for that, and me and Em just started working on our relationship.

So why did it take so long? Why did you sign just today?
ROYCE DA 5’9”: It’s hard to do this type of a deal. You know, everybody has prior dealings with other labels and some shit that we all signed our name on. So it took a minute just to get clearances, just to make everybody involved happy.

Looking at you guys posing for that cover shot, everybody was saying that it reminded them of 1997, 1998, 1999. Not in a bad, dated way, but reminding them of when crews seemed most powerful. What will be the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they see the cover image?
YELAWOLF: Fear. I was about to say “fear.”
JOE BUDDEN: Definitely.
JOELL ORTIZ: I know me, as a fan first, like, removin’ myself, just lookin’ at that cover, I’m gonna be like, “Wow!”
EMINEM: “Look at Joe Budden’s sweater.”
[Everyone laughs]
ROYCE DA 5’9”: That nigga got a stylish sweater on.

He did look a little collegiate, didn’t he?
CROOKED I: He’s lookin’ real clean with the Russian hat. Rockin’.
JOELL ORTIZ: The Gustav.
CROOKED I: Gorbachev. Tilted. [Everyone laughs] Nah, me personally,when I look at it, I’m like, “Damn!” ’Cause I’m a big NBA fan. So I’m just lookin’ at squads, like Royce was talking about. I’m lookin’ at Celtics squads, Lakers, Knicks, Magic. I’m lookin’ at everybody’s assemblin’ teams right now. So that’s even more competitive energy for me, just seein’ what Kanye’s assemblin’, what Jay-Z’s assemblin’. It’s like, “Okay, I’m feelin’ like Kobe right now.” Like, “All right!” I just see it like the return of the great squads in hip-hop, when squads was just goin’ in. And you could be, like, the big barbershop conversation. Nah, Bad Boy! Nah, Death Row! Nah, Aftermath! You know what I’m sayin’?

Proud to wear the chain, like back in the day…
YELAWOLF: There’s a new breed of fans out there that are hungry for that shit. It’s just, like, after every show, it’s like, “Whoa!” They’re recognizing props, and where they’re seeing the skill, and it’s also making it harder for kids who aren’t paying attention to what they’re writing and doing. They’re definitely a new breed, and they’re definitely excited, I’d say, too.

Anything else you guys wanna add?
ROYCE DA 5’9”: I’m sticking to the word fear. I’m with Yelawolf. Be afraid, ’cause as soon as we make the announcement that Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf is signed to Shady, not even 30 days after that, it’s on the cover of the biggest hip-hop magazine. So that’s a testament to, You should be afraid. ’Cause we comin’ for blood.
JOE BUDDEN: Ditto.