Eminem: Behind Blue Eyes
Eminem's sensitive portrayal of white Detroit rapper Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith in the feature film 8 Mile could very well be his ticket to respectability. But Spin finds that while the pop star may envision a more PG-13 persona, he still answers to an unrated voice inside his head
By: Alan LightEminem’s sensitive portrayal of white Detroit rapper Jimmy”Rabbit” Smith in the feature film 8 Mile could very well behis ticket to respectability. But Spin finds that while thepop star may envision a more PG-13 persona, he still answers to anunrated voice inside his head
WELL, HE’S RIGHT–it does feel pretty empty without him. It’s a few hours before the MTV Video Music Awards, andthings are frantic inside Radio City Music Hall. Onstage, the show is getting its final run-through. Host Jimmy Fallon stumblesover the typos on his cue cards. Someone shouts into a walkie-talkie, “Is Puffy in the house?”–for once, it seems intended as areal question.
Now it’s Eminem’s turn. The beat for his guitar-heavy anthem “White America” starts blaring, the curtain is pulled back, and aspotlight reveals…an anonymous, intern-age white kid in a polo shirt, holding a rolled-up piece of paper to his lips. Eminem’srecorded voice fills the room, but the rapper is AWOL. Then, as the track switches to “Cleaning Out My Closet,” Eminem calmlyambles out from the wings and steps into his assigned spot. About 90 seconds later, the song ends, and, hands thrust in pockets,Hip-Hop’s Most Wanted slips out the side door.
Apparently, Eminem was tardy because he was in the studio until 6 a.m., scrambling to finish the score for the November releaseof 8 Mile, which is about to make the biggest star in pop music even bigger. His year has been a nonstop multimedia jugglingact–from acting to touring to recording (The Eminem Show, at almost six million copies sold as this is written, may be theyear’s biggest-selling album). And while he has mostly hit his marks, occasionally things don’t turn out as planned.
Which was the case at the VMAs later that evening. Oh, his performance was fine, if unexceptional. And he won four awards(including Best Video of the Year). But on a night that should have been a painless celebration, all anyone was talking about(along with wondering what the hell happened to Axl Rose’s face) was Eminem’s bad behavior.
First, acerbic hand puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (a.k.a. Robert Smigel of Late Night With Conan O’Brien) confrontedSlim Shady after completing a skit with Moby (with whom Eminem has been feuding since last year, when Moby criticized what heconsidered to be Eminem’s sexist, homophobic lyrics). Startled, Shady and his bodyguards shoved the puppet away; and when Eminemaccepted his next award, he taunted “that Moby girl,” saying, “I will hit a man with glasses.” Suddenly, the crowd was loudlybooing the evening’s big winner.
Later, a member of Eminem’s Detroit crew, D12, passed Moby a drawing of the rapper strangling the slightly built electronicmusician. According to Moby’s online journal, “Eminem called me a pussy (off camera) and then threatened to beat me up.” In aprevious interview, Em had dismissed the rivalry as a joke: “How ridiculous would it look if I was really serious about kickin’Moby’s ass? It’s like stepping on a flea.” But he remains strangely obsessed. His stage show has featured an unnerving skitduring which a flying Moby is “shot” down.
Though Eminem won’t discuss the VMAs incident, his manager, Paul Rosenberg, says the conflict was a misunderstanding. “Em had noidea who Triumph was and thought it was a whole skit built to make him look silly, with Moby sitting behind him making faces. Hejust wasn’t in a joking mood.” MTV cut the episode from rebroadcasts of the show, but Eminem was left looking like a humorless bully.
So why this fixation? Is it that Moby is acknowledged as an “intelligent” artist while Eminem, even to his defenders, is usuallyconsidered a wild loose cannon? Or is it just that Eminem, as he has constructed his character, needs enemies–and because thereseems to be less opposition to his juggernaut, even from PTAs and right-wing radio hosts, Moby is a convenient straw man? Whateverthe cause, the evening was a reminder that no matter how popular Eminem becomes, the hair trigger on his emotions doesn’t get anyless sensitive.
IT’S NOT NEWS that hip-hop has taken over in some unlikely places. Still, when you find yourself at the New Mexico StateFairgrounds–behind the stables, near the Future Farmers of America booth, past signs for the gun-and-knife show–faced withan arena of kids screaming every word to an hour-long set by Eminem, you take note. But sitting in his bus/mobile studio inthe Fairgrounds’ dusty parking area as openers Papa Roach and Ludacris warm up the crowd, Eminem seems far away from Albuquerqueand focused squarely on getting 8 Mile ready. “Everything is rush, rush, rush,” he says, sitting forward on a bus bench. “It’scrunch time.” Em is still working on the film’s music, even on drives between tour stops. He kept a similar schedule while filmingin Detroit last winter–writing and recording songs for the soundtrack between scenes. “I busted ass on that movie,” he says, whileoversize Ludacris bobble-head props roll past the bus windows. (Of course, the star still relaxes in his own sweet way. When wefinish talking, he says he has to get ready for his performance–you know, shower, change, etc. “I beat off before every show,”Eminem adds, deadpan.)
By now you’ve heard plenty about 8 Mile–that Eminem had an affair with costar Kim Basinger (denied), that he had an affairwith costar Brittany Murphy (unclear), that the movie is the story of his life (not exactly true), that he’s going to win anOscar for his portrayal of aspiring Detroit rapper Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith Jr. (far-fetched, but early reviews were positive,including a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival). Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys), themovie is a convincing depiction of hip-hop circa 1995, highlighted by knockout MC battles and climaxing in the triumph of thedriven, underappreciated white boy–equal parts Rocky and Purple Rain.
“I wanted to make a movie that concentrated on the struggle, not just of me being a white rapper,” says Eminem. “But the strugglethat rappers go through–period. I kinda felt like I don’t want to be Elvis; I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, my life, woe is me.’ Sowe made a movie that took bits and pieces of my life, but it could be anybody, and anybody can relate to it.”
8 Mile is the story of a young MC who’s trying to get the nerve to rock the mic at the local hip-hop club and is forced to moveback into a trailer park with his train wreck of a mother. The film’s script is merely credible, but Eminem’s screen presence is arevelation. He goes from cutting down an auto-factory coworker (played by Xzibit) in a lunch-line freestyle to serving as confidantfor a mentally challenged member of his crew. When his mom’s loser boyfriend cranks some Lynyrd Skynyrd in the trailer, he andrunning partner Future (Mekhi Phifer) bust some rhymes to “Sweet Home Alabama.” He also has an explicit sex scene with BrittanyMurphy and even stands up for a gay factory colleague. And he does it alllike a seasoned pro.
“I always felt like I had some natural ability to act,” he says, “but this wasn’t like a little cameo or something–I had tocarry this whole movie. Curtis came to Detroit, and I was showing him around where I used to live, and I said, ‘As soon as I cangive this movie my 100 percent focus, it’ll be nothing for me; it’ll be easy.’ And Curtis was like, ‘I don’t know if it’ll beeasy….’ So I had to humble myself and listen to him.
“When we sat down for the first rehearsals,” he continues, “I thought I knew what I was doing. But I really had to trainmyself. There are things that a person might do by habit with their hands or their mouth, and if you do that all the timeonscreen, it’s going to look retarded! So there were little tricks of the trade I learned.”
Hanson was intrigued by Eminem’s persona but needed to be convinced that the rapper could pull off a starring role. “Whatit took to get me there was talking to him very bluntly and spending time with him,” says the director. “What impressed mewas that he took the job of performing in this movie as seriously as he took his own musical work. He said to me very clearlythat what he was interested in was being an actor in a movie made by a good filmmaker. Ultimately, he’s an actor to me, and asan actor, he brought to the project everything that I would want in terms of discipline, focus, respect, and commitment.”
It was Hanson who decided to set the story seven years in the past, in that distant era before Tupac and Biggie weremurdered, in part to avoid comparisons to Eminem today. “We were trying to tell a story about the fans of hip-hop,” says Hanson.”The power, the meaning that it has in their lives, but also the dream that success in hip-hop represents. In another era, itcould have been basketball or boxing.”
8 Mile coproducer Brian Grazer says he went through similar reality-versus-Hollywood issues with last year’s Best Picture Oscarwinner, A Beautiful Mind. “In that case, I wanted to do a movie about the mentally disabled, and John Nash’s story lent itselfto that,” he says. “This time I wanted to do a movie about hip-hop and how it works and the pain and struggle involved, andEminem was the perfect way to do that.”
Grazer recalls the exact moment he became interested in working with the rapper. “I saw Em at an awards show,” he says.”They cut to him, and in the span of five seconds, I was able to see and feel his range–from that detached power to a kind ofcomic, fluid vibe; from that icy ‘I’ll kill you, motherfucker’ glare to something light and whimsical. I thought, ‘I have tomeet this guy.'” Brittany Murphy recalls a similar epiphany. “I saw his video for ‘The Way I Am,'” she says. “I called my mom intothe room, and I said, ‘This guy is going to be a huge movie star.'”
A VERY CURIOUS THING happened with the release of The Eminem Show: Eminem started to become socially acceptable. There were nobig protests over his lyrics, no boycotts, no talk shows devoted to his impact on America’s youth. “One of the frustrating thingswas people saying, ‘He’s got to cuss to sell records,'” says Eminem. “That’s why with this album I toned it down a bit as far asshock value. I wanted to show that I’m a solid artist and I’m here to stay.” In the upscale weekly The New York Observer, onecolumnist even wrote that Eminem had become a “guilty pleasure” for baby boomers, describing the rapper as “the most compellingfigure to have emerged from popular music since the holy trinity of Dylan, Lennon, and Jagger.”
In fact, Eminem is even starting to bear a resemblance to one of those rock icons. Granted, it’s a long way from “All You NeedIs Love” to “Just Don’t Give a Fuck,” but in many ways, Marshall Mathers is becoming something like this generation’s JohnLennon. While you sputter into your Pepsi Blue, consider the following: Lennon and Eminem were both subjects of pickets andprotests; they both wrote songs about troubled relationships with their mothers; they both wrote about their strange public liveswith their wives; they both wrote about how much they loved their kids. Lennon, of course, was able to find ways to use his voiceto advocate for peace rather than just blasting away at litigious family members and various pop stars, but still, few other popmusicians since Lennon have found a way to render their private psychodramas into compelling art as effectively as Eminem.
Em seems pleased, if a little perplexed, by these parallels. “That’s a good comparison–I would rather have that than Elvis.I hope I don’t ever get killed by a fan like that, though,” says the man whose greatest achievement might be the piercing stalkerchronicle “Stan.”
The Eminem Show documented a year during which this uncommon American Idol divorced his wife, was sued by his mother, wasarrested several times (for attacking a member of Insane Clown Posse and for attacking John Guerra, whom Em claims he caughtin a clinch with his wife), and faced the very real possibility of going to prison (on assault and weapons charges). Thealbum casts the three women in his life–mother Debbie, ex-wife Kim, and daughter Hailie–as the motley gang from your favoritereality-TV program. The album proves that Eminem may be the most dexterous, vivid writer in pop music. It’s also the only albumthis year that sold more than a million copies in its first week, despite leaks that twice moved up its release date.
“That shit is gut-wrenching,” says Eminem of the songs that appeared prematurely on the Internet. “I don’t ever want people toknow what I’m coming with next. But I don’t blame the kids. If we woulda had the Internet when I was 15, I’da been all over that bitch.”
In fact, as we sit in the Albuquerque parking lot in mid-August, “Lose Yourself,” the propulsive first single from 8 Mile, hasbeen leaked to radio stations weeks ahead of its scheduled release. Plus, CNN is sniffing around because the Internet-onlyanimated video for “White America” seemingly references the Columbine school shootings. (“We put Charles Manson away for life,”said Darrell Scott, who lost his daughter at Columbine. “He didn’t kill anyone, but he influenced his followers to do so. Eminemhas more influence and more followers than Charles Manson.”) But this is Eminem business as usual–things have been remarkablyfree of chaos in the months since The Eminem Show dropped. Which, in typical Mathers fashion, he views as a mixed blessing.
“Eventually, I might need some drama in my life to inspire me,” he says with a hint of a grin. “With [2000’s] The MarshallMathers LP, everything that everybody was saying–I took that, and it was my ammo. And then when shit died down a little bit,I had other turmoil in my personal life, so that was what I was able to dump out on The Eminem Show. Now, I just gotta wait forthe next phase of my life. But something always seems to happen, man; something’s always gotta be fucking turbulent.”
What most pleases Eminem about 8 Mile is that the movie returned him to a less chaotic time, when he was hungry, whenhip-hop meant everything to him. “It reminds me of me before ‘Eminem,’ before I started making a name,” he says proudly. “I hadto strip myself of all ego and really be me before I made it. Yo, it was a trip! I was recording The Eminem Show, and I put it onhold for three or four months and did the songs for the movie. When I was done, it took me a few weeks to get my ego back, toget my confidence back, and to be Eminem again.”
Now 29, Eminem is thinking about his future off the mic–he’s building the roster of his Shady Records imprint, which willrelease the hotly anticipated album from mix-tape vet 50 Cent, and he will soon begin working on the follow-up to D12’splatinum debut. “My dream one day is to sit back like [producer/mentor Dr.] Dre, stay in the studio, and make music. That’smy ultimate goal, ’cause the truth is I can’t rap forever. I can’t see myself in ten years jumping around the stage like a fucking kid.”
So how long does he intend to continue rhyming? “Until the day I pick up a pen and just can’t think of shit, ain’t got nothingto say. Then I’ll just quit,” he says intently. “Because then you get on a kick where you start living your past through your raps,and that’s all you have to talk about–‘Back when this happened and this and this,’ and you get stuck on back-in-the-day becausenothing is happening in your life. That’s what I don’t ever want to happen.”