Having reclaimed his spot at the top, Eminem takes a page from rap’s golden age.
Interview by Noah Callahan-Bever
Photography by Daniel Hastings
“Oh, I also got the first song done for my new album. Do you want to hear it?”
If Eminem asks you this question—at any point in time, for absolutely any reason—common sense dictates that you immediately respond with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” However, if he asks you this having just played you rough demos of “Forgot About Dre” and “What’s the Difference?” you’d better exclaim, “holyfuckingshityespleaserightnow
thankyouthankyouthankyou,” with the motherfucking quickness. So yeah, pretty much, that’s what I said.
It was September 1998, and myself, Jonathan Shecter, Stretch Armstrong, Royce da 5’9”, Paul Rosenberg, and one Marshall Mathers III were assembled at GAME Recordings’ TriBeCa office listening to new tunes. Eminem’s first album, The Slim Shady LP, was in the can, to be released early the following year, and he was in NYC to handle Interscope business. I’d brought an advance of Jay’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, which I’d come by via my staff writer position at BLAZE magazine, and Em had these sketches of what would become 2001. A lot of good songs had already been played.
And then: Genteel chimes gave way to a manic piano line, Em’s baby talk preamble escalated to a violent threat. “Sit down, bitch, you move again I’ll BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF YOU!” The air in the room was gone. He was playing “Kim” for us and WEOENO. As his beautiful ugliness exploded from the speakers, no one made eye contact. No one did anything. We just listened. We’d never heard a record like this. Shit, a record like this had never existed. After wowing us with his inventive wordplay and cartoonish creativity on his first album, Eminem had bared it all. He’d untethered himself from convention, from shame, from morality, from all things socially acceptable. Unhinged and unhindered, he had crafted one of the most brutal, honest, repulsive, intoxicating musical moments ever.
The song finished and we all sat quiet. No one spoke. I already considered Em a tremendous talent, but that moment—disturbed and awed—was the first time it passed through my mind that dude might be one of the great artists of my generation. Of course not for a moment did I consider the baggage that comes with that distinction.
“So yeah, what do you guys think?”
Fifteen years later, driving through the quiet streets off 8 Mile, Eminem is previewing me a handful of songs from his forthcoming The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
In the intervening years, as a result of the visceral connection songs like “Kim” made with fans, he’s become one of the most famous people on earth, experiencing all the pleasure and pain that comes with such adulation. Now four years sober, a 41-year-old father of three, Eminem remains arguably the most technically gifted rapper alive. But his art has become more restrained.
Eminem has spent the better part of the last decade trying to put the genie that is his personal life—the very genie that granted the once-struggling musician wishes of success, wealth, and fame—back in the bottle. At this point we know little about his private life. Aside from the promotional rounds for his albums, we barely even see him. And that’s exactly how he wants it.
His last two albums, Relapse and Recovery, were mined from his experience as an addict and then as a recovering addict. Their narrow focus allowed him to go deep, if not broad. To keep a few things for himself. But the songs he plays for me today range from spine-tingling (“Legacy”) to brain-bending (“Rap God”), and though all are quite personal, one thing they’re not is personally revealing.
Speaking to Eminem over video chat a week later it seems he is now to “take the restraints off,” as he puts it. He’s still tinkering with his album as he counts down the hours before his deadline. “I can’t even remember the last time I did an interview,” he says. “When I’m in the process of making music I can’t even think of what I want to say. But I got to get back in that mode, and you know what? You’re my first.” During a conversation broken up by Brooklyn police sirens and FaceTime glitches, we discuss whether or not the personal revelations that fueled the MMLP were worth it, how the new album might tread in similar territory—though he doesn’t want to ruin the surprise; he’s big on surprises—and why you should never pry into a man’s fantasy football strategy.
What does The Marshall Mathers LP mean to you?
Eminem: It doesn’t mean shit to me. [long pause] [Laughs.] Nah, I mean, I don’t know. I guess it’s just a feeling that I associate with that time period.
When did you decide that this would be a sequel?
When I started recording this album, a lot of the songs that I would play for people, they were saying it reminded them of that era. Which was kinda what I was going for in the first place, but the fact that other people started taking notice made sense.
It’s revisiting some themes on The Marshall Mathers LP, but it’s obviously a different time period in my life. So that’s why I wouldn’t call it a sequel. A sequel would just be a continuation of everything that was on there.
What themes are you revisiting in particular?
Um… [long pause] certain things, man. I’m trying to think if I can answer this. And I’m retarded, so…. On the first Marshall Mathers LP there were some personal things that I addressed and on this record there are some chapters that I wanted to close. This isn’t Recovery, where I was coming off some personal tragedies. I’m not coming off of a drug overdose. It’s more about going back to the basics of hip-hop and some fundamentals in that sense.
Recovery has very personal moments on it but it deals narrowly with your addiction. The Marshall Mathers LP dealt more with your personal relationships. Do you feel more comfortable revisiting those now after having addressed your demons?
Yeah, I don’t know. A lot of my career I put a lot of my life out there. It was personal shit I would put out there and didn’t really give a fuck. Sometimes I think back and I’m like, “Damn, was I doing the right thing? How much of myself do I wanna put out there?’ In one aspect you want your fans to feel like they know you and connect with you. But then you’re like, ’Man I got nothing to myself no more.” I don’t want to give away how personal this shit is going to get.
But when people read this they will have heard the album.
Yeah I know, but I kind of don’t want to tell you until you’ve heard it. I don’t even want to be a spoiler alert for anything. I’m big on the element of surprise; I’m not sure if you know that. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah, I picked up on that over the last 15 years. I was prepping for this interview and listening to The Marshall Mathers LP for the first time in a while….
A while? That’s fucked up. [Laughs.]
I know, I’m sorry man. [Laughs.] So I was listening to “Kim”—have you listened to that song recently?
I don’t think I’ve listened to much off that album recently.
That record is incredibly personal—and also weird and dark. Does listening to those records make you feel uncomfortable?
I haven’t listened to them in quite some time. But a lot of the shit is stored in my head, the music and the main themes of each album. Performing a song like “Kill You” in concert refreshes my memory. Like I said, it was a different time period in my life and a different time period in rap, period. And I’m just gonna keep saying “period.”
I always say this about my music, and music in general: Music is like a time capsule. Each album reflects what I’m going through or what’s going on in my life at that moment. I don’t want to give too much away as far as how personal this album gets, but I don’t know if it’s going exactly where that album did.
Putting the title MMLP2 on this album ups the expectation for the fans. Did that weigh on you at all?
I don’t even know how to answer that question because I don’t want to say, like, “That album was the shit….” But I do feel like to call it that, it would have to live up to a certain standard.
People generally regard that album as the shit. [Laughs.] You sold a few copies and changed pop music. I don’t think anybody would find that vain.
I just don’t know how to say that though. I don’t feel comfortable saying that. [Laughs.]
To that point, one of the other big themes on The MMLP was the “Me looking at you looking at me” thing. That comes up on “Rap God” and some of the other songs that you played me—you acknowledged that fewer people are looking at you now than in 2000. How have your feelings evolved on being in the fish bowl?
It still feels like that. It’s not what it was but there’s still a little bit of that fish bowl effect going on. It’s the blessing and the curse—the fact that I’m able to be in the studio as much as I want, and create as much as I want, but it’s kind of gotten to the point sometimes where it feels like— [sirens in background] What’s that?
There’s a siren outside my window. You know, I’m just out here doing gangsta shit. Cops coming to get me.
[Laughs.] Like, “Yo, lemme just get this interview out of the way before they bag me!” Anyway, what the fuck was I saying?
You were saying, you still feel like you’re in a fish bowl.
And that’s the reason I chose to not talk about personal shit anymore—aside from what I put out there on records. I’ve got to do things to protect my personal family life. I wouldn’t even comment on that honestly. That’s not being a dick to you.
No, I understand. On one of the records you say the Columbine line again and talk about how you feel you might be able to get away with that now.
Oh, you caught that?
Yeah, I was listening.
How do I say this? Obviously there was more hype back then and people were hanging on every word I was saying. It’s not so much like that anymore, so I wonder, “Can I get away with a little bit more shit now that the spotlight is not on me?” Part of it is that people are used to me now. When I’m spouting off I don’t know if people think as much.... They’re just used to me now.
At what point did Rick Rubin get introduced to the situation?
About a third of the way in. I’ve always admired Rick and what he’s done. The way he’s able to jump from different genres of music and be a master at all of them has fucked my head up for so long. Paul said he might be interested in working with me and when Yoda wants you to come see him, you gotta go see Yoda. So me and Paul went out to L.A. to see what the vibe was like. Me being a fan of his for so long and seeing his track record—from being a kid, records he’s produced with LL and his whole body of work—I’m meeting Rick for the first time so I’m a little nervous. Absolutely. And super flattered that he would even want to work with me. By his vibe being so chill and so mellow, that opened us both up to be able to create together. We had a conversation and got in the studio and started fucking around.
We’ve all seen him on the couch with his shoes off. Can you maybe give us some insight as to what it was like to work with him as a producer? Is it coaching you or is it actually working on beats or just talking out feelings?
All of that. It’s all three things: Guiding. Trying shit out. Fuckin’ programming drums and “Do you like this? Do you like that?”
What is the most significant thing Rick said to you as a coach?
He always said: “Try everything.” Whenever there was an idea, no matter how ridiculous it sounded or if it sounded wack at first, his whole theme was, “There’s nothing we shouldn’t try. If it doesn’t work, we’ll know it.” Me and him on a lot of these songs would have the same ear that if we tried something on a track, we both instantly knew at the same time that it didn’t work. There wasn’t much fighting for something. Rick has a very let-shit-happen-organically attitude. So the instant I’m not feeling something that he puts in a track, nine times out of ten he would take it out. “It obviously doesn’t work. There’s some reason you’re not feeling it.” So that’s one of the things that makes him so great, too. If he’s hooking the beat up, I can sit there with the pen writing something and be like, “Ahh, I don’t know if I’m really feeling this one.” He’ll say, “OK, move on.”
This record was the first time in a while that I actually started producing records again myself. Nothing on Relapse and very little on Recovery was produced by me. So that was one of the fun things to be able to do again: Get in there and make beats from scratch with Luis Resto and just see what we come up with. It felt good to be able to put the producer hat on again—
What? I’m sorry.
No, go ahead, man
I mean it is really all about me, right?
It always is, isn’t it, Noah? Fuck, man.
Sorry, but this is my one moment to shine.
You get this gig at BLAZE and then your head gets all big. What the fuck, man? And then the stripe on your head got bigger, too.
It’s true. It totally did. Have you heard the Kendrick “Control” verse?
What was your initial reaction?
It’s hard to say because he fucking destroyed that verse, but it’s fucked up because everyone tells you what he did before you get a chance to hear it. My initial reaction was “Holy shit” and then it was “Wow, that was smart as fuck.” He did it in such a smart way. You really can’t get mad because he’s saying what every MC is thinking or should be thinking. You know what I’m saying? “I want to destroy the competition. I want to fucking kill everybody.”
Did it remind you of “Till’ I Collapse” at all?
In what sense?
“Here’s the order of my list that it’s in….” You did the same thing with exclusion rather than inclusion. You named the people at the top of the game, and positioned yourself next to them—
I think Kendrick—and I’m sure he would probably say this, too—he definitely took a page from that era when I first came out, Royce first came out, Canibus first came out. I’m sure that I’ve been known to do shit like that, Royce has been known to do shit similar and Canibus. So I think he took a page from that but he updated it. Nobody is really doing that and that’s why I say it’s so smart for him to do it, because he’s at a stage in his career where he’s like, “Fuck it. I’m going to say this and whatever the repercussions are the repercussions are. But this is how I feel. And I’m going to make it so smart these dudes can’t even get mad. Because if you get mad you might look crazy.”
We gotta have the G.O.A.T conversation—are you ready?
The G.O.A.T conversation? I don’t own any goats, man.
Breaking Bad or The Wire—which is the Greatest of All Time?
Aw, that’s not really fair because I haven’t seen all of Breaking Bad, but I will tell you this, it doesn’t matter. Breaking Bad is good. I saw the first five or six episodes but then I got so busy I couldn’t watch it. The Wire, hands down the best thing that’s ever been on TV ever. Best fucking show ever. There will never be another Wire or another like it or even remotely fucking close. Hands down. I stopped watching TV because of The Wire. Like, The Wire ruined everything for me because I don’t even want to watch anything else now. Did I tell you I like The Wire?
Yeah, I’m picking up on that. When we were walking through the studio to get to the car, it looked like there was a fantasy draft board up in the mic booth. Do you have a fantasy team?
Yeah, I’ve had a fantasy team for a while.
How are you doing this season?
Not very good. [Laughs.] A lot of my players are hurt.
Who is in Eminem’s fantasy league?
Just friends, man. Homies.
Do you have a team name?
I got a team name, but again that’s something that I choose to keep to myself. I don’t have many things to myself so it’s like, you’re prying, man!
Here I am with these personal questions about your fantasy team. [Laughs.] Where do you feel like you fit in the landscape of hip-hop right now?
I don’t know. I struggle with that sometimes. I guess it’s more about where people see me, and where people feel like I fit in. Hopefully when all is said and done, people see me as just an MC. That’s pretty much all I can ever ask for. I know that when songs cross over and they have some type of appeal that goes to certain stations and certain stations play ’em and then it’s like, “Aw, what the fuck? This isn’t hip-hop.” How do I say this? I don’t really have no control over that once I release my music. Regardless of what it is or what it’s about, every song that I do I always try to push lyrically. I would never try to compromise and just say, “This beat sounds like it could have commercial appeal to it. Let me write this kind of hook and fucking wing it.” I’m not just trying to sell records or trying to make a radio record. And, speaking of which, I do have some records to finish. I am fucked right now by the way. No, I’m fine. But I won’t make the deadline.
OK. I’ll let you go. You think we’ll still be doing this in 15 years?
As long as BLAZE magazine is around, we’ll be doing this.