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COVER STORY

Has He No Shame?

Eminem's no-holds-barred raps bring him criticism from parents and even some music industry players. But that hasn't tamed him at all on his new album.

May 14, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

But there is one reason to make the connection: Eminem is the first white rapper since the arrival in the mid-'80s of the Beastie Boys to achieve stardom and the respect of his peers.

There are lots of acts that try to fill the youthful thirst for thrills and chills these days, from the calculated stance of rock's Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit to the more earnest fury of rap's DMX. But Eminem stands out as the one with the most creative and original point of view. "Slim Shady" won a Grammy for best rap album of 1999, and Missy Elliott, the most respected female rapper, invited Eminem to join her on a track on her last album, "Da Real World." About him, she has said, "He's a suspenseful rapper. . . . He's a star whether anyone wants to accept his lyrics or not. He's major."

That acceptance may erase forever the stigma of Vanilla Ice, a white rapper who was so synthetic that he almost single-handedly stopped record companies from thinking about signing white rappers.

Eminem frowns when Vanilla Ice's name is mentioned.

"That crushed me," he says of first hearing Ice's smash single, "Ice Ice Baby," in 1991. Eminem (in his late teens at the time) was living in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood and already testing his rap skills.

"At first, I felt like I didn't want to rap anymore. I was so mad because he was making it really [hard] for me. . . . But then [the respected white New York duo] 3rd Bass restored some credibility, and I realized that it really depends on the individual. Vanilla Ice was just fake. 3rd Bass was real."

Eminem is talking so fast during the studio interview that you can later turn the speed control on the tape recorder all the way down to 1 and still easily understand him.

It's not just that he's trying to speed through the interview; it's his normal pace. He raps so fast on "The Slim Shady LP" that it takes a few times through the record to catch everything he's saying.

But you do have to fight to get his attention as he sits on a swivel chair in the studio and keeps up a steady conversation with studio aides about various aspects of the music.

Eminem doesn't waste time on small talk or go out of his way to make you feel welcome. Like rock's Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, Eminem suffered from low self-esteem as a youngster and it's hard for him now to think people are really all that interested in him. He greets you with the same questioning scowl he shows in photographs.

"I don't trust nobody [now] because anybody I meet is meeting me as Eminem," he says, somewhat defensively. "They don't know me as Marshall Mathers, and I don't know if they are hanging out with me 'cause they like me or because I'm a celebrity or they think they can get something from me, see what I'm saying?"

The main surprise is that the session is so businesslike. Often, the atmosphere during a rap or rock recording session, especially during the final stages, is more like a party than a workplace.

Eminem certainly can party. He reportedly downed a fifth of Bacardi during a Rolling Stone interview last year amid his first burst of fame. But he says he's toned down since, possibly influenced by mentor Dr. Dre, a party-animal-turned-family-man.

"I think a lot of people think of Eminem as a reckless, crazy, careless rapper because that's the character he plays on the record," Rosenberg, his manager, says during a separate interview. "He's lived through a lot of [expletive] and he's had a lot of other [expletive] thrown at him since he began selling records. But I think he's handled it well.

"He has fun, but he's not out of control. One thing that may help is that he never had money, so he doesn't know what the hell to do with it and he's scared to spend it. His idea of splurging is spending $500 or $600 at Nike Town."

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Marshall Bruce Mathers III describes his own background as "white trash." He was born in St. Joseph, Mo., on Oct. 17, 1973, and never knew his father, who split when Eminem was just a few months old. He says he and his mom moved a lot, living with relatives and friends when the money ran out.

Unlike the Beastie Boys, who started off as a punk band before turning to rap, Eminem is purely a child of hip-hop. He fell in love with the excitement and energy of the music when his uncle gave him a copy of Ice-T's single "Reckless" when he was still in grade school.

His uncle was around the same age as Eminem, and he was his best friend. Eminem has his name, Ronnie, tattooed on his left arm. His voice slows a bit when he talks about the day that his uncle killed himself, apparently after an argument with a girlfriend.

"I still can't understand what happened," he says about the suicide. "I've been depressed and had situations when I took too many of this or too much of that, but never really wanting to kill myself. I've got a daughter and I want to look after her. I think if Ronnie had someone in his life like I have [daughter] Hailie, he would still be here today."

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