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No Rap on Eminem: He Gets His Shot, His Opportunity, and Doesn't Let It Slip

Record labels trying to duplicate Eminem's cross-racial success are finding it difficult to make a connection with rap audiences.

November 11, 2002|Jeff Leeds | Times Staff Writer

Hey there's a concept that works / 20 million other white rappers emerge / But no matter how many fish in the sea / It'd be so empty without me

-- from "Without Me," by Eminem

Rapper Eminem's lyrics exaggerate the number, but the best-selling solo rap artist in history crisply captures the music industry's quest to copy his cross-racial success.

Record labels have spent a small fortune signing about half a dozen white rappers with names such as Tow Down, Genovese and Hot Karl. Undoubtedly more will be coming with the smash debut last weekend of Eminem's loosely biographical movie "8 Mile."

But the road ahead for these aspiring stars probably will be a dead end, much as it has been for others who already have tried the trip to the top of the charts.

Tow Down and Genovese, for example, have been dumped by their record labels. Hot Karl ended his contract after his label refused to release the album he recorded.

"A white rapper has to work under a much finer microscope in a very competitive field. If the black audience isn't with it, it's not going to happen," said Elektra Entertainment Group Chairwoman Sylvia Rhone, the only African American woman to run a major record label.

It's not surprising that labels would try to replicate Eminem's success. In the entertainment business, if a concept works once, it's assumed that it will work to wearying excess. That's true whether the medium is film, TV or music.

Record labels saw Eminem's sales and said, " 'Oh, a white rapper can make money. Let's get our own white rapper,' " said Stephen Hill, vice president for music programming at TV channel Black Entertainment Television. What they didn't see, he said, was that the controversial singer was not a novelty like early white rappers Vanilla Ice and Mark Wahlberg, whose music careers quickly flamed out. In contrast, he said, Eminem is "a person with an amazing ability to connect with his audience."

That connection is so powerful and unique that the 30-year-old Detroit rapper was able to transcend the roots of the genre, no small feat for a white speed rhymer.

Rap began more than two decades ago as an art form among urban blacks confronted with poverty and discrimination. Since then, its appeal has spread to young music fans of all colors who embrace the fiercely rebellious nature of the lyrics and wrap themselves in the grittiness of a life that may or may not resemble their own. Record industry surveys have consistently found that about 75% of rap music is purchased by U.S. white, Latino and Asian consumers.

Even with an overall slump in the music industry, rap remains a commercial and cultural power, generating an estimated $1.6 billion in domestic record sales. Eminem's three albums -- filled with lyrics that critics call misogynistic and homophobic -- have sold 19.8 million copies in the U.S. That's more than rap's other biggest stars, including the late Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg or Jay-Z. Eminem's latest album, "The Eminem Show," is expected to be the top-selling record of the year, and the soundtrack from "8 Mile" entered the pop chart last week at No. 1.

Just five years ago, Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers, was searching for credibility by competing in rap contests and circulating recordings of his clever, penetrating and, at times, hostile riffs. While growing up, he had been influenced by such acts as the Beastie Boys, a white rap act that achieved a degree of street credibility in part by touring with rap trailblazers Run-DMC.

The credibility Eminem needed with black audiences came from Dr. Dre, the acclaimed record producer and rapper, who had been handed one of Eminem's demos. Dre began touting Mathers as his protege and produced three tracks on his breakthrough album, "The Slim Shady LP."

That kind of cultural entree also has benefited the only other white rapper to make a respectable, albeit modest, run at rap radio audiences.

Rapper Bubba Sparxxx, born Warren Anderson Mathis, had the backing of a celebrated rap producer, Timbaland. He stewarded the Georgia rapper's CD and appeared in Sparxxx's first video, which received heavy play on MTV and featured the burly newcomer with farm boys wrestling pigs.

The album, "Dark Days, Bright Nights," has sold 600,000 copies, a fair showing for a new artist, but well below the projection of his label, Interscope Records, which also releases Eminem's albums. Sparxxx's second CD is due out early next year.

Without the support of rap's biggest names, the odds of failure are high for white rappers, who must still have the skills to win fans on rap radio stations.

Hot Karl was a USC communications major who planned to write movie scripts when he was signed by Interscope. The rapper, whose real name is Jensen-Gerard Karp, was raised in Calabasas and decided to pursue a music career after winning a local radio station contest in which he called in each day and ad-libbed a few rhymes.

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