I have a weird relationship with Eminem, almost a kinship. For a good chunk of my childhood, in fact, he didn’t live that far from me.
Of course, we led very different lives on the surface. My family was solidly middle class, and my dad’s parents probably qualified as upper class. We owned a mint green split-level home in Sterling Heights in a quiet subdivision of winding streets, right off 14 Mile. Eminem – or should I call him Marshall Mathers? – grew up in a series of mobile homes near 8 Mile in Warren, a straight shot south down Ryan or Dequindre, but otherwise a world away for all practical purposes.
Plus, Eminem was about 16 years older than me. What, then, could we possibly have had in common?
Simple. A uniquely Macomb County sense of alienation.
You see, in suburban Macomb County, prosperity is measured by what mile road you call home. The newest developments, near 23 Mile, are considered the most desirable. The older suburbs by 8 Mile and 10 Mile, on the other hand, are treated like yesterday’s news, aged and dangerously close to the all-devouring shadow of Detroit.
With wealth and status tied so measurably to geographic location, people on the lower numbered mile roads often develop an inferiority complex. Unsure of their status, ostentatious displays of money are commonplace – brand name clothes, leased cars, and credit card funded vacations are everyday facts of life, the American birthright in action.
This filters on down to the kids. In school, bullying generally takes on a socioeconomic edge, the poor kids singled out and picked on for a classic self-esteem boost. For Eminem, living in a trailer park in a suburban neighborhood best labeled as “transitional”, the oppressive attitudes at had to have been difficult to swallow.
But OK, OK – I know what you’re thinking. What’s so unique about that?
Well, conveniently enough for our narrative, located immediately south of 8 Mile was one of America’s most impoverished and dangerous black cities, Detroit. Searching for acceptance and understanding, the young Eminem naturally gravitated to it, a place where being poor wasn’t a stigma but a fact of life. His friends there got who he was. It was a welcomed break from the dreary monotony of suburban class warfare.
Unfortunately for Eminem, though, he was Caucasian, and in one of the nation’s most racially segregated areas, such facts don’t go unnoticed. To paraphrase the rapper in of his many interviews, in the suburbs he’d get beat up for wearing a gold Africa medallion and acting black, and in the city he’d get beat up for being white.
It was a rough life, but he found his escape ticket when his general frustrations with life gave birth to the Slim Shady persona, a no-holds barred approach to rap that mocked social conventions and reveled in racial tension. “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley, to do black music so selfishly and used it to get myself wealthy,” he’d rap in “Without Me” to millions of teenagers on MTV’s Total Request Live, which played the nation’s top 10 most popular music videos. It was a breath of fresh air in the last days of the FCC, a stick of damning dynamite tossed at the status quo, and it couldn’t have come from anywhere else other than Detroit, Michigan.
Eminem’s first single on Dr. Dre’s record label Aftermath, “My Name Is”, was released in 1999, and the effect it had on my warped little 10 year old brain is hard to quantify. While the song only made it to #36 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, from my vantage on the couch in my parents’ basement the music video had to have been #1 on the planet, and was by far the top video on The Box, a pay-per-request music video channel in the upper reaches of the cable system transmission spectrum
Delivering searing lines like, “well, since age twelve I felt like I’m someone else ’cause I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt” and “ninety-nine percent of my life I was lied to – I just found out my mom does more dope than I do” in a straightjacket or sprawled out on a bench in the ghetto, Eminem pulled back the curtain a bit on my own sheltered life. He possessed what I today recognize as acid consciousness, an ability to see past the rosy sentiments that frequently cloud our judgment and recognize that the mountain of gold we thought we had was, indeed, a big pile of shit.
Imagine all that, to stop-start Dr. Dre west coast skateboard funk. Amazing.
A few months before “My Name Is” was released, I remember staring out the school bus window at the oncoming kids in their baggy Lee Pipes, expensive Nikes and spiked up Caesar haircuts and admitting to myself that I could never accept their lifestyles and fit into their group. At first, it was a disturbing if inconsequential revelation, especially at age 10. But as I drifted farther and farther away from the mainstream interests of my classmates over the next few months, I was eventually outed and tormented for having denied in some subconscious way their aspirations, the classic plight of the nerd. I didn’t talk if I didn’t care about the subject; I didn’t wear the cool clothes just to wear what was fashionable. I was weird.
Finally, I understood where Slim Shady came from. Us.
Unlike my fellow nerds, I like to think I had a greater awareness of my plight, but maybe not. Either way, I believe Eminem had his hands firmly clutched around the gun of truth on his first album, The Slim Shady LP, and he squeezed that trigger with aplomb. It was the perfect moment.
For that, he’ll always be remembered.
“Wanna copy me and do exactly what I did?”