Hip-Hop White Wash: The Impact of Eminem on Rap Music and Music Industry Economics

Many within the hip-hop industry have long feared a day when the origins and foundations of this culture would undergo a corporate-influenced change in order to make it palatable to mainstream America.  Well, in many ways it appears that day has indeed come.

Since the much heralded press conference which saw The Source owners Dave Mays and Raymond “Benzino” Scott announce to the world the existence of audio tapes produced by former acquaintances of Marshall Mathers that featured a younger Eminem derogatorily discussing black women and using the infamous “n-word,” much of the hip-hop nation has been divided.  One side claims that although it was decidedly wrong for Eminem to use such language, the situation only points towards bigger issues affecting hip-hop music and culture.  They claim that it is hip-hop in general that is at fault and the Eminem tapes are just another example of that.

The other side of the debate contends that it is Eminem who is solely at fault.  They insist that Eminem’s role as the number one selling hip-hop artist—combined with the fact that he is white—makes his comments all the more hurtful and insulting.

A better view may be that both sides of the debate hold true.  Eminem should be held accountable for the comments that he made, and the simple apologies that he has offered do not suffice.  We also believe that the comments that other hip-hop artists use against women are equally deplorable.  However, we understand that socio-economic differences that have long existed in this country provide an unbalanced playing field.  This does give more weight to Eminem’s recently discovered comments—no matter when they were originally recorded.  In order to fully understand the current state of affairs, it is important to analyze them in a socio-historical framework.

The rapper Eminem was indeed an unusual find for famed gangsta rap pioneer Dr. Dre.  Named Marshall Mathers, Eminem was born outside Kansas City in the small Missouri town of St. Joseph, on October 17, 1972.  Young Marshall spent a great deal of his underprivileged childhood bouncing between his rural hometown and the contrasting urban landscape of Detroit.  Hip-hop culture and rapping made an early impression on him and he began formulating lyrics and songs by the tender age of 14.  Apparently, Mathers’ early life was marked by family troubles (drug-abusing parents and poverty) and by neighborhood bullies continually picking on him for being a white rapper.  His residence in Detroit was spent living in a partially African-American neighborhood where he made plenty of black friends and enemies.

Mathers (now adopting the name Eminem: the phonetic spelling of the popular candy and a play on his own initials) remained relatively unfazed and in 1996 dropped his first solo album, the independent Infinite.  This album received a great deal of praise throughout underground circles but lacked the major label backing that could help it achieve commercial success.  However, right around the corner was Eminem’s major label debut, 1999’s The Slim Shady EP, which was his breakthrough record.  The Slim Shady EP made major noise throughout the music industry, garnering as much attention for “Eminem’s exaggerated, nasal-voiced rapping style”1 as it did for the fact that he was white.  Record executives took immediate notice and in many quarters, Eminem began being dubbed the music’s next “great white hope.”2 Although many black artists had become very successful in rap music by this point, it would follow logic that since more whites were buying rap music, a credible white MC (as opposed to Vanilla Ice) would provide even more sales.

According to Dr. Dre, Eminem’s demo tape was discovered on the floor of Jimmy Iovine’s (Dre’s label head and owner of Interscope Records) garage.  However, it was Mathers’ second-place finish at Los Angeles’ 1997 Rap Olympics that solidified Dre’s inclination to sign his new protégé to his fledgling Interscope subsidiary, Aftermath Records.  The aforementioned Slim Shady EP soon followed and was executive-produced by Dre.  The album quickly became a major hit and, within a year, went triple platinum, certifying sales of 3 million plus records.  This type of exposure guaranteed much of the controversy that surfaced over the album’s content.  With “some harshly criticizing its cartoonish, graphic violence; others praised its edginess and surreal humor, as well as Eminem’s own undeniable lyrical skills and Dre’s inventive production.”3 Eminem had indeed arrived.

Eminem spent the down time between albums appearing on Dre’s Dr. Dre 2001.   His presence helped skyrocket the album to multi-platinum success.  Eminem also became one of hip-hop’s most sought-after lyricists with numerous cameos appearing on the albums of various rap and rock artists.  Eminem’s next release, 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, sold an astonishing 1.7 million copies in its first week, on its way to becoming the fastest-selling rap album of all time.4

Despite the firestorm of controversy surrounding his often misogynistic, homophobic and violent lyrics, Eminem has been able to transcend hip-hop music’s boundaries in a variety of ways.  His records get played on rock stations that otherwise refuse to include rap music into their format.  He managed to get top billing over more established, veteran rap acts on a major rap tour before his major-label debut was ever released.  He appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone after the appearance of only one single from his debut album.5

Eminem also became the first white person ever to be featured on the cover of The Source magazine.6 This is a magazine that is widely considered the bible of hip-hop music, culture and politics.  Furthermore, Eminem’s semi-autobiographical movie, 8 Mile, opened in the fall of 2002 to critical acclaim and spectacular box office receipts.

In 2001, Eminem was able to survive a storm of staunch criticism by the gay and lesbian community that was directed toward what they deemed as gay-bashing lyrics on his The Marshall Mathers LP.  Eminem showed up at the 43rd Grammy Awards, hauled in two Grammys, including one for Best Rap Album, and performed with pop superstar and outspoken gay activist Elton John.  This performance was the major highlight of the award show and became the hottest topic of 2001’s event.7 Moreover, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP garnered a nomination for Album of the Year.  This is a feat that no other rap artist had been able to achieve before.  In May 2002, Eminem again debuted at the top of the pop charts with The Eminem Show, an album that sold over 1 million copies in its first week of release.

Eminem’s short but very successful career has not only borne the burnt of criticism from those that are offended by his lyrics.  Much has been said both within and outside of the music industry about his overnight accomplishments.  Eminem’s persona as well as his allegiance to gangsta rap producer Dr. Dre, his poor upbringing in Detroit with a relative closeness to African-Americans, and his amazing lyrical prowess, afford him two things that are of very high value in the hip-hop community: industry respect and street credibility.

This is not meant to be a glamorizing praise piece for Eminem or a scathing attack.  Instead, it is a critique of the conditions that aided in his rise and that simultaneously exclude African-American artists from achieving this kind of access.  Indeed, Eminem is a phenomenally gifted rapper whose often obscene and offensive lyrics are best understood if they are analyzed as biting commentary on popular culture and societal contradictions.  Yet, simply put, the color of Eminem’s skin has given his career access to resources, opportunities and outlets that black rap artists who are just as gifted can only dream of.  Although Eminem surrounds himself with African-Americans (witness his award acceptance speech at the 2001 Grammy awards, where he is the only white on stage8) and exudes a certain level of respect for the black roots of his craft, his success reveals many racial issues in popular culture and is itself problematic.

First, Eminem’s mind-blowing achievements have permitted legions of white fans to appropriate selected aspects of the culture of hip-hop.  This is not to say that all African-Americans or Latinos have a full knowledge of the history or the foundations of hip-hop culture.  However, because of their position in the society, they inherently have at least some experience of the factors that helped spark the hip-hop revolution (factors like racism, socioeconomic oppression, etc.).  Although it is not absolutely necessary to have full knowledge of these factors to be a fan of the music, an exploitative relationship occurs when the music itself becomes a commodity stripped of other characteristics that are culturally significant in the formation of the art form.  Therefore, while the act of appropriating the music and culture is not itself a negative, the false imagery of the culture that is used to gain profits from white America essentializes the culture to little more than stereotypical representations.

Eminem’s career allows white, middle class America to look at hip-hop as something closer to home instead of novelty entertainment.  Now in tow are many white suburban kids who believe that they are “hip-hop” because they can identify with Eminem on a phenotypic level.  However, what is forgotten is the socioeconomic conditions that Marshall Mathers was raised in, his physical “closeness” to the African-American community and a good deal of knowledge about an oppressed experience which he has consistently shown throughout his career and music.  Combine this with black artists’ continual strides towards capitalizing off of entertainment industry market forces, and hip-hop comes closer to a kind of “cultural suicide” where the culture undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis.9

Further legitimizing the point is Eminem himself.   The song “White America” which appears on 2002’s The Eminem Show, finds Eminem exploring the phenomenon of his rise to the top and the controversy that continually surrounds him:

Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself / If they were brown, Shady lose, Shady sits on the shelf / But Shady’s cute, Shady knew Shady’s dimples would help / make ladies swoon baby, ooh baby! Look at my sales / Let’s do the math, if I was black I would’ve sold half / I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that / But I could rap, so fuck school, I’m too cool to go back / Gimme the mic, show me where the fuckin’ studio’s at / When I was underground, no one gave a fuck I was white / No labels wanted to sign me, almost gave up, I was like / Fuck it, until I met Dre, the only one to look past, gave me a chance, and I lit a fire up under his ass / Helped him get back to the top, every fan black that I got  / was probably his in exchange for every white fan that he’s got / Like damn, we just swapped.  / Sittin’ back lookin’ at shit, wow / I’m like my skin is it starting to work to my benefit now?10

Obviously, Eminem is fully aware of the many issues that have contributed to America’s love/hate relationship with him and his music.  Eminem knows the rules to the game he is playing and directly acknowledges the contradictions that have contributed to his rise.  Again, Eminem’s understanding of the debate surrounding him further solidifies his acceptance with the African-American hip-hop community and, in turn, popular culture.

In addition, Eminem’s career has allowed other white rappers and entertainers who are not as gifted and not as well respected by the young minority community to flourish under the guise of hip-hop culture.  Artists like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock are the most successful examples of artists who did achieve some level of respect in the rock world prior to Eminem; but his career has worked to authenticate theirs and in turn they have reached awe-inspiring levels of success since his arrival.  This works to further remove the music of hip-hop from the people and environment that are responsible for its inception.  In addition, the participation of these artists has begun to marginalize both black artists and many of the reasons behind the origin of hip-hop music and culture.

I refer to this process as “cultural bridge building.”  Although rap artists who are African-American and Latino are able to earn a great deal of mainstream success, their record sales and overall marketability have lagged in comparison to that of white artists.  Economically speaking, it would benefit the music industry greatly if the larger white audience could further identify with hip-hop culture instead of seeing it as something foreign which left them as casual observers.  The industry desperately looked for an artist or event that could pull white America into becoming active participants of hip-hop culture.  Eminem was indeed that artist.

Eminem was not the first case where the industry tried to provide this type of “cultural bridge,” but other attempts were met with either limited success or skepticism.  The aforementioned career of Vanilla Ice may be the most notable example but it is certainly not the only one.  In the mid 80s, the Beastie Boys did initially have some street credibility and a good deal of respect in the hip-hop world.  The Beastie Boys were discovered and signed by hip-hop entrepreneurial legends Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to their fledging rap label, Def Jam Records.  Much of the credibility that was granted to the Beastie Boys came from their embodying “one of the rare moments in pop history that a successful white group practiced a black musical style with a black person so intimately involved in guiding their careers.”11

The Beastie Boys’ whiteness benefited them in numerous ways.  For instance, the Beasties were the first group in the history of rap music to score a platinum record.12 In spite of their phenomenal success, it was much too early in the evolutionary process of hip-hop for any bridge-building.  Thinking that the music and culture were passing fads, the industry was too unfamiliar with hip-hop to fully exploit it.  This left the Beasties’ success as more of a novelty and less of an example to build marketing blueprints around.

It is important to remember that white executives, artists and producers have been instrumental in the evolution of hip-hop music and culture.  Since its inception, hip-hop has never been solely black.  One must make note of the contributions that those other than blacks and Latinos have made to rap music and hip-hop culture.  As Nelson George duly notes in his Hip Hop America, “without white entrepreneurial involvement hip-hop culture wouldn’t have survived its first decade on vinyl.”13 True.  However, Eminem’s role, apart from his newly founded Shady Records, is that of an entertainer who exists on the stage, not behind it.

In America, these types of cultural transformation are not part of an attempt to unite varying cultures.  Instead, the metamorphosis takes place in the name of profit.  This process leads to a watering down of many aspects of the culture that were essential to the initial development.  The result has a detrimental effect not only on those whose culture has been lost or changed but also on the mainstream purveyors.  Lost are many of the characteristics that are vital to the survival of the culture and therefore a voice of the people within.  The only thing gained is a mainstream myth or ghost of a culture that in turn gives a warped understanding of a people.  This process has a long and storied history in America and is usually acted upon those who make up minority groups.  It is important for one to understand the process in order to halt the raping of culture and of a people.

Although we have yet to see what the final impact of Eminem’s career will be upon hip-hop music and in turn the ever evolving youth culture of America, we can now see that it without a doubt will have some lasting impact.  Yet, even as Eminem continues to climb both on the charts and with his notoriety, other white hip-hop mainstays have not come in numbers.  In addition, The Source’s recent attacks on Em’s history and socio-political impact on hip-hop music were met with indifference by much of mainstream media and many artists themselves.  It seems as if hip-hop has truly reached a point where capital has become the driving force behind the music.  At this point we can clearly see that hip-hop has radically changed from its origins.  Now the only question that remains is:  Does the career of Eminem mark a turning point in hip-hop, a new beginning, or the end?  Only time can provide the answer.

Notes

1. Ankeny, Jason, “Eminem Bio,” www.allmusic.com (2 March 2001).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Bozza, Anthony.  “Eminem Blows Up”.  Rolling Stone, 29 April 1999: 59.

6. “Back Issues,” http://www.thesource.com/html/frames.htm.  23 March 2002.

7. “Grammy.com,” http://www.grammy.com.  January 2003

8. Ibid.

9. George, Nelson, The Death of Rhythm and Blues.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

10. Eminem, “White America,” The Eminem Show. Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope, 2002.

11. George, Nelson, Hip-Hop America (New York: Viking, 1998), 66.

12. Erlewine, Stephen Thomas, “Beastie Boys Bio,” www.allmusic.com.  8 November 2002.

13. George, Hip-Hop America, 57.

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