Music Race baiting

The complex politics of Eminem's position as hip-hop's best-loved emcee

"I think what makes Eminem striking is that he is, if nothing else, a very complex figure," states S. Craig Watkins, University of Texas professor and author of the forthcoming Hip-Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement.

"One of the main things about Eminem is he clearly represents the degree to which rap music, I would argue, has sort of remapped the racial boundaries in American pop culture and in particular the widening appeal of what's characterized as urban culture, black youth culture, with young whites in particular."

Eminem: Modern minstrel or transcendent genius?

As Eminem, Marshall Mathers has built an immensely successful career by mining the tropes of other emcees and tricking them out in his own rhymes. Much of the violent misogyny and slasher-film imagery of tracks such as "Kim" and "Kill You" can be traced directly to the early works of Houston's Geto Boys. In particular, consider "Mind of a Lunatic" from 1990, which celebrates necrophilia and includes the line "She begged me not to kill her, I gave her a rose then slit her throat and watched her shake 'til her eyes closed."

The anti-authoritarian stance and self-referential notion of the emcee as the most influential artist in suburban America surface in Eminem cuts such as "Who Knew" and "White America," and throughout The Eminem Show, almost 10 years after they were originally posited by Ice-T on his much slept-on Home Invasion. Come to think of it, the white kid on the LP's cover rocking an Africa medallion and soaking up assault, rape, and drugs via his headphones conjures up images of a young, impoverished Mathers learning his craft. Where brothers like Ice and the Geto Boys lost their distribution or were flat-out dropped from their label because of their lyrics, Eminem has sold more than 30 million records, won nine Grammys, and become virtually bulletproof in the eyes of music critics, despite rhyming about raping his own mother.

A large part of Eminem's success can be directly attributed to the exquisite beats of über-producer Dr. Dre, as well as his own celebrated flow. Perhaps more than any living emcee aside from Jay-Z, Mathers is recognized as a master wordsmith who slings metaphors and spins yarns with skewed sarcasm and kinetic urgency. "Stan" is easily one of the best hip-hop songs ever written. His nasal and often whiny voice, however, is grating and has sadly become the template for unskilled underground emcees across the nation.

Marshall Mathers has built an immensely successful career by mining the tropes of other emcees and tricking them out in his own rhymes.

One gets the sense that had he not single-handedly revived the recording industry with each of his subsequent releases, Mathers would be far more open to detractors within the music-biz food chain. It's hard to imagine any other white emcee winning an Oscar for a film that gives black folks within the hip-hop community the Black Hawk Down treatment.

"For some people, the mere fact that Eminem is popular, the mere fact that Eminem is recognized as maybe the most prominent emcee or lyricist in the game today strikes some as a form of hypocrisy and the theft of black culture," Watkins says. "In addition to asking why is it that young affluent whites are so interested in hip-hop, I think similarly we should ask why are young affluent black youth so interested in hip-hop. Why are young affluent Latino youth interested in hip-hop? In other words there is the myth of hip-hop as being the culture of the downtrodden, the culture of the sort of disenfranchised and the marginal in our society and yet the hip-hop universe is made up of so many facets of people."

Anger management tour:
Eminem, 50 cent, Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz

Fri, July 29

Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
16765 Lookout Rd., Selma
One such individual is college-educated Jonathan H. Smith, aka Lil' Jon. The son of Atlanta neurosurgeons, Lil' Jon built his empire with club music and initially found his hustle by throwing house parties in his parents' mansion. "We all used to just basically hang out and party. That's how it kind of started; that's how I got into being in the club for one, and just understanding how to throw parties. My parents saw it initially as me DJ-ing in the basement and they saw it grow from me just DJ-ing to me learning how to produce and do music. So, of course they're very pleased with how far I have come, 'cause they never thought that just by me having parties and DJ-ing in the basement that would give me a foundation for a future and having a musical career."

Back in the day, white rappers such as the Beastie Boys invited acts such as Public Enemy on the road to spread the hip-hop gospel and edutain the masses. These days, audiences are treated to the likes of Eminem, 50 Cent, and Lil' Jon, who exclaims: "That's one of the reasons we feel so blessed to be out on the road, and for Eminem to personally invite us out here, because we understand this is how, in the Motown days, they broke their acts. That's what we do this for. We do this to make money. You love the art but you gotta feed your damn family."

By M. Solis