A Season in Hell

Alex Abramovich on Eminem's place in hip-hop history.

I know where I'm going, I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.            - Muhammad Ali

I am whatever you say I am.            - Eminem

ONE DAY, midway through the dark wood of the 1970s, English author Angela Carter found herself sharing a bus with a skinhead. "There was this skinhead on the bus," she wrote. "He was adorned with two tattoos, both obviously self-inflicted. One went round his neck. It was a serrated line with the instruction: slit here. The other, on his forehead, was a swastika." The skinhead, twitchy and wasted, got off at Vauxhall and started walking towards what was then the ghetto of Brixton.

"To walk through Brixton with a swastika on the forehead, and an exhortation to slit the throat under one ear, is not so much provocative as suicidal," Carter wrote, "even if, along Electric Avenue, his appearance was certainly read as an advertisement of his own psychosis rather than a political statement. The kid had turned himself into a walking piece of racist graffiti. He filled me with rage, pity, and terror."

A quarter century later, the ghetto that absorbed Angela's young punk has spit him back -- threat, hatred, and self-loathing intact and amplified -- into the arms of the white world. Unlike the ghetto, which always knows what's hitting it, that world has no idea what to make of the offering. But its children do, and that scares it more than anything. It fears the threat and resents the effrontery. Parents, Will Smith argued, just don't understand. Eminem shifts that perplexity into apoplectic overdrive.

Billboard editor Timothy White, whose early editorial set the tone for much of what's been written about Eminem since, accused the rapper (who sports a "slit here" tattoo on his wrist) of playing "a leadership role in making money by exploiting the world's misery" and suggested (rather touchingly) that, instead of buying Slim Shady's records, his readers "call 800-694-5354 and get the two-CD Respond album (Signature Sounds), a lovely, life-affirming 27-track charity anthology of folk music by New England's top female artists."

Bristling at such absurdities, Eminem's admirers drive to the other extreme. There, we find the London Guardian telling its readers that "a brief examination of [the song] 'Stan' reveals it to have all the depth and texture of the greatest examples of English verse," comparing its composer to Browning, Eliot, Whitman, Tennyson, Hardy, Kipling, Frost, Pound, Chaucer, and Yeats, and fitting him "snugly into the tradition of the verse epistle out of which the dramatic monologue developed."

Eminem's reaction to both camps has been a cavalier not giving of a fuck, buttressed by a response visceral enough to undermine his own stance. "You think I give a damn about a Grammy?" he rapped on his latest album. Public Enemy's Flavor Flav had asked the same question a decade earlier, but where PE was talking about how they couldn't even imagine the possibility, Eminem had already scored two statuettes. If the Grammys failed Flav by ignoring him, they anger Eminem by failing to recognize his efforts to blacklist himself. All of which begs questions twelve million record buyers seem to have had no trouble answering for themselves: Do we understand Eminem too well, or not at all? What did Carter's kid learn in the ghetto that makes him such a threat? What tradition, apart from that of the verse epistle, does Eminem spring from?

BRITISH-BORN SLICK RICK, whose smooth, laconic flow served as a segue between old-school rap and the music we hear booming from today's Jeeps and Six-Fours, is credited with being the first rapper to incorporate the word bitch into his lyrics. A backwards step for mankind, it was a leap forward for the art, into which it introduced the kind of complexities that still cause discomfort. The song was 1985's "La-Di-Da-Di," -- one of the few raps to be covered in its entirety by other artists -- and its nursery rhyme cadences cut against the grain of Rick's nonchalant misogyny so sharply that the rap was impossible to shake. "Treat Her Like a Prostitute," which kicks off Rick's first LP, wore its feelings on its sleeve, but "La-Di-Da-Di" was wittier and grittier, and remains a hip-hop touchstone.

In Rick's day (the rapper was incarcerated for a 1990 murder attempt), the gangsta style he godfathered -- narratives incorporating cartoonish violence, grotesque misogyny, and outrageous depictions of criminal activity -- was just one alternative to the political fervor of Public Enemy, the witty, jazz-inflected raps of the Native Tongue crew (De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest) or new beats coming from the West Coast. By the time Rick was released from prison, much of hip-hop had become mainstreamed and homogenized, and the market had settled on gangsta as its most its viral strain. Public Enemy lost much of its appeal, as did the Native Tongue groups. Underground crews like the Wu-Tang Clan, self-described thugs Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, and West Coast hustlers tracing their lineage back to NWA (Niggas Wit Attitude, of "Fuck the Police" fame) topped charts in the mid-nineties. Today, what Dr. Dre describes as "a new era of gangstas, hustlers, and yougsters" control the airwaves. So when people say college-rap icon Q-Tip went "pop," what they mean is that he adopted the trappings and mannerisms of a gangsta.

HIP-HOP IS UNIQUE in that its grit, grime, and misery has all come to the surface. That's what the market demands, and only as you go underground does rap lighten up and loosen the scowl. Take Biggie Smalls, for example. A Brooklyn crack dealer who was known around Bed-Stuy as an able amateur rapper, Smalls took up rapping in earnest after a stint in jail. His original flow, commanding delivery, lyrical dexterity, and cinematic sense of storytelling made him an overnight sensation. Biggie rapped about snatching jewels from the throats of pregnant women, dealing crack, and the size of his own dick. He rapped about growing up in poverty ("Shit, it's hard growing up in the slum/Chewing five-cent gum/Wondering where your meal's coming from"), and the difficulty of escaping it ("The streets are a short stop/Either you're slinging crack rock/Or you've got a wicked jump shot"). He wrote one of hip-hop's most moving, and tragic, love songs, and called it "Me and My Bitch." The streets caught up with him in Los Angeles, where he was murdered -- apparently in retaliation for the murder of Tupac Shakur six months earlier -- in 1997. But Smalls remains wildly influential, in the sense Shakur captured when the two performed together at the Tunnel, "Niggaz never die," Shakur rapped. "We just retaliate with hate/Then multiply."

Smalls' voice conveyed passion, authenticity, despair. But something strange began to happen as soon as he used it to talk about his life. Events floated free of their context and became stylized. The words came to describe nothing so much as the feeling you got when you first heard them. What that feeling was, to many Americans, was something like "This is real." Even if they found the things being described reprehensible, which they were, they may have thought to themselves, "This, at least, is happening." The way a mother's voice signals safety, Biggie's began to signal authenticity. Even before Smalls' death, Method Man had incorporated a Marvin Gaye sample into a song to indicate romance and a quote from "Me and My Bitch" ("Lie together/Cry together/I swear to God I hope we fucking die together") to indicate that his sentiments weren't romanticized.

Rightly or wrongly, it's this gritty authenticity that America relies on black culture to provide -- it helps explain the appeal NWA and Ice-T had for whites years before Biggie came on the scene. But Smalls, like Shakur, raised the stakes in the authenticity sweepstakes until it became hard to tell where stories stopped and thuggery began. His violent death, envisioned again and again in his raps, seems a logical extension not only of his life, but of his art. And this confusion of art and morality, encouraged by Smalls and his cohorts, is what underlies the controversy surrounding Eminem.

LET METHOD MAN quote Smalls quoting Dre, then complete the circle by inviting Dre's protégé Snoop Dogg to rap on the new Wu-Tang album, and the establishment will see a closed circuit. Let a white man win a mass audience by inserting himself into the circuit, and the threat of all that electricity, injustice, and rage spilling into white backyards becomes terribly real. To see what I mean, you need only compare Eminem's work to his mentor's.

At thirty-six, Andre Young (who cut his teeth in NWA, mentored an entire generation of gansta rappers, and released a handful of remarkably influential albums under his own name) should be a hip-hop relic. But Dr. Dre remains very much on the scene, thanks in part to his association with Eminem, whom he discovered in 1997 (when the Detroit MC took second place at LA's Rap Olympics) and subsequently produced. Eminem had released records prior to hooking up with Dre, but these had failed both commercially and artistically. They're most notable today for the relative absence of misogyny, homophobia, and unidirectional rage that came to the fore in Dre's productions.

Eminem's misogyny and homophobia pale next to what Dr. Dre is capable of. And yet, Dre is also capable of shifting effortlessly between vile, violent lyrics and the sort of militancy Public Enemy's Chuck D. had in mind when he called rap black America's CNN. His fans have no trouble distinguishing between the two or sensing how fact drives the fantasy. Thus, The Chronic 2001's "The Watcher" can follow a comic intro with verses like:

Things just ain't the same for gangstas
Cops is anxious to put niggas in handcuffs
They wanna hang us, see us dead, or enslave us
Keep us trapped in the same place we're raised in
Then they wonder why we act so outrageous
Run around stressed out and pull out gauges
Cause every time you let the animal out [of] cages
It's dangerous, to people who look like strangers

It's disturbing to think so few of Eminem's critics have bothered to reference his mentor -- not because they'd see where so much of what outrages them comes from and not because they'd learn how rage works itself out through what Dre calls "image and acting," but because it'd do them good to learn what that rage is rooted in. 

But if Eminem's whiteness is largely to blame for the furor he causes, the color of his skin also cuts him off from hip-hop's most powerful engine. On the one hand, the rapper, who was raised in Detroit by a single welfare mom, clearly identifies with low-income blacks. On the other, black rappers remain black men no matter where they go, while Eminem's success cuts him off from the class resentment that fuels his fire. This aesthetic aphasia drives him into a frenzy of indignation, and shock value becomes a last resort. "You said I couldn't rap about being broke no more," he raps. What follows -- and it follows in the same spirit that caused Sid Vicious, who was not a Nazi, to wear a swastika on his breast -- is "Didn't say I couldn't rap about coke no more/Slut, think I won't choke no whore/'Till the vocal cords don't work in her throat no more?"

IN THE END, Eminem is left with nothing to rap about but the outrage his raps cause:

All of this controversy circles me
And…the media immediately points a finger at me
So I point one back at 'em
But not the index or the pinky or the ring or the thumb
It's the one you put up when you don't give a fuck
When you won't just put up with the bullshit they pull
Cause they full of shit too
When a dude's gettin bullied and shoots up your school
And they blame it on Marilyn [Manson] and the heroin
Where were the parents at?
And look where it's at.

Because Eminem's energies are directed towards offending ("I was put here," he raps, "to piss the world off"), it's strange how much power to shock he retains. It's the limits of good taste that Eminem's raps start at; only the bounds of his own imagination limit how offensive they get. And so, while critics quote couplet after couplet to illustrate how vile he can be, his admirers quote the same lines to illustrate his wit and lyrical dexterity. Both are so wide of the mark that Eminem himself doesn't feel any particular obligation to take their complaints to heart. This may be why his reply to White's Billboard rant begins with the teasing possibility of the rapper searching his soul and coming into the light:

Give me the mic
Let me recite to Timothy White
Pickets outside the Interscope offices every night
What if he's right?
I'm just a criminal making a living off the world's misery--
What in the world gives me the right?

but ends with the only response you'd have a right to expect when accusing a truly punk kid of homophobia:

So when you see me dressin' up like a nerd on TV
Or heard the CD using the fag word so freely
It's just me being me, here want me to tone it down?
Suck my fucking dick you faggot -- you happy now?

Em's point here may be that it's White's hatred of him, and not his own hatred of gays, that pushes him towards homophobia -- gays just happen to be the object he hurls at White's head. While it's true that this particular egg preceded the chicken -- Eminem may be responding to White, but White would be a non-issue had Eminem not bashed gays in the first place -- the shift signals a small step in the right direction. Compare, for example, Dre's defense of his own fag-bashing: "I don't really care about those people."

There's an unexpected postmodern quality to Eminem's stance, a dare based on the rapper's confidence that, since every action of his is a reaction, no one can pin down what it is he truly believes. You're reminded of the contemporary writer's boast that "I anticipated all the possible angles a reviewer might take, and incorporated them.... So there were no surprises in terms of any reservations or comments anyone made, given that I was much harder… than anyone else could possibly be." But our Dave Eggers of rap is forced to juggle issues of success and credibility (each based on the other, each exclusive of the other) that dwarf the author's. Personally, I suspect Eminem is full of hate. Paradoxically, the hate seems both central and incidental to his art.

THE GRAMMYS, of course, were a joke. What, exactly, is being recognized when Steely Dan beats out Britney Spears, or Eminem? The Academy itself doesn't seem to know. "Notable. Noticeable. And, oftimes, controversial," were the criteria Academy president/aesthetician Michael Greene gave while introducing the rapper. "It's important to remember that the Academy is not here to defend, or vilify, censor, or commercialize art," Greene said, then proceeded to endorse Eminem, and implicitly vilify groups (like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance), who ran some rather effective ads during pauses in the programs.  Greene's argument appealed to everything from the CNN-ization of rap to the demonization of Elvis, then delved into the psychology of the white, suburban teen. One reeled away from the lecture feeling that Eminem was a teacher, that his lyrics were nothing to bristle at, and that the only people he posed a threat to were latch-key kids who might happen upon his records when the folks weren't around. "Let's not forget folks," Greene concluded, "that it takes tolerance to teach tolerance."

But where's the tolerance in Eminem? What should parents say when leading their latch-key kids through lyrics like "turn around and take it like a slut/Ok, ma?" Eminem has talent and originality, but not enough to merit such a stirring defense. He has outraged, and that may well be a good thing -- if nothing else, the outrage ensured that the show's subtext was the cross-pollination of femininity, masculinity, and gender as it's played out in the mass-media, and that really is worth discussing -- but what else has he done? The defense came too early. Performing with Elton John -- who at this point has more in common with CBS, which broadcast the show, than with Eminem, who sold it -- is something, but the rapper has a lot left to prove. That final Grammy didn't belong to him any more than it did to Steely Dan.

Fifty years ago, Elvis was made to gyrate before a corporate symbol -- a dog listening to a Victrola -- which looked a lot like the Recording Academy's. Photos of the performance capture something of what it might have looked like if Moses had been caught bowing to Pharaoh, and the King was never quite as good again. Eminen, too, gave an obliging performance last night (even changing most of the cuss words in his rap, though CBS, in anticipation of yet another outrage, ended up jumping their beeps and leaving in the curses). The song Eminem picked was a dialog between a disturbed fan and the object of his fixation: Eminem. It was both a defense and apology, as was Elton John's presence on stage. Eminem even riffed a bit to talk about the positive effects his lyrics could have ("I can relate to what you're saying in your songs/So when I have a crummy day/I drift away and put them on/Cause I don't really got shit else/So that shit helps when I'm depressed"). In the end, he seemed sorry for all the fuss he'd caused, but unbowed. But if Eminem is to use last night as a starting point -- and ends up being remembered for something more than anger, and the anger he encouraged in us -- he needs to take Elton John's embrace (a remarkably generous gesture on the singer's part, no matter what motivated it) to heart, and learn, as the great man said, tolerance from tolerance.

Alex Abramovich is a senior writer at FEED.


His fans have no trouble distinguishing between the two

Thankfully, Eminem's fans seem to have no more difficulty separating fact from fantasy than Dre's -- or, for that matter, than any six-year-old sitting down to a stretch of Saturday morning cartoons. "But what if he were rapping about Jews instead of gays and women?" is a frequent response, the insinuation being that Jews, who have power, would put an end to it, whereas women and gays, who have none, want to, but can't. But in fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Elton John is an avid fan, and Zadie Smith and Missy Elliot have both gushed about Eminem in the press. The rapper made the top-ten lists of gay critics across the country, and The Marshall Mathers LP was in heavy rotation at gay discos last spring and summer. Similarly, one needn't stray into art's dark corners to find examples of rabid anti-Semites whose works (if not personalities) were embraced by Jews. Kafka would be unimaginable without Dostoevsky. Philip Roth's favorite writer happens to be Céline. More recently, Jewish parents packed their kids into Volkswagens and drove them to Marilyn Manson concerts, which featured a crypto-fascist stage show.

It's interesting, though, to hear Jews being dragged into it, because what yesterday's protests brought to mind wasn't so much the white reaction to Elvis, which is invariably referenced once you get into an argument over Eminem, as the 1948 controversy over the Library of Congress awarding Ezra Pound the Bollingen Prize. Pound's rage, which expressed itself finally as anti-Semitism, was central to his poetry. But the poetry (Pound was nominated for the Pisan Cantos he wrote while imprisoned for treason ) happened to be good. T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and W. H. Auden, who were all on the prize committee, argued that politics were incidental to poetry, and voted for Pound receiving the prize. Karl Shapiro, though he recognized Pound's talents, voted against. No matter what the merits, Shapiro argued, one simply couldn't say such things about Jews, especially so soon after what had happened in Europe. Meaning, in other words, that his wasn't an aesthetic judgment but a moral one. I'm not positive Shapiro was wrong to vote the way he did. But I've got a feeling that in Eminem's case, as in Pound's, true argument must be predicated on the distinction.