The Cute Little Guy On The Left Is Marshall Bruce111, And That's His Mom Debbie.....
Thursday 30 September 1999
But not Debbie Mathers-Briggs. She thinks her superstar son is a bad, bad boy too. Not for his musical prowess or his financial acumen, but because he has accused her of some truly nasty things in recent television and magazine interviews - such as beating him and stealing his money while she busily popped pills. And now she wants to get even.
It is Eminem's family saga that has taken him from the style pages of the American media to the news section in the last few weeks. Debbie is suing the 26-year-old she knows as Marshall Bruce Mathers III for $10m, claiming she was libelled in interviews he gave to Rolling Stone magazine and a number of other publications. "Get a fucking job and help me out with these bills or your ass is out," he says she told him. "Then she would fucking kick me out anyway, half the time right after she took most of my pay check."
It is his music, not his mother, that has made him famous. His first album, Slim Shady, was a huge hit; the next is hotly awaited. His tracks are full of the dark life of white trash: a man who kills the mother of his daughter and dumps the body at the beach, tales of rape, of being beaten up in the school toilets, and of death. He is hugely controversial in that part of American society which is convinced that music, not bullets, is what kills teenagers when they are gunned down at school.
Eminem's version of his life story (as told to Rolling Stone and Howard Stern) is, in many respects, a stereotypical tale of white poverty. His father left when he was a baby, and other men circulated through the house: "My mother would move them in, and then she would kick them out and keep their stuff," he recalls.
His descriptions of life with his mother are harsh and unforgiving, and they are, of course, the subject of a lawsuit. But he clearly accuses her of abusing him and his brother; he recalls being forced to testify against her in court after she beat up his half-brother. "My mother never worked, so her income was lawsuits," he said. "My mother was in K-Mart and my brother hit her with a toy, and she said a rack fell on her and she sued K-Mart."
Debbie took the boys and settled in the tough east side of Detroit. Eminem says that he withdrew into comics and TV, and had few friends. "I didn't really start opening up until eighth grade, going into ninth." He dropped out of school, to concentrate on rapping. Then last year, the hip hop magazine The Source picked him up in its "Unsigned Hype" column. His ascent was meteoric. Slim Shady, released earlier this year, sold more than two million copies, and Eminem is now gathering awards like swear words. His music is highly controversial, of course, and includes frequent references to his hatred of women in general, and of his mother in particular.
For her part, Debbie has clearly decided that the time has come to do something about her foul-mouthed son. Her lawsuit states that "she has suffered various forms of emotional distress, including diminished self- esteem, humiliation, sleepless nights, harm to her credit rating, and even loss of her mobile home".
Eminem's lawyer, meanwhile, says that he will defend the lawsuit on the basis that everything the rap star said about his mother was true. "The lawsuit does not come as a surprise to Eminem - his mother has been threatening to sue him since the success of his single," he said. "It is merely the result of a lifelong strained relationship... Regardless, it is still painful to be sued by your mother and therefore the lawsuit will only be responded to through legal channels."
And, he added, "Eminem's life is reflected in his music. Everything he said can be verified as true - the truth is an absolute defence to a claim of defamation." In many ways, that is the key both to this lawsuit and to the way it has been perceived in the tightly knit world of hip hop: that Eminem is telling the truth when he raps, and that - like the black rappers who have created the hip hop nation, he has seen the darker side of life and is now talking about it. "It's like the real, stereotypical, trailer-park, white trash," he told Rap Pages.
Coming from the wrong side of the tracks - and from Detroit, the city of musical mixing par excellence - gives him an authority that other white rappers have lacked. Having a mother whose trailer has been repossessed helps; it underlines that this is a voice of anger from the white community every bit as real as the black voices of New York and Los Angeles.
Rap in America is a massive business. Last year, for the first time, it sold more records than did country music. And it has grown at an exponential pace, much faster than any other musical form; the most eagerly awaited record releases of the year are all in the genre. While rock in America is largely stagnant and regularly pronounced dead, hip hop is on the way up, with no end in sight. But the hip hop world is no longer the exclusive possession of the young, deprived black male.
The music has long had a thriving white middle-class audience, who bought in to the sense of anger and rebellion, for the statement it made about race, but above all for the music. There is even an odd neologism to describe the young white men (and they are mainly men) who wanted to embrace the hip hop nation: wiggaz.
The music began out of New York City street parties in the Seventies, and the music media sought to kill it off as a mere passing phase virtually every year after that. But it would not die; indeed, it kept on growing. MTV leapt on to the bandwagon in 1986 with "Yo! MTV Raps," where "raps" was a synonym for "makes money". By the time Niggaz With Attitude released the gangsta album Straight Outta Compton in 1988, the mass market was there, and the record captured a moment, but also a market. The single "Fuck Tha Police" outraged and infuriated people across America, but in musical terms they had caught something; not just the mood of anger with the police in Los Angeles, or black rage, but a beat that would not, could not stop.
In the early Nineties, Vanilla Ice nearly killed off the idea of the white rapper, becoming perhaps the most execrated man in American popular music. He was seen as the Lena Zavaroni of rap: a record company ploy to annex a vast chunk of black culture. But things have shifted in the last few years, and white faces are creeping back into rap, Wiggaz With Attitude. Many of them are using both rap and rock, dragging together two musical forms that Run DMC and Aerosmith had already shown could co- exist. Now other rappers such as Kid Rock, and groups such as Korn and Limp Bizkit, are cashing in.
Of course, we shouldn't be surprised: it's an old phenomenon in American music. As the record producer Sam Phillips put it, shortly before he discovered Elvis Presley, "If I could find a white man who had the Negro soul and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars."
Which is not to say that Eminem is the new Elvis, but he is in a long chain of those who have sought their music on the other side of the tracks, and have often been more successful commercially than the people from whom they took their inspiration. And some black hip hop advocates fear that Eminem and the rest, however talented they may be, will siphon the audience away from black music, diluting the idea of the music, snatching the microphone from an authentically black voice.
If that is so, then there is a further irony in Eminem's story. Whereas before it was white businessmen signing up the black talent and squeezing every penny they could out of them, now Eminem's boss, inspiration and muse is Dr Dre, the man behind Niggaz With Attitude, who runs Aftermath, Eminem's label. He is straight outta Compton and straight in to a $5m English country-house-style residence in the San Fernando Valley, thank you very much.
Dr Dre gave his old house to his mother, by the way; which may be another useful piece of advice to hand on to his young white protege.
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