No great band is born without a struggle and no great records are born in a vacuum. For every artist whose ideas make your wig spin there are a huge pile of influences – from specks of colour to swathes of sound – that delivered them to that point. And this is where The Roots Of… comes in. Each week we’ll take a band, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences…
“In high school,” Eminem once said, “being a rapper was like being one of the X-Men…”
Marshall Mathers III spent a great deal of his time at school wishing he were a superhero. A shy, skinny, glasses-wearing kid from a poor, broken home, the boy who became Eminem spent the first 14 years of his life being a target. Growing up in a seriously rough part of Detroit, random bullying and abuse was a wearingly predictable, day-to-day reality, but two random events would help to shape Mathers’ life. Aged nine he was beaten up so badly he developed a cerebral haemorrhage and slipped in and out of consciousness for five days – the older boy behind that beating, D’Angelo Bailey, would end up named in the song ‘Brain Damage’ from Eminem’s debut LP. Four or five years later, while walking home from a friend’s house, Mathers was jumped outside a shopping centre, robbed, stripped and had a gun held to his head. His life was only saved by a passing – armed – trucker who pulled his own gun on the boy’s attackers. It’s not hard to see how turning yourself into your own version of a superhero might seem attractive to someone who’d suffered through that sort of childhood.
By the spring of 1997 Eminem – now living with his girlfriend and their baby in a crack-infested neighbourhood – recorded the demos for ‘The Slim Shady EP’. After coming second in that year’s Rap Olympics event in Los Angeles, some copies of the EP made it to Interscope and their superstar signing, Dr Dre. “In my entire career in the music industry,” Dre said later “I have never found anything from a demo tape. When [I heard] this, I said, ‘Find him. Now!’” A few weeks later the pair were in the studio. They recorded ‘My Name Is’ in an hour and Eminem’s debut album quickly went quadruple platinum. But how did he actually get there?
IN THE BEGINNING
Eminem’s mother Debbie Nelson had been a Jimi Hendrix loving hippy-rocker who’d briefly been in a band called Daddy Warbucks with Em’s father, Marshall Bruce Mathers, Jr. It was Em’s mother who took him to see Talking Heads and Stevie Nicks (the boy liked ‘Rhiannon’, apparently), but it was her half-brother, Uncle Ronnie, who turned him onto hip hop, playing the 12-year-old Ice T’s ‘Reckless’ in 1984. A flood of music followed as hip-hop’s “golden age” unfurled over the next decade.
The sheer wealth of creativity that welled up between in the decade between 1986 and 1996 is still hard to take in. From the Beastie Boys to LL Cool J, Kool G Rap and DJ Polo to Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, NWA, A Tribe Called Quest and Brand Nubian, they all set the stage for those who’d follow, like Biggie, Nas, Tupac, Jay Z and, of course, Eminem.
OLD TIME’S SAKE
While still an artist stuck in the hustle, Eminem would sample LL Cool J, jazz legend Idris Muhammed, soul pioneer Curtis Mayfield, Grover Washington Jr and Bill Withers on his early tracks. ‘Just Don’t Give A Fuck’, from 1997, used a piece from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 while ‘When To Stand Up’ from a year later relied on a slice of Donny Hathaway’s 1972 cut, ‘Vegetable Wagon’ though neither of these tracks made much headway.
Sign up for the newsletter
50 SHADES OF DRE
… But Em’s debut major label debut single ‘My Name Is’ sampled Labi Siffre’s 1975 track, ‘I Got The…’ which, famously, features Chas & Dave on keys and drums. On the LP, ‘Guilty Conscience’ used Little Peggy March’s hit ‘I Will Follow Him’, while ‘Cum On Everybody’ weaved ‘Gimme What You Got’ by LA disco producers Le Pamplemousse and Gladys Knight & the Pips’ 1973 smash, ‘Who Is She (And What Is She To You)’. Finally, Eminem and Dre’s collaborations had given the young Marshall Mathers the platform and the success he’d spent his whole life dreaming of. “God sent me to piss the world off,” as he once said in a song. What he did with the fame – and his attitude to the world – is a whole other story.