The year was 1999 and rap music was coming off of the back of its ‘shiny suit’ era: think Puff Daddy and Ma$e dressed in tin foil, Harlem shaking their way around a wind tunnel. Then a snotty white boy from Detroit, armed with a quick wit, a controversial sense of humour, unbelievable lyrical capabilities and a mischievous alter ego, made a grab for his slice of the pie
“Hi, kids! Do you like violence?/ Wanna see me stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids?”
Everyone remembers hearing those words for the very first time. How could they not? They were funny. They were different. And who, in their right mind, would think to rhyme violence with eyelids?
More a wake up call than a hit single, even though at the time it did sell over three million copies worldwide and earn him his first Grammy, Eminem’s ‘My Name Is’ put hip hop on notice. With super producer Dr. Dre riding shotgun, things were about to change in a very big way.
Released in January 1999, a month before ‘The Slim Shady LP’ hit stores, the hilariously controversial single ‘My Name Is’ was like nothing rap had ever heard before. Em talked about abusing his teacher, which Spice Girl he wanted to impregnate, driving under the influence, and even put his mother on blast for doing more drugs than him – which she later sued him for.
Royce Da 5’9”, Eminem’s rhyme partner for the past 20 years, remembers hearing Dre play the now iconic Labi Siffre-sampling instrumental for the very first time.
“I was there when Dre was playing the ‘My Name Is’ sample,” Royce tells NME. “I remember Marshall saying, ‘Hi, my name is,’ and Dre being like, ‘Wait, what did you just say?’ It was just one of those magical moments. Dre was like, ‘No, seriously, what did you say? Oh no, you gotta get in the booth and say that.’ And we all know what happened then.”
‘The Slim Shady LP’ was predominantly produced by Jeff and Mark Bass, a Detroit production duo who were responsible for grooming Eminem during his early years. The album was made up of mostly new cuts, but also a couple of random songs and a few tracks from the previously released ‘Slim Shady EP’.
Producing ‘Just Don’t Give A Fuck’ and ‘Low Down, Dirty’ on the ‘Slim Shady EP’, Denaun Porter (aka Kon Artis of D12) wasn’t privy to exactly how the selection process for ‘The Slim Shady LP’ went down, he remembers that it all happened very quickly.
“I wasn’t there when they were picking the tracks for the album,” Denaun explains to NME. “I just remember he was knocking them down, like he was killing the songs as they were coming to him.”
And if it wasn’t for Denaun and his work on the ‘Slim Shady EP’ we might never have heard of Eminem, or so Dr. Dre once told Denaun in so many words.
“When I met Dre for the first time I was nervous,” he admits. “Somebody introduced me to him and was like, ‘Yo, this is Denaun. He did ‘Just Don’t Give A Fuck’ and he did ‘Low Down, Dirty’.’ So this person was name checking all the shit that Dre had heard that made him wanna sign Em. So he turns to me and he says, ‘Well you’re the reason we’re here.’ And I couldn’t believe it. So while I didn’t directly work on ‘The Slim Shady LP’, because of that moment it felt like I did.”
So why did Denaun not work on the album if he was so instrumental in getting Em signed?
“I got robbed. I got jerked,” he says, laughing.
“So this is the first time I’ve ever told this story because I never felt comfortable telling it before. When Em got the deal I was sending music over to Mark and Jeff Bass hoping they were just gonna give it to Em like normal because that was the regular thing. I wasn’t one to run up on him like, ‘Since you made it, I made it.’ Nah. I was like, ‘You go do your thing and I’ma be there and I’ll make it too’ – this was before we did the group thing.
“So I was sending them the music and I was listening to what they were making and I felt like the things that I heard Jeff playing was influenced by my shit. I heard a lot of nuances that resembled things I’d sent over, so I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’ So I just stopped sending shit. I kinda got left in the wind when it came down to that because I wasn’t there and Mark and Jeff were in control. And this is something I don’t even think Marshall was aware of but I know he was getting jerked around by them too so it doesn’t matter now.”
The one credit Denaun did get on ‘The Slim Shady LP’ was as pre-producer and drum programmer on ‘Just Don’t Give A Fuck’, but even then his name was spelt incorrectly within the album’s inlay – it read ‘Denine Porter’.
“They just put it on there like that, I had nothing to do with my own credit,” he says, holding his head in his hands.
While great music can prick up your ears and touch the soul, most of ‘The Slim Shady LP’ can hit you in the face like a sledgehammer. Think ‘Role Model’ and the lyrics: “I’ll strangle you to death, then I’ll choke you again/And break your fucking legs ’til your bones poke through your skin.”
Full of ‘did-he-really-just-say-that?’ moments and harsh reality raps, what helped the album stand out the most was Em’s extreme sense of humour.
Outrageous at the best of times – on ‘I’m Shady’ he spits: “My baby mama’s not dead, she’s still alive and bitchin’/And I don’t have herpes, my dick’s just itchin’/It’s not syphilis, and as for being AIDS-infested/I don’t know yet, I’m too scared to get tested” – you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase collaborative stand-up album.
The first track Royce Da 5’9” and Eminem ever recorded together was ‘Bad Meets Evil’, which later also became the name of their rap duo. Other than ‘Guilty Conscience’ with Dr. Dre, it ended up being the only track that contained a named guest feature on ‘The Slim Shady LP’.
“It was just a song that we had,” says Royce. “This was before the internet and shit so it was really just a song that we were probably riding around in our neighbourhoods playing for people. We weren’t doing anything with it. It was just a song that two underground kids did together.”
A witty back and forth with complex wordplay and explosive punchlines that hears them rhyme “Vietnamese people” with “Steve Seagal,” ‘Bad Meets Evil’ was an early introduction into what Eminem and Royce’s lyrical tag team was capable of. And that’s precisely why Dre wanted it on the album.
“Em told me he and Dre were going through the songs for the album,” Royce remembers. “He was like, ‘We feel like we wanna put the song on the album. Do you think you could come out to LA and re-cut the vocals?’ And I just said, ‘Hell yeah! Hell yeah! Hell yeah!’ And that’s when me and Em became real tight.”
Another standout moment on the album was the previously mentioned ‘Guilty Conscience’, Em’s first official collaboration with Dr. Dre. With a clever narrative that felt like it could have been written for a rap version of ‘Tales From the Crypt’, for Denaun it was the production and actually hearing it for the first time sitting in a car with Em back in Detroit that stirred his creative juices and inspired a change within himself.
“My whole life changed in that car,” says Denaun. “It felt like I was the one who was rapping with Dre. I got a glimpse into something that nobody else had and it made me wanna be a better producer. From that moment I knew I had to change everything. I knew I had to step my shit up. And my beats got better just from listening to that one song just one time, I’ll never forget it.”
Aside from blowing the doors off of Hip Hop and expanding its reach commercially, something else ‘The Slim Shady LP’ did – for better or worse – was open the door for other white rappers to enter the game without coming under as much fire as those that came before Em.
For a very long time rap was mostly a spectator sport for caucasian fans, there weren’t many white rappers who were accepted within the black art form. Of course there were The Beastie Boys, who before Eminem were probably the most credible, and at the other end of the scale you had pop-leaning manufactured acts like Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark. Then sprinkled somewhere in-between there were names like MC Serch of 3rd Bass, Everlast of House of Pain, Milkbone, Cage and a few others.
Today there’s a never-ending list of white rappers that no one even blinks an eye at; it’s the norm now. And many of them are credible and very capable MCs. Whether it’s G-Eazy, Machine Gun Kelly, Mac Miller (R.I.P.), Asher Roth, Jared Evan, Brother Ali, Slug of Atmosphere, there’s a long list that goes on and on. But Eminem is the reason they exist. He opened the door. He was the trailblazer, the one who went first. He earned the respect of a culture he knew he was a guest in and ‘The Slim Shady LP’ is what he used to gain admission.
“I know for a fact that a lot of black people were like, ‘Yo, I fuck with him because he’s not trying to be us, he’s being himself and he’s dope as fuck at it’,” Denaun explains. “He changed the way people looked at a white person in the genre. He opened the door for every white rapper period. It was bigger than 3rd Bass and Vanilla Ice and Everlast, and all the others that came before him. He opened the door that much wider.”
“I don’t think it changed a lot when it came to, let’s say black culture, but he took a chance at opening a door that was normally closed and he told a story that nobody had ever heard. Em took the art of what hip hop was and turned it into his thing, right? So it wasn’t as if he took it and abused it, what he did was he took it and made it his own. He became a storyteller for white people and changed the way everybody looked at their own lives.”
It’s not possible to dispute Denaun’s comments regarding Em’s storytelling abilities. His stories are so vivid you feel like you’re experiencing them with him. Whether it’s riding in the backseat of the car he and Hailie are, er, transporting Kim’s dead body in on ‘’97 Bonnie & Clyde’, or bitching in a bar over a beer about all the things you’d do if you weren’t struggling below the poverty line, like on ‘If I Had’, Em’s music makes you feel like you’re there.
When Eminem dropped ‘The Slim Shady LP’ he became public enemy number one. Signed to Aftermath via Interscope Records, a label known for supporting controversial artists such as Marilyn Manson, 2Pac and Nine Inch Nails, he shook things up and turned the discord meter all the way up to 11.
He was young, restless, relatable, anti-establishment in a Sex Pistols kinda way, and someone who regularly challenged societal norms. It was a thing of beauty. But would he get away with it and be as successful doing so as a new artist releasing his debut album today, in a world where everyone seems to be a lot more sensitive and has a platform to share their opinion thanks to social media?
“Of course he would, man!” Royce says, literally laughing out loud. “A classic is a classic. That’s why they call it a classic because that shit can come out in any era and it would still be amazing.
“Sure people would be a little more sensitive but they’d stream the shit out of it. He was so funny, man. He was so funny and he brought his sense of humour across so well back then, you know what I’m saying? He’s a lot more serious now, he’s not as goofy as he was. But back then he was a jokester all day. The climate nowadays would eat that shit up. With the internet and everything, if he had a camera in his face all the time he’d be bigger than he is now.”
It’s obvious, even to someone who isn’t a rap fan, that ‘The Slim Shady LP’ changed music in so many ways. It may be 20-years-old but it sounds as fresh now as it did when it landed. For Royce it’ll never be replicated.
“It was the first time we heard something like that and we’ll never hear it done like that again,” he says, adamantly. “It’s like a novelty, you know what I’m saying? Like it’s a novelty act that comes along once every, I don’t know how many generations, but we won’t see that shit again in this lifetime, hell nah!”
Denaun shares Royce’s opinion, adding: “It was groundbreaking. It was life changing. It switched gears for Hip Hop forever.”
‘The Slim Shady LP’ was released February 23, 1999 and has sold over 18 million copies worldwide.