Eminem’s Rap

February 21, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: For more on Eminem, we’re joined by Nelson George, a cultural writer and the author of several books about the music industry, including “Hip-Hop America;” and Oliver Wang, a music critic for several publications, including “The Source,” a magazine covering the rap industry. Oliver Wang, help us understand what is behind Marshall Mathers as a top selling artist. Is it the bad boy image, is it the music?

OLIVER WANG: I think it’s a lot of those – a lot of those elements put together. I think the fact that he was able to both bridge the gap between being appealing to black listeners on one hand, but also really to reach the key market among white teenagers, all those things came together to sort of propel him to the kind of pop star that he is.

RAY SUAREZ: And describe for me your experience sitting and listening to the 70 plus minutes of the Marshall Mathers LP.

OLIVER WANG: You know, my first impression is I really felt that it was very similar to his last album. I didn’t really find it to be that creative or innovative compared to what he put out on his first LP, the Slim Shady LP. And, moreover, he spends about half the album really sort of whining about how he is a victim and how he’s castigated by critics and just from a compelling point of view it’s not that imaginative. It’s not that interesting to listen to someone complain – you know — about how big of a star he is but sort of the cost of it — the way that he does it to me doesn’t suggest anything that I find particularly interesting. I didn’t think it was a bad album musically speaking, but I didn’t find it that compelling – and the content problems with it, you know, really made me much more questionable about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Whiny, not compelling, but is it offensive?

OLIVER WANG: I do. I do think it’s offensive. I think that what he describes on his album is sort of a combination of both ignorance and arrogance, which I would find frightening from any pop artist or any public official for that matter.

RAY SUAREZ: Nelson George, what should people who are just hearing about Marshall Mathers during this run up to the Grammy Awards understand about this man and the music he makes?

NELSON GEORGE: Well, he is probably one ever the funniest MC’s ever to come down the pike. He is a very fine wordsmith. He puts phrases together very well. He is a very compelling story teller and backed by Dr. Dre he is probably the preeminent hip hop producer of the last 15 years and arguably one of the most preeminent pop music producers of the last decade. It is a fine piece of pop music. The question of is he offensive or not is an interesting one in that I find him very humorous. I’m the guy who sat in the back row of Hannibal and laughed, however. And I think a lot of the people, there is a definite generational split, or an aesthetic split, in how he is perceived. If you feel, if you see that he is pushing the envelope on incest, on rape — he is taking topics that are not inherently funny and trying to find humor in them and in a very dead pan way. Then if you laugh at that, if you go along with that, then you are in on the joke. If you don’t feel he is funny, if you don’t feel he is a witty writer, then you are totally like this is the most offensive thing ever — so it’s… an aesthetic battle that is going on around the music.

RAY SUAREZ: Oliver Wang, just a generational problem?

OLIVER WANG: I think that is part of it though, but I think that, you know, there is satire on one hand and I think that there is a line that you can cross between satire and sadism to a certain degree. And I do think that he is a very witty lyricist in some ways, but I’m kind of curious – and maybe I can ask this of Nelson – that if he had replaced every reference in his songs… brutalizing gays in the queer community, and women for that matter, with references and racial slurs to African Americans — to what degree would Eminem have sort of the, have all these defenders and apologists out there? I think that, you know, less disturbing than Eminem to me is not so much the messenger but the message that he is putting out. And the fact that so many people including critics as well as the 7, 8 million people who have bought his album don’t bat an eye at what he is saying, I think that’s, you know, very perturbing — what does that say about what kind of values he’s espousing, how that is accepted within America?

RAY SUAREZ: Nelson George?

NELSON GEORGE: Well, I think that one thing hip hop has… proven is anyone can be offended at any point in time. Ten years ago NWA was saying exactly some of the same things about black people that Eminem has said is saying about gays, causing an equivalent uproar. Hip hop exists – at least this aspect of hip hop, the harder core of it — part of the reason for existing at all is to be offensive, is to challenge our social norms and to raise the hackles on the back of our neck. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything in Eminem or I agreed to everything in NWA. However, I think what they are expressing are the unspoken things that are going on in this country. Eminem speaks for – to some degree — a community of males, particularly young teenage males — white males for that matter — who are not… who have a rage, who feel alienated from the kinds of comforts of the last ten years, the economy doing well. There is a sort of a white trash — black trash — if you will — or urban world that is not spoken for, that’s not seen in pop culture. And, for better or worse, Eminem speaks for them, gives them voice. Some of the things he says in doing so are offensive to people but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are invalid.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, has the line moved? Has what is acceptable changed because the story, the old story that adults would be upset and wringing their hands over what young adults are listening to — there is nothing new in that. But there is a big difference between not shooting Elvis Presley below the waist on television and putting Marshall Mathers on?

NELSON GEORGE: Well, it’s about the respect for the audience ultimately. One of the other Grammy nominees… is “Two Against Nature” by Steely Dan — by two fine 50-year-old-esque musicians. On the album there are songs about incest – there are songs that border on pedophilia but because these guys are established artists, they’re 50, their audience is baby boomers. They take it for granted that their audience will understand that this is a sort of joke or a character playing a role play. When Marshall Mathers becomes Eminem, becomes Slim Shady, and uses multiple personalities, no one says, well, this is a very clever use of literary devices, this is a very clever way to try and be a story teller. It’s assumed that he means everything he is saying and if the audience will assume that they’re going to do everything he says – and that is a kind of way of condescending to the contemporary youth audience. That’s very offensive to me.

RAY SUAREZ: Oliver Wang, are there double standards in play? The Dixie Chicks had a hit song about killing an abusive husband. Shawn Colvin sang about burning her house down, with her husband in it — why is Marshall Mathers getting all the attention?

OLIVER WANG: Well, I think you are sort of comparing apples and oranges in those two cases. And I’m aware of the controversy around the Steely Dan nomination. And if Steely Dan had spent half their album or more sort of encouraging pedophilia -

NELSON GEORGE: …they spent more than half their career doing that. They been making songs like “Hey, 19″… that goes back to previous albums. It is not like Steely Dan is a group that has not walked the line – has not dealt with very aggressive and sometimes dark issues in their albums. But they are perceived as being adult music makers who know better and Eminem is not. I think there is a double standard very much at work.

RAY SUAREZ: Oliver Wang.

OLIVER WANG: Again, I think the issue with Eminem specifically is that there is definitely a line of satire that he takes. There is humor in his music and to a certain extent you could write off as he’s joking – but to me personally listening to the album there is a lot on there that to me did not seem like humor but actually seemed to speak to a certain pathology within Eminem in terms of his mistrust of the queer community — his mistrust and violence towards women and to me, I’m not advocating censorship by any means, but I do think that there is room, a valid room for public criticism against what he is doing and the album itself.

NELSON GEORGE: I absolutely agree with that. I think that what he has done is put a lot of things on the table. I think here is the thing: Why is Eminem popular? Several reasons, one is his wordsmith — his craftsmanship as an MC. Part is the music production of Dr. Dre and others, and part of it is there are levels of his message which are resonating with the audience. Now, we may not agree with that — the messages that are being presented — but it says something about the mentality that is around this country — especially among young men, that he speaks to. And I think that that is the issue. The issue is not Eminem per se – the issue is what he represents and what attitudes he is bringing to light. Both in a humorous way and sometimes in a very explicit way he is talking about the unease that a lot of young man have about their sexual identity – the unease some have about dealing with homosexuals and I think that is a valid thing to be discussing in American culture right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Oliver Wang, go ahead.

OLIVER WANG: Well, I’m not sure if he is discussing or advocating a certain line of action. I will say this much: Again I think that the focus should be less on Eminem as an artist and more in terms of whatever he is saying the album is disseminating. And, to me, what I find perturbing about all of the support that has been made publicly — especially in the last few days around Eminem — is that it reflects to me a value in which in America violence against gays, violence against women, is not simply accepted but in some ways sanctioned in terms if you look at propositions and legislation. And that what Eminem is speaking to — to his eight million fans and his rock critics — is an acceptable line of sort of rhetoric, which is that it’s okay to make jokes about bashing and killing gays, about killing women and maiming women because to some degree domestic violence and homophobia are things that are acceptable values. Again, if Eminem had made an album where he was slurring African Americans or slurring Jews, this situation would be quite different even if he was doing it with the same sort of humor that people are talking about. I think he would be run out of town instantly.

NELSON GEORGE: I think that hip hop has had a tradition — an unfortunate tradition in my view — of in fact slurring and attacking African Americans and having, being involved in some type of genocidal rhetoric. So it’s not a new thing. What Eminem is doing is taking — I’m not saying…

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, we going to leave it there. Nelson George, Oliver Wang, thank you both.