Unholy Regional Hit, Batman!

How is it possible for someone to sell over a quarter of a million records and remain all but unknown outside his home state? The Detroit rapper Esham has moved 195,000 CDs and tapes on his own and another 64,000 with his group Natas, according to Soundscan. His first album, Boomin Words From Hell, came out in 1990, when he was in ninth grade; a dozen more have appeared since, most recently the bizarre Mail Dominance. Esham Smith is his own producer, label owner, and distributor, and he's a star in area code 313 despite basically no radio play—he included the WJLB request and business numbers in 1996's Dead Flowerz. On the other hand, I couldn't find any of his records at any NYC chain store, which suggests that a lot of his sales happen away from Soundscan machines; Soundscan reports 12,000 copies of Mail Dominance sold so far, his label Overcore (www.overturemusic.com) says 30,000.

If Esham were from any other city, it wouldn't be a surprise that he's black. But there aren't many Detroit hip-hop types who've got any kind of national name recognition—Eminem, Kid Rock, the loathsome Insane Clown Posse, and, well, that's it. Given that Detroit has the highest percentage of black residents of any major American city, does the ethnic makeup of this list strike you as a little strange? In fact, Esham's arguably further out of the main hip-hop loop than any of those artists—he's turned up for a couple of verses on I.C.P. records, but he's not in on the "featuring" merry-go-round.

Still, it's kind of a virtue that he doesn't belong to any particular scene. The earlier records I've heard are pretty straight tough-guy boom with flashes of gruesome violence ("acid rap," he calls it), though they have odd touches, like the cover of Dead Flowerz: an extreme close-up of a blooming rose. '97's Bruce Wayne Gothom City 1987, though, was a major departure. Advertised with a Detroit-blitzing campaign of stickers that just said "Who Is Bruce Wayne?" it alternated violent posturing with flipped-out Batman-related ideation, with speaker-strangling bass and a pile of Space Invaders sound effects dumped in.

Mail Dominance keeps going in that off-the-hook direction. The first record Esham's made with an outside coproducer, it's full of strange swooshing noises, enigmatic coughs, instruments that seem to be on the wrong track, and voices at the periphery of the mix muttering nonsequiturs. It's intermittently irritating or annoying—the production is mega-chintzy, and boy does he hate women (hook of "Ozonelayer": "You bitch/you bitch/you bitch you bitch you bitch you bitch you bitch")—but it doesn't get anywhere near boring, or overfamiliar. And, smack in the middle, there's "Twirk Yo Body": Esham's stab at a crossover move, all wailing divas and Day-Glo funk guitar, with a couple of chattering, con tent-free raps thrown in. It sounds as cheap as the rest of the album, and it's a willful betrayal of his image, but boy does it bounce.

What really keeps Dominance fun, though, is that Esham keeps swaggering into places where hip-hop doesn't often tread. "Reload" is set to a hair-metal hybrid of "A Fifth of Beethoven" and "Tubular Bells"; "?" is low-grade imitation Van Halen (he's called a bunch of tracks on other discs "?" too); a synth obbligato that runs through "California Dreamin" is lifted from "Für Elise"; "Lightyearsaway" finds him rapping over the goddamn Happy Days theme. There are allusions to "Paranoid Android," "Care less Whisper" and "Mr. Sandman," plus a line that goes "With my nine-inch nail I'm going to fuck you like an animal." But historically black and white pop tend to feed off each other in Detroit: remember Funkadelic's "Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?" or the MC5 covering Sun Ra and James Brown?

The other side effect of being based in a city where Devil's Night is the major annual social event is that his "wicket shit" plays well there. For a while, Esham was appending The Unholy to his name; he's taken lots of flack over his devil-in-the-moon logo, talk about "suicidalists," and Natas—it stands for "Nation Ahead Of Time And Space," he told Murder Dog magazine, but "it's Satan backwards, if you're dyslexic or something." (The one New Yorker I asked who'd heard of him, a Detroit transplant, said "Oh, yeah, Esham: he eats babies.") So these days he's retreated from Ultimate Evil to general nastiness, though it's still mighty unnerving when, for instance, he slips "blow ya fuckin' head off" into "Whoa"'s nursery-rhyme cadences and sample of "All I Have To Do Is Dream." His fans gravitate to his records for their evil quotient: "[KKKill The Fetus] was the best cause my uncle zoned out and killed himself one night thanks Esham i love you," writes one on an online discussion board.

The erstwhile baby-nosher isn't too concerned—"If you can watch The Burning Bed," he says, "then you can listen to an Esham tape." Actually, the distance between fantasy and reality is the closest thing he has to a lyrical theme. He riffs on Prince's line, "I was dreaming when I wrote this" on the new album, and his vision of the three-one-three is as a nightmare from which nobody can wake up. Like George Clinton before him, he imagines himself light years away from Detroit, "outcha fuckin' atmosphere," in a world of his own that he can dominate.

 
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