Motor Suburb Madhouse

On the cover of The Source and on a two-page spread inside Rolling Stone last month, 26-year-old Marshall Mathers a/k/a Eminem and 29-year-old Bob Ritchie a/k/a Kid Rock were respectively photographed, both wielding chainsaws extending from their groins, out past the cornfields where the woods get heavy, possibly somewhere in the Upper Peninsula. Chopping down trees must be what New York glossy-magazine editors figure Michigan white boys—at least Michigan white boys with albums at the top of the charts—do in their spare time. Even in the sweet summertime.

"I put Detroit City back on the map!" Kid Rock raps in his current single. "Got the rock from Dee-troit, soul from Motown!" His first definitive song-as-statement, released in 1990, was heartland chauvinism worthy of Jack and Diane themselves: A middle-American midnight cowboy treks to Manhattan, where the cabbie drives like a moe-ron, and there's "a fucking transvestite, walking in the daylight," who'd "get dissed in Detroit, but I'll leave him alone, 'cause New York's not my home." Kid's got more local color in his lyrics than any Michigan musician ever: Livernois, St. Clair Shores, Taylor, the Great Lakes, being born and raised in the Outerlands, drinking 30-packs of Stroh's (spelled backwards is "shorts"!), rolling deep in his Lincoln, self-made like Henry Ford. He's got a tattoo of one of those olde English D's from Detroit Tigers hats (also used on the cover of D'Angelo's current longplayer, Doodoo). His new album, The History of Rock, starts with a song title clearly inspired by Grand Funk Railroad's "American Band" and ends with songs unapologetically ripping Bob Seger's "Get Out of Denver" and Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold"—three landmarks of Michigan hard rock. Last year he visited the Bowery Ballroom and delivered maybe the most exciting rock concert since Guns N' Roses in Detroit in early '87, and here's the medley he centered it around: "Sister Anne"(MC5)/"American Band"/"Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" (Seger)/ "Stranglehold"/"My Name Is" (Eminem).

On his own new album, Eminem—who changed schools constantly as a kid, but seems to have been reared mostly on his mom's welfare earnings in 13-mile-drive-from-downtown Warren—disses fellow honky-rapping Michiganders the Insane Clown Posse for "claiming Detroit when y'all live 20 miles away" and because they "ain't seen a mile-road south of Ten"; a couple weeks ago, he allegedly pointed a pistol at one particular ICP idiot outside an electronics store in Royal Oak, Detroit's most bohemian suburb. His only other ode to his hometown on The Marshall Mathers LP is "Amityville," a generically comic-bookish apparent tribute to the eccentric terror-rap of Esham, whose 20-some ignored-outside-Detroit albums apparently kick-started all the murder capital's current white punks gone dope—most of whom may well hang themselves, if they get enough rope.

illustration: Shawn Barber

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Eminem
The Marshall Mathers LP
Aftermath/Interscope
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Kid Rock
The History of Rock
Lava/Atlantic
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Esham is black, as were the Detroit kids who invented techno in the mid '80s, and their "acid rap" and "ghetto-tech" descendants today. The metropolis has a unique history of musical miscegenation, of the ghetto taking cues from commuters, and vice versa: Motown slicking up soul, Seger and Nuge and the MC5 (and Iggy and Mitch Ryder and so on) rooting their hard rock in hard r&b, George Clinton making funk psychedelic, the Electrifyin' Mojo spinning Kraftwerk and Billy Squier alongside Prince and Kurtis Blow on urban-contemporary WGPR in 1981, Madonna Ciccone usurping drag-queen disco for 10-year-old shopping-mall girls, Derrick May and Juan Atkins taking notes from Mojo's Kraftwerk records. It all sounds especially good in big cars.

But Detroit, the land of Devil's Night arson festivals and bombed-out crackhouse ghost-town blocks and cops pulling you over then robbing you at gunpoint, not to mention the largest predominantly black city in the U.S., has never produced a nationally successful hip-hop star darker-complexioned than Kid Rock or Eminem. Weird. The last U.S. census ranked the city second only to Gary, Indiana, as the nation's most segregated; drive across the demarcation line that is Eight Mile Road, and before you know it you're surrounded by the two-car garages and built-in pools of 86 percent Caucasian Oakland County and 95 percent Caucasian Macomb County—white-flight demographics spurred as much by the auto industry itself as by riots downtown 33 years ago.

Which is not to suggest that there aren't profound demographic differences within the burbs' bourgeois utopia—surrounding Detroit, for instance, you've got your Jewish-American-princess suburbs, your assembly-liner-feeling-like-a-number suburbs, your rednecks-with-hunting-rifle suburbs, and lots between (and none of those populations is pure itself, either). Still, though Kid Rock proudly bills himself as white trash, he probably doesn't need to go see The Virgin Suicides—set in old-money Grosse Pointe—to learn how the other half lives. He grew up on a six-acre plot with a 145-tree apple orchard in 40-mile-drive-from-downtown Romeo, tolerating his parents' barn-dancing to Seger's Live Bullet; his first hip-hop gig was popping and locking for a breakdance crew sponsored by the local Burger King. In his embarrassingly openhearted, Bill Withers-looping, allegedly autobiographical racemixer "Black Chic, White Guy," revolving around a ninth grade abortion that "really fucked his head up," the title's white guy comes "from a family of middle class." Kid's stuff about how he grew up herdin' cattle and has more rhymes than everyone in Seattle seems inspired by Weird Al's "Smells Like Nirvana," but his great secret subject is Pleasant Valley Sunday in Status-Symbol Land: layin' sod, chillin' in the old man's boat, workin' at the car wash (yeah), gettin' set to go cut the lawn. If you're really straight out the trailer, you don't need a lawn mower!

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