By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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"I want to punch these bloggers in the face, man. I wanna beat they ass." Royce Da 5' 9" is lounging backstage at the Highline Ballroom, venting about the manner in which hip-hop's online gatekeepers have reacted to the news that Slaughterhouse—the subterranean all-star team of rappers Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, Crooked I, and himself—have finally signed to Eminem's Shady Records. Royce sounds irked, and as preparations for the evening's celebratory show continue to take form around him, he explains: "A lot of the bloggers that really supported us when we were super-underground, now that we signed to Shady, it's like they super-turned on us. They say we've gotten too big for them to even respect us any more." He pauses, then reiterates. "Like I said, I'll punch one of them in they face." He makes it sound like a not-entirely-idle threat.
Royce's frustration cuts to the heart of the Slaughterhouse conundrum: How do you take a feverishly worshipped underground rap group—a quartet of mercilessly sharp lyricists who excel at crafting blitzkrieg verses—to a wider, potentially mainstream audience without losing the respect and devotion of its original fan base? It's a problem compounded by the group's image. In self-deprecating terms, Ortiz says, "Somebody online will sit there and say that I'm fat." Royce adds, "People say I'm closer to 40 than 30 years old just because I got in the game at the same time as Marshall [Mathers], so they think we're the same age."
These are not the times in which paunchy, middle-aged rappers are seen as particularly marketable, but Slaughterhouse are banking on the Eminem factor to effect a "humongous difference in our careers," as Crooked I puts it. As the group sets about recording its first album for Shady, hitting studios in L.A., and then holing up in Detroit for the home stretch, it faces an uphill path pocked with hip-hop's often contradictory preoccupation with authenticity, as well as the indignity of being monitored by a cackling cadre of online commentators. It's not going to be an easy sell, but Slaughterhouse are finally rolling with the right team.
Upon forming in 2008, Slaughterhouse immediately became ambassadors for the plight of gifted rappers chewed up by the industry machine. Budden has never replicated the success of 2003's Grammy-nominated "Pump It Up." Crooked I experienced unfulfilling stints on Virgin and Death Row. Royce saw the benefits of an early association with Eminem—the two Detroit dwellers recorded as Bad Meets Evil for Source founder John Shecter's soft-porn-themed Game label in 1999—turn sour and dissolve into a long-running (but now resolved) dis war. And hometown folk hero Ortiz went from running around the city giving out his mixtape, Who the Fuck Is Joell Ortiz?, and releasing a rugged and uncompromising debut, 2007's The Brick: Bodega Chronicles, to being beckoned over to the Aftermath stable—but his album was continually delayed and ultimately never released. So the public announcement of Slaughterhouse, which was sparked by all four members appearing on a song by that name on Budden's Halfway House project, sounded less like a euphoric creative union and more like the unveiling of a plot by which four scorned rappers would wreak revenge on the industry.
But instead of notching a win for the underdog and giving inspiration to the underbelly of unfashionable rappers, Slaughterhouse's self-titled debut, released in 2009 on E1 Music, was a muted affair. It also reinforced the stingy commercial limitations for rappers not interested in riding popular musical trends. Sure, at times the MCs proved their punchy prowess—"H-E-L-L-O, I'm one hell of a show/I'm the best, you stuck in the middle like L-M-N-O," toyed Ortiz on "Woodstock Hood Hop," before nicely threatening to smash a guitar over an imaginary foe's head in a Brooklyn bar—but the project suffered from mundane production and a disjointed feel; too often, Slaughterhouse tracks sounded like they were from four rappers who just so happened to stumble onto the same song. (Any gamble that Slaughterhouse's album sales would pool together the financial clout of four different sets of fans seemed to backfire, too, with Slaughterhouse shifting a lowly 18,000 copies in its first week on sale.) But what smarted most about listening to the album was the utter lack of angst. In Royce's terms, the group wasn't punching bloggers so much as politely emailing them songs to upload.
It's this untapped angst and emotion that Eminem needs to provoke, then tease into a collection of songs. Slaughterhouse could not have picked a more appropriate mentor. Molded himself by Dr. Dre—who, when he decides to actually prioritize a project, is the best in the game at creating rap stars—Eminem may sometimes catch flack for, say, sampling Aerosmith or taking petty potshots at pop figures. But he's kept the respect and support of his first wave of fans, even those who'll insist that the songs on 1997's Slim Shady EP are superior to the versions that made their way onto his debut album, through his undeniable writing skills. While Jay-Z likes to brag about never jotting down his rhymes, Eminem comes across like a poetical scientist, meticulously revising the contents of his rhyme-book until each line is syllabically perfect. As Royce testifies, "When we meet up with him, we have a lot of competitive lyrical conversations, 'cause that's all Em likes to talk about. It's like we're five of the same people."
The Eminem Show may be promoted with a large dose of sensationalism, but the rapper's foundation is precise rhymes. It's this clued-up, grassroots faction of Eminem's fan base that Slaughterhouse are targeting. As Crooked I says, "Eminem has true fans who will buy an album, not just download a single. He's developed fans that are loyal to him—I'm sure some of them are willing to give us a listen because he said so." If he's right, that branch of Eminem's army might be supportive enough to prevent Royce from following through with his threat.