What makes a great MC? Is it hypnotizing flow— a delivery that gets inside the drum and bass patterns and creates its own rhythm line— and a magnetic voice, and sharp details, and high-tech slang, and striking punch lines, and witty metaphors, and original insights, and an organic attitude— keep-it-realness, down-homeness, a worldview and a way of carrying and presenting yourself that replicates the way people in your home base really feel about life— mixed with enough supercool? Enough toughness or sex appeal or intelligence or bravado to inspire listeners to say, “It’d be cool to be him”? Does Eminem, the most talked about new MC since Missy, have any of those?
Is his flat, whiny delivery interesting? Can he flow in more than one simple pattern? Is his timbre not flat? Are his stories well-detailed? Are his tales of hatred of his mom (“I never meant to hit you over the head with that shovel”— “My Fault”) and his ex-wife (“Da-Da made a nice bed for Mommy at the bottom of the lake”— “97′ Bonnie & Clyde”) and almost any of his punch lines (“I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I wanna impregnate”— “My Name Is”) funny, disturbing, or just dumb? Would anyone be talking about him if Dr. Dre wasn’t in the mix? Is Eminem’s mention of Dee Barnes on “Guilty Conscience” a violation of the spirit of the six-figure settlement negotiated after the beating Dre administered? Is he really fucked up and angry at the world or good at calculating what the 16-year-old white, suburban, pot-smoking, Beavis and Butt-headloving misanthrope wants to hear? Can he really rhyme? Can he battle? Can I see a videotape of the Rap Olympics he won? Can you get “My Name Is” out of your head?
Yet, is his realness assailable? Is he an MC in the Master P mold— making up for limited skills everyone acknowledges with organicness, realness, personality? Or is he more like Missy and Mase— hugely popular MCs who divided hip-hop over whether or not they had skills? Is he any less representative of whiteboy culture than Jay-Z of black BK culture? Is he the ultimate white-trash MC— not trying to be black, not a wigger, but a pure whiteboy talking up the problems of his America? Is he using the dominant form of speech for this generation of American youth to give a voice to the Tonya Harding/Howard Stern audience?
Does it disturb the Black hip-hop constituency— which may soon be, if isn’t already, the minority— that he seems a talentless exploiter who recalls Arthur Ashe’s famous observation that Blacks won’t be equal until we can be successful without having to be twice as good, but by being just as mediocre? Does he recall the 19th-century minstrelsy that LeRoi Jones described in Blues People: “There was room for artistic imprecision in a minstrel show because it wasn’t so much the performance that was side-splitting as the very idea of the show itself: ‘Watch these niggers’ “? Is it that he’s using our form and not trying to contribute artistically to the Black community? Does our dislike of him start with our ears or our politics, our cultural discomfort with whites walking on our turf? Or is it that he’s just wack?
Does the love for him in a large segment of the Black hip-hop community start with the ears or with a perverse pleasure in the expansion of hip-hop— a joy that the national conversation that is hip-hop may now begin to tackle the fucked-upness of white people? Is liking him not unlike enjoying the complicated, hate-chocked shock-humor of Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, and Bob Goldthwait? Is it a positive that one of the ultimate beneficiaries of his rhymes is a black man, Dr. Dre, and all the money their 283,000 units moved in their first week, will go into a black pocket, meaning the whiteboy is kinda slaving for the blackman? Or is he funny and original?
And will he become like Ice-T for the West Coast or Master P for the South Coast, sparking a rush of MCs from his area— the White Coast— so large that this moment becomes a marker in hip-hop history and even if Eminem himself is no longer a factor in six months, hip-hop slowly becomes bleached— imagine new albums from blonde females from Kansas, skateboarders from Seattle, John Gotti wannabes from Bensonhurst, Harvard degrees taking Chuck D’s space as the intellect of the genre— until it becomes too white for us and blacks needing to say something musically revolutionary will have to create an entirely new form because hip-hop looks like modern rock ‘n’ roll and Rakim is remembered as a Chuck Berry–type innovator with Eminem as the liberator who gave them the freedom to be white on the mic?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 23, 1999