Growing up outside of Detroit in the ’80s, we suburban post-punk rap-o-philes wondered how a city that was 80 percent black and hella-urban with its crack epidemic and larger-than-life dealers (the Chambers Brothers, White Boy Rick) and gangs (Errol Flynns, Pony Down) had yet to produce a single rap act of note. Not that drugs and gangs begat hip-hop, of course, but to our cracker asses, Detroit seemed to have all the other trappings of urban culture, so where the fuck were the rappers? After a few Fresh Fests in our Germs T-shirts and a wilding-style beatdown at an NWA concert (wearing the Keith Haring “Free South Africa” T-shirt didn’t help), it was when Run-DMC played Joe Louis Arena to a city full of homeboys who had copped their Adidas-and-fedoras look that we had our answer: Detroit had a hip-hop culture alright, but it was more of a national market than a local hotbed.
Detroit MCs have long gestated in the shadow of this market, developing their own sound in spite of it. For rappers like Esham, that meant building an underground empire with shock-value proto-horrorcore rap throughout the ’90s, beginning with his first tape, Boomin’ Words From Hell, recorded at Hell’s Door Studio (his bedroom) when he was still a teenager.
While Esham concentrated on paying bills, D-12 concentrated on honing skills, collectively retreating into Native Tongues-ish crews in their own little world, freestyle-battling each other at designer Maurice Malone’s late, great Hip-Hop Shop. There, Eminem met D-12 founders MC Bizarre, his hypeman Bugz, and Proof (then rapping with a warm Q-Tip-like burr in Five Elements), as well as Da Brigade members Kuniva and Kon Artis, the latter of whom produced Em’s 1996 Nas-sounding debut, Infinite. Swifty McVay came on board only after Bugz was killed in 1999 in an incident so incongruously tragic and flat-blackly comic, it probably explains the Detroit laugh-to-keep-from-crying aesthetic more than anything: After Bugz squirted a girl with a water pistol one innocently rowdy spring day on Belle Isle, an angry boyfriend came back with a real gun.
On Devil’s Night, the six and their alter egos (see The Crow) try to make some sense of a city where squirt guns turn to real guns on tracks like “Shit Can Happen,” “Pistol Pistol,” and “That’s How,” mean-mugging their way through jeep beats as paranoid and empty as downtown Detroit after 5 p.m. These tracks introduce the non-Eminem MCs as competent roughnecks—Swift as the tooth-and-spit drawler, Kuniva as Tupac-at-an-open-mic, Kon Artis as the smartass, Proof as the malty-gravel-voiced ballast, and Bizarre as, just, well, bizarre—and it’s when Em and crew are goofing on each other that they’re at their collective best. On “Purple Pills,” they’re funning and punning over a bounce riff, but the track’s stoner-hop bluesiness—harmonica solo and all—makes it such a great lazy-summer anthem that even if they don’t bother to come up with a last line for its chorus, nobody seems to mind.
The only one who’s more fly-in-the-ointment than fly here is Bizarre. The Teton to Em’s Hank Williams, Bizarre encouraged Em to give up the Nas and slow his rhyming down. On his own 1997 Attack of the Weirdoes EP, Bizarre was a two-ton frontman, swaying over his beats like a crazy drunken uncle. But on Devil’s Night, he’s just an ol’ dirty bastard, muttering, “It’s Friday night, I’m at a rave again/Picking up transvestites on my Harley Davidson.” In the otherwise excellent “Fight Music,” he spends his verse deadpanning about why he’s so numb: “My grandmother sucked my dick and I didn’t come.” Great.
Devil’s Night is Eminem spotlighting his D-town homies, but it’s also clearly a way for him to have his cake and tell it to fuck you, too. The sarcastic “Ain’t Nuttin’ but Music,” right down to its jaunty little Dr. Dre-produced backing track and singsong chorus, inverts “The Real Slim Shady” the way Nirvana’s “Rape Me” flipped “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—not just as a song, but as a piece of pop culture. The other MCs fall in, defusing his Eminem-ness even as they throw gasoline on it. As Bizarre raps, “Eminem doesn’t like ‘N Sync but I do/Fuck him and fuck the Backstreet Boys too.” Em gets to be the popstar rapper back with his boys at the Hip-Hop Shop playing the dozens, and they all get to make the first rap record by a bunch of relative no-names from Detroit, fart jokes and all, that enters Billboard at No. 1.
D-12 may be Detroit’s dead-serious lyrical jokers, but Esham is still its Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. On Tongues, he serves up a Slayer-esque vision of Detroit as a Brueghel mural of queasy synths and broken-bottle beats, narrated by his own quantity-over-quality trove of drawling rhymes. Eminem acknowledged his debt to him on 1999’s The Slim Shady LP, by admitting he was a cross between Ozzy and Esham—ironic, since Esham has his own Ozzy vibe going on here. He belts out his choruses (“Walkin on da Flatline”) and crashes them with metal guitar, like Kid Rock at an award-show all-star jam.
But for all his ambition to make his rap more than just something to bump in your ride, Esham spends too much time one-sidedly sparring with Eminem. In the first half of “All Night Everyday,” he calls Eminem “Emily” and threatens to kill his daughter, which sounds pretty forced considering that the second half of the song, inexplicably, finds porn star Heather Hunter getting ready to have anal sex. It’s only on “Chemical Imbalance,” with its oozing live bass riff and stream-of-consciousness dis (where he reminds “Eminem of D’Angelo Bailey/Hailie’s in a coma/I smell the aroma of a dead body”), that Esham’s vision of Detroit’s nothing-to-lose rap as next-level headphone rock meshes with his need to beef in the interest of moving some units. Then again, if you don’t have Eminem putting you on, it can’t hurt to drop his name.
D-12 and Esham play Randalls Island as part of the “Vans Warped Tour” August 4.