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Lost in Cyberspace

Eminem: Menace or Minstrel?

© 2001 by H.B. Koplowitz
Eminem: Menace or Minstrel? Inquiring minds wanted to know Grammy night, watching the much-hyped duet between gay icon Elton John <> and gay basher Eminem <>.

For those who don't monitor their kids' music, Eminem, aka Marshall Mathers III, aka Slim Shady, is a 28-year-old white rapper from Detroit who has drawn the ire of gay, feminist and religious groups for his violent, profane, misogynist and homophobic lyrics. Like a minstrel -- or Elvis Presley -- he's a white guy popularizing a black musical genre. And not just through his CDs. He's also got a Web site, "Slim Shady World," a virtual "Hip-hop for Dummies" that makes rap accessible to people who can't stand the music or understand a word of the lyrics. But more on his Web site in a moment.

Fans of rap say it addresses real world issues like sex, violence and teen-age angst. Critics say it's self-promoting and panders to the same primitive urges that cause people to watch professional wrestling. Still others say love it or hate it, rap is protected by the First Amendment. And then there's Elton John, who simply said he thought Eminem was funny.

According to the "New Grove Dictionary of American Music," rap is "a style of black popular music consisting of improvised rhymes performed to a rhythmic accompaniment." Rappers are often called MCs because rap began in the late 1970s, when emcees or deejays at East Coast discos started scratching records instead of playing them, and talking over the static.

The improvisations often cut somebody down or built the rapper up in an off-color way, not unlike "playing the dozens," a verbal tradition of taunting, kidding, teasing or "jiving" with deep roots in the culture of African Americans, e.g. "your mama's so fat, Hannibal Lector choked on her ass." The raps evolved into rhyming fables and narratives, while the record scratching became "samples" of other songs, and then the rhythmic pounding of bass, drums and keyboards known as hip-hop.

One of the first big East Coast rap groups, Run-DMC <>, found white fans when it fused the emerging hip-hop sound with heavy metal, becoming the first rappers to appear on MTV and even American Bandstand. Next came Gangsta rap, which added murder, mayhem and sometimes political awareness to the mix, along with frequent use of the "N" word. Gangsta rap began in Los Angeles in 1988 with "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A., Niggaz With Attitude, which included Ice Cube <>, who became an actor, Dr. Dre <>, who became a record producer, and Eazy-E, who died of AIDS.

Four years later, Ice-T's <> "Cop Killer" was attacked not by gay or women's groups but law enforcement agencies, which called for a boycott of Warner Bros. records. Then came the East Coast-West Coast feud, the shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., allegations of racketeering and assaults, the incarceration of rap producer Suge Knight and the trial of rap mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs <>.

Now comes Eminem, the Elvis of rap, because he's got more game than other white rappers, like Vanilla Ice, who nearly became the Pat Boone of rap. Last year Mathers won two Grammys and MTV's Best New Artist for his album, "The Slim Shady LP," produced by his mentor, Dr. Dre. His latest album, "The Marshall Mathers LP," was one of the three top-selling albums last year.

He's also put out a DVD and written a book, "Angry Blond," kind of a director's cut of his songs, with supposed background on the real-life experiences his lyrics are based on. But he's drawn fire -- and publicity -- from gay, feminist and religious groups who object to his hate-filled rants. His personal life has also lacked polish, with various altercations and lawsuits dotting his, well, rap sheet.

Thus, gays weren't the only ones surprised when Sir Elton -- whose previous causes included Princess Di and child AIDS victim Ryan White -- announced he would share the stage at the Grammys with the white bad boy of rap. The duet came at the end of the show, following a preachy introduction by Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences <>, who described rap as the "CNN of the inner city" and asserted "sometimes it takes tolerance to teach tolerance."

Out came Eminem, to a noir stage, with rain and lightning on a large screen. Clad in standard issue hip-hop -- cap turned backwards, baggy gym shoes, baggy pants and baggy jacket over a baggy T-shirt -- he sat on a bed and began rapping "Stan," reportedly the one song off his triple-Grammy-winning album deemed least unfit for broadcast because it had the fewest "S" and "F" words. Eminem changed some of the swear words -- at one point he said "effing" -- and CBS blipped out most of the rest. At the end of the first verse, a panel slid around and Elton, in faggy yellow suit with big orange polka dots, played keyboards and belted out the chorus.

"Stan" is kind of an O'Henry short story about an obsessed fan who keeps sending his idol "Slim" increasingly suicidal letters and tapes. In the third verse he stuffs his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of his car (and from the driver's seat yells "shut up bitch" when her screams interrupt his dictating his suicide tape), drinks a fifth of vodka, swallows a bunch of pills and heads off a bridge at 90 miles an hour. Then comes the punchline: "Well, gotta go, I'm almost at the bridge now. Oh sh*t, I forgot, how am I supposed to send this sh*t out?"

The large screen showed a car going off a bridge, Elton sang his chorus, and then, oh the irony, it's Eminem, only now he's "Slim," sitting at a desk, reciting a letter to Stan, saying he's sorry that he didn't write back sooner, but that Stan sounds like he needs counseling, and that he doesn't want him to end up like some guy he heard about on the news who was drunk and drove his car over a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk, "and in the car they found a tape but it didn't say who it was to, come to think about it...his name was you. DAMN!"

Sir Elton hopped off his pedestal and strode over to Eminem. They hugged, patted each other on the back, and John resolutely raised Eminem's hand into the air. The camera zoomed in on Mathers, who used his moment in the spotlight to flip the audience the bird, which could just barely be seen on TV.

After checking out the lyrics to some of Eminem's other tunes, I can't say I disagree with his highest ranking critic, Lynne Cheney, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and current wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. Testifying before a Senate Committee last year, she noted that Eminem raps a lot about killing people, especially bitches, fags and his mom.

I won't try to explain the humor, much less the redeeming social value, of such lyrics. Instead, I merely direct your attention to, where you can judge for yourself. The centerpiece of "Slim Shady World" is an animated cartoon series, "The Slim Shady Show," which is basically "Fat Albert" meets "Beavis and Butt-head."

In the first episode, Slim's crew crashes a party at Southwest Park, which looks suspiciously like "South Park." On the way, they run across Leonardo DiCaprio outside a convenience store, call him a mofo feline and a titanic bee-yotch, then beat him up. They show up at the party, where a hip-hopped Cartman comes to the door and asks, "how can you talk with my balls in your mouth?" Another altercation ensues, Slim's crew spikes the punch bowl with Viagra, and then the fun really begins.

According to a character synopsis, Slim is "the flyest, most self promoting homeboy in town," with a "nasty habit of getting everyone else in trouble with his antics." The rest of his crew includes the nerdly Marshall Mathers III, "the highschool outcast" who lives in a trailer park with his Aunt Sue, and Dave, another outcast from East Side High who's "always smoking out and getting high." Not mentioned is "D," the Fat Albert enforcer and presumably an alter ego for Dr. Dre.

Other episodes have Slim and his gang dissing Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and "Pristina Gaguilera." Each episode begins like a sitcom, with a theme song that sounds more like Jan and Dean than hip-hop, except it ends with Eminem saying, "what's cracking, bitch?" The site also has games, like "Trailer Park Massacre," and an online newspaper, "Slim Shady Daily," with juicy news items like the opening of a new theme eatery called the "Roadkill Restaurant."

After watching Eminem on the Grammys, I wasn't sure. But now that I've seen "Slim Shady World," I think I understand what Elton John meant. Eminem isn't a menace to society. He's Dennis the Menace.

copyright 2001 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved

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