How Eminem Conquered Black Music (and White Privilege) With ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’
Looking back on the racial politics of a certified hip-hop classic, 20 years later
In 1990, the Bomb Squad represented the crème de la crème of hip-hop sonics. The almighty production team behind Public Enemy crafted “Fight the Power,” the lead single for Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated film Do the Right Thing, and provided the pulse for Ice Cube’s classic debut album, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. The five-man unit was Teflon — until they put together a White rap group with one of the worst names a White group could have: Young Black Teenagers. “Black, to me, is a cultural thing,” said emcee Kamron, who appears in House Party 2 unironically sporting dreadlocks. “A state of mind, a state of awareness.” The blowback was palpable; hip-hop had tolerated White rappers like 3rd Bass, but YBT’s gimmick was a bridge too far.
A decade later, the culture was fully grown. And where the Bomb Squad had slipped, Dr. Dre had soared — not just as a producer with a juggernaut label and two classics of his own, but by scoring the greatest album ever authored by a Caucasian rapper. In 2000, respect still eluded most White rappers, especially after punchlines like Vanilla Ice and Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg. Eminem and his second studio album, The Marshall Mathers LP, became the lyrically acclaimed, RIAA-certified diamond exception.
The album is a masterful confluence of punk, bluegrass, and subterranean hip-hop that gave life to a singular brand of Americana rap. It gave a voice to voiceless rap lovers who fancied Vicodin and lived in blue-collar cities where Black people were a rarity (think Columbine, Colorado). By the dawn of the aughts, Slim Shady had unearthed his own demographic.
“Before The Marshall Mathers LP, he was mostly shock rap and clever punchlines,” says film producer and director Erik Parker, former senior editor of The Source magazine. “His outrageous content was like a Trojan horse. With it came his artistic rise, along with a legion of White kids and ‘outsiders’ who were underserved by rap’s alpha personas.”