He’s now a notorious Detroit rapper who spits hate machine-gun style. His family, friends and the bully who beat him up in school remember someone different.
He’s a white boy who sounds black, a fatherless child who hates his mother, a trailer-trash wunderkind who spent some of his first millions on a king-size crib across from a mobile-home park.
Freud would have a field day with Marshall Bruce Mathers III. Rapper extraordinaire, record-setting, multi-platinum recording artist, gay-hater, murder-fantasizer, rebel and creep: How did this onetime “Mork & Mindy” devotee become the venom-spitting hero of hip-hop?
First came the runty Marshall Mathers, a quiet, artistic kid bounced from school to school by his overprotective, slightly unhinged mother. Then came “M&M,” later Eminem, the silver-tongued outcast who forsook fitting in with his white suburban classmates to concentrate on breaking into Detroit’s overwhelmingly black rap scene. Finally, and most furiously, came Slim Shady, the vile, rhyme-sayin’, bitch-slayin’ MC out to even every score run up against his other selves.
Yet none of these personas has canceled the other out. While Slim Shady rakes in the cash by rapping about rape, drugs and murder, Eminem tries to explain that it’s all just an act — and 27-year-old Marshall Mathers struggles to hold together a world on the verge of being torn apart by the stress of success, run-ins with the law and, most recently, his wife’s suicide attempt.
His 1999 album, “The Slim Shady LP,” introduced the world to an implacable bleached-blond rapper who shot out his rhymes machine-gun style. It sold 3 million copies. His second album made him a sensation. “The Marshall Mathers LP” sold more than 5 million copies in its first month of release, becoming the fastest-selling hip-hop album of all time. MTV declared a weekend of “EmTV”; at the same time, some critics and gay groups began to take issue with the rank misogyny and homophobia permeating the album.
Eminem’s defenders — and Eminem himself — say it’s the Slim Shady character, not Mathers, who is the album’s real culprit. But police arrested Mathers, not Slim Shady, June 4 in Warren, Mich. He’d found his wife, the former Kim Scott, in the parking lot of a nightclub, kissing an acquaintance. Eminem allegedly clocked the interloper with a 9mm pistol and threatened to kill him.
Eminem was arrested and faces an Aug. 31 preliminary hearing at which a Warren district court judge will decide whether there’s enough evidence to send the case to trial. His alleged victim, John Guerra of nearby Mount Clemens, sued Eminem less than a week after the incident. As if he didn’t have enough legal entanglements, Eminem has also agreed to stand trial in Pontiac, Mich., on charges he flashed his 9mm outside a car audio shop during an argument with an associate of a rival rap group, Insane Clown Posse. The prosecutor in the Warren case seeks at least a six-month sentence.
A few weeks after the throw-down in Warren, Kim Mathers attempted suicide — just hours after Eminem finished the second of two performances in the Detroit area. Did she really want to end the life her husband had already snuffed out on both his albums? Did she want to leave the couple’s 5-year-old daughter motherless? Kim Mathers isn’t saying. All she told police who came to her rescue was, “There has got to be a better place than this.” If nothing else, the incident was another reminder that the emotional horrors recounted in explicit detail on Eminem’s albums may be more than mere shock art.
Just how Eminem feels about all of this is unclear, but a comment he made to the Detroit Free Press during the filming of the video for his in-your-face anthem “The Way I Am” might be apropos:
“Whenever something good happens, the bad always follows,” he said. “That’s the story of my life since the day I was born.”
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Life was a struggle for Marshall even before he was born. His mother, Debbie Mathers-Briggs, says she married his father, Marshall Mathers Jr., when she was 15; less than three years later, she almost died delivering her first son at the end of a 73-hour labor.
“I went through a living hell,” she said in a recent phone conversation, recalling the bald, cigar-smoking St. Joseph, Mo., doctor who charged $90 for prenatal visits, delivery and circumcision. Marshall was a small, sickly baby.
Although Marshall was a well-behaved infant, Mathers-Briggs said their life was never easy. The family moved to North Dakota, where his father was supposed to take a job as assistant manager at a fancy hotel. What Mathers-Briggs contends was her husband’s erratic behavior forced her to flee when her son was two. She says she left with Marshall in a rush, leaving their clothes and car behind when they lit out for her mother’s home in Missouri. The Matherses divorced in 1975. Eminem’s father, who later became a hotel manager in California, could not be reached for comment.
After several years in which he was doted on by his father’s aunt while his mother held down several menial jobs, Marshall and his mother moved to Michigan. The pair lived in modest, working-class Detroit neighborhoods a notch or two above, but never far from, the ghetto. For many years he was the only white teen in a black neighborhood of otherwise white and middle-class St. Clair Shores. Friends and family said Marshall was a happy kid who had his mother wrapped around his finger. But he was also a bit of a loner — the kind of kid who got picked on.
As a 9-year-old student at Dort Elementary School, Marshall suffered the first in a series of beatings that ultimately left him in a coma, relatives say. His persecutor was DeAngelo Bailey, an African-American classmate who played center on the school basketball team. Bailey allegedly subjected Marshall to a four-month reign of terror: He attacked him at recess, cornered him in a restroom and floored him with a heavy snowball that gave him a severe head injury.
According to a lawsuit Mathers-Briggs filed against the school in 1982, Bailey beat her boy so badly that he suffered headaches, post-concussion syndrome, intermittent loss of vision and hearing, nightmares, nausea and a tendency toward anti-social behavior. (The lawsuit makes no mention of the coma, however.)
Marshall’s head injury “made me even more protective of him,” Mathers-Briggs says.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 1983; a Macomb County (Mich.) judge said the schools were immune from lawsuits. But Slim Shady settled the score 17 years later, beating Bailey into a bloody pulp on “Brain Damage,” a track from his debut major-label album, “The Slim Shady LP.”
The beefy, 5-foot-8 Bailey is now a laborer who lives in a squalid house near the neighborhood where the pair went to school. As Eminem’s music booms out of a nearby car, he sits in a Roseville park and chuckles at the mention of his former whipping boy.
“He was small, plus he had a big mouth,” recalls Bailey, who is married with four children.
Seeming friendly and soft-spoken, Bailey says he is amused by his secondhand celebrity. He says he has signed autographs for teeny-bopper fans and has had to disconnect his phone. His kids are big Eminem fans; they holler, he says, when Eminem mentions his name on “Brain Damage.”
Bailey is sheepish but amused by the fruits of his former bullydom: “Damn, that must have scarred him for life,” he says.
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Marshall’s life of childhood poverty in and around metro Detroit’s hardscrabble neighborhoods continued. He bounced from school to school: By the time he enrolled in Warren’s Lincoln High, he had attended as many as 20 schools, his mother estimates. Much of that time he lived in his great-grandmother’s home on the south side of Warren, a gritty suburb just across the Detroit border.
Warren’s residents are known for their red necks as well as their blue collars; the town’s south side is particularly low-rent. Small houses are packed together along streets named for long-dead auto pioneers and lined with long-dead autos.
It’s a short walk to the liquor store from most homes. Lonely hearts needn’t go far to find the local adult bookstore or, a bit further along “8 Mile,” a major boulevard dividing Warren from Detroit, prostitutes and topless bars with names like the Booby Trap and Trumpps.
Slim Shady is the kind of tough guy who callously advocates shooting a withered cashier and raping a 15-year-old. But friends and neighbors remember Marshall Mathers as a polite boy — one who comes back every so often to sign autographs and encourage neighborhood kids.
“He was an all right kid, no worse than a lot and a lot better than some,” says Ramona Dorsey, who lives next door to Eminem’s former house in St. Clair Shores.
“He was good to his brother,” says Rose Slone, another former family friend who knew Marshall from when he visited his mother and brother in a rundown Warren trailer park. “He was always there for Nathan.”
Former co-workers, too, said Marshall was hard-working and upbeat, playing music and rhyming to keep things lively. Until his arrests in June, Eminem had no adult criminal record.
As a 20-year-old, however, Marshall was arrested for an involvement with a drive-by shooting — with a paint ball. A friend was the triggerman, and the paint ball didn’t even break, police said. The case was dismissed after the alleged victim didn’t show up for court.
But his home life was seldom stable. Mike Mazur, Marshall’s manager when he worked at a local restaurant, recalled that he crashed so often with friends — reportedly because of fights with his mother — that he had dozens of addresses in the more than three years they worked together.
But Mathers-Briggs bristles at any suggestion that she was less than an ideal mother. “Anything Marshall wanted he got,” she now says from St. Joseph, where she runs a taxi service. “I sheltered him too much and I think there’s a little resentment from that.” Mathers-Briggs says she took care of her son’s cleaning, car insurance and bank accounts until he was about 25.
But court records and interviews indicate that there was plenty of turmoil, too. A welfare mom who volunteered in a recent conversation that she once filed for bankruptcy, Mathers-Briggs has a history of settling disputes with lawsuits. While some neighbors remember her as a sweet and devoted mother, others called Mathers-Briggs irrational or, less charitably, “crazy” or “a bitch.”
Marshall’s former co-workers remember her calling him constantly at the restaurant, demanding to speak to her son even during peak times when he couldn’t come to the phone. St. Clair Shores police said she often summoned them with unfounded complaints about neighbors.
Eminem does not recall his mother fondly. On “The Slim Shady LP” and in several interviews, he accused his mother of grabbing chunks of his paychecks, tossing him out and popping pills. She has steadfastly denied the allegations.
But the most damning accusation came from St. Clair Shores school officials, who in juvenile court proceedings in 1996 accused her of abusing her younger son, Nathan, now 14. Nathan was removed from her custody. Alleging that she “exhibits a very suspicious, almost paranoid personality,” a social worker suggested that Mathers-Briggs had Munchausen syndrome by proxy, an affliction in which a parent injures a child to gain attention and sympathy for herself.
School officials also said she accused neighbors of beating Nathan, blowing up her mailbox and killing her dog in a satanic ritual. They added that she told them video cameras were monitoring her from trees outside her house and that enemies had sent her a tarantula in the mail.
Mathers-Briggs pleaded no contest to reduced charges that she was emotionally unstable and had failed her son by keeping him out of school and isolating him from other children; with that, she regained custody. By then, Nathan had been in foster homes for more than a year.
Attorney Betsy Mellos, who represented Mathers-Briggs through much of the court battle, says the school brought the charges because the mother had threatened to sue them. “She was a pretty good mother,” contends Mellos, who now prosecutes child abuse and neglect cases for Macomb County, Mich. “If anything, she was overprotective.”
The rest of the milieu around the future star wasn’t much better. Marshall’s male role models were his mother’s boyfriends — one of whom left Mathers-Briggs after learning she was pregnant with Nathan — and his uncles. Todd Nelson, Mathers-Briggs’ brother, served six years in a Missouri prison for manslaughter after a fatal fight with the brother of his wife. The couple moved to Michigan after his release, but are now divorced. Eminem is still in touch with Nelson.
But Marshall was closest to his Uncle Ronnie, a sensitive soul who family members said was so repulsed by guns he was kicked out of the U.S. Army. Not much older than Marshall, Ronnie introduced his nephew to rap before dying from a gunshot wound about 10 years ago. The death was ruled a suicide.
By the time Eminem attended high school, his love of rap and black culture were the only things that distinguished him. “He hung around with a different kind of crowd than I did; I don’t want to say rougher, but not really a good crowd,” said classmate Eric Reiter, who remembered the otherwise unremarkable Marshall rapping confidently as part of a duo at a school talent show.
Another classmate, Aubrey Moylan, was less impressed. Calling Marshall “a dork,” she says, “He came off as trying to be a poseur or a wannabe. He was into the whole rap scene even back then, and would try to imitate their style, speech and movements.
“He was the type of person that would have me rolling my eyes, thinking, ‘Good grief, get a life.'”
Little did she know that’s precisely what Mathers was doing.
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Marshall dropped out of school in 1989. Mike Ruby, his partner from the talent show, recommended that he join him cooking and washing dishes at Gilbert’s Lodge, a rustic, family-style St. Clair Shores restaurant. Neither rapper planned on making a career of the $5.50-an-hour gig.
A friend and fellow rap enthusiast from this time, Jay Fields, says that around 1990, Marshall and his partner in rhyme began recording scores of tracks in Ruby’s basement. The future superstar was then calling himself M&M, later modified to Eminem. Using an insurance settlement, Ruby, who called himself Manix, set up a basement studio his crew dubbed Basement Productions, says Fields, who now works for a DJ service in Louisville, Ky.
“They were working on music back then, basically working on music everyday,” says Fields, who at the time was known as Vitamin C. “[But they were] not getting anywhere because there was no promotion, just musical talent.”
At first, Fields says, Eminem was just a smartass cracking inside jokes with Manix and his cronies. Before long, however, he said Eminem began teaching him what he called “the inside rhyme.” “At that time, if you had two lines that rhymed, that was it,” Fields says. “Marsh was putting it to the next level. He was trying to put as many words that rhymed into a line as he could fit.”
But when Eminem finally decided to make his inside rhymes outside Manix’s basement, he found few receptive audiences. Black folks, Eminem and associates have said, just weren’t willing to listen to a skinny white dude rhyming — regardless of his talent.
So Eminem became a battle MC, trading insults with anyone who would take him on, honing his skills at largely black venues like the Hip Hop Shop, a now-defunct fashion and music boutique on Detroit’s northwest side.
“He was getting in everybody’s ass. It was kind of political at first, because he was an outsider,” says House Shoes, a DJ at St. Andrew’s Hall, a cornerstone of the Detroit music scene. “After he bit a few heads off people, it got to the point where people looked forward to him coming out there.”
Eminem got his first break when a local producer, Marky Bass, heard him freestyling on a Detroit radio station. Within hours, Eminem was in Bass’ studio rhyming. “He was phenomenal,” Bass recalls. “I dropped everything I was doing and I put everything I had into this kid.” Bass helped Eminem put out his first record, “Infinite.” But no one cared. “Infinite” was filled with tracks about love, unity and trying to get on in spite of hard times.
While his career was stuck in neutral, Eminem’s personal life was veering off in new directions. The most important relationship of his life seems to be with Kim Scott. His mother says she took in Scott, who had left her family home, around 1987, when she was 12 and Eminem was a few years older. After several years, Eminem and Scott started an on-and-off relationship, one that lasts to this day. They had a daughter, Hailie Jade, now five, and were married in 1999.
Mazur, Eminem’s manager at the restaurant, says Eminem even gave up music to support his family. Although Eminem had been fired a few times for tardiness and other minor offenses — he was once canned shortly before Christmas — Mazur says he became a model employee. He recalls a six-month period shortly after Hailie’s birth when Eminem worked 60 hours a week. “He didn’t want his daughter to grow up like he did, living from day to day and moving from week to week,” Mazur says.
But Eminem was also thinking about a new musical persona. Tapping into his reservoir of rage and resentment, Eminem created Slim Shady, a drug-dealing, bloodthirsty thug who spits furious rhymes about murder, rape, drugs and living by the law of the urban jungle.
Fields says he was shocked by his old friend’s new persona. So was another Detroit rapper, Buddha Fulla Rhymes, he says. “Buddha asked [Eminem], ‘Why do you rap about doing heroin and smokin’ crack? This isn’t you.’ Marsh said, ‘Look, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’m not making any money. I’m making pizzas.'”
As for Bass, he was thrilled when he heard of Eminem’s recidivism. “We have the Marilyn Manson of rap, we have the kook of rap,” he raved.
Bass wasn’t the only one smitten by the reprehensible rapper. Gangsta rap impresario Dr. Dre heard Eminem rapping on an L.A. radio show around 1997. He brought Eminem to Interscope Records, the notorious home of some of the industry’s hardest-core rap acts, and produced his first album.
By March 1997, Eminem was fired from Gilbert’s for the last time. He was still living in his mother’s mobile home with Scott and his daughter. But all that was about to change.
Eminem seems untroubled by issues of race. His best friends were (and are) black, and he swaggers easily in a black-dominated music genre. Racism is one of the few things he seems to take seriously. “That word [nigger] is not even in my vocabulary,” he says in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. “I don’t think you can put race alongside gender, or a man preferring a man.”
He is less enlightened about the women he believes have done him wrong, however. (And notoriously even less so about gays.) He levels his most strident attacks at his women in general — and his mother and wife in particular. Whether it is because he is a spoiled brat scarred by being pushed out of the nest (as his mother and uncle contend) or the long-suffering son of an erratic shrew and manipulative wife, as he says, there’s little love lost between Eminem and his mother these days.
Here’s a sample of Eminem’s feelings, from the track “Marshall Mathers” on the new “Marshall Mathers LP”:
My fuckin’ bitch mom suing for 10 million
She must want a dollar for every pill I been stealin’
Shit, where the fuck you think I picked up the habit
All I had to do was go in her room and lift up a mattress
Here’s a lyric from “My Name Is” from “The Slim Shady LP”:
Ninety-nine percent of my life I was lied to
I just found out my mom does more dope than I do (Damn!)
I told her I’d grow up to be a famous rapper
Make a record about doin’ drugs and name it after her (Oh thank you!)
Hurt and angered by her son’s allegations of abuse and drug addiction, Mathers-Briggs did indeed file a $10 million defamation suit against Eminem.
“People told me I’d be sorry someday,” she says of the way she indulged her son, but she insists she isn’t sorry. “Marshall is all for show, it’s more put-on,” Mathers-Briggs says of his attacks. “That’s what everybody wants to hear.”
Nelson, her brother, agrees. “His mother was real good to the boy,” he said, adding that he never knew of any drug or alcohol abuse while Eminem was growing up.
But two of Mathers-Briggs’ former boyfriends say otherwise. “She is lying about the drugs and stuff,” says Fred Samra Jr., Nathan’s estranged father, whom Mathers-Briggs successfully sued for child support. “I won’t say any more.” Of Eminem, he said, “You would not believe the shit he has been through.” Again, he declined to elaborate.
Don DeMarc, who says he dated and lived with Eminem’s mother sporadically in the late ’70s and early ’80s, says Mathers-Briggs endured nagging pain, perhaps stemming from being hit by a car with a drunken driver. “She complained of headaches, backaches and toothaches,” he says. “She always seems to be in pain. She’s always looking for pain pills.”
Mathers-Briggs denies allegations of drug abuse. Although she is a smoker, Eminem’s mother said she raised her boy in a smoke-, drug- and alcohol-free environment. She says she is a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Eminem’s travails with Scott, now his wife, are well known, too. On his new album, on the frenzied track “Kim,” Eminem dispatches his wife in a bloody rage:
Don’t you get it bitch, no one can hear you?
Now shut the fuck up and get what’s comin to you
You were supposed to love me
Now bleed! Bitch, bleed!
Bleed! Bitch, bleed! Bleed!
Former co-workers remember Eminem agonizing over his battles with Scott. “He would come in to work and worry and say, ‘The bitch took my daughter and won’t let me see her. I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know what I’m going to do,'” said Mazur.
Fields said he remembers Scott picking a fight with Eminem minutes before he took the stage at a party celebrating the release of “The Slim Shady EP,” the 10-track precursor to his breakthrough first major-label album. It was not a good time for a donnybrook, but Scott could not wait, Fields says.
Moments like that have not endeared Scott to Eminem’s family. “She does not care about my son at all,” says Mathers-Briggs. “She cares about the money.” One of the less slanderous accusations Mathers-Briggs and Nelson hurl at Scott is that she has been arrested three times for drunken driving. (The Michigan Secretary of State’s Office confirms two drunken driving arrests.)
Eminem’s family also accuses his wife of feathering her own nest with proceeds from the rapper’s phenomenal success, at their expense. Eminem and Scott own a spacious home in Sterling Heights; Kim’s stepfather’s name appears with Eminem’s on the registration of a Ford Explorer, suggesting that it was a gift.
For their part, Eminem’s mother says he reneged on an agreement to make payments on her Casco mobile home, which has since been repossessed. His uncle lives in the house his family has owned for 50 years and drives a 1987 Toyota pick-up truck pushing 200,000 miles. He insists that Eminem’s family does not want money, only to free him from the grip of a gold digger and her manipulative family.
“A daughter is a daughter for life,” Nelson says. “A son is a son till he takes a wife.”
Kim Mathers did not respond to calls or letters seeking an interview.
After Eminem was arrested June 4 outside the nightclub where she says she gave an acquaintance a peck on the cheek, Scott denied cheating on her husband. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind would cheat on a millionaire husband — especially with a nobody at a neighborhood bar,” she says. In a letter to the Detroit Free Press, she wrote: “Just because my husband is an entertainer, that does not mean that our personal business is for everyone’s entertainment purposes.”
“I have always taken his word on things and stood by his side.”
Referring to Eminem and Kim’s relationship, Fields observed: “Pain, mystery and drama — that’s what motivates an artist, as much as love and affection.”
M.L. Elrick is a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday and Chicago Magazine. He began listening to rap in the early 1980s, when the Electrifying Mojo ruled Detroit’s airways.