"Oh yeah, he is," my friend told me, without lifting his eyes from the road. From then on, I was completely hooked: a white rapper who not only understood rap, but didn't apologize for his whiteness. From the beginning, Eminem embraced his squawky voice, his high range, the fact that he stands out from every other rapper in the universe. This was, I realized, the beginning of crossover rap--the first white guy who people took seriously.
So when I heard he was coming into town, I had no choice but to witness his progress. I went, of course, with my 17-year-old sister. At the Rose Garden, we met three fellow members of her varsity cheerleading team: Ashley, Ashley, and Ashley (really). Their glittery enthusiasm (Ashley #1: "Ohmigod! Ohmigod! I think I saw his tour bus!!") confirmed what I had suspected going in: High school students are now the only people keeping Eminem employed.
I was right. The Rose Garden Arena was oozing with them--everywhere I looked there were miniature blonde girls in strappy tops and bleach-headed boys with armband tattoos. What I noticed (besides discovering that for the first time in my life, I felt old) was that out of the 3,000-some people in attendance, I saw only two black people. One was a police officer.
Five years ago I wouldn't have believed that a huge crowd of white high-school kids would ever gather at the Rose Garden for a hip hop show, but watching him play, I was convinced that Eminem is a product of mainlined marketing genius.
Sometime in the last five years, hip hop started to appeal to people outside its mostly black audience. This had a lot to do with Dr. Dre, who might as well be a one-man advertising agency. He took a few rappers who showed a bit of potential, and seduced them with millions, breeding the very first strains of pop hip hop, albums like Snoop's Doggystyle. (I mean really, had you ever heard of Snoop before that?).
Dre and Snoop were, like all pop music, built from some other kind of music that had a lot more integrity. Informed by rappers like The Sugar Hill Gang and Parliament, Dre and Snoop rapped slow and sugar-coated, making songs that flowed easily into people's minds and stayed there like sticky commercial jingles. For the first time, hip hop found its way into the speakers of high school students en masse.
Who can blame Dre really? True, he had to go and wreck a virginally honest genre of music, but it happens to all good music sometime anyway: the consequent kicking down of a few new audience members for true hip hop finally getting the recognition it deserved--artists like De La Soul, Common, The Pharcyde, and The Roots.
As I watched Eminem on the stage that Tuesday, and the throngs of moshing 16-year-olds, I realized he's got to be Dre's most lucrative project. Snoop, Dre, and B.I.G. were hot pop music, but they could never be what Eminem has become, and for one reason: They're not white.
This idea isn't new. Take black music and white it up for the rich suburban kids. Remember Vanilla Ice? He might have made it, but he had one major flaw: He sucked. No one took him seriously, and because of hip hop's small presence in music, there weren't any other white rappers with even a lick of talent. Eminem, on the other hand, grew up in a time when hip hop was widespread enough that white rappers began to turn up, and he happened to appear in the nick of time--not only white, but smart enough, quick enough, and committed enough to compete.
My sister only owns one hip hop album, and it's The Marshall Mathers LP. The last concert she attended was 'N Sync. She pretty much summed up Eminem's appeal in one sentence, when she told me, "It's like, you want to hear it, because everyone's talking about it. It's sick, but you're still curious." Not only was it sick, it was boring for anyone over 19. On stage, Eminem played right into the hands of every teenage boy's fantasy--complete with a slick cartoon in the middle of the show featuring Eminem as Beavis and Butthead, beating up Leonardo DiCaprio and gleefully fucking all the cartoon characters from South Park.
The three Ashleys loved the show. "I mean, I love all rap," explained Ashley as I drove her home. "I listen to all that stuff on 95.5 all the time." They were also ecstatic about the boys they saw from their high school, and the Gap clothes that were modeled on other girls. (Ashley #2: "Ohmigod, did you see her sweater? It was totally cute!" Ashley #3: "Yeah, I have it in green. Whatever.")
But history repeats itself. Remember the Stones' 1969 show at the Altamont when 70,000 people attended--mostly white youth--to watch the world's greatest rockers perform music derived from James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green? Maybe someday the three Ashleys will be standing on the front porch of their houses, playing Eminem for their grandchildren, and sighing wistfully: "This is when hip hop was born."