Last night, in a surprise move, Eminem unleashed a new album titled Kamikaze, a biting mix of vengeance (for those who’ve attacked and criticized him recently) and nostalgia, with several references to various points on his road to success.
An important part of the Eminem mythos is his appearances early in his career at rap battles around the country, including at Cincinnati’s own Scribble Jam, which became an underground Hip Hop haven for fans across the Midwest. The annual event’s celebration of the four branches of Hip Hop — graffiti, dance, MCing and DJing — drew enough buzz in its small-ish debut year in 1996 that it returned bigger and better in 1997 and had drawn the attention and anticipation of fans and artists from around the region and beyond. It ended up being a pivotal moment for the fest and sealed Scribble Jam a place in Hip Hop history.
On the Kamikaze track, “Venom,” Eminem shouts out his early days on the battle circuit and Scribble Jam specifically. About 50 seconds in, he raps, “Volkswagen, tailspin/Bucket matches my pale skin/Medal win/Went from Hellmann's and being rail thin, Filet-o-Fish/Scribble Jam, Rap Olympics, '97, Freaknik/How can I be down?”
Part of Eminem lore is that in 1997, he had put everything aside and pooled all of his money to travel to the country’s big freestyle battle competitions in an all-out effort to get some underground and maybe even industry traction. “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow”? Yeah, basically all of that came from his early battle scars.
At Scribble Jam 1997, there were performances by Cincinnati legends like MOOD and 5 Deez, while the MC battle turned out to be iconic, with the notable final four of Doseone, Rhymefest, Juice and, yes, Eminem. Here is a rundown from oribitalhiphop.com about the battle events at the 1997 fest (read the full fest report from that and other years here). Note: Eminem was so not a known entity at the time, the notes from the event spell his name "Emineim.":
"We recruited heavily for the MC battle this year and we got some nice MC’s, some we didn’t even expect. The MC Freestyle started off with an elimination round which saw 51 mc’s amputated down to 18 for head to head combat. Some mc’s freestyles appeared to take on the shape of Charles Manson in front of the parole board. In other words as Jesus said to Satan each of the 3 times he was tempted "It was written". Not to distract from the contest because as the mc’s involved, the crowd, the judges, and a slew of dead poets stated after the dust cleared, this may have been the best MC Battle of the year, or maybe ever. Key contenders were Juice & Rhymefest of Chicago many a winner of poetical endeavors, last years Champ Mallachie of the highly visible Empire, Dose One of Skillz Scavengers, a 1200 HOBO MC & a regular at B-Boys Underground on air freestyle sessions, Choc of the Mud Kids from Indianapolis, Duece Leader & Crash of Dare Devil Micronauts from Louisville, All Star from All Natural Camp out of Chicago, Eclipse of the Trifiling Nitwits (Super Powers) from Cincinnati and Emineim out of Detroit. From the early rounds the favorites came to the forefront dropping gems on opponents to the crowd's delight. There were probably a record tie-breakers. Hip-Hop quotables were prevalent. One that stands out in my mind which occurred during the best and most difficult to decide battle was Emineim’s quip of Choc’s "using his facial tissue to make it a racial issue". He finished in his choppy style of delivery with "... now your mad and all your boys want to jump me, but go home and tell everyone you got beat by a honky". Dose One dethroned Mallachie of The Empire in a early round killing any notion of repeats. Eclipse represented for Cincinnati by ousting Ill Joe from The Empire by stating that "Your belly is so big your shirt use to say M but know it says Empire". Eclipse bowed out gracefully to Juice under the line "So your name is Eclipse, Things about to get tight, I’ma make it darker than Grace Jones after midnight". Juice and Rhymefest were the masters of punchline rhyming which left the crowd ooing and competitors wishing that they were spectators. Emineim brought a similar flavor and had the battles best punch line when he told Juice "You couldn’t make the crowd throw up their hands up if they swallowed their fingers". Ever contest has it’s politics and this magnificent one wasn’t exempt though it didn’t take away from the event. The semi-finalists Juice, Rhymefest, Dose One & Emineim advanced inside to the arena where it boiled down to Juice and Rhymefest. Rhymefest pulled what some would call a gallant show of sportsmanship or a cop out by not battling friend, rhyme partner and fellow Chicagoan, Juice for the title. The Style Wars must go on! Emineim battled Dose One as 3rd and 4th with Emineim advancing. Juice defeated Emineim to take the spoils."
Juice defeated Em at Scribble and at the 1997 Rap Olympics battle in Los Angeles that is mentioned in “Venom,” Eminem also came in second place. But it was there that he reportedly caught the attention of an Interscope Records employee, who got his demo, passed it to the higher-ups (Jimmy Iovine, who played it for Dr. Dre) and the rest is quite literally music history.
In a bit of serendipity, tonight marks the debut of a new Cincinnati Hip Hop festival very much in the spirit of Scribble Jam, even featuring a headlining set by Scribble co-founder and Cincinnati Hip Hop superhero Mr. Dibbs (you can spot him in the above video manning the turntables during the battles). Read all about Overcast here. The mechanics behind the scenes of Hip Hop, like with most of music, have changed drastically — getting a good buzz on Soundcloud is easier for reputation-building than slaying at an MC battle — but you never know. Maybe you’ll see the next Rhymefest, Doseone, Eminem or Juice at the Overcast battles tomorrow night.