Marshall Mathers III is arguably the greatest American wordsmith of the 20th century. He's easily the greatest of the first 15 years of the new millennium. He bends words to rhyme with each other when they shouldn't. He takes truths that are horrifying, and with his uniquely Michigan sense of humor, finds the funny in the fatalistic. His is the ability to take the world by the balls and spit passion in its face, and we end up squirming and looking at the world a little bit differently as a result. We love him for it.
Eminem, as Mathers is more commonly known, has an attitude and rhymes that are often labeled misogynistic or vulgar, yet to the keen listener they are a reflection of what we all see, for better or worse. He's not gonna paint a pretty picture or subscribe to positive mantras when the world is infuriating.
What's more, he's achieved a level of fame and respect unparalleled for a white American hip-hop artist in the black community. He's attained a status among African-Americans that cannot be purchased or forced. The respect he receives is hard-earned, genuine and rare. No one in hip-hop will knock him: He's the best.
To top off his achievements in the rap world, he does something that most in hip-hop and entertainment simply do not: He uses his fame to showcase other talent — often, Detroit-born and -raised talent. He provides a platform for that local talent to shine alongside him, as if to say, "Look here and listen: These people matter, too." It's unique in an industry flavored with beefs and ego.
And indeed, Mathers' people do matter. On Shady XV, a two-disc celebration of the 15th anniversary of Shady Records, founded in 1999, Mathers gives nods to where he's been and to the current landscape of Detroit rap. And through him, that landscape is popping: Dej Loaf, Trick Trick and Danny Brown, among many others, make appearances on the anthology. The album was released this week.
Shady XV, you see, isn't Eminem's greatest hits; it's music released on Shady Records. One disc is old Shady music, with a little bit of the root from every era of the record company on it, and one is new music, with artists on the Shady label "having a grand old time at the opera."
Mathers and Paul Rosenberg, co-founders of Shady, sat down in their metro Detroit studio, along with Denaun Porter, aka Mr. Porter, and Ryan Montgomery, aka Royce da 5'9", to talk life, Shady, and 15 years of lessons learned.
"It's a good thing to be a part of a crew of people that can actually stay relevant without trying to go too far outside of what they do," Mr. Porter tells us. "We all speak about our personal lives a lot, so it's always something to talk about."
"I think that in order to stay relevant for a long period of time, you obviously have to adapt," Rosenberg says. "And in order for people to still be interested, you can't adapt so far outside of who you are that people go, 'Eh, well, I don't like this anymore.' It's a bit of a tightrope act, but I think these guys as artists have done a tremendous job of doing it."
It's a good point to make — Mathers and company have evolved, but not so far from their roots as to disorient anyone, or cause a backlash.
"I was able to watch the growth from Day 1," says Royce. "The music was a reflection of where these guys were each time they dropped something all the way up until Em got sober. The Recovery album was basically a reflection of him being sober and him changing his life. Watching that and watching his fans grow with him was pretty amazing."
We ask, rather tongue in cheek, if the crew will ever break out and do some pop dance music, with Usher or Pitbull. Mr. Porter, perhaps surprisingly, says he'd like to spread his wings, both as a producer and as an artist. "I think I'm more open to a lot — like, singing is becoming a thing where I like it a lot more. I didn't before. Eminem had to force me to sing the first time."
"Because he can sing," Mathers stresses. "He just doesn't like to do it, but he can sing."
"I was scared to, but now I like it a lot more," says Porter. "So for me, it's like, I'm having a lot of fun trying new things, but then finding myself. You have to grow that confidence."
"But you're not doing anything that's still not core to who you are," Rosenberg says to him. "We're not going back to — not to single out any names — but I don't think Marshall or Royce are going to do an EDM Bad Meets Evil album, because that's just not who they are." The crew laughs a bit and acknowledges Pitbull's skills, and that they respect pop and dance, even if they aren't going down that road.
After so many years in the hip-hop game, and all that comes with it, we ask the crew to share the life lessons they've learned.
"I learned to try to find a balance," says Royce. "I decided to move to New York as soon as my first son was born, and I decided to just live there and not come back until I got a record deal. I've always had a live-out-of-the-car mentality." He says that is "extreme behavior when it comes to the music. As I get older, I'm learning to find a balance — not to give hip-hop 100 percent of myself, balance out my family time, and everything like that. I learned that lesson through music, through hip-hop. Had I worked at a factory or something, I don't know. My perspective would be completely different. Hip-hop has taught me that: balance."
For Mathers: "Obviously the biggest thing was not to do drugs."
"The one thing for me," says Rosenberg, "is nothing lasts forever. While you're in those moments that things are really great, to try to step back and take perspective and really appreciate them. I've learned to do that."
"I didn't have my ducks in a row at an early age," adds Royce. "I was doing music as kind of a hobby when I met Marshall, and he kind of put me on his back and pulled me into the industry and this ended up being my profession. I learned to take things serious throughout my journey, so had I ended up at a factory, I probably would've hit 35 or something and been like, 'Man I'm at a factory!' You know what I'm saying? I just was going with the flow, not really thinking about the future too much. Just living in the moment."