Let’s start with some of Marshall Mathers III’s major accomplishments:
- At 172 million records sold, he is one of the top-20 best-selling artists ever.
- With close to 110 million of these being sold in the 2000s, he was the best-selling artist in the United States for the entire decade.
- He has had ten number-one albums.
- Rolling Stones called him ‘The King of Hip-Hop’, ranking him as #83 on the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list.
That’s where he is now, under the moniker Eminem. Where he was when it all began, however, is a shockingly different story.
From the outset, Eminem’s life was a struggle. His mother almost died during an intense 73-hour labour, and his father left the family soon after.
What followed was a decade of migration, as he and his mother moved between Missouri and Michigan, living with various relatives. When they finally settled in a low-income, predominantly African American area of Detroit, Eminem established himself as a happy, but mostly isolated child, who was often bullied. In one vicious altercation, a bully severely beat him, resulting in temporary loss of vision and a concussion.
It was around this time that Eminem was first exposed to hip-hop by a relative. From that point on he aspired to be a rapper, writing songs throughout his teens, and regularly attending open-mic nights. His schooling suffered, and after failing the ninth grade three times, he abandoned his education.
For the next few years, Eminem worked with various rap groups. His reputation grew, and in 1996 he was signed to FBT Productions, with whom he recorded his debut album Infinite. It was a mediocre release. This, paired with Eminem’s racial status, made him a target of ridicule, with one critic in particular taunting “Why don’t you go into rock and roll?”.
“Behind every successful person lies a pack of haters.”
The hate would go on to inspire Eminem’s distinctive style, but for now, it had a crushing impact on his ambitions. He was working 60-hour weeks for minimum wage in order to provide for his girlfriend and newborn daughter. Together, they were living in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood, and their home was constantly being robbed. This all culminated in a failed suicide attempt.
When he recovered, he recorded a new EP. Eminem sung not as himself, but in a comedically sadistic persona known as Slim Shady, channeling all the negativity that had threatened to destroy him.
Having lost his job, Eminem was evicted from his home. It was all the excuse he needed to travel to Los Angeles in order to compete in the 1997 Rap Olympics. He placed second, and a copy of The Slim Shady EP soon made its way into the hands of hip-hop legend Dr. Dre. Dre recalled, “In my entire career in the music industry, I have never found anything from a demo tape or a CD. When Jimmy (CEO of Interscope Records, to whom Eminem would later sign) played this, I said, ‘Find him. Now.'”
Two years later, Eminem released The Slim Shady LP. It was met with as much criticism as success, and was soon followed up by The Marshall Mathers LP.
It was a massive success, selling 1.76 million copies in its first week, and becoming the fastest-selling solo album of all time. Underpinned by the realities of Eminem’s troubled life, the songs flowed with raw honesty and brutal humour. The record went on to sell over 19 million copies worldwide, won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, and was nominated as Album of the Year.
Over the next four years, Eminem released two more albums, and saw criticism of his lyrics intensify. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation declared him homophobic, while the first single off the album Encore lead to heavy backlash for what was perceived as slurs against Michael Jackson.
“If you have enemies, good; that means you stood up for something.”
The controversy wasn’t going to slow Eminem down, but personal issues proved too much. He was sued by his mother, ex-wife, and a former bully for slander, was convicted of multiple gun-related offences, and was even investigated by the United States Secret Service over lyrics that appeared to threaten assassination of then-President George W. Bush.
It was too much.
“Somewhere deep down there’s a decent man in me, he just can’t be found.”
In 2007, Eminem overdosed on methadone. Doctors informed him that he had been two hours away from dying after ingesting the equivalent of four bags of heroin. What followed was a long and arduous rehabilitation program, that ultimately resulted in Eminem shaking his addiction.
He returned to music with 2009’s Relapse and a remix album, Relapse: Refill. Though neither album were as successful as previous releases, they proved Eminem was far from done.
Since then, Eminem has released two more albums, and worked on various collaborations with the likes of Jay Z, Rihanna, and even Elton John, who is his close friend. He’s also produced soundtracks for films – most recently, the Jake Gyllenhaal-lead Southpaw – and is executive producer on the TV Series Motor City.
The heat on Eminem has subdued over recent years, but will it last? Even he can’t say for certain.
“The truth is you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. Life is a crazy ride, and nothing is guaranteed.”