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A protégé of Dr. Dre, rapper Eminem emerged in 1999 as one of the most controversial rappers to ever grace the genre. Using his biting wit and incredible skills to vent on everything from his unhappy childhood to his contempt for the mainstream media, his success became the biggest crossover success the genre had seen since Dre's solo debut seven years earlier. The controversy over his lyrics was the best publicity any musician could afford, and being the first Caucasian rapper to make a significant impact in years may have given him a platform not afforded to equally talented African-American rappers. A gifted producer as well, his talents always seemed overshadowed by his media presence, which was a mix between misunderstood genius and misogynistic homophobe. Both may be true, but his message spoke to legions of disaffected youth who had few role models in the rap world who could relate to the white lower-class experience.
He was born Marshall Mathers in St. Joseph, MO (near Kansas City), spending the better part of his impoverished childhood shuttling back and forth between his hometown and the city of Detroit. Initially attracted to rap as a teen, Eminem began performing at age 14, performing raps in the basement of his high school friend's home. The two went under the names Manix and M&M (soon changed to Eminem), which Mathers took from his own initials. Due to the unavoidable racial boundaries that came with being a white rapper, he decided the easiest way to win over underground hip-hop audiences was to become a battle rapper and improv against other MCs in clubs. Although he wasn't immediately accepted, through time he became such a popular attraction that people would challenge him just to make a name for themselves.
His uncle's suicide prompted a brief exodus from the world of rap, but he returned and found himself courted by several other rappers to start groups. He first joined the New Jacks, and then moved on to Soul Intent, who released Eminem's first recorded single in 1995. A rapper named Proof performed the B-side on the single and enjoyed working with Eminem so much that he asked him to start yet another group. Drafting in a few other friends, the group became known as D-12, a six-member crew that supported one another as solo artists more than they collaborated. The birth of Eminem's first child put his career on hold again as he started working in order to care for his family. This also instilled a bitterness that started to creep into his lyrics as he began to drag personal experiences into the open and make them the topic of his raps.
A debut record, 1996's Infinite, broke his artistic rut but received few good reviews, as comparisons to Nas and AZ came unfavorably. Undaunted, he downplayed many of the positive messages he had been including in his raps and created Slim Shady, an alter ego who was unafraid to say whatever he felt. Tapping into his innermost feelings, he had a bounty of material to work with when his mother was accused of mentally and physically abusing his younger brother the same year. The next year his girlfriend left him and barred him from visiting their child, so he was forced to move back in with his mother, an experience that fueled his hatred toward her and made him even more sympathetic toward his brother. The material he was writing was uncharacteristically dark as he began to abuse drugs and alcohol at a more frequent rate. An unsuccessful suicide attempt was the last straw, as he realized his musical ambitions were the only way to escape his unhappy life. He released the brutal Slim Shady EP, a mean-spirited, funny, and thought-provoking record that was light years ahead of the material he had been writing beforehand. Making quite the impression in the underground not only for his exaggerated, nasal-voiced rapping style but also for his skin color, many quarters dubbed him the music's next "great white hope."
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