Introduction
Terminology
Research Design
Methodology & The Insider/Outsider Dilemma
Narrowing Our Focus: The Temple of Hiphop & Emceein’
The Definition of an Emcee
Data, Methods & PAR
Research Goals: An Open Mic
Emceein’ as Art
What is Authenticity?
Black Urban Expression, 'Street Cred' & The Commercial Hip-Pop Empire
      Ghetto Music
      “Eminem: The New White Negro"
      ‘Street Cred’ as a Proxy for Authenticity
      “The Nigga You Love to Hate”
      Whack Rappers
Rethinking Authenticity: Beyond Cultural Analysis
      Being True to Self
      Connecting to a Collective Rhythm & 'Having It'
      “This is Hip-Hop!”: Authenticity Outside the Original Context
The Catch: Structural Racism, Erasure and Exploitation
      Eminem Revisited
      Respect and Remembrance
Conclusion
Endnotes
References
Appendix A: Kool Mo Dee’s Criteria for Emcees
Appendix B: Zulu Nation & Temple of Hiphop as New Social Movements
Appendix C: Information about Artists Interviewed
Appendix D: Selections from Artist Interviews

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"Eminem: The New White Negro"19

“He is not a white boy who wants to be black, he is Black, yet his appearance simply happens to be white. This is still America, and yes, skin color still matters, in most, if not all things. Even so, to the extent that hip hop has defined the real as rooted in a marginal, poverty-stricken, pathologically defined existence, then [Eminem] is potentially more Black than many of the middle-class and wealthy black people who live in mainstream White society today. In other words, to me, [Eminem] is a nigga.”

- Todd Boyd (2003:128)

The infinitely controversial, confusing, and highly skilled lyricist, Eminem, inevitably works his way into a discussion of Hip-Hop authenticity.  He has not only sparked tremendous controversy in the press, he has also been the subject of numerous academic discussions of rap.  While he is an interesting case, it is important to recognize that there is a troubling trend in writing on hip-hop to offer detailed analysis of Eminem’s music and lyrics, while offering little to no attention to other equally, if not more skilled, non-white artists, a number of whom also laid the Hip-Hop foundation on which Eminem stands.20  In this section, I wish to constructively criticize arguments that Eminem has deliberately constructed a particular image of authenticity by pointing out where such analyses have suffered from confounding variables.

Greg Tate (2003) states that Eminem is the “latest pure product of white and crazy America, here to claim his fifteen minutes of MTV-generated fame as a Black male impersonator, and who has his gangsta-rap records routinely played by rock stations that consider Black rappers anathema” (Tate, 5).  While Tate is likely correct in suggesting that Eminem has received exceptional patronage from rock radio stations because he is white  (see the section Eminem Revisited), some of Tate’s other remarks about Eminem do warrant examination.  Based on his claim that Eminem is “here to claim his fifteen minutes of MTV-generated fame as a Black male impersonator,” one is led to believe that Eminem is no different than Vanilla Ice, a White rapper who deliberately crafted a false, ‘from-the-streets’ image in the early 90’s to sell more records (Boyd, 23).21  In light of the fact that street credibility serves as a proxy for authenticity (see the following section), one can see why Vanilla Ice felt the need to fabricate an image which suggested he was from the ghetto (Rose, 11).  Unlike Vanilla Ice, however, “Eminem may have been born white, but he was socialized as black, in the proverbial hood” (Rux, 21). 

Still, even though Eminem’s particular socialization—which some say was the result of his impoverished upbringing in 83 percent Black Detroit (Rux, 20)—does not imply deliberate fabrication, Tate insists that Eminem is consciously imitating Blackness.  Rux (2003) presents what I believe is a more accurate evaluation of Eminem in terms of authenticity:

Eminem does not attempt to perform the authentic Nigga as much as he performs a New White Nigga…His presentation is not overtly authentic, but infused with authenticity because he has lived in Nigga neighborhoods and listened to Nigga music and learned Nigga culture—and the integrity of his performance does not overtly attempt mimicry, like those culture bandits who came before him, after him, or share pop-chart status with him… He has arrived at white culture with an authentic performance of whiteness, influenced by a historical concept of blackness (Rux, 27, 37).

The crucial distinction here, it seems, is that Eminem is innately infused with urban, Black aesthetics. By Rux’s analysis, because Eminem has grown up with those aesthetics, and because he does not “overtly attempt mimicry,” it seems he could be considered authentic, based on street credibility alone. Here, it is also worth noting that Kool Mo Dee (2003) recognizes Eminem as having the potential to be one of the greatest MCs: 

Eminem, DMX, Canibus, Mos Def, and Eve…are truly tighter than a lot of the [top-50 MCs on my list] but because they all hit from 1998-99, they would lose too many points in longevity and ultimately it wouldn’t be fair to their scores (342). 

Kool Mo Dee, a Hip-Hop pioneer who played a major role in Hip-Hop’s development in its original post-industrial context, and an undisputed authority on rap music, is recognizing Eminem simply as an emcee—not as a white emcee.  Furthermore, Dee puts Eminem in the top 10 best overall Hip-Hop artists for 2002-2003, as the Most Well Rounded Emcee of the year.  Would a Hip-Hop icon like Kool Mo Dee bestow such accolades on an emcee he didn’t consider authentic? 

Let us now examine an essay published in Popular Music and Society by Edward Armstrong (2004) entitled ‘Eminem’s Construction of Authenticity.’  The essay is useful for understanding the ability of commercial forces to confound discussions of authenticity and it is also an example of how an academic who is too far removed from Hip-Hop can fall short in his or her analysis.  Drawing on the academic sources at his disposal, Armstrong determined that rap music emphasizes three kinds of authenticity: (a) being true to oneself, (b) representing one’s territorial identity, and (c) having proximity to an original source of rap.  He notes that “Eminem is firmly grounded in these three kinds of authenticity” (336).  Although Armstrong’s framework has some validity, his ability to apply this framework to Eminem’s authenticity as an emcee is ultimately undermined by his decision to focus almost entirely on Eminem’s career since establishing himself in the mainstream, as well as by his obvious distance from Hip-Hop culture as an outsider.

The first indication of this distance is that Armstrong based his discussion on the notion that Eminem makes gangsta rap:

Eminem, a gangsta rapper, is the music’s biggest star… [H]e authenticates his self-presentations by outdoing other gangsta rappers in terms of his violent misogyny. In The Slim Shady LP, women are killed by guns and knives and by an innovative means, poisoning… In The Marshall Mathers LP, eleven of the fourteen songs contain violent misogynist lyrics (Armstrong, 2004:335, 344).

Any Hiphoppa, and indeed many hip-hop listeners, can tell you that Eminem is not a gangsta rapper, nor has he ever claimed to be.  One would be hard pressed to find a well-versed Hip-Hop enthusiast who would even consider putting Eminem in the same category as, for instance, N.W.A. or Daz & Kurupt.

In the specific case of Armstrong attacking Eminem’s lyrics for the “lack of correspondence between words and deeds [that Armstrong argues] is fundamental to standard rap discourse,” (337) authors such as Armstrong fail to recognize a crucial aspect of Eminem as an emcee: Eminem developed his style in the context of the freestyle battle rap circuit—a site of rap not only where improvisational lyrical skills are a must, but where gruesome metaphors and threats of literal violence serve as the most potent lyrical weapons for besting an opponent.  As a veteran of the battle rap scene, it is logical that Eminem’s recorded material has been imbued with the same gory, confrontational metaphors and violently offensive fictional stories that characterize many battle raps.  That said, the point at which threats in the context of a rap battle carry over to real life is not always clear (see 2Pac and Biggie).  Perhaps this ambiguity is responsible for many academics’ misinterpretations of Eminem, as well as for the rap industry’s ability to justify its reckless promotion of violence. 

Another instance where Armstrong fails to understand rap is in his analysis of Eminem’s refusal to use the word ‘nigga’ in his lyrics.  It is almost comical to watch Armstrong count the number of times Black artists use the word on Eminem’s albums, contrast that to Eminem’s refusal to use it, and then reach the following conclusion:

My guess is that Eminem’s “prudence” was a product of marketing advisors who felt that his audience, the white youth Dre wanted to focus on, might neither understand nor appreciate and might feel uncomfortable hearing him mention a standard rap and underclass self-descriptor… Eminem’s context is gangsta rap and Eminem’s hero is Dre. Prudence does not enter into either qualification. Would Eminem have been criticized for using the “N-word”? I don’t think so. (346-7).

In my opinion, Eminem’s refusal to use the word ‘nigga’ requires very little analysis: if you’re a white emcee, the word is off limits.  It’s as simple as that.  Armstrong’s clumsy attempts to substantiate his argument are an example of why academics with little to no direct experience with the culture may be at a disadvantage in their analysis.  All criticism of Armstrong aside, there are still a number of problematic issues that stem from the commercial success of Eminem.  I discuss these issues at length in the section The Catch: Structural Racism, Erasure and Exploitation.

19. This phrase was taken from an article by the same title written by Carl H. Rux, which appears in Greg Tate’s (2003) Everything But the Burden.

20. I discuss this at greater length in the section, The Catch: Structural Racism, Erasure and Exploitation.

21. Despite the popularity of his hit single, Ice Ice Baby, Vanilla Ice lost all credibility, as well as authenticity (that is, if he ever had any to begin with) when his true middle-class status was later unearthed (Rux, 25).
 

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