The Swarm

September 20, 2013

A Rational Conversation: 'SPIN' Editor-At-Large Charles Aaron Examines Eminem's License To Ill...

Eric Ducker

A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s recently entered pop-culture consciousness.

With his recently released single and video for “Berzerk,” Eminem is back and blonder than ever. Significantly, this Rick Rubin-produced cut pays homage to the type of jams that Rubin was making in the mid-1980s with the likes of the Run-DMC and LL Cool J. But what does “Berzerk” portend for the pop-culture event it heralds – Eminem’s upcoming The Marshall Mathers LP 2? Will it be filled with retro big-beat bangers? More than anything, though, Rubin’s involvement brings up his legendary association with the Beastie Boys: Em has always acknowledged the Beasties’ inspiration, but he’s never paid homage to his forbears like he does on “Berzerk.” But is the feeling mutual? And what beyond skin color do the Beasties and Eminem truly share?

To help answer these questions, Ducker sought out Charles Aaron, the Editor-at-Large of SPIN whose time on staff with the publication stretches back to 1996. He was previously their longtime Music Editor and recently served as Editorial Director. Aaron interviewed Eminem for SPIN back in 1999 for one of the rapper’s first major pieces in a national magazine, and has followed his career ever since.

Charles Aaron: Did you see Eminem in the broadcast booth at the University of Michigan football game? So bizarre and kind of misguided, though it was fascinating to watch. He was standing there trying to talk to Brent Musburger, who is such a bloviating goofball anyway, and Eminem is being all spaced-out and uncomfortable and sorta downbeat, which just does not fly in a college football atmosphere where it’s all UP! UP! UP! I don’t think they know what to do, necessarily, to promote him anymore. The Detroit/Michigan hometown hero thing works sometimes, but very selectively. He’s not a smooth-talking celeb type.

Eric Ducker: What do you think of “Berzerk”?

Charles Aaron: It was a surprise to hear another sample of the “The Stroke” in 2013! I mean, the first thing I honestly thought of, in terms of Rick Rubin producing (or “reducing”) Eminem was that it was a repeat of Jay Z and “99 Problems” – another Billy Squier extravaganza. I love the energy, I guess (to be totally generic and clichéd), but I feel like the music could’ve gone in more interesting directions if they wanted to nod to the 1985-1986 era Rubin/Def Jam sound. Still, it was encouraging to see Eminem seemingly having a good time cutting loose on a track.

Eric Ducker: I agree. I like it, but more in concept than as something I want to listen to repeatedly. It’s daring, but it doesn’t feel totally daring coming after “99 Problems.” Admittedly, “99 Problems” came out almost ten years ago, but has managed to stay in people’s minds ever since.

Charles Aaron: There’s a very particular Billy Squier and AC/DC crunching guitar-sample texture that immediately signifies something specific for people. For me, as a man of a certain age, it reminds me of LL Cool J’s Radio, which they’re nodding to in the video with the giant boombox. For others, it’s the Beasties, and for others, it’s “99 Problems.” Regardless, that sound has made a gargantuan footprint as far as crossover rap is concerned – it’s the sound Russell Rush and Def Jam dreamed would turn hip-hop into the new rock & roll for America and white kids (which actually happened beyond Russell’s wildest, drug-induced imaginings). So, unless Eminem acknowledges all that in a more, I don’t know, meta or self-aware away with, say, the lyrics, then it’s just kind of a halfway look.

Eric Ducker: I’m curious if the whole album will sound like “Berzerk,” or if this is the one Rick Rubin single they could afford and the rest will be the overwrought stuff we’ve been getting from Eminem for the past few releases. A full album of this would be great, as we’ve heard from Killer Mike and El-P.

Charles Aaron: Yeah, the shouty, loud-ass rap sound has been a really fresh trend, from Killer Mike to Death Grips to Yeezus, and it feels like Eminem is tapping into that, as well as revisiting his original inspirations, which is kind of what one tends to do in his forties. But to your question about the whole album, I feel like it’ll probably be more of a mixture, since it is a major-label event project, there’s a ton of money and jobs at stake, and they need to maximize every possible opportunity to reach a wider audience. The last album was pretty unremittingly dark, but there were P!nk and Rihanna features, which are the songs that I think most people tend to remember, or want to remember, instead of “Not Afraid.” That’s why Yeezus was so impressive and such a brave record — though it’s also repulsive and hard to take at times. Kanye went for it full force, and didn’t craft it like a product. I don’t know if Eminem’s at a place in his life where he feels comfortable or interested in doing that. He doesn’t seem psyched enough on his own music to do that.

Eric Ducker: As you mention, the two obvious inspirations for the song and video for “Berzerk” are Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. I found this interview Em did with DJ Whoo Kid last year, about a month after Adam Yauch died, and he was talking about how Licensed to Ill and Bad were the first albums he memorized and got deeply into. I’ve been thinking particularly about Eminem’s relationship with the Beastie Boys. The story that got repeated a lot was his Uncle Ronnie introducing him to rap through Ice-T. Eminem has a Beastie Boys joke on “Cum on Everybody” from The Slim Shady LP. I don’t know if he considered the Beastie Boys influence a given, or if he didn’t want to just be seen in the tradition of white rappers. I always got the sense he wanted to compared to all rappers in terms of skills, not just the white ones.

Charles Aaron: You’re right that he downplayed anything that led to a white rapper comparison, especially as he did more interviews. But I was looking back at an interview I did with him in 1998 for an essay I was doing at the time – not even a profile about him (though I did sorta shadily use some quotes from that interview in a later profile, mea culpa). He was just another voice in this essay, and I hadn’t heard much of his music at that time. I asked him directly about the Beastie Boys and his quote was, “That’s what really did it for me. I was like, 'This shit is dope!’ That’s when I decided I wanted to rap.” Later on, I think he did tend to mention Ice-T (the song “Reckless” from the Breakin’ soundtrack) and LL, and maybe not the Beasties. But that seems totally understandable and smart, actually. Journalists always have wanted to create this narrative post-Vanilla Ice that white rappers are suspect or delusional suburban or redneck wannabes who couldn’t possible be sincerely inspired or relate to black artists. It had to be the Beasties or whomever who spoke to them, which is ridiculous and racist. El-P once pointed out to me that the mistake white artists make is trying to closely “identify” with the specific life experiences of black artists. It’s one thing to relate as a human being or as an artist, that’s normal, but racial identification is a fucked road to take; alas, journalists aren’t often interested in those types of distinctions. I think Eminem has been very honest about his background, for the most part, considering the circumstances; obviously as time goes on, it’s become easier to be more specific about which artists inspired him.

Eric Ducker: What do you think of the “Berzerk” video?

Charles Aaron: Watching it again this morning, isn’t Rubin looking more and more like he should get his own redneck reality show on Discovery Channel or Animal Planet? He’s moved past Zen Buddhist moonshiner to full-on dude pulling a catfish out of a muddy river.

Eric Ducker: It’s also weird that they’re referencing Check Your Head-era Beasties, since the song is so unchill. Do you think the backwards stuff with Slaughterhouse is supposed to be a reference to Pharcyde’s “Drop” video?

Charles Aaron: All the references are interesting: Beasties equals fisheye lens, LL equals giant radio. That could definitely be a reference to the Pharcyde video. That video was where the Pharcyde overtly nodded to the Beasties’ influence on them (overall, and particularly Ad-Rock on Imani), so it’s a cool reference in a video where Em nods to the Beasties.

Eric Ducker: When Eminem released The Slim Shady LP, did the critical community think he was going to be a one-album wonder? His star power and talent seemed pretty undeniable.

Charles Aaron: There was a question of whether the industry would turn him into a one- or two-album wonder. He was nasty; anybody paying attention knew that. Eminem’s reputation as a lyricist and battle rapper was building, and obviously he had an insane amount of charisma on the mic — and when you’re matched up with Dre, forget it. But when I got an advance of the “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” video before the album or anything, I was both incredibly excited and kinda scared for him. They were pushing this crazy redneck-white-kid-in-a-trailer persona, like he’s listening to Tupac out in the woods and he’s coming to shoot up your little Johnny and Julie’s school or whatever. The song was one thing, but I knew the images in the video, with MTV still having power at the time, were so strong and possibly alienating to the hip-hop community. I knew he’d blow up with white kids, but I wondered if his indie-underground foundation would crumble a little. But obviously the album was great, and he and Dre were such an unstoppable team, so that was not a problem, to say the least.

Eric Ducker: The way the myth of the Beastie Boys is now told is that they were written off as a novelty group at first. I don’t know exactly when you got into music journalism, but was that really the case, or did people see that there was intelligence and potential there?

Charles Aaron: I wasn’t plugged into the Beasties conversation or world except as a fan back then, but over the years, after reading a lot, I think they were viewed as really intelligent jokesters at the time, and maybe a pop flash in the pan. I was kinda surprised when Yauch passed that so many people said he was clearly the best rapper of the three. All I remember was that Ad-Rock was the man. He was the one who just absolutely killed it and made people – fans or otherwise – take them more seriously. He helped discover LL Cool J for Def Jam, he had a writing credit on “I Need a Beat,” his voice was just fucking bonkers memorable and cutting – it just pierced through all those Rubin noise blasts and thunderclap beats. If anything, maybe folks thought Ad-Rock could be a star on his own. It wasn’t until Paul’s Boutique, when they fell out with Def Jam and went to L.A., that they really got respect – most prominently from Chuck D, who was beyond impressed by Paul’s Boutique.

Eric Ducker: In thinking about the Beastie Boys and Eminem last night, I realized one of the big differences is a perception of coolness. Eminem is obviously a better and more inventive rapper than all of the Beastie Boys, but he’s never seemed cool – even before he blew up in the mainstream. Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys came to inherit this title as “the perennial avatars of cool.”

Charles Aaron: That’s true, but I think the perception of both of them at the beginning of their careers was similar. They were both seen as cartoon characters – comic caricatures of white kids who were rapping as an act or a trick, or because the industry was packaging them a certain way. The Beasties wisely moved into the cool-hunting biz as they got older, and went back to their punk roots playing conventional instruments. The Beasties were of a different class and background; they had a social mobility and capital that Eminem didn’t. They were hooked-up cosmopolitan New Yorkers, so they could take advantage of that. Eminem, on the other hand, was a poor kid who could rap you into submission. That’s it. His perspective was totally different: I think because he was so talented, and had worked so hard to earn respect, he had to be more devoted to the craft of MCing, or he’d be betraying himself. He always seems to feel like he has to prove himself over and over, even now, because of where he’s come from. He doesn’t feel that he has the luxury of not being a badass rapper who can murder people on the mic. In a way, at least from my perspective, that’s just as cool in a general sense – it’s just not “cool” in the hipster sense.

Eric Ducker: Right, in their best post-debut album moments, each went back to their strengths. For the Beastie Boys, it was their taste, and for Eminem, it was his confessional and inventive lyricism. But would it be possible at this stage in his career for Eminem to make a “cool” album? What would that even entail or sound like? If he decided to record with Odd Future or Mac Miller, say, that might seem like a desperate move. I do think doing a full album of “Berzerk”-type stuff would be interesting. Maybe he should do a Son of Bazerk album with Hank Shocklee.

Charles Aaron: Ha, that would be genius! I mean, all these guys – the Beasties and Eminem – are incredibly talented and hard-working artists, no matter how they entered pop culture initially, or whether you liked their early or middle or later work. To garner any real respect, considering their contexts, was remarkable. Just as it’s remarkable what El-P has accomplished. These guys are legit, yet extremely unlikely, game-changing figures in hip-hop history. Although I may not be anxiously awaiting another Eminem album at this point in my life, saying that is a pretty irrelevant statement to make as a critic. I’m intrigued by what Eminem comes up with on this record; there’s an energy to it that seems more ablaze. He seems, on the surface, to be healthier and primed, and not still so actively processing all the addiction stuff in his songs. Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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