Eminem was recently voted the greatest rapper of all time by you, the people of the Internet. Yes, the Detroit-made superstar had topped Ranker as the GOAT, leaving even the likes of Tupac and Biggie in his wake.
It’s no wonder fans, and critics alike hold him in such high regard. After all, he has a flow like no other, his lyrics are dynamite, he’s got prestigious awards coming out of every conceivable orifice in his body and if another rapper dares criticise him… well, they’d better be aware of the risks.
Having been on the scene and at the top of his game for 20 years now, it’s difficult to recall a time when Eminem wasn’t the hottest hip-hop star on the face of the Earth. But his career hasn’t always been all private jets and platinum records. In fact, in the early days, it was quite the opposite.
The rapper’s upbringing was a troubled one. After his father abandoned him at 18 months old, young Marshall spent his early years moving around the Midwest with his mother, Debbie Nelson. This constant upheaval caused him significant problems at school with bullying.
“[I’d get] beat up in the bathroom, beat up in the hallways, shoved into lockers,” Em told CNN in 2010. “You know, just for, you know, for the most part, man, you know, just bein’ the new kid.”
It wasn’t just at school that things were rough – Eminem and his mother had a turbulent relationship at home. The rapper claims that the two of them survived on welfare cheques and that when little brother Nathan was born, he practically raised the infant by himself. Debbie has since said that the teenage Marshall wrote to his estranged father several times, but all his letters came back marked ‘return to sender’.
Debbie was suffering from Münchausen syndrome by proxy at the time, a mental disorder which causes the sufferer to inflict physical or psychological stress on others to make them believe they are ill. The diagnosis meant that Nathan was eventually taken away from her by social services.
The future chart-topper found a means of escaping his abusive childhood when he discovered hip-hop in his teenage years and began competing in local rap battles.
“Hip-hop has always been braggin’ and boasting and ‘I’m better at you than this’ and ‘I’m better at you than that,'” Eminem told CNN.
“I finally found something that ‘yeah, this kid over here, you know, he may have more chicks, and he may, you know, have better clothes, or whatever, but he can’t do this like me.’
“You know what I mean? ‘He can’t write what I’m writing right now.’ And it started to feel like, you know, maybe Marshall’s gettin’ a little respect.”
But it was by no means a smooth ride, but after making a name for himself in the scene as one of the most skilled wordsmiths, he eventually became a respected figure in Detroit’s underground rap scene. It was this period of working dead-end jobs, competing in rap battles and trying to land a record deal that would eventually inspire the events of the semi-autoiographical movie 8 Mile.
Following the birth of his daughter, Hailie Jade Scott, in 1995, Mathers decided he had to make a career out of his music and recorded his self-released debut album, Infinite. Unfortunately, the record failed to attract any real attention and went mostly unnoticed.
Those who did hear it generally spoke of it unfavourably, accusing Em of ripping off other rappers and not showcasing his unique style. It’s thought to have sold somewhere between 500 and 1,000 copies. Not exactly platinum, which may be why it’s rarely mentioned among his catalogue of records.
It was a setback that also coincided with a dark period in the rapper’s personal life, with the young rapper splitting up acrimoniously with his then-girlfriend Kim – Hailie’s mother – and accelerating his use of drugs and alcohol, all of which conspired to lead the young musician to an unsuccessful suicide attempt
This swiftly became part of the inspiration for Eminem’s next phase, however, as he conjured up his now legendary alter-ego, Slim Shady. “Boom, the name hit me, and right away I thought of all these words to rhyme with it,” he told Rolling Stone in 2009.
With his new persona in hand, he got to work recording The Slim Shady EP, before travelling to LA to participate in the Rap Olympics. It was thanks to this record, released on 6 December 1996, that he was spotted by Interscope, whose CEO played the record to producer, rapper and former NWA member Dr Dre.
“In my entire career in the music industry, I have never found anything from a demo tape or a CD,” Dre explained to Rolling Stone. “When Jimmy played this, I said, ‘Find him. Now.'”
A short time later, Eminem, who had idolised Dre, got to work on his first major label album, The Slim Shady LP, with the legendary rap producer himself. The record catapulted him into the spotlight in 1999 and he hasn’t left it since.
If it’s a rags-to-riches story you were after, you can’t do much better than that.
Eminem’s new album, Revival, is released on 15 December.