Why Eminem Isn’t Elvis
The request came after the success of Molanphy’s previous post for the website, “Introducing the Queen of Pop” — in which Molanphy measured female music artists’ commercial performance in nine different ways and tallied the results. “Queen of Pop” crowned Lady Gaga, garnered 2000 Facebook “Likes” and engendered hundreds of comments-worth of bile from livid fans of Madonna and Brittany Spears.
For “King of Hip-Hop,” Molanphy consolidated his nine parameters into just seven — album sales, album reviews, chart position, touring, social media, YouTube hits, and awards — and tweaked his spreadsheet a bit, weighing album sales, chart position, and YouTube heavier, and giving less weight to social networking and reviews. Fatefully, Molanphy reprised the “Queen of Pop” survey’s irregular time period, a two-and-a-half year span between the beginning of 2009 and mid-2011, so that the data sample would be big enough. All Molanphy had to do was collect the data and crunch the numbers.
Not long after he started entering the figures, Molanphy stopped by Woodwork, a bar near his home in Brooklyn, to meet up with some friends. They asked him how his project was going.
“It’s clear Eminem’s going to win this thing,” Molanphy told them.
Oh man, his friends said. You are gonna get hounded for the white guy taking the crown.
A Higher Caliber of Haterade
On August 15, 2011, after Eminem was crowned the “King of Hip-Hop” by the website of the 44-year old rock-and-roll magazine Rolling Stone, the reaction from many hip-hop fans, culture critics and other social commentators was baffled and dismissive.
“This list is bogus on every criterion and smolders with racism,” commented one RollingStone.com reader, Chino Wilson. “Somehow out of all the hip hop artists, you Rolling Stone anoint a white one, Eminem as the King of Hip Hop? Eminem himself would tell you he’s not worthy of that throne.”
Jasmine ‘Jazzi’ Johnson on TheGrio.com said of Eminem: “Though he’s always been a great artist with a dynamic delivery, the masses of White America tend to run out and support any and everything he does regardless of its quality,”
The results reviled like those of his “Queen of Pop” post, Molanphy’s hip-hop piece was similarly successful by Web standards, where outrage creates revenue — with over 5000 Facebook likes and nearly 200 comments.
What many readers didn’t realize was that the results of the research were skewed by a two major factors. The first was the peculiar time period of the survey, which happened to coincide with a prolific comeback for Eminem after a five-year hiatus in which he released two albums. “Eminem got lucky with our timing,” Molanphy says. “Before then, he doesn’t even factor.”
The second was the blockbuster pop success of Eminem’s duet with Rihanna, “Love The Way You Lie,” which boosted Eminem’s album sales, awards, chart positions and YouTube plays significantly. Without the song, Molanphy says, “it increases the likelihood that Lil Wayne takes it.”
Those realities — added to the heavy-weighting of album sales and Eminem’s peculiar strength as an album artist — took Eminem over the top. “If there was one pleasant surprise, it was that the numbers in the top three were closer then I thought they would be,” Molanphy says. “This at least feels you’ve got two other guys who could have given Eminem a run for his money. The whole top five feels legit to me. I may not like the order,” — Molanphy says he is partial to Kanye on a creative level — “but I like that it’s Jay, Kanye, Wayne, Drake, and Eminem.”
If Numbers Don’t Lie, Why Doesn’t It Ring True?
Eminem’s perch at the pinnacle of this particular poll might not have aroused such ire if the piece had not used one particular word in its title:
As most students of pop culture know, the use of the term “King” has an antecedent in music history. Hip-hop’s predecessor, rhythm-and-blues, was the last musical genre to grow from Black communities to dominate the mainstream. But rhythm & blues renamed didn’t make it into the mainstream unadulterated. The music was renamed “rock and roll,” and its Black originators were largely denied access to promotion, airplay and venues. So rock-and-roll’s first stars were white. And translator number one was Elvis Presley. A segregated entertainment industry and a willfully ignorant media could, then, easily crown Elvis “The King of Rock-and-Roll.”
It was a usurpation of the throne. The mention of Elvis as a “King” of anything still rankles some who regard the Mississippi-born R&B artist as either a cultural thief, or at least a culpable accessory to the crime, like so many other beneficiaries of a white supremacist system.
Thus the word “Elvis” itself became epithet, hurled at any white artist who achieved success performing Black-originated American music at the perceived expense of Black originators.
And no one, perhaps, in pop culture since Elvis has triggered this comparison to Elvis more than Eminem.
But is Eminem really Elvis redux?
A History Lesson
A few weeks before the “King Of Hip-Hop” piece came out, I appeared on a panel at the Harlem Book Fair to discuss the dramatic ascent of Black American artists and entrepreneurs in the hip-hop era chronicled in my book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.
An audience member asked me, regarding the success of Eminem: “Do you really think we’ve passed that Elvis mentality where we have to have white artists co-opt black culture?”
I answered, “Yes and no,” because the issue can’t really be understood without about 400 years of context.
Black culture has always been fascinating to white Americans, even as white America subjugated Black people. Long before the American descendants of Europeans were willing to acknowledge the humanity of the descendants of Africans, white Americans recognized it subconsciously, by proxy: reveling in music, dance and language loaded with African retentions that, in fitting irony, would become the foundation of all American pop culture.
The entire music industry, founded in the Jim Crow era of segregation, was built on two fallacies: that there was, indeed, some existential difference between so-called “Black” music and white “pop” music other than the race of the musicians; and that white America needed white translators to interpret and “tone down” Black art for them.
Both premises were disproved by the 1960s, as AM radio blasted Black artists to white America, and artists like James Brown and Aretha Franklin shared space on pop playlists with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
But this “golden age” of relative cultural parity died with the Sixties, as corporations bought up independent record companies to claim a piece of the lucrative “Black music” market, subsuming them under “Black” departments; and organized radio stations with rigid race-based programming “formats”: Led Zeppelin and Rush over here; Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire over there.
The music business resegregated under the concept of “crossover” — meaning that Black artists had to “prove” their commercial viability in the “Black” market before being considered for pop promotion. And even with proven success, viable Black artists could still be turned away for sounding “too Black.” It took the full political weight of CBS Records executives to induce MTV to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video in 1983. Michael Jackson, and Prince shortly thereafter, loosened things up for Black artists on the nascent cable channel that had become America’s prime outlet for promoting music. But only just a bit. The music industry was still as segregated as ever.
In the end, it wouldn’t be musicians who knocked down those walls.
Rhymin’ & Stealin’
In 1984, Run-DMC were the first rap group in history to get played on MTV. As a result, they became hip-hop’s first mainstream stars.
So when the group’s producers, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, chose to follow Run-DMC’s success with a hip-hop album from a white, former punk band called the Beastie Boys, it seemed an historic inevitability—as Black music styles throughout history had each been adopted, in succession, by white musicians. Simmons and Rubin may have even been familiar with the old adage attributed to the man who discovered Elvis: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
But Russell Simmons was not Sam Phillips. Simmons, the manager, was Black. If the white group became successful, a Black man would profit first.
The Beastie Boys were nevertheless greeted by some cultural critics as the Elvises of hip-hop. Here we go again, they seemed to say. Just like rock-and-roll. In a few years, no one will even know that hip-hop was a Black art form, and all of its major stars will be white.
The initial success of the Beastie Boys seemed to bear that out. Their white skin privilege laded their faces on mainstream music magazines that had never given similar coverage to Black rap artists. Their 1986 album, “Licensed To Ill,” sold four million albums, easily topping Run-DMC’s record of three million.
Yet though the Beasties’ sold millions of records and concert tickets, there came no deluge of white rap groups in their wake. You’ve forgotten their names, if you ever knew them—The White Boys, B.M.O.C.—they all failed. In fact, the next white crew of significant sales and reputation came three years later: 3rd Bass, whose frontman MC Serch took pains both to credit hip-hop’s originators and blend in with the current crop of hip-hop artists. Serch openly reviled the Beastie Boys and Rubin as hip-hop carpetbaggers, even while the Beasties were cheered by hip-hop purists for their experimental second album, Paul’s Boutique.
The Iceman Cometh
“Yo! MTV Raps” debuted in 1988, becoming the most popular show on the channel. “Yo!” pumped hardcore rap videos into American living rooms, but emphasized visual over lyrical artists. Not long after “Yo!” broke MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch Dis,” the simplistic song was embraced by pop programmers — a Black rapper easily outselling the Beasties at 10 million albums. Hammer was followed, by a white doppelganger, Vanilla Ice.
Again, the doom-chorus comparisons to Elvis rang out. (I was, by the way, one of the voices in that chorus back then: “Just like that,” I wrote in The Source in 1990, “an entire generation of cultural genius is smothered in an avalanche of mediocrity.”)
“Ice Ice Baby” became the first rap single to go #1 on the pop charts, and Vanilla Ice sold 9 million albums.
But the appearance of Vanilla Ice as the Great White Hope was not followed by a great whitening of hip-hop. Anyone remember the female version of Vanilla Ice, Icy Blu? Didn’t think so. Vanilla Ice quickly flamed out and melted. Hammer, his Black counterpart and the originator of Ice’s pop style, ultimately sold more albums and had a much longer career.
Crossover Becomes Takeover
Hammer and Ice faded in part because older white pop radio programmers were being replaced by a younger generation that had more knowledge of hip-hop’s currency with mainstream audiences. So more hardcore artists like Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G. and Wu-Tang became pop radio staples, and the number one music stations in America’s top two markets, New York and L.A., embraced hip-hop as pop music.
What happened over the next decade was unprecedented. Black hip-hop artists became America’s pop stars; not just in the world of music, but on TV and in film. They educated themselves on the business and began to balk at deals that didn’t accord them significant ownership of their product. They leveraged the power of their brand names into fashion and consumer products companies that ultimately brought them more wealth than their recording careers did. Never before in American history had the Black creators of American culture retained the degree of control over their own direction and the ability to profit from it. In 1998, both Master P and Sean Combs hit near the top of the Forbes highest-paid entertainers list, followed closely by a former rapper named Will Smith.
My Name Is…
Dr. Dre had been a hip-hop kingmaker for years, spawning the careers of Eazy E, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, when he happened upon the demo tape of a white MC from Detroit named Marshall Mathers. The kid who called himself “Eminem” had already made a name for himself on the rap battle circuit, fighting his way to the penultimate spot in the national Rap Olympics and appearing on the nationally-syndicated Sway & Tech Wake-Up radio show. Before Dre ever got the idea to make Eminem his next protege, Eminem was an obscure but well-respected MC by people in hip-hop whose opinions mattered.
Whether Dre and his partner Jimmy Iovine at Interscope Records had that same Sam Phillips impulse isn’t clear. What is clear is that the success of Eminem’s million-selling debut in 1999 came from a confluence of several factors. Being a white MC cosigned by a famous artist or producer wasn’t sufficient. Being those things and really competent at what he did apparently was.
Here he is, the chorus sang again. The Elvis of hip-hop. This is how it starts. It’s all over now.
The cultural Cassandras who had cried Elvis twice before said that it was different this time. Some said that the Beastie Boys and Vanilla Ice weren’t scary good in the way that Eminem was scary good. The theory here was that once white kids found a white MC who could truly approximate Black skills, they’d flock to him and forget the rest.
Others insisted that Eminem wasn’t so special — he only seemed so because of his white skin privilege and the promotion it afforded him. Plenty of Black MCs out there, they said, with better skills but none of the attention. The theory here was that industry gatekeepers, with their powers and access, would purposely elevate Eminem as a demigod to a white audience who obviously didn’t know any better.
Over the next few years, Eminem accumulated an astounding sales record, eclipsing almost every rap artist who preceded him, seemingly proving the Elvis theory right.
And yet, within six years, Eminem had all-but vanished from the scene, eclipsed in many ways by his own artist — 50 Cent — and by the extraordinary creative and financial successes of Black hip-hop stars-turned-moguls like Jay-Z, and Sean Combs. Nearly a decade after Eminem’s debut, hip-hop was still young America’s pop music, and the face of that music was still Black.
A Reality Check
Eminem is not actually the top-selling hip-hop artist of all time. Tupac is.
Taking the long view, rather than the two-and-a-half year frame of RollingStone.com’s survey, Eminem becomes a lone white face in the pack, not an Aryan colossus atop a pile of crushed MCs. Exceptional, he is. But he is also the exception.
Which brings us back to the question that kicked off this whole history lesson: “Do you really think we’ve passed that Elvis mentality where we have to have white artists co-opt black culture?”
Here’s the answer:
The truth is that white kids never needed white artists to translate Black culture for them. It’s just that Black artists were prevented from competing for their ears—first by Jim Crow, then by the segregationists in corporate music and radio. You just can see the effects of four decades of music business racism in this list.
True, white artists often resonate with white fans. Eminem does appeal to a contingent of white kids who, for reasons of cultural identity, see themselves in him. But given the history we’ve laid out above, that racial resonance is clearly not paramount. The history of American pop music has, in fact, moved inexorably toward the subversion of racial boundaries—a process delayed only by industry gatekeepers who resisted the more advanced and adventurous tastes of the kids whom they purported to serve.
American radio was still kept highly segregated by those gatekeepers in 1979, the year that the first rap records were made. In December of that year, only two of the acts in the Billboard Top 10 singles chart were Black: the Commodores and Stevie Wonder.
Flash forward over two decades in hip-hop history. Those old gatekeepers had long been swept away. On October 6, 2003, for the first time in history, every single act in the Billboard Top 10 was Black.
But old perceptions die hard. That same year, Ebony Magazine published a photo of Eminem next to another of Elvis in an uncredited screed called “Why White Stars Are Ripping Off Rap & R&B,” as if proximity and resemblance amounted to guilt. Meanwhile Eminem’s protege, 50 Cent, was preparing to purchase a stake in Vitamin Water that would ultimately make him much richer than his mentor.
Why Hip-Hop Is Different
The long legacy of white supremacy still informs the structure of society and industry. Black interests do not have much control of the overall entertainment business, even though they manufacture much of the intellectual and creative capital. But it is incontestable that Black artists and entrepreneurs control more of the their own business and direct more of the cultural conversation than ever before. That’s what makes hip-hop different from rock-and-roll, ultimately. It’s interesting that in all the hullaballoo about the “King of Hip-Hop” piece, one fact got lost: Rolling Stone’s “Queen of Pop,” Lady Gaga, is signed to a production entity owned by a Black man, Akon. And that’s why Akon, too, is worth more than Eminem.
In stark contrast to white rock and rollers like Elvis and The Crew Cuts—whose R&B remakes pushed the originators work off the charts—the rare white hip-hop act, whether the Beasties, Vanilla Ice, or Eminem, hardly denied MCs of color access to audiences or riches. Their anomalous successes did not set off a wave of successful white MCs, promoted by all-powerful corporate interests, embraced by the supposedly ambivalent white masses with their thirst for Black culture and fear of Black people, erasing the Black roots of hip-hop from memory. It just never happened. If it ever did, where then are the legions of white rappers overtaking us? Why does Eminem remain the only white dude near the top? Here’s why:
Hip-hop has remained in some ways what made it so uniquely powerful in the first place: An African-American art form that succeeds as pop music, all the while remaining tied irrevocably to the Black experience, and to the struggle of its participants—whether Black, white, Asian, or Latino—to live a multiracial life in a nation still not mature or wise enough to be truly multiracial.
That’s actually who Eminem is. If you’ve watched him over the course of his career, Eminem has never allowed himself to be marketed in the way that Elvis was — as an originator or a “King.” He has, in many ways, remained what he was in the beginning: a humble but excellent participant in the culture (despite being goaded by less talented detractors), deferent to his influences and his peers, but a ferocious competitor on the microphone.
Eminem isn’t Elvis. If anything, as my friend Davey D has analogized on his blog, he’s Larry Bird: “Like Bird, he respects the game and has paid his dues. He’s good. He’s frustratingly good.” (Paying dues, being good and a bit of humility make all the difference. Not having any one of those things is a hip-hop career killer. Just ask Asher Roth. The question of quality, credibility and attitude is a gauntlet that white female rapper Kreayshawn is running right now.)
Pause For The Cause
“It wasn’t so much that we disliked Larry Bird,” Davey D continued. “It had more to do with the announcers and sports pundits who… would go on and on and on about how great Larry Bird was as if Julius Irving, Magic Johnson and everyone else did not exist.”
It is mainstream media’s history of focusing on hip-hop’s white stars that have folks very cynical about the “King of Hip-Hop” survey.
“For me Rolling Stone’s crowning of Eminem as ‘king’ is akin to the government of one nation telling another who their president is,” commented Juba Zaki on the site. “There’s nothing wrong in using statistics to state facts… However, the title of this article should properly reflect the magazines relationship to Hip Hop, which is far from authoritative.”
Did they consider changing the title? Chris Molanphy recalls: “Having already done ‘Queen of Pop,’ I felt we were kind of locked into… ‘King of Hip-Hop,’”
“When I first crunched the data, I showed them to my editors,” Molanphy recalls. “I said, ‘It’s gut check time. This is who’s gonna win. Tell me if this makes you uncomfortable.’ I was hoping they weren’t going to say, ‘Oh yeah, come up with a chicanerous way to make Lil Wayne win.’ But nobody said that. They didn’t have a whole lot of pause, I didn’t have a whole lot of pause.”
It’s unfortunate that the survey wasn’t expanded or reframed, because Rolling Stone over the last decade has significantly improved its hip-hop coverage, and they’ve hired a number of folks who do care deeply about the genre. It’s a shame to jeopardize that good work in the name of neutrality and objectivity, especially when that neutrality and objectivity gives people the impression that you have no neutrality and objectivity.
Cross-racial connections and partnerships, like the kind I chronicle in The Big Payback, are delicate. In this climate, they are like a patch of seedlings ever in danger of being trampled. The real repercussion of this episode is that it gives fuel to folks who insist that our dark history will always repeat itself, a reaction to other folks who seem to be saying that history can be so easily discounted. One group is looking at history with their left eye closed, and the other is looking with their right eye shut. We need both eyes open now for some depth perception.
We face bigger problems than some Internet debate. We can’t afford to exaggerate change. Neither can we afford to discount or trivialize it. This is a time of transition for America, a slow, painful and dangerous shift — not to a “post-racial” society, but to a multiracial, multicultural one. The election of Obama is only the beginning of this period. We will see a violent back and forth as the reactionary forces flame dangerously and then sputter out.
A few months before the release of the list, a white teenager in Mississippi named Daryl Dedmon was arrested for the killing of a Black working man named James Craig Anderson. To look at Anderson’s alleged killer, one might reasonably conclude that nothing fundamental has changed in that state since days of Elvis Aaron Presley’s childhood there, nor in this country. What does it take, after all, to transform a nation forged in the monstrous institution of slavery and turn it into something human and equitable?
It takes more time. For every kid like Dedmon whom the cultural revolution fails to touch—not to say that it even could have—there are many more whom it does. The fight is often fought house to house, hand to hand, heart to heart.
Elvis was an early, imperfect product of this match—a kid who was fascinated by Black culture but had neither the facilities to realize nor the power to blunt his role as an appropriator.
Eminem, the kid from Detroit, however, is a late model, a different breed. If you look at him with both eyes open, you’ll see that Marshall Mathers is not the problem. He is, in fact, part of the solution.
Dan Charnas is the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, and an Editorial Director at InteractiveOne.