In 1996, the 24-year-old Marshall Mathers was a disaffected, poor, white high school dropout working on an quixotic album in a musical genre that emerged from urban black culture. By 2000, Mathers --- known now as Eminem --- was world famous and collected the Grammy for best rap album. Raw talent and passion combined with good fortune and a fair amount of controversy made Eminem a household name.
Difficult Birth of a Prodigy
Marshall Bruce Mathers III was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1972. His father abandoned the family when he was 18 months old; by the time Marshall was 12-years-old, his mother had moved several times and finally settled in a suburb of Detroit. Inspired by the Beastie Boys, Marshall began trying his hand at hip-hop music and started to perform locally under the name M&M.; In spite of a turbulent home life, poverty and dropping out of school, Mathers' first album "The Slim Shady LP," performed as Eminem, went triple-platinum in 1998.
The local hip-hop scene around Detroit featured freestyle competitions, wherein rap artists would improvise put downs aimed at each other in a freestyle contest in front of audiences. Mathers began participating in these contests, and discovered that he was brilliant at them. Even as a white youngster among overwhelmingly black audiences and competing against black performers, Mathers gained a reputation for both his talent at improvisation of lyrics and his skillful performance of them. By the time Mathers was 24, he was offered the chanced to record an album by the Ferndale, Michigan, music studio named Bassmint.
Bassmint Studios recorded Eminem's debut album, "Infinite," in 1996. The album flopped, and his personal life went into a tailspin. His alcohol and drug use bottomed out with a suicide attempt later that year. In 1998, Interscope Records requested a demo tape from Eminem and loaned the tape to hip-hop artist and producer Dr. Dre. Dr. Dre was impressed with the tape and went to Detroit to see Eminem's freestyle performance. Dre liked what he saw and signed Eminem as an artist under the Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records label. Eminem, looking back on his career during a 2010 appearance at the ASCAP's annual Rhythm & Soul Music Awards, called Dre his mentor, saying, "He believed in me when not many others did. It would have been a lot easier for Dre to dismiss me like most people did: What's with the white guy from Detroit that raps with a funny voice? But he didn't. He stepped up to the challenge because he saw something in me."
Eminem's first studio album after signing with Dre, "The Slim Shady LP," was finished in 1999. The album sold 3 million copies, and Eminem was suddenly a sensation. That sensation was amplified by the controversy surrounding many of his lyrics, which were considered by many to be violent, homophobic and misogynistic. The controversy may have hurt his reputation with some, but it only increased his fame. Capitalizing on the success of "The Slim Shady LP," Mathers released a far more personal album the following year, "The Marshall Mathers LP," which showed more range in Mathers' musical performance talent. The Marshall Mathers LP sold 19 million copies, and won the Grammy that year for Best Rap Album.
- Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images