I’ve often thought that if I were ever filling out one of those profiles that includes the question, “What is the one thing that people would be surprised to know about you,” I’d say it’s that I’m an Eminem fan.
Although, to be accurate, it’s much broader than that. I remember being astounded by Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back which came out not long after I moved from DC to St. Louis. I’d take my long walks around the city, listening on headphones. Some days I’d be listening to Van Morrison, but just as often I’d be listening to Chuck D.
I’m by no means a fan of all rap, of course, just as I am not a fan of all of any other genre – I’m a firm believer in Sturgeon’s Law. The boastful monotony of most commercial gangster rap doesn’t do much for me – listen to K’Naan’s “What’s Hardcore?” for a brilliant takedown of the many poseurs out there angling to be the next 50 Cent.
But the world of hip-hop is vast and complex and contradictory and well worth the exploration. I didn’t pay much attention to Eminem until the Marshall Mathers LP. I’d listen to it then in the car on my way to and from the library. It horrified me and thrilled me and fascinated me. I was baffled that so many of the outraged commentators apparently couldn’t see that Slim Shady was a character and that much of the album revolved around the tension between Eminem as Marshall and the character he’d created that had brought him so much success.
I was listening to a lot of Johnny Cash in those days as well, as Rick Rubin (who’d cut his teeth as a producer on the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC) was putting out the series of American Recordings that raised Cash to reverential status in those last years before he died. I’d read the outrage over Eminem’s “Kill You,” and then listen to Cash’s rueful singing on “Delia’s Gone.” First time I shot her, I shot her in the side / Hard to watch her suffer but with the second shot she died / Delia's gone, one more round, Delia's gone. Cash recorded the song four times.
A few years ago I heard an interview on the radio with ?uestlove of The Roots and knew instantly that this was somebody worth my paying attention to – thoughtful, curious, inventive, bold, with an interest in all kinds of music and sound and a deep desire to make something new out of all of it. So when I saw that he’d come out with a memoir and that it was getting rave reviews, I put it on my “presents for Scott” list and Lynn gave it to me for my birthday.
I read it over the Christmas break and it was every bit the delightful education I was hoping for. The book itself is a marvel, and the interplay between Ahmir’s romantic self-doubt and his manager’s hard-bitten cynicism enriches the narrative immeasurably. And it functions as a playlist – if Thompson is this passionate about this artist or that piece of music, then I ought to check it out.
I don’t mean to imply that I listen to more hip-hop than anything else. Far from it. It’s the vastness of the musical landscape that I feel compelled to explore. I know that many people fall in love with music during their teenage years and that becomes the soundtrack of their lives. They return to the same songs over and over and new music becomes stranger and coarser and before too long they can’t understand how people can listen to that shit. They find Miley Cyrus appallingly shocking while apparently forgetting their fandom for Jim Morrison and David Bowie.
I confess this seems bizarre and a little sad to me. I want to listen to it all! Old, new, stuff I’ve loved all my life and stuff I’ve never heard before. There are nearly 17,000 songs in my iTunes library. I put them on shuffle to see what might come up next: Flogging Molly, Charles Lloyd, Liquid Prairie, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell, Eminem, John Hiatt, Debussy, Rage Against the Machine, Ryan Adams, John Coltrane…
And then spin it again...