Road to the Riches
Eminem celebrates XXL's 25th anniversary with a look back at his illustrious career, which the magazine has carefully documented the entirety of. In his own words, Em shares insight on what he's learned, how he stays motivated and why being a true lyricist has always been essential to who he is as a person.
Words: Marshall Mathers
Editor’s Note: This story will appear in the Fall 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands soon.
I never thought I would be anyone's influence. When my first album came out, I was still staying wherever I could stay—mostly with Kim and her parents. I didn't get my own house until the second album. I wasn't sure before then if this was a one-time thing, but I had people knocking on the door and I realized that it was getting crazy. That was one of the inspirations for writing “Stan.” It was like, These people are actually looking up to me? I also was amazed. Y'all are getting pissed off about me? Little old me? How in the fuck is this happening? So, it inspired songs like “Stan” because to have fans is a dream come true, but it's also so bizarre and so surreal. Even as I sit here now, I still trip out in my head about how it got to this level. All I ever really wanted to do was to be a respected MC. To make enough money to survive, so that I wouldn't have to work a regular job. That ties into my competitive spirit, and I don't know when that's going to go away, if ever. That's probably my biggest weapon mixed with lyricism.
Before any of this happened, before I signed to Dr. Dre and Interscope, I remember having this conversation with Royce [5'9"]. We had somebody at this hip-hop label who said they wanted to sign me when I was working with the Bass Brothers. I made three or four songs, and we gave it to this guy, and found out that he worked in the mail room and he wasn't really who he said he was.
I was at the lowest point. I didn't even know what I was going to do because it didn't look like it was going to happen. I'm 24 years old and I got a baby to take care of and all I want to do is rap, but it didn't look good. I was super depressed. So, Royce and I are having this conversation. We loved Redman. To this day, love Redman. Huge fuckin' fan. And we had this conversation and I said, "Man, Royce, if we could just go gold, man. Think about Redman. He's got so much fuckin' respect. It doesn't have to be any of that other stardom shit." That conversation just always sticks with me because as shit started happening, I'm thinking, This is next-level shit. And I never expected it. There are a lot of building blocks and things that had to fall in place for things to go the way they did for me and if you take one of those pegs out, the whole fuckin' thing would've fallen down.
I remember I was in the car with some friends and shit right before I went to L.A., right after the Rap Olympics in 1997. The Firm album had just come out and "Phone Tap" was one of the greatest beats ever made to me. I remember saying, "If I could just get with Dre, man, my God that'd be so crazy. He's so fuckin' ill." Three weeks later, I was at Dre's house. We made The Slim Shady LP. That was a fun album to make, but it's also where everything suddenly changed.
One of those changes was that drugs became a part of the way I was living my life once I got signed. When I first came out to L.A., me and some guys I was hanging out with used to go to Tijuana and we would buy drugs. Vicodin and that kinda shit. I don't know how many times we did it, but it was so easy to go back and forth to do it. The last time we went, we're second in line and this dude in front of us starts arguing with the guy in Customs, and they fuckin' throw him down on the ground and start pulling pills out his pockets and shit. We were scared shitless, but we got through. And when I say we had the motherlode. Our pants were frickin' stuffed with pills. I don't know how many we had.
Obviously, if I ended up in jail, the album probably wouldn't have come out and nothing with my rap career would've ever happened. I would've been done right then. So, it should have been one of the first signs to me, but I never thought that I had a problem. I just really, really liked drugs. As I started making a little money, I could buy more of them.
My addiction didn't start in my early days when I was coming up. We used to drink 40s on the porch and just battle rap each other. My drug usage started at the beginning of that first album. I didn't take anything hard until I got famous. I was experimenting. I hadn't found a drug of choice. Back then you went on tour and people were just giving you free drugs. I managed it for a little while. And then, it just became, I like this shit too much and I don't know how to stop.
When things started happening for me, I was getting a lot of heat, being a White rapper, and XXL wrote something about that. I remember going to one of those newsstands in New York when the magazine had just started out, and I bought that and a couple of other rap magazines. I flipped to the last page first and XXL was dissing me. What the fuck? I don't even know if I read the whole article—I was used to reading things like that about me—but it hurt because I felt they didn't know me to make that kind of judgment. Coming up, I had to deal with that a lot. I wanted to be respectful because what I do is Black music. I knew I was coming into it as a guest in the house. And XXL, The Source, Rap Pages and Vibe were hip-hop bibles at the time.
I understood, at the same time, everybody's perception of a White guy coming into hip-hop and all of a sudden things start happening for him. So, if XXL would've even had a conversation with me, maybe they would've understood me more. Obviously, I was upset. And it wasn't just magazines. I had rappers left and right taking shots at me. I was used to that, too. Coming up through the battle scene, that didn't mean shit to me, you know? I would go head-to-head with whoever.
But we patched it up. I don't remember how we got good. I don't remember what conversations took place or what sparked it. I dissed XXL at first in my song "Marshall Mathers": "And then to top it off, I walked to the newsstand/To buy this cheap-ass little magazine with a food stamp/Skipped to the last page, flipped right fast/And what do I see? A picture of my big White ass/OK, let me give you muthafuckas some help/Uh, here, XXL, XXL/Now your magazine shouldn't have so much trouble to sell/Aw, fuck it, I'll even buy a couple myself." But then later during the beef between me and Ray Benzino I said something like, "I got XXL's number anyways." So, we eventually did the cover with me, 50 and Dr. Dre when we signed 50. And the war with The Source was going on.
That's also when I was starting to battle addiction. People obviously didn't know it yet, but I was starting to realize inside that it was happening, and I always tried to keep it on the low and keep it together as much as I could.
I was able to downplay my addiction and hide it for a while until it got really bad. And also, at that time, so much shit was happening with the whole 50 beef with Ja Rule. We started feuding, going back-and-forth, and I'm making all of these diss records and shit. So, I'm coming off The Marshall Mathers LP and going into Encore when my addiction started to get bad. I was taking Vicodin, Valium and alcohol. I kinda fell off the map a little bit and didn't explain why I went away. I remember things started getting really, really bad when me, 50 and G-Unit did BET's 106 & Park. We performed "You Don't Know" on the show and then we did an interview afterward. That's when the wheels started coming off. One of the hosts was talking to me and I could not understand a word she was saying. 50 had to cover for me and answer every question.
Then I started taking Ambien on top of everything else. I would take a little to perform, which you would think doesn't make sense, but Ambien is a mind eraser. So, if you don't go to sleep on it, you get in this weird comatose state. I see what you're saying, and I hear what you're saying, but I don't comprehend. If you watch back to that interview now, you can notice it. That's when everyone around me knew, "He's fucked up. Something's wrong with him."
When I wrap it up in a nutshell, I realize that all the heaviest drug usage and addiction spanned only about five years of my life. It's crazy for me to think back. It felt like a long time when it was happening, but looking back at it now, it wasn't that long of a time for my problem to explode as it did. Then the thing happened with Proof and my addiction went through the fuckin' roof. I remember just after Proof died, I was in my house by myself, and I was just laying in bed and I couldn't move and I just kept staring at the ceiling fan. And I just kept taking more pills. I literally couldn't walk for two days when that happened and eventually my drug use fuckin' skyrocketed. I had fuckin' 10 drug dealers at one time that I'm getting my shit from. Seventy-five to 80 Valiums a night, which is a lot. I don't know how the fuck I'm still here. I was numbing myself.
I remember a few months after Proof had passed, I was about to use the bathroom, and all I remember was I just fell over. The next thing I remember was waking up with fucking tubes in me and shit, and I couldn't talk. I couldn't do anything. I didn't understand where I was and what the fuck happened.
When I look back at my catalog, the first three albums, I'm definitely proud of them. Sometimes I go back, and I listen to them if I'm in a spot where I need some inspiration. Sometimes it helps me to go back to those songs. But then I think, Man, I could've done those vocals so much better. I could've connected this word with this word. I always do that kind of shit.
Encore took a whole fuckin' different trajectory because Encore was during my addiction. I was realizing I'm getting addicted to these fuckin' pills. I was just coming off The Eminem Show and the 8 Mile soundtrack and I started recording and had about seven or eight songs that were very much in the vein of what I do. But we ended up putting them out as a fuckin' bonus disc because the songs leaked. If those hadn't leaked, Encore would've been a much different album. "We as Americans," "Love You More," a lot of songs ended up on the bonus disc because they leaked and that disappointed me. So, I had to start over, which felt like a mountain I had to climb. You climb half the mountain, and then all of a sudden, you get knocked back down. "We as Americans" was going to start the album, then "Bully." "Evil Deeds" was in there. If that would've been on Encore and the other couple songs that leaked, to me it would've been right there with The Eminem Show as far as its caliber.
The problem was, in the recording process as I was getting more addicted to drugs, I was in more of a goofy mood. So now, I go make "Ass Like That," "Big Weenie," "Rain Man," all those silly songs, which I'm writing in fuckin' seconds at that point in time. I was just writing high and feeling good about what I'm doing because I got fuckin' 20 Vicodin in me and this is fun to do, and I'm having fun, so fuck it.
The album comes out and it was definitely a wake-up call, a slap in the face, a sobering moment, because I was on a roll and then somehow, I got off this roll. I didn't know where to fuckin' pick things back up and I was angry at a lot of things, including the songs leaking because it changed the entire landscape of that album. I still had "Like Toy Soldiers" and a few that I did feel good about, but I knew in my heart of hearts, this is not the same quality as The Eminem Show.
It became a misstep and I struggled to get over the fact that I didn't do my best. My best would've been good enough if the leaks hadn't happened. But I released what I had at that point in time, and I feel that put a kind of a mark on my catalog. Encore did some decent numbers, but I was never that concerned with numbers. I was more so worried about what people think about the album. Critics and fans were important to me, and they were always at me about that project.
The strangest and probably the greatest thing that's happened to me over these past 25 years in a professional sense was getting to meet all my heroes. All the MCs who inspired me coming up. It took me a long time to get over meeting Dre. When he walked into the room at Interscope, I was like, What the fuckin' fuck? This is really happening? And then getting to meet people like Treach, Redman, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Masta Ace, Rakim. I wouldn't be here without all of them. That's where I got my whole inspiration from. Just studying them. Kool G Rap would put fuckin' 10 words in two lines and it would rhyme, and they would fall right into each other. I studied that. He said, "A letter to you suckers, each and every one of you duck muthafuckas/Your girl puckers her lips, so I stuck her." He just said a sentence, but five things rhymed in there. And to this day, I still get really fuckin' weird and freaked out inside when I talk to LL Cool J.
I listened to it, studied it, but also loved it, loved the music. Rappers like D.O.C., Tupac Shakur and Biggie. Those were all my influences. I would never be anywhere near where I am today if it wasn't for them.
My role in today's hip-hop is to always try to be the best rapper. That's it. That's how I want to feel inside. That's what I want to feel. And I can't do that until I listen to what the fuck J. Cole just put out. What the fuck did Kendrick just put out? And I'm thinking, Oh, these dudes ain't playing. I don't want to get swept away in that shuffle. I still want to let everybody know who the fuck I am. Like I said, "They rap to be the best rappers." I’ll hear some shit by them, and I’ll be like, Yo, I ain’t the best rapper right now. I need to fuckin’ get up, get back on my shit.
My writing process is different now than it was back in the day. It used to be, give me whatever piece of paper is laying around and I'm going to write some ideas down. Sometimes I wish I could have that freedom back. At the beginning of my career, I had this whole canvas that I could paint on. "I haven't made a song about this, this, this. I can make a song about this." The more you paint on that canvas, all of the sudden, you've made a song about every single thing you can fuckin' possibly think of. So, I start getting in my head. If I had a choice between being the best rapper or making the best albums, I'd rather be the best rapper. That's how I rap, to be the best rapper. Obviously, all of that is subjective, and everybody's got their favorite rappers, but in my head, I would rather do that than just make good songs.
At this point, a lot of the big achievements that could come in your career have happened for me already, so I don't hyper-focus on numbers and being on charts. What I hyper-focus on is people like Kendrick Lamar, Joyner Lucas, J. Cole and Big Sean, and watching them and how the fuck they're doing their shit. Because they're also focused on being the best rappers.
I want to do things that nobody from this point on can ever top. Rap to a level that no one else could get to. And again, it's subjective, and every rapper, especially rappers in competitive rap, wants to be the best rapper. So, I look for the younger generation to push me. I don't have to make albums. I don't have to do anything at this point. It's about wanting to, and that's never changed for me no matter what level the fame's gotten to. I still love to rap. It's always been the most important thing to me. I still have fun writing. I have fun watching the rappers I just mentioned, and being like, OK, let me see if I can do something that inside I think I can top that. And every time the best rappers drop an album, it changes the landscape of the fuckin' game. At least it does for me, and I'm like, I need to be able to rap like that. Because if I don't do that, someone's going to come behind me, probably in the next couple of years, and wash me.
I couldn't sit up here, say, "Man, I want to be the best rapper that ever was and ever will be, but I don't listen to anybody else's shit and I think that I'm untouchable." No, because the minute you sleep, someone's coming to take your head off. That's what I've always loved about rap. It's always evolving, and to succeed you need to be constantly aware of that and keep up with it.
See Photos of Eminem From XXL‘s 25th Anniversary Issue Cover Story
Read Eminem's cover story in the 25th anniversary issue of XXL magazine, on newsstands at the end of September 2022. Check out additional interviews in the magazine with Yung Miami, Bobby Shmurda, JID, GloRilla, Yvngxchris, Sleazyworld Go, Styles P, Jim Jones, Symba, Reason, singer Jessie Reyez, actor Trevante Rhodes and music executive Katina Bynum. The issue also includes a deep dive into rappers’ longstanding connection to anime, a look into the U.S. court systems battle against rap lyrics, the renewed interest music supervisors have in placing 1990’s hip-hop in today’s lauded TV series and the 254 past covers in XXL history.