When Eminem made his MTV debut in 1999 with “My Name Is,” it seemed as if the entire country stopped to listen. The man who referred to himself as Slim Shady was different, special. It wasn’t just that he was a white rapper, though that was part of it. It was that he burst onto the scene with a critical endorsement from his mentor, Dr. Dre. It was that his close-cropped, platinum hair felt as defiant as his smart-ass swagger. It was, most importantly, that the man could spit. The Slim Shady LP, the album on which that song appeared, was a critical and commercial smash, and went on to win a Grammy Award.
As Eminem’s popularity grew in the early 2000s, he developed a reputation for lampooning the archetype of the modern pop star: his lyrics went after everyone from Christina Aguilera to Moby, and he drew a particularly grotesque portrait of an obsessive fan in his hit 2000 song “Stan.” Two years later, he put his flair for the dramatic to good use in the semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile. Directed by Curtis Hanson, the fictionalized version of the rapper’s beginnings in working-class Detroit had a hugely successful opening, and the soundtrack single “Lose Yourself” won the Academy Award for Original Song, making Eminem the first hip-hop artist to take home an Oscar.
Perhaps even more remarkable than his public antics is his willingness to disappear from the spotlight altogether. His battles with depression and drug addiction kept him out of sight for a few years following the release of 2004’s Encore, but by 2008 he was back in the studio, ready to confront his demons. His work on Relapse (2009) and, to a greater degree, on Recovery (2010), revealed an enlightened, more mature artist able to scrutinize his own shortcomings—to break “out of this cage” as he raps on that album’s lead single, “Not Afraid.”
Although he continues to run Shady Records, which he co-founded 18 years ago with his manager, Paul Rosenberg, Eminem has been keeping a low profile since the release of his 2013 album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2—that is, until October, when “The Storm,” his takedown of Donald Trump, was shown at the BET Hip-Hop Awards and immediately went viral. At a time when pop musicians have struggled to make protest music that resonates on a mass scale, Eminem’s blistering middle finger to the current administration broke through loud and clear. Just as we did all those years ago, the country once again stopped to listen.
Now 45, Eminem is preparing to release his ninth studio album, Revival. Before that, he spoke on the phone from his studio in Detroit with his longtime friend and outspoken supporter Elton John.
ELTON JOHN: Hi, Marshall.
EMINEM: How are you doing, cunt?
JOHN: I’m very well, you old bastard. Are you in Detroit?
EMINEM: [laughs] Yeah.
JOHN: You must be pretty excited to have a new album coming out. Tell me about it.
EMINEM: I’ve been working on it for over a year. You know how it is—you make songs, and as you make the new ones, the old ones get old and you throw them out. The album is called Revival. It’s a reflection of where I’m at right now, but also I feel like what I tried to do was diversify. I’ve tried to make a little something for everyone.
JOHN: You’re very good on collaborations. We first met through the Grammys, when you asked me to do “Stan.” It was an amazing event for me that I’ll never forget.
EMINEM: I’ll never forget it either—and I was on drugs.
JOHN: You were on drugs?
EMINEM: Oh, I was for sure on drugs when we met.
JOHN: I couldn’t tell. I was just mesmerized by you and your performance; it made the hairs on the back of my arms stand up. It was like seeing Mick Jagger for the first time. I hadn’t really been exposed to that kind of rap in live performance before, and it was electrifying. And when that shit was thrown at you—about you being homophobic—I just thought, “I’m not standing for this. It’s nonsense.” I had to stand up and defend you. That Grammy performance was the start of a lovely friendship and I’m grateful for that.
EMINEM: Likewise. That was a crazy time for me. I don’t know if I was actually on drugs when we met, but that was right around the start of my using.
JOHN: You’ve been clean for a long time now.
EMINEM: Yeah, nine years.
JOHN: Your sobriety day is in my diary. I’m so proud of you. I’m 27 years clean, and when you get clean, you see things in a different way. It makes your life so much more manageable. It seems to have made all the difference—I can tell when I speak to you.
EMINEM: Getting clean made me grow up. I feel like all the years that I was using, I wasn’t growing as a person.
JOHN: Me, too. If I had to go through that to get where I am now, then I’m very, very grateful. But I just can’t believe I did some of that shit. Anyway, tell me about your life now. Every artist these days is on Instagram or Facebook, is taking selfies, is in the paper all the time, but you’re not like that. You live a pretty simple life. You’re not a lavish person. People think they know everything about you, but they really know nothing about you.
EMINEM: I studied Dre a lot. I don’t know if you’d call it a mantra or what, but he believed that if you never go away, it’s hard for someone to miss you. And I realize that some people see going away as, “Oh, he’s irrelevant now,” but I feel like if I don’t go away, I get sick of myself. It’s never been my thing to be in the spotlight all the time.
JOHN: People think of you as aggressive because of how you come across when you rap, but under that I think you’re quite a shy person. Let’s go back to the beginning, to The Slim Shady LP. Who were your big influences at that time?
EMINEM: It had to be Dre. I remember one of the first times I went out to L.A. I met Dre and Jimmy [Iovine] at Interscope, and it felt so ridiculous and so far-fetched that this was happening. When Dre walked in, it was like an out-of-body experience. Nothing in my life had been going right for me, but he put me up in the Oakwood apartments and paid my rent so I could record with him. There was a period when I stayed up writing for 48 hours straight and ended up crashing at, like, six in the morning. I wanted to be prepared for Dre because I thought, “If I’m not ready for every aspect of this, this could be it for me.”
JOHN: That validation and encouragement from him must have meant the world to you. It’s so important for a young artist to feel that from someone. It spurred you that extra mile, didn’t it?
EMINEM: Absolutely. That first time in the studio we did three or four songs in, like, six hours, and with any beat he threw on, I either had to rhyme to it or write something right there. From that day forward, he started showing me things that I didn’t know I could do with my voice. We did a song called “Role Model,” and it went, “Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me?” And he just kept going “Nah, do it again. Do it again.” So I would do it again and again until finally I’m screaming, and he goes, “Yeah, there you go. That’s it.”
JOHN: You two are still close, right?
JOHN: You don’t forget people like that. Sometimes it’s kismet—like how I met Bernie [Taupin] completely by accident. Going back to what you said earlier about disappearing, it’s like what Prince did. It’s like what Springsteen does or Dylan does. They never really go away. People are always interested in what they do.
EMINEM: For sure. There are ups and downs. I haven’t had a perfect career. I’ve put some albums out that, looking back, I’m not super proud of, but there’s also a lot of stuff that I am very proud of.
JOHN: That’s just a part of being an artist; you can’t write great stuff all the time, because if you did, then you’d be inhuman. The human side of people is that sometimes they fail.
EMINEM: You’re not going to hit it every single time, and that’s why, when I record an album, I do probably close to 50 songs. Each song I record has to get better. If it’s not better than the last song that I made, it’ll usually linger for a couple of months, and then it’ll be put on the backburner, and then there’ll be another song that I do, and then it often doesn’t make it on the album.
JOHN: I always say to people, “If you don’t understand hip-hop, you just have to see it being recorded.” When you’re in the studio—and I’ve seen you record, I’ve been on Kanye West and A Tribe Called Quest records—it’s a completely different ballgame. I get upset when people knock it, because I can absolutely see the musicality in it. These days, when I’m listening to records by hip-hop artists, I hear the production. It’s just astounding how great the productions have become.
EMINEM: With every song, all the elements have to work. First, the beat has to be great—you start there. You start with the music, and then the ideas follow. Then you start thinking of rhymes, and then you record it, and sometimes—this happens to me a lot—it doesn’t come out as good as it did in my head when I first wrote it.
JOHN: It’s so frustrating when that happens. I fucking hate it!
EMINEM: Yeah, because I get excited, and then I get it in there and hear it, and I’m like, “Oh my god, this is fucking terrible.”
JOHN: Do you listen to a lot of current hip-hop?
EMINEM: I listen to pretty much everything that comes out.
JOHN: Who do you think is doing great stuff at the moment?
EMINEM: J. Cole. Travis Scott. Kendrick is great. My friend Royce da 5’9″ is incredible. Joyner Lucas is really good. Tech N9ne, too.
JOHN: I love his stuff, too. Let’s talk about “The Storm,” which is an example of someone actually getting off their ass and saying something, and it reverberating through the world. What you said was pretty much what most musicians, I assume—apart from some country artists—are probably thinking themselves. You seemed to have needed to get that out of your system.
EMINEM: It’s something that I’m definitely very passionate about. If I’m not passionate about it, I can’t write it. I can’t fake it.
JOHN: Let me ask you, was that totally off the cuff or did you write all that down and memorize it?
EMINEM: I wrote it. The original idea was for me to go to the BET Awards and do it acapella onstage. I went home that same day and wrote it all, but then at the last minute, plans got switched around and we filmed it in Detroit.
JOHN: I think it worked out better that way.
EMINEM: One of the things we were trying to mimic was Public Enemy’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours” cover. I don’t know if anybody got that, but that’s kind of the feel that we were going for. My main concern was trying to get the message out and also memorize all the words. I have a hard time memorizing stuff. I’m always in the process of writing a new song, so trying to learn a new one takes a minute.
JOHN: The people on set with you, had they heard it before you started filming?
EMINEM: Nah, nobody had heard it.
JOHN: It needed to be said. I’ve been coming to America since 1970, and it’s like my second home, but I’ve never felt such a divided country, ever. I didn’t think it would get to this point, and it breaks my heart.
EMINEM: It was about having the right to stand up to oppression. I mean, that’s exactly what the people in the military and the people who have given their lives for this country have fought for—for everybody to have a voice and to protest injustices and speak out against shit that’s wrong. We’re not trying to disrespect the military, we’re not trying to disrespect the flag, we’re not trying to disrespect our country. But shit is going on that we want to make you aware of. We have a president who does not care about everybody in our country; he is not the president for all of us, he is the president for some of us. He knows what he’s doing.
JOHN: Everything that he does is deliberate.
EMINEM: As long as he’s got his base, he does not give a fuck about anybody else in America. But guess what? There’s more of us than there are of them. I still feel like America is the greatest country to live in. This is my opinion. But we have issues that we need to work on and we need to do better.
JOHN: I know you’ve done some festivals this year. Are you going to go out to tour this album next year?
EMINEM: I’m not sure. We usually do mini tours.
JOHN: Do you like touring?
EMINEM: It used to be hard. Early on in my career when I was more in grind mode, I was doing two or three shows a day. It was tough because you start feeling like you have no life. That being said, I do enjoy actually doing the shows.
JOHN: It’s the traveling that’s the worst bit. And being away from home.
EMINEM: Yeah. That’s tough, too.
JOHN: What’s the best piece of advice you ever got, and who was it from?
EMINEM: I would have to say Dre again. Actually, he gave me a couple of pieces of advice. When I first got signed to Aftermath, we had many discussions about how I wanted to bring in my group D12 and put them on right away. Dre said, “You’ve gotta build your house before you can let your friends come in,” and it made so much sense to me. In hindsight, waiting was probably better because eventually we got Shady Records and were able to sign them to it. He also used to say, “It can be in bad taste as long as it don’t taste bad.”
JOHN: I don’t know Dre—I’ve met him once or twice— but he’s a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi, am I right?
EMINEM: Yes! I also just remembered some advice that Rick Rubin gave me. We were talking about a song or something, and he said, “I don’t really consider myself smart enough to know what everybody’s going to think, so I just do what feels right to me.”
JOHN: Releasing a song is like giving birth to a child. And when people suggest something in that song that maybe I don’t agree with, like changing the chorus or putting the chorus somewhere else, I get so pissed off. But then I think about it, because there’s no point in having another member of the band there unless you listen to them. And it’s so infuriating, but they’re usually fucking right, you know?
EMINEM: Oh, that’s definitely Paul.
JOHN: Paul Rosenberg?
EMINEM: Yeah, my manager. He and I go at it during the making of every album, and sometimes we’re on the same page and sometimes we’re not. He’s usually right about it, though. It’s just hard when you’ve spent so much time on something, writing and recording, laying the vocals, getting the hook right, getting the beat right, making everything sound right—you spent a freaking week trying to make it sound perfect, and someone comes along and shoots it down.
JOHN: You’re so lucky to have someone like that, though.
EMINEM: Absolutely—because, like I said, he usually ends up being right. When I played him “Not Afraid” for the first time, he wasn’t too fond of it. Then we had a conversation a few days later, and he was like, “Do you think it needs a bridge?” And I was like, “I knew you were going to say that.”
JOHN: A great editor is the most valuable thing you can have as an artist because, as you said, sometimes you get too close to something. I think, apart from your talent, that’s why you have the career you have—because you have great people behind you.
JOHN: When this album comes out, people are going to want to hear it. It’s a tribute to your longevity as an artist, your intelligence, your musical and lyrical brilliance. I’m so happy you exist in the world, and I’m just so proud of you. You’ve worked so hard on yourself, and no one deserves this more than you, Marshall, and I love you from a long way away, okay?
EMINEM: Thank you, Elton. I love you, too.
ELTON JOHN IS A FIVE-TIME GRAMMY AWARD–WINNING MUSICIAN. IN NOVEMBER, HE AND HIS LONGTIME SONGWRITING PARTNER BERNIE TAUPIN RELEASED THE GREATEST-HITS COLLECTION DIAMONDS TO COMMEMORATE THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THEIR UNION.