'The Slim Shady EP' Saved The Career of Eminem & The Life of Marshall Mathers

A look at how the EP made him the quintessential punk MC on its 20th anniversary.

Bonsu Thompson

1997 was not a great year for Eminem. The ambitious MC wrestled with caring for a 2-year-old daughter, 1-year-old rap career, and several-year-old drug habit, all while living in a Detroit neighborhood in which his home was repeatedly burglarized. His then-girlfriend, the now world renown Kimberly, resented his rap dream and demanded more food on the table. They split, volatile, forcing Marshall to move back into his mother’s mobile home. His alcohol and drug consumption spiked while his passion for living tanked. A failed suicide followed. And this was only the year’s personal bio.

Thirteen months prior to the release of his first EP, Eminem dropped the independent debut, Infinite  — both under the same independent label, Web Entertainment — to deaf ears. Radio offered near zero love. Not even the hip-hop disc jocks and programmers in his city granted the then-brunette spitter air time. Many citizens within rap’s subterranean community besmirched Em as a white boy appropriating the flow of bar champs like Nas and AZ.

Fact is, before 1997, Eminem had no style of his own—one of the worst offenses in and of last millennium’s hip-hop. He was even encouraged to pursue a career in rock instead. He would take the insult and pinch off of it a career-changing chunk of identity. By embracing the fact that he was a Caucasian rapper — an intoxicated, issue-riddled evolution of the Beastie Boys and mirror reflection of American youth — he was able to birth a Slim Shady character that would ultimately attract two of the greatest minds in modern music.

Eminem wouldn’t choose rock over rap, but throughout the Slim Shady EP, he would become the quintessential punk MC. On Infinite, while clearly more than capable of assembling a skillful verse, his focus was turned around toward the landscape instead of himself (At the top of the title track and single, Em can be heard rattling off '96 rap cliches like “One time for ya mind” and “For the nine six”). The rookie fought so disciplined to certify himself as a deft rapper he was oblivious of his potential to be one of music’s all-time greatest writers. The best scribes draw from their pain, from their emotion. Marshall banked a world of varied darkness. So he poured every deep hue that plagued him internally into his second composition, and spat exceptional blends of anger, comedy, violence and self-deprecation. If Infinite’s modus operandi was to simply prove that Em could rap, and the Slim Shady LP’s to orient hip-hop with its next lyrical genius, then the EP was to introduce the character that would allow his brilliance to stand on its own island a la Biggie and Pac, and later Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar.

The somber “If I Had…” could be traced as the first sign of the omnipresent and eventual blonde character the world would grow to love and hate. Heard is Em’s signature riptide delivery, on which you’re unsure whether his stream of thought will tidal wave or send you screaming down a waterfall; the frat house crudeness; that double bird flipped at the entire globe. His prowess for storytelling as innovative as it is violent descends from the marching “Murder, Murder.” The epic tales of ditching Kim’s corpses while babysitting began on the Bill Withers to DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince flip “Just The Two of Us…” But the track that gifted the most benevolent Eminem smorgasbord was “Just Don’t Give A Fuck…” (So much so, that it would later be repurposed as the lead single for the LP) Bars of white rapper on white rapper assault, pride in his alcohol and drug abuse, creative murder, with an overall DGAF premise, all stacked to perfection like a Tetris lifer:

"Extortion, snorting, supporting abortion
Pathological liar, blowing shit out of proportion
The looniest, zaniest, spontaneous, sporadic
Impulsive thinker, compulsive drinker, addict!"

Fact of the matter is, in 1997, there weren’t too many MCs rhyming at the height Em spat from. Of the collective that was, a significant percentage didn’t possess the stamina to rap on that level for consecutive exhibitions. While Marshall’s influences could be heard throughout the 10 track player—from Pharaohe Monch, with physics defying word choices like “telekinesis,” to the occasional leasing of a Redman or JAY-Z flow—his lyrical wizardry, which lived in the preciseness of his poetry, was simply undeniable. Add on his personal perspective being simultaneously shared by and foreign to his darker peers—“I’m tired of being poor white trash”—and we had the making of an American original.

But nobody heard it. Actually, a couple hundred people did. The Slim Shady EP wouldn’t chart until 2001, once Em was already a rap star. Throughout the prior years, though, it remained buried treasure. An initial fate that had more to do with race and hip-hop’s history with corporate and cultural vultures than the ability of Mr. Mathers. It didn’t even matter. Once the CD fell into the hands of Interscope representatives and landed on the desk of Jimmy Iovine, it was passed onto the CEO’s favorite hip-hop producer. But that’s a whole other story…

You can stream Eminem's entire discography here.