Recently in a poll conducted by VIBE magazine, Eminem was voted the Best Rapper Alive beating out the likes of Jay-Z, Mos Def, and everyone who just got recognized on the Hip Hop Honors. Em not only won, but by a 61%-39% margin. It wasn't even close. Everything I read about it sounded as if people were stunned that this was the case. Not only that, but it really seemed to be racially motivated amazement. This poses a strange conundrum...can a white boy really hold this title?
The roots of rap music, or hip hop depending on what you want to call it, date pretty far back. Whether you're talking about the oral histories passed down from African tribe to tribe, or the social commentaries rhythmically spoken over back beats in the early 70s, hip hop has been predominately a way for African Americans to express themselves, pass down tradition, and empower their listeners and peers to make a difference. Groups like Public Enemy and KRS One called out to make changes in their communities and in the country as a whole. They spoke of the abilities everyone had to make a difference. It was also a way for these musicians to speak of the hardships that they faced growin up in a society that looked down upon them.
In the 80s a new message began to immerge. It was one of sex, violence, and drugs. The genre known as "Gangsta Rap" was born. Artists like NWA wrote about gang violence, abusing alcohol, and treating women as objects. Artists like 2 Live Crew took the later even further and rhymed almost entirely about promiscuity and sexual deviance. The messages had changed from empowerment to excess and glorifying a life of illegality.
The 90s than ushered in a time of straight decadence. Violence was replaced with money, money, and more money. It was all about living a lifestyle. More cars, more money, and more women. The one with the most toys ruled the roost. The issues discussed in the 70s and 80s were still around, just not nearly as visible in the forefront of the genre. Rap music changed and morphed and grew just like any other style.
So then, where does the white man fit into this music born of social exile and struggle. Historically the white man has always stolen from so-called "black music" to make themselves stars. Rock-n-Roll was amped up blues. The whole Elvis thing is an entire post of it's own, but it's a great example of that. The things is though, we're not stealing the music and making something different persay, we're just making the same kind of music. So the real question is, is it a mockery of what made Hip Hop so special to have white boys doing it?
Now over time there has definitely been attempts at rap music by white boys that have left much to be desired. The whole Vanilla Ice debacle really put a stain on the possibilities of white rappers. He was such a farce and really made it look like we were mocking the struggles of those who had paved the way for Hip Hop. There have been highlights though over the years that began to show a unity of races and a general acceptance of white man's involvement. Enter the "cross-over". The two biggest cross-overs being of course Anthrax/Public Enemy and Aerosmith/Run DMC. These musical ballets showed the correlation of Rock music and Rap music and showed the two could exist harmoniously together. The other big step into this realm was The Beasti Boys. Three jewish, white kids from New York who took their punk roots and slowly turned them into one of the biggest and most respected hip hop careers of all time. They set precedences for sampling with Paul's Boutique and just generally made some of the most inventive music to hit the scene.
So now what? Guys like Beastie Boys and House of Pain came along and said hey, we can do this too. The genre said, yes, you can. Now the door was open. Well, one of the things that happened was an eruption of what has generally referred to as Rip Rock, for lack of a better term. This is what artists like Limp Bizkit, Korn, 311, and Rage Against The Machine kind of fell into. It was again the mix of rock music with lyrics rapped over it. But yet again, this is a topic for a different post. The other thing that happened though was one of the most respected producers and MCs of our time, Dr. Dre, stumbled across this little white kid from Detroit by the name of Marshal. He fell in love and put his reputation on the line by saying this kid is the next big thing.
Was Em really that different from those who came before him though? Born into poverty, abused by his mother and his peers, struggled with drugs, and struggled with relationships. He found something he loved in Hip Hop and used it to release all his angst and emotions and did so with much more intellect and speed than a lot of those making millions doing the same thing. He was innovative and still is. He has an industry hard hitter in Dre behind him. He has his group D12 to give him street cred. And to top it all off he still has baby-mama drama. All of these things aside, he's one of the top-selling artists of over the last 10 years in any genre. He has a succesful clothing line. And he's done what no one else has done before him and that's make a legitimate name for white rappers. You simply can't deny him his place in the history of Hip Hop.
But is he the "Best Alive"? I don't know, I couldn't say. But could he be? Why not? Does him being white really make that much of a difference? It shouldn't.