Eminem looks back, forward on 15 years of Shady Records
Marshall Mathers enters the lobby of his Ferndale recording studio, located in a nondescript, heavily secured building in the city's industrial district. He introduces himself and offers a hand-to-hand embrace that he pulls into a half-hug.
In a rare sit-down interview with The Detroit News, Eminem is discussing "Shady XV," the new two-disc set that commemorates the first 15 years of his record label, Shady Records. He is joined by his manager and business partner Paul Rosenberg, with whom he launched Shady Records in November 1999.
Theirs is a tight alliance that began as a business relationship and became a friendship, and together they grew Shady into an internationally recognized brand that also includes a clothing line, a film division and a Sirius XM radio station. Says Em of their partnership: "I come to him with the car, and he shows me where to drive it."
Right now the destination is "Shady XV," which hits stores Monday, and was still coming together in late October.
He's used to long hours in the studio, which he considers his office. How often is he there? "Umm, how often is all the time?" Em asks. "Aside from being on the road, it's pretty much been seven days a week for the past five, six months."
"Shady XV" began as an outlet for Eminem to release a batch of songs that didn't have a home. The album is comprised of a disc of greatest hits from the label's history and a disc of 12 new songs, nine of which feature Eminem. ("I'm on it quite a bit," Em quips.)
The set includes an early demo version of Em's Oscar-winning "Lose Yourself" that features alternate lyrics from the original, and the new song "Detroit Vs. Everybody" featuring an all-star roster of Detroit talent: Big Sean, Dej Loaf, Royce da 5'9", Danny Brown and Trick Trick. After its online release last week, the song became a battle cry for the city's rap community. (At the time of this chat, the song was still being pieced together and was referred to "The Anthem.")
Eminem is open and engaging. His features are sharp, his blue eyes piercing. Over the course of 45 minutes, it's easy to see the bond he shares with Rosenberg: Even though Rosenberg spends most of his time on the East Coast, they talk pretty much every day, whether it's about business or just the Detroit Lions. (Both are excited about this year's Lions team, by the way, but Em keeps a tight lip. "Every time I say something I feel like I jinx something, so I'm not saying nothing.")
On the occasion of Shady Records' 15-year anniversary, however, he's got plenty to say.
Shady label to grow brand
Eminem released his first album "The Slim Shady LP" in February 1999 and quickly became a worldwide superstar. Shady Records, which is distributed through Interscope, was born shortly afterward as an opportunity to grow the Eminem brand.
"(Paul) came to me with the idea of starting the label, and at the same time I was looking for a home to do something with D12," says Em, referring to his six-man, Detroit-based rap crew. D12's "Devil's Night" was released in June 2001 and it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart.
"Based off the success of things starting to happen with the D12 record, it was like, 'Wow, we could actually do this,' " says Em, who turned 42 last month. "I wasn't sure if it could be possible or not, if we could actually have a label and be successful with it. ... We were trying, and it was cool that it was actually working. So at that point we were like, 'What's next?' "
What was next was a whirlwind. The "8 Mile" soundtrack was released in October 2002, featuring songs by Eminem, Jay Z, Nas and a young up-and-comer named 50 Cent. It was a monster success, selling more than 4 million copies. Em signed 50 Cent to Shady Records and watched as 50's debut album "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " became the fastest-selling debut album in Nielsen SoundScan history, racking up 872,000 sales in just four days.
Looking back, it was a high point.
"There was a time when the label was one of the hottest things in the world," says Rosenberg, who is known as Paul Bunyan due to his imposing physical stature. "After we put out '8 Mile' and 50's album came out, I think anything we would put out would have done well, as long as it was well-conceived and well-put together. I just wish we put a few more things out."
Says Em: "I put out as much (expletive) as I could."
His response speaks to the way Shady Records does business: For an album to be released on Shady, Em must have his fingerprints on it through every step of the process. The hands-on approach has made Em central to the label's identity — of Shady's 22 releases, half have been Eminem releases or Em side-projects — and it has stopped the label from slapping a logo on any old album and calling it a Shady product.
Eminem internalizes failure
Still, not everything on Shady has been a success. In the mid-'00s, the label's roster was top-heavy with next-big-things-that-never-were: Stat Quo, Bobby Creekwater and Cashis. Between the three of them, only one release — Cashis' 2007 "The County Hound EP" — ever made it to stores. And after his platinum-selling debut, Eminem's Detroit pal Obie Trice's follow-up "Second Round's On Me" underperformed commercially and led to Trice leaving the label.
Eminem takes the bumps personally.
"I internalize it. I try to figure out why. Because when somebody comes to our label that we get excited about, you try to figure out, 'If I'm this excited about it, what is it not connecting with over in this audience?' " he says. "You try to figure out why, and you're left scratching your head."
Eminem had bigger things to worry about, it turns out. In 2006, his remarriage to Kim Mathers fell apart after several months, and his best friend Proof was shot and killed. Em fell into heavy drug abuse and ballooned up to 230 pounds, and he bottomed when he overdosed on drugs in 2007. He put himself back together and, coinciding with his own "Recovery" album, he relaunched Shady Records with a new roster in 2010.
"People were asking what's next, what are you guys going to do? So we looked at that as an opportunity," says Rosenberg, who also manages rappers Action Bronson, Danny Brown and a handful of others under his Goliath management firm. "First and foremost, we focused on Eminem projects, then we said 'look, we've got this thing still, let's see what we can do, if there's any stuff out there that excites us.' That ushered in Marshall reconnecting with Royce (da 5'9"), signing Slaughterhouse and finding (Alabama rapper) Yelawolf."
Yelawolf's "Radioactive" was released on Shady in 2011, and the label put out Slaughterhouse's second album, "Welcome to: Our House," in 2012. Both have new projects slated for 2015.
For something to be a success on Shady, both Em and Rosenberg need to be equally invested.
"We have similar tastes on a lot of stuff," says Em, who was introduced to Rosenberg through Proof in the late 1990s. "Usually if we both agree on something, we try to do something with it and that gives it the best shot to win."
Says Rosenberg: "... Two heads are better than one."
Shady label not only outlet
The "Detroit Vs. Everybody" single is a good example of Shady Records putting Detroit in the spotlight. The label, however, was never meant to be a one-stop shop for the Motor City's hip-hop scene.
"There was a time where everybody would say, 'Man, we can't get (ahead) because people think that if Shady's not signing us, we must not be dope.'... People now know we don't need to be your only outlet, there's other ways to do it," Rosenberg says. "Dej Loaf did it on her own. Big Sean did it with Kanye. ... There's a lot of ways to break out of Detroit, and we're really proud of the fact that we're one of them, but we don't want to be the only one."
At a time when artists are finding it difficult to sell albums, Eminem is one of the few performers whose releases are still considered events.
Yet for as large as his public persona is, public Eminem sightings are still very rare, and his relationship with fame remains extremely tenuous.
"I always (complain) about fame. I think I've (complained) about it since the first album," Em says. "I didn't understand it back then, I couldn't fathom it, and I still don't necessarily understand it. I have a better grasp on it, but it doesn't mean that I'm super crazy about it."
He does go to to the occasional Lions game, Rosenberg says, he just doesn't make a spectacle of it. And he's happy to talk to a fan — it's when he's swarmed by them that he gets uncomfortable.
Since his 2010 "Recovery" album, Eminem's touring schedule has been limited to stadium shows and festival appearances. Em doesn't enjoy being away from home, but he still gets a rush from performing.
"When I go out in public, I don't want a lot of attention, I don't want everybody noticing me and looking at me," he says. "Being on stage is a chance for me to be me and not have to worry about that.
"Like, everybody already knows it's me, I'm already there, so I might as well make the most of it, know what I'm saying? It's part of letting the hamster out of his cage."
Shady Records/ Interscope
In stores Monday
'Shady XV' tracklisting:
Disc 1 (Disc X):
Slaughterhouse featuring Eminem and Yelawolf, "Psychopath Killer"
Eminem featuring Kobe, "Die Alone"
Bad Meets Evil, "Vegas"
Slaughterhouse, "Y'all Ready Know"
Eminem featuring Sia, "Guts Over Fear"
Eminem, "Fine Line"
Skylar Grey, Eminem and Yelawolf, "Twisted"
Eminem, "Right for Me"
Eminem, Royce da 5'9", Big Sean, Danny Brown, Dej Loaf and Trick Trick, "Detroit vs. Everybody"
Disc 2 (Disc V)
50 Cent, "I Get Money"
D12, "Purple Pills"
Eminem, "Lose Yourself"
Obie Trice, Kuniva, Bobby Creekwater, Ca$his and Stat Quo, "Cry Now" (Shady Remix)
Yelawolf featuring Kid Rock, "Let's Roll"
Slaughterhouse, "Hammer Dance"
50 Cent, "P.I.M.P."
Eminem, 50 Cent, Ca$his and Lloyd Banks, "You Don't Know"
D12, "My Band"
Obie Trice, "Wanna Know"
50 Cent, "Wanksta"
Obie Trice featuring Nate Dogg, "The Setup"
50 Cent, "In Da Club"
D12, "Fight Music"
Yelawolf, "Pop the Trunk"
Eminem, "Lose Yourself" (original demo version)