Today, we’ll be continuing our application of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” to the world of music. For our first article, I want to look at the life and work of the rapper Eminem (aka, Marshall Mathers). But first, a quick explanation as to why I’ve decided to start with him.
Many rappers, as well as musicians, have made the meteoric rise to fame and acclaim before Eminem. But there are few who come to mind so easily as a classic example of the ‘tortured artist’ quite like Marshall Mathers. He simultaneously does and doesn’t fit the hero archetype, being called an “anti-hero” from more than a few critics over the years.
In the following articles, we’ll look through Eminem’s musical career, and see if the Hero’s Journey matches up to his work. But first, every story has a beginning. So let’s take a look at the beginning of Eminem’s.
Hero in a Zone of Comfort
Eminem is already a rapper when we meet him. In interviews, he’s stated that he started rapping when he was in his early teens. It would be hard to find any trace of Marshall Mathers without a connection to rap.
Even if you haven’t seen “8 Mile“, you’re probably still aware of Eminem’s history of battle rapping in the underground scene. Most people wouldn’t consider a freestyle rap arena a zone of comfort, but Marshall Mathers made it his.
Since he began performing at such a high level, it’s next to useless to try to measure Eminem’s journey by his ability. Instead, the affect of fame and publicity on his music is what gives Eminem’s journey an arc.
The end of Eminem’s comfort zone comes after his release of “Infinite” in 1996. While the album only sold 1,000 records in the U.S. and mostly flew under the radar, it was the last step before Eminem gets his call to adventure. “Infinite”‘s low sales started to get to Eminem. “After that record, every rhyme I wrote got angrier and angrier,” he told Rolling Stone magazine.
It was a combination of this anger and motivation, and the birth of a simple alter-ego, that would allow Eminem to fully commit when he receives his call to adventure.
The Call to Adventure
It wasn’t long before Eminem started to draw some attention. Dr. Dre took notice of the young rapper and saw his talent. It was Eminem’s offer to sign onto Aftermath Records that signaled his call to adventure. This turned out to be a big moment for Dr. Dre and Aftermath as well. “The turning point for Aftermath came in 1998, when Jimmy Iovine, the head of Aftermath’s parent label Interscope, and Dr. Dre decided to sign Eminem”.
This is the call to Eminem’s adventure into the world of publicity, with the promise of money, success, and fame just on the other side.
Together, Dr. Dre and Eminem released “The Slim Shady LP” in 1999. The album did incredibly well, selling over 5 million records and certified 4x Platinum. The success of the album was tied to not only Eminem’s inventive style, but to his titular, provocative alter-ego, venting his anger and subconsciousness.
Almost immediately, Slim Shady’s cartoonish violence blurred the lines between fiction and reality. One line in particular in “My Name Is”, sees Slim taking a shot at his mother. “99 per cent of my life I was lied to/I just found out my mum does more dope than I do,” overstepped the mark as far as Debbie Mathers was concerned, and resulted in legal action.
We’ll see how in the future, Eminem’s relationship with the Slim Shady persona gets Eminem into hot water and back out, time and time again.
We’ll end our discussion here, pick up next time with the Crossing of the Threshold, and see if we can’t start on the Road of Trials as well. We’ll look at how these moments in the Hero’s Journey line up with the releases of “The Marshall Mathers LP” and “Encore”.
As this series is taking a wider view of Eminem’s musical career, there are bound to be smaller details that are missed or looked over. If there’s anything particularly relevant that I end up leaving out, please leave a comment pointing it out below. I’ll do my best to include revisions and corrections in follow up articles.