John Singleton Portrait Session 1991 John Singleton Portrait Session 1991
Director John Singleton poses for a portrait in Los Angeles, California.
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For John Singleton

Former VIBE writer reflects on his friendship and time with the late director and visionary.

The last time I saw my friend and brother John Singleton was last year, the year 2018, what month exactly I cannot recall. But the meet-up was for me to spend several hours with him to interview John for the book I am still writing on the life and times of Tupac Shakur. John asked me to visit his production office in Los Angeles, where I got to sit in with his team of writers, including famed novelist Walter Mosley (one of John’s mentors and heroes). John was very proud of his FX network television show Snowfall, and how it was like a prequel to his most famous movie, his first, Boyz N The Hood. During my interview with John, he mentioned several times he rarely did interviews, but that he trusted me. Little did I know it would be the final time I would ever see him in person.

I first met John Singleton in 1992, when we were both 20-something upstarts, him as the creator of a critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated film (when John was only 23, 24), and me a staff writer for Quincy Jones’ VIBE magazine. I do not think John even remembered our first encounter in New York City, where he simply asked myself and some other heads if we dug Boyz N The Hood, being East Coast folks. Dug it? Heck, it was and is a classic of American and world cinema. What also connected John Singleton and I through all these years was our relationships with Tupac Shakur. In one of my early VIBE cover stories on ‘Pac, John said he wanted Tupac to be Robert DeNiro to his Martin Scorsese. Sadly they only did one film together, Poetic Justice. I’ve long imagined what they could have manifested, two racially proud black sons of two strong black mothers.

In an interview last year for my Tupac book, John cried on several occasions: about the lost potential of Tupac’s life and art, of the many lost black male lives. I also noticed that John sweated quite a bit. Little did I know he was suffering from the high blood pressure that would lead to the stroke that just took his life. John gave me a lot of information he has never shared with anyone and asked me to do the right thing, over and over, with this Tupac book, especially given his great disappointment that he did not get to direct the biopic on ‘Pac.

Like me, John was a fighter, to the very end, and what they called back in the day, a race man: his life and work were for black people, largely, to correct all the racist wrongs we have seen across American pop culture from the beginning to now. John was not afraid to speak his mind, to challenge, even if it cost him many career opportunities, which I feel it did. He understood he had to speak for all of us, not just himself; that he had to sacrifice himself, his art, for the greater good of real diversity and real inclusion; that Hollywood, or America, would never change without being pushed, nonstop. John was our cinematic resister, our cinematic revolutionary. He was a USC-trained filmmaker with the independent spirit of a Melvin Van Peebles and our beloved hip-hop culture. John was high art and he was also games of spades at a fish fry in the ghetto on a Friday night.

And John was not afraid of looking himself in the mirror. In that same interview I did with him for the Tupac book, he and I spoke at length about the pitfalls of fame, especially when it comes mad young, mad early. John spoke to me about how he carried guns then, how he became something he was not, and how it could have ended his life before 30, the recklessness of it all. But because we had outlived famous and not-famous black males around us, both John and I also shared this thing called survivor’s guilt. Like why me God, why am I still here? This is the question virtually every black male in America will ask himself as he sees those around him, including those more gifted, smarter, fall, one by one. John was determined not to fall. That is what I felt in my bones when I left his office that day from what turned out to be one of the best interviews I’ve gotten for the Tupac book. John and I always stayed in touch, usually by text, but John also liked to pick up the phone and just kick it voice to voice. He was accessible in a way many in the entertainment industry are not. John did not, to me, believe his own hype. He was always about the next TV show, the next film, the next thing he had to do, and he always thought of helping others.

When I first heard John Singleton had had a stroke, all the conflicting information made me think he would pull through. But today, ironically, as I flew from my city of New York to John’s city of Los Angeles, I learned it was over, that he was being taken off life support. I cried on that plane ride, I cry in my heart as I write this now. Another black man gone too soon, from something that was preventable. But given the many challenges we face in America, the ugliness of racism, the constant need to prove ourselves, over and over, it is little wonder that so many of us are sick, are walking wounded, are working ourselves, quite literally at times, to death. I am sad because I never got on that boat of John’s for a ride he was always offering. Sailing was one of the great joys of John’s life, and I spoke with him many a day when he was on his boat. I am extremely sad because just this past Saturday, I directed and produced and wrote my very first short film, about black men and black boys, and I thought about John Singleton the entire time, how I wanted to create something with him. And how I was going to ask him to support my short film entitled “Brotha Man.”

Indeed, we had kicked around some ideas the past year or so, he had quietly supported financially my wife Jinah Parker’s theater production, SHE, a Choreoplay, and John stood by me when I filed a lawsuit against the producers of the Tupac biopic, even as I was being ridiculed by some due to false media information. John, in a word, was a friend, to me, to many, a supporter, to me, to many; and because he is of my generation, of my race, of my gender identity, he also spoke for me and to me, through his films. So a part of me has died, too, with him, and you wonder every single time you see one of your peers gone how much time you have yourself before God, the ancestors, the universe, some spirit force calls on you next. I have no idea, I am not afraid, I am stunned, yes, but I have done everything I can to prepare myself for how long or how short the rest of my life will be. And it is my humble hope that like John Singleton, when I am gone, I will have left something behind for all time. Because he did, he truly did.

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Kanye West performs Sunday Service during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 21, 2019 in Indio, California.
Rich Fury

Kanye West, ‘Jesus Is King,’ And The Unspoken Bipolarism In Between

Last week, Kanye West brought his California-based Sunday Service event series to his hometown of Chicago. In a clip that’s been making the rounds on social media, West is seen in the middle of the massive crowd, attempting to move toward the stage to watch his assembled choir perform both standard hymns and gospel interpolations of 2000s pop/R&B songs. When a security guard intervenes to lead the way, Kanye grabs him by the shoulders.

“Step back,” Ye says confidently. “Watch this. This is my city.” He then proceeds to walk through the crowd, parting the sea of people with minimal hand movements. As he passes through, fans call him by his alter-ego, Yeezus, while screaming in a manner reserved for the day you finally meet your hero.

“Somebody said #Kanye thought he was Moses,” The Shade Room posted on Instagram along with the video. Naturally, I migrated to the comment section, where it didn’t take long to find one of the most-liked response: “This isn’t about God or church and it’s sad to witness.”

 

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#PressPlay: Somebody said #Kanye thought he was Moses 😩 #ThatsHisCity (📹: @kdeo0)

A post shared by The Shade Room (@theshaderoom) on Sep 8, 2019 at 12:25pm PDT

If you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention over the past two decades, you’d know by now that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about Kanye—once he’s attached himself to a concept, he’s all in. Religion is no exception.

Last month, Kim Kardashian West announced that her husband would be dropping a new album called Jesus Is King, a 12-track project set to be released on September 27. It will contain tracks featuring titles like “God Is,” “Baptized,” and “Sweet Jesus.”

When I first saw the handwritten tracklist, I wasn’t surprised. Kanye has been hosting Sunday Service since before his Coachella/Easter performance, so it’s only natural that his next effort might be linked to gospel. But once I saw the clip of him moving through the crowd, my stomach twisted in knots: Kanye has always thought highly of himself, but his recent actions, and focal points, border on messianic. He’s not going to make this release low-key or easy.

🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/ZmGvtN7o7C

— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) August 29, 2019

The past year and change has been challenging for many Kanye West fans, myself included. Look no further than his views on Donald Trump—and, uh, slavery—to understand why a significant portion of his listeners (mostly black) have called it quits. As tempted as I’ve been to follow, my relationship with the rapper is a bit more complex.

We’ve both been diagnosed as bipolar, a mental condition characterized by manic highs and depressive lows. Depending on where you are on the spectrum, mania can either make you feel mildly irritated and erratic, or a deep, yet deceiving, purity that makes you think you’re in touch with God Himself. I fall solidly in the latter group, and my condition began with a grand epiphany that didn’t feel like a mental disability at all.

It came to me as I sat in a Texas church in September 2016, with my arms wrapped around my grandmother at her brother’s funeral. I’ve never heard an unspoken message so loudly, but there it was in my brain: “Your purpose on Earth is to spread the word of God through music.” It was so unmistakable that I looked up at the pulpit with wide eyes, convinced the pastor had spoken directly to me. I was shook, but invigorated by the imaginary prompt, a marked shift from how I felt weeks prior.

Before I flew home to Texas from NYC to be at my grandmother’s side, I was in the darkest depression I’d ever experienced, triggered by a profound disappointment that my life wasn’t panning out the way I had hoped, both professionally and personally. I was jobless and falling out of love, so I spent the majority of my time in bed, curled up in the fetal position and sobbing endlessly.

I felt myself slipping and began to pray nonstop for any kind of change, a thread to hold onto. Seriously: that’s how this all started. When I began my own informal research later, I found that others with bipolar disorder had been set off by the same thing. “What drove me into my first manic episode was me being extremely, unhealthily single-minded in pursuing the Lord more than I ever had,” one YouTube commenter wrote underneath a video titled “A Look at Bipolar Disorder from a Biblical Perspective.”

That’s how focused I was. I surrendered myself to prayer until the tears stopped and I began to experience thoughts and sensations I had never felt before. My depression dissipated, replaced by a divine sense of calm mixed with an insuppressible desire to save the world with my bare hands. As time would tell, I was going through my first bout with mania, but it felt as if my body was crackling with the electricity of a natural-born superpower (albeit one I couldn’t control).

So imagine my surprise last June, when I heard track two of Kanye’s most recent album, ye. “That's my bipolar shit, ni**a what?” he said braggadociously at the end of “Yikes.” “That's my superpower, ni**a. Ain't no disability. I'm a superhero! I'm a superhero!”

It was a hell of a statement—and Kanye’s first admission of his diagnosis. I related so deeply to his revelation that I threw myself into explaining away his distasteful comments and actions. I assumed Kanye would become a poster child for bipolar disorder, and I wanted to protect him at all costs.

Instead, Kanye has rejected the diagnosis (which Kim Kardashian eventually walked back), and given select interviews to people who have no intimate knowledge of living with a mental condition like his. In these conversations, he tip-toes around explaining exactly why being bipolar makes him feel like both a superhero and a warrior for God; the most vocal artist of our generation prefers to instead keep his experiences mysterious and otherworldly.

I want Kanye to open up because not everyone diagnosed with bipolar disorder experiences it in the same way. For many, especially those with bipolar 2, mania manifests on a less intense scale: individuals can feel untethered to the real world, and become irrationally worried and antsy.

As someone with bipolar 1, the extreme iteration of the condition, I mentally skyrocket up to the heavens where I feel one with the universe, and believe I have the ability to connect with anyone through love and spiritual energy. The episodes are intense and disorienting, but those lofty feelings linger indefinitely.

“No matter how many times people told me I was sick, I felt this unshakable knowingness that I had encountered the divine,” Waking Up Bipolar host Chris Cole explained on his podcast in a February episode, “When Depression is Awakening: Attachment, Faith, and God.”

When Kanye first announced he was bipolar, I hoped he would shine a light on the stress of vacillating between grandiose heights and the depths of depression, which Chris Cole broke down on his podcast. “I have an ability as a bipolar person to get really small, and then get really big,” he described. “That can be energetically, that can be my ideas of who I think I am… It could be something like, I don’t need to address anyone—I don’t need to tell my story to anyone—and then all of a sudden, I need to tell my story on the grandest of stages.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, diagnosis of bipolar disorder is “based on symptoms rather than brain imaging or other diagnostic tests.” In other words, uncharacteristic behavior is the determining factor that sends red flags to those around you. For example, my family can hear in my voice when I’m starting to become manic: I talk faster, I’m more charismatic and funny, I have no filter, and I make big plans that are clearly out of my reach. Meanwhile, in my brain, the whole world is shedding its old skin and it’s my job to lead people to “the light.”

In the moment, it feels like a responsibility that I never asked for, but a blessing all the same. This kind of experience is exactly why some bipolar people choose to reject their diagnosis altogether: they’d rather run toward God than an illness.

I wholeheartedly believe in science, doctors and psychiatry, but I’ve yet to find a treatment team that is willing to balance “spiritual encounters” with the clinical. I’m typically told to forget that mumbo jumbo, just take your pills and get back in line with society. (Some doctors are nicer than others, but this is always the underlying message.)

As with any condition, perception is a slippery slope—but to ignore the thoughts and observations that bipolar people feel they legitimately experience is to push them away from medical insights and drive them strictly toward faith and religion.

“I think we have to really be careful thinking about faith as something that can be measured in a biological sense,” Cole advised in his podcast. “Then we get in a lot of trouble because we say, ‘Well, I have so much faith—I’m burning so bright, look at me.’”

In my personal experience, heightened mania feels like you're the oracle sent to speak to the rest of the world on behalf of the Most High; like you're the one selected to advance humanity through never-before-seen methods. Sound familiar?

While being manic can make me (and countless others) feel like the Chosen One, it also makes me focus strongly on community, collaboration, love, and kindness. I see all of these qualities in the Sunday Service series.

In an archived live stream of the Chicago Sunday Service, the choir of mostly black millennials swag surfs and milly rocks together while singing God-centered flips of popular songs like the Clipse’s “Grindin’” backed by a drumline and horn section. To keep it a buck, they sound excellent. As many on Twitter have pointed out, though, the approach isn’t exactly new. “Every Black child that grew up in Baptist church has done mashups that sound just like this,” social justice organizer @brownblaze tweeted. “Please don’t call this innovative or creative.”

Halfway through the service, West performs his first attempt at worship music, the 2004 single “Jesus Walks.” To end the song, he changes the repentant line “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long” to a defiant “We ain’t afraid to talk to God!” After his proclamation, West surveys the crowd, sunglasses covering his eyes on a rainy day. He takes in the moment he’s created before exiting the stage to continue tinkering with the instruments that got our attention in the first place.

While I don’t have the power to build a viral choir or make an album about Jesus, I do have the power to peek through mania and open the doors to the church in Kanye’s mind, and my mind.

Since the day my religious epiphany was explained to me as a symptom of my condition, I’ve been trying to draw a line from point A to point Z, and drag people from the medical side and others from the spiritual side and have them meet somewhere in the middle for a discussion. As of now, the chasm between the two communities couldn’t be more wide.

So when I see a bipolar person like Kanye, speaking loudly about God and feeling like a superhero, I understand what’s going through his head. But I wonder what his motivation is. I wonder if he will ever make the connection himself and help his listeners understand exactly why he’s releasing an album called Jesus Is King. I wonder about these things constantly because I have a confession: I still believe Kanye West can change the way we talk about mental health.

I just wish he would start a real conversation.

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Jenny Regan | VIBE

Rapsody, Little Brother And The Reminder That Rap Can Be Beautiful

One of hip-hop’s most damning albatrosses is the fact that it’s so male-driven. The gaze is male. The perspective is male. The music is overwhelmingly male. The decision-making is almost unanimously male. As a result, the way we talk about rap music can often be couched in male sentiment and posturing. That leaves little room for true reflective reckoning and vulnerability in discussing the music we consume.

So when we talk about rap music we say things like “that track was hard” or “they were really snapping” or some other adjective that reaffirms our hyper-masculine reactions to what we hear. I say all of that to say this: rap music is rarely described as beautiful. There’s something about the word “beautiful” that betrays the masculinity we often ascribe to rap music. (This isn’t a rap only phenomenon for men, I might add. When was the last time you heard a man describe something as “beautiful” as opposed to “bad as hell,” “sexy,” “fine” or some other vapid word that betrays how we actually feel about a person or thing?)

The shame of our reluctance to describe rap music as “beautiful” is that sometimes it is the perfect word for what we hear. I’ve been writing about rap music for about a decade and don’t remember many times that I’ve described albums as beautiful. But after listening to Little Brother’s reunion album May The Lord Watch and Rapsody’s Eve, I’m reminded just how beautiful rap can be and how we all benefit from recognizing projects as such.

I could pepper this article with all of the buzzwords to let you know that Little Brother and Rapsody - both from North Carolina, coincidentally - put together two of the most complete projects you’ll hear this year. They’re all rapping their a**es off. They’ve all managed to show musical dexterity needed to hopscotch across a vast array of soulful and boom-bap production featured across both albums. They sound motivated to put out classics as each entity had something to prove. That’s all fine and well. But the true majesty of Eve and May The Lord Watch is the beauty that lies in between the strands of each high-thread count piece of fabric.

Phonte and Big Pooh became underground rap darlings in the early 2000s, offering an everyman approach to rap that was cribbed by your favorite rappers looking for a countercultural entree into mainstream hip-hop. Then, after a couple of classic albums, a legendary mixtape run and an impeccable approval rating, Tigallo and Pooh went their separate ways. Little Brother had been split up for nine years, a span of time that lasted longer than their time making albums together; leaving no sign of a rejoining in sight until a happenstance reunion concert last October. On May The Lord Watch, LB comes back together sounding more connected than ever.

And it feels like home.

Not the cleaned up facade of home, where problems are hidden and scars are covered by the need to pretend everything has always been okay. No, May The Lord Watch feels like the reality of home. The place that we love but have felt the way it damages us. The place we take a deep breath to prepare our hearts to enter as we wipe our feet on the welcome mat.

It’d be a lie to say it sounds like Phonte and Big Pooh never split because saying so would undermine the beauty of their reconciliation. The album feels like home because it feels like when you see family you’ve fallen out with but decide to look past it because love is more important than forcing yourselves to miss more time. The missed years and hard times are still there (producer and former third member 9th Wonder is still absent, after all)—“Doin' Uber pickups, they don't recognize the face, And that's bittersweet,” Pooh raps about the struggles he faced in the last decade on “Right On Time”—but that only highlights the love it takes to come back and make May The Lord Watch.

 

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Listen, man. It took us a long time to get it right but we did. I love the fact we accomplished the goal but it’s the journey that I’ll always cherish the most. We wrote and recorded every song on this album together. We carried each other. We give y’all the album of our careers, “May The Lord Watch” . . Thank you to everyone that contributed to this album. It wouldn’t have turned out the same way without y’all. (I’ll drop the credits later. I got some champagne to drink) #LBbizness #MTLW #availablenow

A post shared by Rapper Pooh (@rapperbigpooh) on Aug 19, 2019 at 9:15pm PDT

So much of Little Brother 1.0’s catalog was about turning their gaze outward—to an industry that devalued their gifts, to record execs who passed them over, to a network that said their music was “too intelligent” (“Dope beats, dope rhymes, what more do y'all want?!” Phonte seemed to plead on 2005’s “Never Enough”). But now they are less concerned with proving themselves to the masses as they are feeling secure in their own skin and holding each other down. On “All In A Day” they rap about their jobs well done and being unconcerned with who gives them praise: “I brought my lunch pail to work every day,” Pooh raps and Phonte follows later with, “Finally accepting what I see and it's a different swag/My definition of freedom is real tight.”

And it’s that freedom that feels so beautiful. Phonte and Big Pooh aren’t concerned with trying to break through rap’s glass ceilings or earn anyone’s respect. Their greatness is self-evident. All they care about is being the best men they can be and loving one another as brothers. In the end, Phonte and Pooh only have each other and they spend 15 tracks reminding us and each other that that’s all they need.

Rapsody’s Eve feels like that same freedom. Her career was full of as many doubters as Little Brother, but amplified by the fact she’s a woman in an industry that sees no value in her success. And often when her music is celebrated, it’s to shame women like Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B who are more musically and visually sexually explicit. Instead of leaning into a holier than thou approach, Rapsody opted to create a work of love—an album that loves herself, love black women, loves black men and loves hip-hop.

The beauty in Eve is that Rapsody, like Little Brother, is unconcerned with ever-moving goalposts and approval ratings from critics who she feels will never appreciate her anyway. “I don't take time to address opinions that ain't 9th, Dre, or Jay-Z/ Only rap radars I need are them and the streets/ Be careful, the validations y'all seek,” she raps on the defiant-yet-confident “Cleo.” The song is a four-minute venting session about doubters that doubles as a lyrical flex, reasserting Rapsody as one of rap’s elite MCs. The song also allows Rapsody to move on from talk about doubters and really enjoy herself. See, like May The Lord Watch, Rapsody was able to shed the need to prove herself and in return allows her to be her most comfortable and reach a musical nirvana that produced her best album to date and one that is on the way to classic status.

That’s part of the beauty—seeing artists reach that point of comfort with their crafts that they can be their best selves. On Eve, Rapsody is clicking on all cylinders, and hearing her enthusiasm for her work emitting from each track is infectious. She’s bouncy on “Oprah,” playful on “Whoopi” and body-confident on “Iman.”

But it’s “Hatshepsut” and “Afeni” that feel transcendentally beautiful. On the former, she trades bars with a Queen Latifah whose voice is as welcoming and thunderous as it’s ever been. Queen Latifah has always been there, holding rap accountable and demanding we love ourselves when we don’t want to, and hearing her return in a metaphorical torch-passing to Rapsody feels like generational healing. Beautiful.

“Afeni” is a challenge to black men that dares us to love women better than we have been. It demands more from us while showing us the endless things we can achieve with that love we are too scared to embrace: “I know this life ain't easy, every one of us is flawed/ At least love your woman, we the closest thing to God.”

Beauty. Eve is an unapologetic love letter to black women. Every song is named after and themed around a different black woman. Every song is an affirmation of Rapsody’s greatness and a reminder that she is a descendant of a legacy of black women who defined our entire culture. She centers black women in black excellence and frames black death around its impact on the women left to carry on (“Esau, she saw, Eric die/ We saw people cry, think about all of our people's wives”). Eve is a rap album devoid of the male gaze and it’s beautiful to watch how nearly-perfect it was executed.

There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing albums made with love and Little Brother and Rapsody gave us just that. They made projects that show genuine love between men and the depths of love black women possess. Sure we can appreciate these projects at face value for their greatness, but when we allow ourselves to see rap as beautiful, then we can appreciate the true power that lies between the bars and beats of each project.

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Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for MTV

Why Would Sada Baby Not Rank Eminem In His Top Five From Detroit?

Eminem is the most prolific and successful rapper of all time. His stats can’t be faded. When it’s all said and done, we’ll be retiring his number in every stadium he’s ever sold out.

With over 100 million records sold worldwide, an Oscar for Best Original Song, 10 No. 1 albums, more than 1 billion streams on Spotify, two top 100, all-time best selling albums, Marshall Bruce Mathers III is the highest selling rapper of all time. His top five status should be firmly cemented.

The respect for Em also extends to the greatest names in hip-hop. In 2012, VIBE compiled a list of the top 40 compliments Eminem has been given from his peers with names stretching from Scarface to Redman to Jay-Z. In a 2008 interview with BBC, Nas says of Em, “He contributes so much lyrically and musically. He’s amazing.” In a 2010 conversation with Hot 97, Kanye West is on record as saying, “Nobody’s gonna be bigger than Eminem.”

So why does it seem like he isn’t getting the respect he deserves in his own city?

In a recent interview with Say Cheese TV, Detroit rapper Sada Baby – when asked if Eminem was a top five rapper – said, “Out of Detroit? Hell naw. You talking about my Detroit?” While the internet took that quote and decided their varying levels of agreement or anger, there was one thing Sada said that stood out.

“My Detroit.”

While that phrase may not mean anything to outsiders, that distinction means the world to Detroiters.

Detroit is a tale of two cities when it comes to rap. Many know iconic producer J Dilla and wordsmiths like eLZhi and Royce Da 5’9”, but the D has a long, legendary history of street rappers who have helped pave the way. That’s a legacy that younger artists such as Icewear Vezzo, Payroll Giovanni of Doughboyz Cashout, Tee Grizzley, and Sada Baby are pushing forward to this day. As a native Metro Detroiter, artist manager, and digital label manager for Soulspazm Records, Eric “Soko” Reynaert sees both sides as equally important. “The different circles carry a lot of importance in encompassing the variety we have to offer. It's all important equally because it's what makes Detroit hip-hop what it is. Detroit's been running the overseas market touring wise for years, Detroit street rap is making noise in the major label market, Danny Brown's a fucking star: it's all good for Detroit hip-hop as a whole.”

The blunt, straightforward approach of Detroit’s street rappers just doesn’t mesh well with Eminem’s style of storytelling and wordplay. Slim Shady’s knack for entendres, stuffing multisyllabic rhyme schemes inside of each bar and floating between different pockets is a dense, complex style that, in Sada Baby’s own admission, most people just don’t get. “Eminem will get to saying some shit [that’s] going over everybody’s head,” Sada shrugged. “I might be able to decipher some of that shit but that nigga’s shit going over everybody head”.

That’s Sada’s Detroit. Among his musical influences are the late, great Detroit street rappers Blade Icewood and Wipeout - both murdered over the beef between their respective crews, Street Lord'z and the Eastside Chedda Boyz. If you truly want to know what a Detroit native lives by, take a listen to the Eastside Chedda Boyz’s “Oh Boy” and Blade Icewood’s “Boy Would You.” The true anthems of the city, both songs deified by their infectious hooks, blunt and deliberate lyrics, and a simplistic yet highly effective message draped in the energy that Detroiters carry with them. They’re not trying to win you over with metaphors and similes, but rather connect to their audience with honesty and directness in their rhyming. Similar styles can be heard in other 313 legends like Big Herk, K Deezy, and even Trick Trick and his Goon Sqwad click that has been active on the city’s music scene since the mid-‘90s. These are the artists that dominated the streets and Detroit radio. Not J Dilla. Not Slum Village. Not Black Milk. Detroit’s lyrical rappers tout immense worldwide respect but have always been relegated to the background in Detroit’s hierarchy, only sniffing radio play by doing jingles for local disc jockeys.

“There’s a street side and a hip-hop side to the music scene in Detroit,” says battle rap pioneer and Detroit MC Marvwon, while explaining the differences amongst the city’s musical landscape. “The funny thing is [that] there’s no difference in level of talent. The only difference is the backdrops.”

Those backdrops are also socioeconomic in nature as Detroit is a city whose residents have been denied basic human necessities. And for the Motor City? There’s no better representation of the city than the music at the most fundamental, street level. As Marv continued to explain, “The division comes from perception. The street cats believe that there hasn’t been an accurate representation of Detroit in the music world.”

Those feelings are echoed throughout the scene. Detroit MC Seven The General traverses through both worlds in a manner that the city hasn’t seen since the late Big Proof (known as Eminem’s close friend, as a member of his group D12). As Seven explains, “When I was incarcerated, we felt that the street aspect of Detroit wasn’t being heard with Eminem. But when I came home in ‘03 and heard Rock Bottom, I realized it was there but it just wasn’t receiving the same attention nationally. It had been held back and secluded to the streets for so long that people felt Eminem didn’t like it or care. It caused a resentment and caused rappers to feel like he doesn’t listen to us so why should we listen to him. It made us ask, ‘Where on the list of Eminem‘s top five Detroit artists would any of us fit?’”

When taking in these factors, it’s easy to see why Eminem doesn’t translate well for Sada Baby. However, Eminem’s impact has transcended not only Detroit but the world. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Hopsin, Tyler The Creator, and Juice WRLD are amongst today’s generation of rappers that all list him as a major influence. For better or worse, Em is also a catalyst for today’s druggie rap scene. Street rappers have gone from rapping about selling drugs to today’s scene glorifying the use of Xanax and Percocet - something that Marshall pioneered on his early albums with songs like “Drug Ballad” and “Purple Pills.” And with the blockbuster film 8 Mile and its hit song “Lose Yourself,” Eminem helped take battle rap culture mainstream to unfamiliar audiences.

Thanks to Eminem, Detroit’s street rap and lyrical scenes have crossed over. Somewhere at the intersection of manager/A&R Hex Murda and Big Sean, the worlds collided. As Marv states, “Big Sean, Danny Brown, and anyone else from the city mostly talk about the same things: money, bitches, and bossing up.” For every J Dilla, we now have a Black Milk who can equally rap and produce between both worlds. Where there’s a Dex Osama, there’s a Guilty Simpson and Seven The General whose blunt and brash flows hit you in the chest as hard as their lyrical ability and wordplay.

And don’t get it twisted; Em definitely sees the work that Detroit’s street rappers are putting in. “I have a personal relationship with all of the rappers around him,” Seven says. “I feel he rocks with me and has love for me. If he could see a way for us to make bread together, I feel like he’d pull me in; but D12 is actively in the streets assisting artists. I’ve personally seen what Em does for Detroit like his partnerships with (Metro Detroit sneaker boutique) Burn Rubber and (locally-founded clothing company) Detroit vs Everybody.”

He may not be your flavor but there’s no denying the skill and impact that Em has had on the city of Detroit and the genre as a whole. If Eminem isn’t top five in Detroit, you’re doing it wrong.

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