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The Motor City is Blanching: White Rap Gets Paid

An essay on white rap music and the Motown legacy in today's metro Detroit.
Mike Mosher

Issue #56, Summer 2001

Mention music and Detroit in the same breath and a lot of people still immediately think of Motown. But the Motown era only lasted from about 1964 until the record company by that name moved to Los Angeles in 1972. Although Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and the Jacksons had hit records on the label for a few more years after that, its time had passed and all that remained of it in Michigan was the roadside museum that had been the former headquarters of "Hitsville, U.S.A."

Histories of the 1970s American punk era often begin with two raucous and short-lived Detroit-area bands, the Stooges and the MC5. But that's ancient history, before further deindustrialization, and the white flight that followed the 1967 riot or rebellion. Decades of urban neglect have let Detroit nearly drop off the map.

Druglord Trucks! Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s was a grim place. The automobile industry was slow to respond to the rise in gasoline prices following OPEC's actions in 1973, and continued to turn out gas-guzzlers whose sales steadily declined. In that year a majority African-American Detroit electorate elected the popular black mayor Coleman Young. Yet in spite of his popularity, he could not stem the city's hemorrhage of capital and jobs as plant closings continued and more people escaped to the ring of suburbs. Japanese auto sales subsequently grew as consumers turned to more efficient cars. Anti-Japanese sentiment was so high in Detroit in the years following the auto industry's decline that a misidentified young Chinese-American, Victor Chin, was murdered outside a barroom by an auto worker and his son, who were subsequently acquitted. Yet, during the 1980s, Derrick May and Carl Cox spread House music from Detroit to other urban undergrounds, especially to Europe. These two pioneers, and subsequent DJs and dance producers DJ Assault, DJ Godfather, DJ Defiant, the Detroit Grand Pubahs, Paris the Black Fu, and s.k.l.f.l., are all finally getting deserved attention on their own turf.

Today is Detroit's hip-hop era. In a recent article in the national college paper Underground Review, Robert Ford of Howard University cited figures showing that hip-hop has passed country to become the third-largest music category, behind the catch-all category "pop" and secondly R&B. In 2000, hip-hop records grossed $3 billion, representing one out of every ten records sold. Eighty percent of its buyers are white.

This essay is not about black Detroit rappers like Xzibit, Mastamind, Halfbreed, and Dice. Instead it focuses on the two white acts that have become globally popular since 1998, Kid Rock and Eminem. Detroit is back on the musical map in a big way, but now the faces are white. The city of Detroit and the circumstances that produced these artists comprise a corollary to the history that produced the black Detroit-area artists of 30 years ago. These two cases, in the context of the changing face of Detroit, present an anatomy of the white-ifying of hip-hop. They both represent the takeover of black music by white boys who are using black style to express their own anger. It will take another essay to look at how black hip-hop artists are surviving, and thriving, in the face of this cultural shift.

I. Kid Rock's Welcome to the Party

Devil Without a Cause is the 1998 album that saw Kid Rock "going platinum" as he brags in the title song. The album opens with "Bawitdaba+," its title being a shorthand for "Ball with the ball the bangadang boogie diggy diggy said the boogie said up jumped the boogie." This lyric is a quotation from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "Rappers' Delight" of 20 years earlier. Kid Rock and his Brown Trucker Band layers this lyric over Black Sabbath guitars and drums, but uses deejay scratching as a lead sound over an ominous progression that shuttles from the tonic chord to the minor third. As the MC5 yelped in their 1968 John Lee Hooker cover "The Motor City is Burning": "I'm a white boy but I can be bad too!"

In the track "Devil Without a Cause" Kid Rock asks, "What the fuck's going on in the DT? White boys pimpin' like K-i-d." There follows an allusion to upscale suburb Saint Claire Shores and "Matchbox 20 money" in spite of the fact that the band hails straight from of the streets of working-class suburb Taylor. The track is as heavy metal as Spinal Tap: In steps a pugnacious dwarf (the recently deceased Joe C.) as self-possessed as the dwarves in the Spanish court painted by Velasquez, "three foot six with a nine-foot dick." The similar "I Am the Bullgod" has a chorus like a heavy 1970s ballad by Free or Bad Company. Its lyrics include exhortations to "c'mon, get 'em up," allusions to Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies and to LSD, and an assertion that Kid has sex before cutting the lawn. "Somebody's Gotta Feel This" headbangs like Limp Bizkit, complete with Fred yawp. "Fist of Rage" begins with inventive "I make this money" variations, and over a single chord Kid asserts "I'm a razor blade cutting through a fist of rage."

Despite his assertions of rage, Kid Rock is more convincing as a porch-sitting lazy man than an angry aggressor. He is pictured sitting cheerfully with beer in hand in the celebrity shots of the entertainment weekly Real Detroit. He seems to be practicing in advance for the career of glorified greeter that marked the declining years of both Joe Louis and Gerald Ford. In "Where U At Rock" he ignores phone messages from his girlfriend, his manager, and his mother, but takes a call from a friend who knows where the party is.

Fifties celebrities like Dean Martin and Phil Harris consciously cultivated alcoholic public personae; the image Kid Rock projects is more of a good-times-rollin' 1970s party animal like Rod Stewart and the Faces. "I Got One for Ya" has the bossa nova beat of Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" over the Faces' Fender Rhodes electric piano. Although the song is filled with images of gun violence, it nevertheless recounts the disappearance of peace and love as plaintively as Elvis Costello. "Rolling Gangsta (Rollin')" has still another 1970s-style chorus and Deep Purple organ, while "Only God Knows Why" is the 1970s at their most embarrassing. Kid Rock flabbergasts us with this mewing, mooing, mooning ballad evoking the Beatles' feel-good na-na-Hey Jude, Grand Funk's "I'm Your Captain" or (choke!) the Eagles. It sucks the air out of the party atmosphere and intensity that his previous tracks had set up.

Much about Kid Rock is very 1970s. In his book The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics, Bruce J. Shulman suggests that the two-finger peace sign of the 1960s was followed up by the prevalence of a "single upturned middle finger." Kid Rock's upturned middle finger is printed upon the wordless surface of the Devil Without a Cause CD. Devil? During the 1980s Detroit entered the national consciousness annually, when newscasters on Halloween morning would recount the number of buildings torched on the preceding "Devils' Night." Detroiters always did like spectacle, and Kid Rock fits this mold.

Kid Rock's breakthrough hit is "Cowboy," whose rap/rhyme structure atop the burro of a twangy country rock strum has radio-friendly hit written all over it. It rounds up such cowboy clichés as an Ennio Morricone-style guitar sound, a saloon piano, and ricochet sound effects. His ex-urban laid-back slack is "not straight out of Compton, [but] straight out of the trailer." Like "Cowboy," "Wasting Time" pops right out of the radio with self-effacing wit in lines like "I don't like small cars or really big women / but somehow seem to always find myself in 'em." The black woman backup singer sounds like she could be a coworker similarly laid off from the assembly line and over at his house "drinkin', smokin', thinking, tryin' to free my mind." The song sounds like the pumping singalongs of Lee Michaels, who was a staple of Detroit's WABX around the time of Kid's birth.

In more lucid moments of this album, the Kid remembers that he seeks hip-hop credibility. "F*ck Off" has cuss words and an appearance by Slim Shady (a.k.a. Eminem), the now notorious white rapper who is a bit more cynical, edgier, and wittier than Kid Rock, and who in two years will probably steamroll to even greater prominence and make the Kid look like an old geezer.

In a city like Detroit, with a very complicated history of economic collapse and racial conflict, all music is political. "Black Chick, White Guy" is a hard-luck tale that references Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." But it also mentions an abortion, multiple pregnancies, and a black girl with a white accent. Kid sings about his attempt to make the relationship work, and asserts, "I have taken my blows, I'm still standing." But then the album ends with a coda of "I Am the Bullgod," as if he just couldn't stand to conclude with a hint of pain or vulnerability.

The Motown esthetic was based on an ethic that was optimistic and integrationist. Kid Rock does uphold that tradition, from "Welcome to the Party" through "Black Chick, White Guy" to the humble (humiliated) "Only God Knows Why." In AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History, author Jerry Herron tells of the faux-ethnic neighborhood Greektown, that had never really been Greek until a couple of restaurateurs moved in, and they effaced a Dodge Bros. sign — the neighborhood's true history — from their window.

Deindustrialization, along the increased police repression that typically follows it, hit Detroit early and hard. These factors are said to have caused the rebellion of 1967. The 1960s also saw the success of white rock musicians who defined themselves in the shadow of the phenomenal influence of black artists of Motown. The Rationals had regional success with a cover of Otis Redding's "Respect," so much so that when the daughter of an influential Detroit minister had national success with the song, to white kids it sounded as if Aretha had snitched the Rationals' song.

Mitch Ryder was a 1960s Detroit singer whose friendly shout and sincere holler over the Detroit Wheels' roller-rink organ, twangy guitar and propulsive drums made their covers of black artists' songs sound credible. They tackled Motown hits, Little Richard tunes, Stax-Volt songs from Memphis and derivative originals. By 1971 Ryder had a new band called Detroit that sounded less black and more hard rock. This larger band covered Lou Reed's "Rock 'n' Roll," taking on some of the Velvet Underground's decidedly non-black urbanity (selfconciously postmodern when Rock music sang about itself). Kid Rock is an echo of Mitch Ryder, whose crunching Detroit both reinterpreted and moved away from the black musical motifs that he started out imitating.

II. Eminem Gonna Kill You

Because I'm from Michigan, people will talk to me about Eminem. Regarding Eminem's criticism in "Who Knew" of hypocritical, lax parents who shirk responsibility, a Jamaican woman said to me, "He's saying what I've said for years." A young engineer from Holland told me that Eminem's "Stan" topped their pop music charts and was followed by four cover versions or answer songs in Dutch. At a recent conference at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, I found myself sitting at a desk in whose surface someone, probably a bored student, had carved EMINEM, with the second E backwards as on the CD cover. In the airport, getting ready to leave South Africa, two black female South African Airline employees in their twenties looked at my ticket and exclaimed: "Detroit! Where Eminem is from!" and began swaying and singing "That's why they call me Slim Shady, I'm back, I'm back."

With The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) Eminem joined the ranks of one-name high-concept celebrities of global recognition. In TV Guide around the time of the Grammy awards, Ann Powers noted that the epistolary "Stan" was a slowly building horror story worthy of Poe. Eminem writes and rhymes well, and he plays on his bad-boy image with jokes about tragedy-canonized Sonny Bono and Christopher Reeve, and includes a self-reflexive skit with Interscope executive Steve Berman about the album's dismal response from fearful distributors.

visage 1 If Kid Rock is a listeners' party animal, then Eminem wants you to think he's your executioner. In the psychodrama "Kim" he fantasizes about taking his now-estranged wife for a last ride. "Kill You," "Amityville," "Remember Me?," and "Criminal" are all nightmarishly threatening. Robert Ford of Howard University wrote of being disturbed when his little brother quoted Eminem to effectively threaten not to mess with him or he will "fucking kill you." Eminem's violence, his threats to burn your living room and rape his own mother, is Stagolee violence. Stagolee is the great nihilist who shoots at everyone, who has been down so long he's got nothing left to lose. Stagolee was a favorite of Huey Newton, the contradictory and self-destructive Black Panther. This violence is not the purposeful grimness of Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone western or Dirty Harry movie. It is senseless, more like when Eddie Murphy's hero in "Harlem Nights" shoots the foot of the character played by Della Reese.

America is happy to have this tradition carried on by black gangsters, for it fits its classic racist stereotype of blacks being predisposed to senseless violence. But Americans are even more fascinated and horrified to see this coming from an unapologetic young white face. Eminem gives them that Timothy McVeigh stare. Eminem is McVeigh with earrings, yet proof that that same energy can be diverted into art to produce something of significance. Looking back through my school yearbook I see the cold, defiant stare of "greaser" white kids, tough and defensive working-class Michigan guys who kicked my butt. I still involuntarily shiver, yet I now wonder what hands society has dealt them in the intervening years and how they played those hands.

For all its rage and slasher imagery, there is less bile directed at gay people in The Marshall Mathers LP than protests would lead one to expect. There is a lewd radio playlet that is supposed to depict Eminem being serviced by the mouths of the low rap comedians Insane Clown Posse. Elsewhere Eminem disses the ICP for sneaking out of a Detroit nightclub when Eminem and his D-12 crew arrived.

Weakness, softness, and submission in any form are all suspect in Eminem's world. Cynthia Hoffman pointed out in a Bad Subjects editorial that his televised duet with Elton John in the Dido seat constituted tacit public approval from "the gayest man on earth." She also points out that censorship of Eminem on the radio means that the only way the undecided and curious can hear his music is to purchase his record. Conservative writer John Leo gloated that Eminem's popularity was evidence of youth's backlash against tightly monitored school behavior codes, zero-tolerance Hate Speech laws and other manifestations of repressive "political correctness."

As Kid Rock plays the happily coping social boozer and toker, Eminem references his prescription Vicodin, a thin layer of medication that supposedly keeps him from going over the edge. Perhaps his most appealing track is "Drugs," which tells tales of teenage celebration in the distant early '90s "back when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark." Dina Rae's backup voice is as bubbly as Betty Boop, yet the track has a distinct mood of reflective melancholy. And unlike party-hearty Kid Rock, Eminem runs down the risks of his indulgences, all the way down to damage to the spinal column detailed in the descriptive medical imagery of J. G. Ballard's Crash. This track should be the centerpiece to drug-education discussions in schools.

visage 2The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem is a slice of the urban consciousness as significant as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, and this is where Eminem parallels the Detroit musicians of 30 years ago. Gaye's 1971 album expressed his discontent with the Vietnam War and its related flood of heroin, plus inner-city despair in an era of federal neglect following the victory and optimism of the civil rights era. To compare Eminem's rage and pugnacity to this seductive man of sorrows shows both the politically contextualized reserved delicacy of Gaye's and the articulate, fatalistic bluntness of Eminem's communication style.

Gaye's "What's Going On" opens with the crosstalking and arguing voices of the streets, and the "Right on!" of concordance and agreement. He cries out to his mother (as others would their Lord). In the second line, when the filicide victim Gaye sings "Father, father, we don't need to escalate / War is not the answer, only love can conquer hate," I almost want to cry. He goes on to call, "sister, sister." He's yearning, moaning like Job. The album is a meditation, a musing, a lamentation. It seems almost formless, jellyfish transparent compared to the tightly constructed Holland-Dozier-Holland stagecraft of the the 1960s, or even James Brown's extended tight riff-oriented funk jams. Eminem insists both that "I'm Slim Shady" and that he's Marshall Mathers, while Gaye seemingly has no question of his identity. There is a primacy of empathy in Gaye in his response to the political sphere, whereas Eminem is just itching to bust out and take no prisoners. There is a deep sadness in Gaye that is lacking from Eminem's medicated, homicidal frustration and rage. In her book Salvation, bell hooks laments the angry black patriarchs who diminish their sons for perceived lack of machismo. It is notable that Gaye's father killed him, giving as his reason that Marvin had fallen into cocaine abuse and promiscuity. Eminem says he never knew his father, and jibes at vanquishing (tied up and in the trunk) his decade-older mentor Dr. Dre.

Perhaps the extreme phallocentrism and misogyny expressed to varying degrees by Kid Rock and Eminem is anxiety about masculinity in a time and place where the old ways — steady industrial employment and family — no longer maintain. In the 1950s Norman Mailer extolled from a distance the "violent phallic masculinity" of urban African-American men, and maybe it is this trope that now has these white rappers in its spell.

Eminem has said that his success is also intended to bring his black friends and collaborators, D-12, to the forefront of commercial success. This mix of black and white in Detroit's rockish rap is a new cocktail, a creative miscegenation that Iggy Pop has celebrated as "mixing the colors." A white kid brought to my design class a poster to critique the white band Limp Bizkit. This poster portrayed a figure, presumably frontman Fred Durst, rapping in a dangerous, apocalyptic city. No face was visible in the shadow under the rapper's cap brim, but the hands that were flying were clearly chocolate-brown. I waited for one of my otherwise perceptive students to mention this, especially the African-American or mixed-race ones, but no one did. I wonder whether this lack of response is an indication that race has diminished as a meaningful point of delineation for young people. If race has diminished as a means of separating and segregating youth, by law, custom or self-identification, then perhaps together young people will turn their attention to the separations and conflicts of class barriers.

Besides the South Africans and the Dutch, a hundred miles north of Detroit both farm-town and suburban kids also groove to Eminem. They bring The Marshall Mathers LP CD cover to class, on which Eminem is pictured huddling before a loading dock as if a sleepless homeless person, with a bottle of wine (now empty) for solace. There is a series of pictures in the booklet that comes with the album featuring Eminem wearing an apron as if working in a fast-food restaurant, taking out the garbage and dumpstering the cartons from potatoes that made the fries. He knows this is the working-poor future that would be in store for him had he not acheived success (qua infamy) with his rhymes.

Perhaps the building before which Eminem huddles is one of Detroit's abandoned ones. One might better say that the Motor City is greening, for 20-foot trees are now sprouting from the rooftop trash heaps that crown some abandoned downtown skyscrapers. The growth of these trees is a metaphor for life emerging from the discarded waste, the detritus, the dumpsters of the city. It seems that today this life includes strange hybrids that push the envelope in varying degrees, such as rock/rap hybrids that nevertheless have a history behind them, Detroit history rooting for them. Millions of dollars are being made for media corporations by rappers speaking to unorganized white rage at the globalization juggernaut yet not daring to speak its name. No doubt about it, white Detroit rap is getting paid.

Mike Mosher works the Michigan desk for the Bad Subjects Production Team. Thanks to Arturo Aldama and Megan Shaw for editorial suggestions.

Copyright © 2001 by Mike Mosher. Collage © 2001 by Mike Mosher, with visages from the crowd observing the death of bullfighter Manolete. All rights reserved.