“I wanted fame, but not the cover of Newsweek,” Eminem raps on his new collaboration with Rihanna “The Monster,” a learned dissertation on the perils of public adulation. But back in the fall of 2000, as the nation was choosing a new president, Eminem had both. Soon enough, Newsweek’s cover would be dominated by Bush and Gore and hanging chads, but the October 9 issue shows Dr. Dre and Eminem and many of the blingy vestments of late 1990’s gangsta rap. The cover line: “The Rap on Rap: Eminem, Dr. Dre & the Stars of Hip-Hop Face Off Over Sex, Greed & Violence in Today’s Hit Music.”
David Barry, the New York City photographer who shot Eminem and Dre for the cover, tells Newsweek that the pair were not abducted and forced to participate in the shoot. The session, in a South Beach hotel room, was scheduled for 10 p.m. but wound up taking place at 2 a.m, and lasted just 15 minutes, he says, adding that Eminem and Dre were “very friendly,” but exhausted from traveling. Asked about Eminem’s latest lyric, he says: “I’m not familiar with it, or anything by Eminem or Rihanna.”
By the time the duo appeared on our cover, the war over gangsta rap had been fought for well over a decade, at least since N.W.A.’s 1988 “F*** Tha Police.” In 1994, the NAACP condemned rap for "the words, lyrics and images that degrade, disrespect and denigrate African-American women with obscenities and vulgarities of the vilest nature." Eminem wasn’t the first white rapper, but he was the first white gangsta rapper. Scratch that – he was the first white gangsta rapper to sell millions of records, starting with spring 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, which included the songs “Kill You,” “Drug Ballad” and “Bitch Please II.”
The accompanying Newsweek article is titled “Battle for the Soul of Hip-Hop,” and opens with a quote from Brooklyn-born Mos Def, who says “The new trend today is depravity” – not just in rap, but in the culture at large, awash in sex and violence. Remember, this was an America fresh off Columbine, still hungover from "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." The Unabomber (caught in 1996) and Oklahoma City (bombed in 1995) were not such distant memories, either.
The article treats rap as a Manichean struggle between socially-conscious rappers like Common and unapologetically tough personas like Ja Rule, who told Newsweek, “What else can you rap about but money, sex, murder, or pimping? There isn’t a whole lot else going on in our world.” (Ja Rule was recently released from prison after doing time for failing to pay his taxes.)
There are so many rappers quoted in the article that Eminem – then 26 – is not all that prominent, though the writers note that he is “disappointed at the prevailing mediocrity [of the rap scene] – and nostalgic for the old days.”
The Marshall Mathers LP was a huge hit for Eminem, and he dominated the charts for a couple of years before hitting a rough patch personally and professionally, to which he seemingly alludes in “The Monster”: “I'm beginning to lose sleep: one sheep, two sheep / Going cuckoo and cooky as Kool Keith.” He got hooked on pills and, in 2005, was hospitalized “for addiction to sleep medication,” according to a report in Rolling Stone. In a recent documentary, Eminem says, “My organs were shutting down. My liver, kidneys, everything. . . . They didn't think I was going to make it. My bottom was going to be death."
There is no hint of that vulnerability on his Newsweek cover from 13 years ago. Hands behind his back, head cocked back, Eminem looks placidly threatening, the swagger apparent on both his and Dre’s face.
The rest of that issue was concerned with the abortion debate, the intractable Middle East and the love-life of Jennifer Aniston. Some things have changed. Others have not.
Additional reporting by Victoria Bekiempis.