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Old School Archives

The freestyle that got Eminem signed by Dr. Dre

Few partnerships are as lucrative in the hip-hop world as the duo of Dr Dre and Eminem. The Compton producer and legend gave a young white kid from Detroit a shot at the big time, and he took it.

Eminem knows what it’s like to be an underdog — he grew up in abject poverty, fell into addiction, and struggled against a tide of hood life. But the microphone would offer him his way out of dire straits. Yet, talent doesn’t always mean that it would be a straightforward ride, most artists struggle for years trying to make their name and the majority fail. For Em, one freestyle would prove to be some of the most important bars the rapper would ever spit.

Hip-hop provided Marshall Mathers with a source of solace. When he was rapping, all his troubles momentarily flew away as he slipped into his Slim Shady alter-ego. It provided Eminem with a vehicle to plough all his pent up anger into, unleashing a style and a rapid flow that still beggars belief.

His big break came in 1997 when he made an appearance at the Rap Olympics. Although he finished second, in the long run, Eminem proved to be the real winner. In a fortuitous slice of luck, an intern from Interscope Records was in attendance and immediately knew that Shady was destined for greatness.

Following the performance, the intern passed it on to the label’s head honcho Jimmy Iovine, who was in total awe. “I heard something in the kid who gave it to me,” Dre’s partner in crime, Jimmy Iovine, told Rolling Stone. “He was 19, an intern.” 

“He said, ‘I heard a tape on the street, at this rap­athon.’ I said, ‘Tell you what – people helped me a lot when I was your age. I’m gonna do something for you. Bring me the CD, and I’ll play it to Dre. I trust you enough.’ It was a combination of the kid and what I heard. And it all came together. But that’s producing.

“I put him with Dre. I listen to music in my gym. Dre came by. I said, ‘Before you leave, take this. It’s a white rapper who sounds like his pants are on fire. He’s one pissed-off white guy.’ He says, ‘OK, I’ll check it out.’ — Dre says about six words a day. He calls me when he gets home: ‘Have this kid out here on Monday.'”

Shady was then asked to perform a freestyle on San Francisco’s KMEL 106 FM following the rap battle as his stock continued to climb. It had helped to break hip hop careers in the city across the ’90s and had garnered a strong reputation. If you could do it on this stage, you weren’t to be underestimated. 

After hearing the tape, Dre had an incessant urge to hear more from Eminem and tuned into the freestyle to see whether he was the real deal or if he’d flop. Unsurprisingly, he spat pure fire down the airwaves leading the former NWA leader to realise he had a star on his hands.