Detroit rapper Eminem is one of the greats. Born in Missouri but raised in Detroit, the skilled emcee went through a lot when he was growing up and was a homeless, destitute battle rapper before he was scooped up by the legendary Death Row co-founder Dr Dre. Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers) lived on the wrong side of 8 Mile—a highway intersecting the city of Detroit. On one side lived the rich suburban community. On the other, the impoverished communities of Detroit’s inner city region.
Although Mathers experienced tribulations growing up, rap was his escape and an outlet for his frustrations. As he got older, the now iconic artist realised it was his calling and, in a bid to showcase his lyrical ability, began battle rapping. Detroit had a thriving underground hip-hop scene in the 1990s, and battle rap events were held at various venues across the city. With large crowds and droves of onlookers cramming themselves into these small venues, these lyrical exchanges were adrenaline-filled and intense. However, Mathers flourished under these conditions.
A multitude of rappers we know today began their careers with battle rapping. Big Boi and Andr 3000 of OutKast met while doing so, and Remy Ma of the Terror Squad made her name in New York by being an annihilating female battle emcee. Before Mathers ever entered a recording studio, considered releasing a project or cared about the art of making a body of work, he was a relentless lyricist. However, he used his abilities while fiercely exchanging verses with his foes and destroying his opponents.
Battle rap was the vehicle Mathers used to create a buzz around his name within his city. Following this, he partnered with the Detroit-based record label Web to release a project. However, he was inexperienced during this period and was still determining how to assemble an album effectively. Knowing he was able to fall back on his talent for battling after the release of his debut album, Infinite in 1996, which received little to no airplay in Detroit, Mathers did precisely that.
The following year, with the knowledge that local fame would not be enough to break through, Mathers took himself to Los Angeles for the Battle Rap Olympics. Here, an Interscope A&R spotted Eminem and asked him if he had a demo. With a cassette at the ready, Mathers gave it to the intern, and within weeks, it was on the desk of Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre. Sieving through demos and magazines to discover a hidden gem. Eminem’s lyricism, tongue-twisting rhymes and abundance of wit immediately perked the Compton native’s ears up, and he speedily signed him to his new label Aftermath Entertainment in 1997.
You can see a 1994 rap battle Mathers participated in in the video below.