Tracing the lineage of a rapper’s influences is a process almost archeological in nature. Many aspiring rappers draw from those who came before them; as Nas once said, “No Idea’s Original.” Given the decade-spanning scope of his career, listening to early Eminem music is a particularly insightful experience. Day one fans are likely familiar with several key cornerstone moments in Eminem lore, from the backpacking delights of Infinite to his local battle arena “The Shelter.” It’s no secret that Em is a historian of sorts, openly praising his forefathers. Consider his “12 Days Of Diss-Mas,” which centered around some of his formative favorites. No mere wave-hopper would possess such a vast knowledge of the craft and its purveyors.

So what prompted such a stylistic transformation in Eminem’s artistry? To listen to Infinite directly followed by The Slim Shady LP feels like an examination of two separate emcees. As he tells it, the notorious alter-ego was spawned by anger. Upon seeing Infinite neglected by radio stations and listeners wary of a whiteboy rapper, Em’s festering rage reached critical mass. He proceeded to undergo the rare, yet revered “toilet epiphany,” which led to the invention of Slim Shady. “Boom, the name hit me, and right away I thought of all these words to rhyme with it,” he says, in a 1999 interview with Rolling Stone. “So I wiped my ass, got up off the pot and, ah, went and called everybody I knew.”

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Given everything Em experienced during his pre-Interscope come-up, it’s easy to attribute anger as the primary catalyst to Slim Shady’s unholy birth. Still, an early examination of his peers and collaboratives does foreshadow some of the content he’d later come to pen. The Dirty Dozen, who’d later come to be known as D12, had been putting in work before Eminem entered the fold. Mr. Porter and Proof both played a hands-on role in developing the music of Infinite, handling production and drum programming respectively. Yet Em had been collaborating with several Detroit emcees, including Peter S. Bizarre, who seemed fuelled by the same macabre principles as Shady.

Take a look at “Bring Our Boys,” a 1997 D12 cut off the unreleased Underground EP. In his closing lyrics, Bizarre spits “talkin' more shit than Howard Cosell, Butt-fuckin' jezebels in nasty hotels.” A far cry from the Nas-esque lyrical dexterity displayed on Em’s Infinite, but a testament to the company he was keeping. Interestingly enough, both Infinite and The Underground EP were recorded around the same time. And here Em was on D12's "Chance To Advance," trading verses with Bizarre about how he’d “bust a nut and dump that bitch in Lake St. Clair.” Not to mention his first (of what would become a recurring pattern) instance of violently lusting after a female artist on “Take The Whole World With Me.” “Bizarre's in tha lobby with the Beatles, Smokin bowls, pokin holes in his veins with dirty needles,” raps Em. “We get all doped up from poppin' uppers, and run a train on Foxy Brown without rubbers.”

That’s not to say that Em’s Infinite was an exercise in virtue. Songs like “Backstabber” found Eminem weaving tales of hood justice doled out courtesy of a butcher knife. Yet his earlier works lacked the “Grand Guignol” of his later material, which is to say, the sense of relishing in spectacle. That’s not to say Em immersed himself in horrorcore like the Geto Boys before him, but he certainly dipped a toe in the blood-pool. Nor is it to say that Bizarre was a prominent influence, though it is curious to note how Em was seemingly encouraged by Bizzy’s grotesque hedonism. Of course, the Dozen is notoriously dirty, and likeminded individuals like Swift McVay and Kuniva were no strangers to the lewd and crude. Could the increasing proximity to D12 be one of the primary motivators behind Em’s stylistic shift?

Aside from the anger, of course. After all, the Slim Shady EP was the next step after The Underground EP, and marked the most overt display of Slim’s zany brutality. It was there that listeners were introduced to “Just Don’t Give A Fuck” and “Just The Two Of Us,” but once again Em found himself emboldened by his D12 associates. The album’s first song, “No One’s Iller,” features Eminem, Kon Artis, and Kuniva trading verses. For many, this would mark the first recorded reference to Slim Shady, a shocking development to be sure.

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“Warning, this shit's gon' be rated R, restricted, you see this bullet hole in my neck? It's self-inflicted,” raps Em, in his verses’ opening lines. “Doctor slapped my momma, "Bitch, you got a sick kid", arrested, molested myself and got convicted.” Bearing in mind’s Em’s aforementioned throne-epiphany, are we to expect that Em’s deviation into darker, borderline horrorcore content was solely derived from frustration? It’s entirely possible. Yet the presence of gallows humor remains a throughline, and one that speaks to a sense of camaraderie. For all the ills within his life, Em’s support system, be it D12, the Outsidaz, or later, Royce Da 5’9”, served as a constant means to fuel his escapism. It should also be noted that one of his dominant influences, the irreplaceable Redman, had long mastered the art of dark comedy. In that sense, inferring any malice or genuine hatred from his bars is, in itself, an insult to the Slim Shady spirit.

True, the transition into Slim Shady allowed Em to vocalize some of his more primal urges in a sincere, and admittedly disturbing, fashion. “Kim” comes to mind, about as far a cry from Infinite’s lyrical wizardry as they come. Such a performance is viscerally real, and far closer to the anger Em once grappled with than the diabolical whimsy of something like “As The World Turns.” The beauty of Em’s acceptance of the Slim Shady persona is that his creativity was given a wider scope of range. No longer confined to the limitations of bigging up his own rhymes, Em had free reign to depict his childhood and personal life with whatever macabre fantasies of his choosing. With The Slim Shady LP celebrating its twentieth anniversary, it's easy to look back on Slim as a symbiote of sorts, the manifestations of his darker urges. Yet that carefree sense of mischief should never be forgotten, nor should the ones who helped to draw it from the shadows.   

D12 - "No One's Iller"