Eminem's song Lose Yourself is pumping out of the stereo speakers on the balcony of Jimmy Iovine's Santa Monica, Calif., office as the music mogul calls an assistant to track down American Skin. Iovine says the new book by Leon E. Wynter and its race analysis resonate in the rapper's new movie, 8 Mile.
American Skin says the nation's melting pot is now on high simmer because of cultural forces, among them the brawn of rap in art and commerce. The book predicts "white culture" will soon be as meaningful to young people as a typewriter repair manual. Iovine, co-chairman of Interscope Records _ the label for Eminem's three albums _ and an executive producer of 8 Mile, wanted to see that on film.
Eminem's ascension began in earnest when an Interscope intern handed Iovine an amateur recording of the Detroit rhymer and Iovine passed it on to Dr. Dre. Iovine knows that this new chapter in Eminem's career will only enhance the rapper's value to Interscope (career artists and multimedia stars are a desperately sought tonic in the ailing music industry) but he says 8 Mile also has cultural insight.
Rappers have become movie stars, but rap in film is most often a soundtrack for urban comedy and crime. 8 Mile seeks rap truth, Iovine says. "The power of hip-hop is in these race changes, and you see these changes beginning in the 1990s with the kids in this movie," Iovine says. "It's about class, not race, and hip-hop is one of the reasons."
Eminem's character, Rabbit, is well aware of race and class in 8 Mile. In a clever word concoction, Rabbit's crew is called Three-One-Third. The reference is to Detroit's 313 area code but also to the crew's membership: Three blacks and Rabbit, who is the one-third _ it's a sly joke on the 19th century legal view that blacks counted as "one-third" of a white person. In late 20th century Detroit, Rabbit is the fraction.
"The whole film made me strip my ego back down to the guy I was in '95," Eminem says. "Everything from the schooling in acting to the broke world that Jimmy lived in was strange. It brought me back to actually feeling like the guy I was."
When Rabbit finally wins over the black crowd at the Shelter club battles, it's by showing that he is closer to them, in class status and life experience, than some of the black kids under the same roof. There is a metaphor there for Eminem's success. He is the first white artist to become an airplay staple on urban radio with predominantly black audiences.
"That is what the film is about, that is what hip-hop is about, and that is why Eminem is who and what he is today," Iovine says. "This movie is about Detroit, but what happened there is happening everywhere."