A look at Eminem Inc.

Richard Abowitz

All things considered, the past few months have been fairly mellow in Eminem's world: his mom (who has sued him for his lyrics about her) was carjacked on the very road made famous by his film 8 Mile, his ex-wife was thrown in jail on drug charges, his publishing company sued Apple for copyright infringement, the Secret Service looked into some of his lyrics, which threatened the life of the president, and The Source released a track of Eminem directing racial barbs at black girls.

I may have missed a few things, but compared to a few years ago—when Eminem was arrested, then placed on probation for gun charges, was going through a very messy on again-off-again divorce, terrorizing Moby while dating Mariah, not to mention being embroiled in a bevy of lawsuits while, at the same time, his music was being denounced by everyone from gay and feminist activists to Lynne Cheney—nowadays things are pretty placid. And that means that even in the post-Janet Jackson age, it is time for Slim Shady, the scourge of middle-American parents, to be courting the corporate bucks based on his ability to reach their kids. In other words, business as usual.

While it certainly got noticed, Eminem's appearance—MTV documentary camera crew in tow—at the MAGIC fashion-retailers convention for a surprise concert last week did not come close to making headlines. Of course, it wasn't much of a surprise, either. Eminem has his own line of urban wear, Shady Ltd., and the concert was being used to draw people into a party promoting it. So it made complete sense for Eminem to whore himself a bit for the entertainment of the chain-store buyers of the world. And it wasn't just the folks from the anchor stores in malls who knew he was coming. "My kids told me the one thing I had to do while I was in Las Vegas was to see Eminem," the middle-aged owner of a clothing store in Canada told me.

I asked her about the Shady Ltd. line.

"It is very good quality," she said, "and it always sells out. But it is overpriced, far beyond what a 13-16 year old can afford, and that is who is buying it. So we have to keep it all tied down in the store. I have leather jackets in my store that cost three times as much, and they are just sitting out, but the Shady line just vanishes out the door the minute no one is looking unless I tie it down. He should make it more affordable. A guy like that who comes from the streets should think about his fans."

I asked her how much she knew about Eminem's background. "Nothing," she admitted. "I just assume because it is urban wear."

Onstage, Eminem is fascinating to watch. He is a good showman and works the entire stage and he has undeniable charisma. He can even demonstrate (as he did on a new song spiked with choreographed boy band moves) the self-effacing humor that makes him so hard to slam in his various rap battles. Whatever you want to hit Eminem for, he's already mocked himself for it, probably twice. Still, it is hard to age gracefully in hip hop, and Eminem's idea of keeping it real has this 31-year-old dude still grabbing at his pee-pee and behaving like a juvenile delinquent on stage, as when pushing rapper Bizarre, from the band D-12, to drain a 40:

"So, Vegas, I'm going to let you in on a secret. You all know who Bizarre is, right? All right, I want to tell you something. Bizarre is f--ked up. Bizarre does all kinds of other shit, but ladies and gentleman, Bizarre does not drink liquor or beer or alcohol at all. But tonight, what we are going to try to do is get Bizarre to get f--ked up on some alcohol. How many people in Vegas tonight wanna see Bizarre drink a motherf--kin' 40 of beer?"

Bizarre—an extremely obese man who appeared on stage shirtless and wearing a pink shower cap—managed to only get a tiny bit of the beer down. Still, based on Bizarre's raps about drug abuse and sexual depravity, Eminem was telling the truth about the man having plenty of issues already, without picking up this fresh vice.

Musically, the one-hour show was not very good, though few in the audience seemed to care, including me. Eminem is all about presence. The bass wash made it hard to even recognize familiar songs like "Stan" and "The Way I Am." Still, you didn't have to hear the music to see how adept Eminem has become at marketing himself: He was garbed head to toe in Shady Ltd. (with the exception of some Calvin Klein briefs that kept creeping above his Shady Ltd. sweatpants). Like Elvis flicking sweaty towels to the fans, Eminem kept tossing off his branded garments. A shirt headed in my direction and I dodged—pointlessly, of course, because hands snatched it out of the air long before it reached me. I wanted him to throw his gold plated dog tags my way.

Of course, that didn't happen. Eminem is no fool, and he gave away nothing except sample merchandise. As one guy in the audience kept yelling in my ear, "I hate this music, but you got to respect him as a businessman." And it is true that in the middle of a music industry depression that has pushed much of the business to near extinction, Eminem's various enterprises are thriving.

After the concert, gift bags were handed out to the buyers. Many grabbed handfuls. It was a frenzy. Mine had an airline-size bottle of tequila and a Shady Ltd. T-shirt, size XXXL—a mere $34, according to the price tag that was distinctly not clipped. I swam in it to work the next day (it reaches my knees) and tried to tell my coworkers that I was the real Slim Shady and the other one was just imitating. No one was fooled; it takes more than a heavily logoed shirt—an imitation scarlet letter, tradmarked, of course—to be the King of Controversy.

Of course, Eminem is very good at convincing kids that there is value in looking his part. As for their parents, well, a few I know have asked me if they could have my shirt for their little one. Sure I say, but first let me loan you one of my Eminem discs. So far I still have the shirt.

Contributing editor Richard Abowitz covers entertainment for the Weekly.

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