Perched in the lofted second floor of a photo studio, Eminem leans over the balustrade to address his longtime manager, Paul Rosenberg, who’s down below, trying out his best angles while having his portrait taken. “Yo, Paul! Can you sign a CD for me when you’re done?” he calls out, face obscured under a baseball cap. “You’ve got the streets on fire right now!”
The room ripples with laughter, and Em disappears back into the loft. It’s January in Detroit — no one’s idea of paradise — but for the 45-year-old MC born Marshall Mathers, the city is home and hideaway: both the place his myth was born, and a shield against the glare of publicity that comes with being one of the most famous rappers on the planet. It was in Detroit where Marshall, as everyone knows him here, met Paul Rosenberg in 1996, when he was an aspiring rapper on the brink of giving up and Rosenberg was a law student with an eye on the music biz. They started working together the following year, and now, over two decades on, they’re back in Detroit with entirely different titles attached to their names: Eminem, top five dead or alive, 15-time Grammy winner and almost certainly the best-selling rapper of all time (47.7 million albums sold in the United States, according to Nielsen Music); Rosenberg, elite music manager, label owner and, as of Jan. 1, the newly-appointed chairman/CEO of Def Jam Recordings.
Three weeks prior, Eminem released his first album in four years, Revival, a mix of self-reflection, schadenfreude and lyrical dexterity that made him the only artist in history to debut eight straight albums at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It also ended his longest break between releases since a prescription pill addiction forced him to take a five-year hiatus at the height of his career, a period that included a 2007 methadone overdose (recounted in the Revival track “Arose”) that nearly killed him. Since his return with 2009’s Relapse and 2010’s Recovery, Eminem has largely chosen to avoid the spotlight, content to be a hip-hop J.D. Salinger penning songs for Holden Caulfield’s Spotify playlist.
That downtime gave Rosenberg, 46, the chance to assess his own career. A bear of a man at 6 feet 6 inches tall, with a calm disposition, he’s a natural storyteller and unassumingly funny, not to mention a scholar of classic hip-hop, punctuating conversations with anecdotes about Duck Down Records and asides on the best Slick Rick song (For Rosenberg, it’s “La Di Da Di” or “Mona Lisa”; Eminem offers “Lick the Balls” or “Children’s Story”). Eminem’s partner in Shady Records, a joint venture with Interscope, Rosenberg began thinking “four or five years ago” about starting a separate label to work with artists who didn’t fit with the Shady brand. He approached Universal Music Group with the idea, but chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge eventually countered with a different one: handing Rosenberg the reins of Def Jam. (Steve Bartels, Def Jam’s CEO since its split with Island in April 2014, stepped down in December 2017.)
“To me, this is an opportunity to do something great in the music that I grew up loving, that I’ve been passionate about since I was 10 years old, and in a lot of ways it’s a dream come true,” says Rosenberg. That dream, he says, will hinge on returning the label to what he sees as its four founding pillars: “originality, authenticity, cutting-edge artists” and “rapper as rock star” branding. “Def Jam is the greatest hip-hop label that has ever existed — I don’t think there’s much argument against that,” he says. “I don’t want anybody to think I want to make it an old-school hip-hop label, because I don’t. I want to follow that blueprint into the future with the kind of artist that exists now.”
Before Rosenberg could focus on his new gig, however, he was back in Detroit to roll out the Eminem album. Revival was greeted on Dec. 15 with familiar criticism of the MC over the strains of misogyny and sexism (or, for some, his political incorrectness) that remain in his lyrics, and equally polarized responses to the scathing attacks — kicked off in October with his explosive BET Hip-Hop Awards freestyle, “The Storm” — on Donald Trump, whose base overlaps with Eminem’s. In response, a number of die hard fans began to turn on the MC, which he addressed in a new verse on Revival track “Chloraseptic” after the album’s release: “Then I took a stand / Went at tan face and practically cut my motherfuckin’ fan base in half / And still outsold you.”
“I know I say a lot of fucked-up shit,” admits Eminem in an earnest moment, sunk into a leather couch with Rosenberg after the photo shoot. “But a lot of shit is said in jest, it’s tongue-in-cheek, and it has always been that way through my whole career — saying shit to get a reaction out of people. It’s my artistic license to express myself. Last time I checked, Trump isn’t an artist and doesn’t have an artistic license. I’m not the fuckin’ president.”
Preoccupied as he may be with Trump, Eminem is eager to give Rosenberg his shine. Sitting down for this interview, he interrupts his manager during a characteristic rumination on the lyricism of KRS-One: “Hey, let me know when you guys want to do an interview. I know it’s your show, but I just want to have your back when we start…”
How would you describe your dynamic?
Paul Rosenberg: I officially started working with him in ’97, so this is the 20th year. It’s 20 years of being in business with each other and being friends.
Eminem: Twenty years of hell. [Laughs.]
Rosenberg: There are moments when it’s extremely serious and intense, and there are other moments where it’s very lighthearted and, dare I say, juvenile.
Eminem: You dare say.
How did you meet?
Rosenberg: When I was in law school in Detroit, I used to go to this place called the Hip-Hop Shop, which was on 7 Mile Road. It was a clothing store that turned into an open-mic, freestyle-battle place on Saturdays. One day [Eminem’s close friend, the late Detroit rapper] Proof pulled me aside and said, “Hey, I want you to stay after open mic today so you can check out my man.” Proof wanted me to check him out because he knew that my goal in law school was to become a music lawyer, and he looked at me as somebody who might be able to help artists in the local community be able to make connections after I had graduated and started a career. So I stayed and he cleared everybody out, and in comes this guy —
Eminem: I had stopped rapping for probably six, seven months. It just felt like it wasn’t really going anywhere. We were living in the attic at Kim’s mom’s house that we had turned into a room. Now, I hadn’t heard from Proof in like three months at this time. I knew he was still doing his thing; I didn’t know to the extreme, that it was to the level it was at. But Proof called me and he was like, “Yo, write something, come here tomorrow and say it, and if you don’t like it you don’t ever have to do it again.” It was like 10 or 15 people. I don’t remember meeting you that day.
Rosenberg: I remember you showed up with Kim [Mathers, now Scott, Eminem’s ex-wife]. You were wearing this white sweatsuit.
Eminem: Yeah, that I always wore. [Laughs.] I rapped and I got a good reaction, and from that point I just started writing again.
Rosenberg: Then a few months later, you put out [independent debut] Infinite, which I bought from you for, like, six bucks on cassette. And that’s how we met.
What led to you guys working together?
Rosenberg: I thought he was really talented, but at that point he hadn’t figured out who he was yet as an artist. He was trying to sound like other people, like Nas —
Eminem: I wasn’t trying to sound like other people — I just kinda did. [Laughs.] I was a cross between AZ, Nas, Souls of Mischief, Redman, all the great hip-hop that was out at the time.
Rosenberg: I moved to New York and started studying for the bar [exam] and stayed in touch with everybody from the music scene in Detroit. At one point, [a friend] hit me up and said, “You got to check out the new stuff Eminem’s doing.” So I got his number, called him up and [asked him to] send it to me. I got the cassette, listened to it and I was really blown away. I realized that he had found his voice; he stopped being so self-aware and self-conscious about what he was saying and how he was saying it and just sounded like somebody, for lack of a better description, who didn’t give a fuck. And it really came across in the music. So I called him up and [asked] if I could represent him. That’s how it started; I was his music attorney.
Eminem: And then I would make trips back and forth with friends to New York.
Rosenberg: Yeah, and that’s how the friendship started to grow. Neither of us had any money, so he would literally sleep on my couch and we just figured it out. And when you say we pounded the pavement, we literally pounded the pavement, because again, you couldn’t send stuff electronically. I had to literally go to clubs with an armful of records and hand them to DJs and get in front of Stretch Armstrong and Tony Touch and Clark Kent like, “Hey, I’m Paul, I want you to check out Eminem.” And to this day, I’ve got relationships with these guys, and I met them from handing them records. I don’t want to sound like the old guy reminiscing and being nostalgic, but that face time, that human connection, it’s difficult to replace. And I think there’s value in that, and we miss that today.
What stories from back then stick out now?
Eminem: I remember I was recording with The Outsidaz, just writing rhymes. They were in The Fugees‘ video for “Cowboys” and stuff like that, so they were starting to get a really big buzz. And they let me open up with them for a Wu-Tang [Clan] show —
Rosenberg: It was in Staten Island at Park Hill Day in the Park Hill Projects — they had it every summer. The Outsidaz performed, and then when Wu-Tang came on a huge fight broke out, and Method Man jumped down from the speakers into the crowd. I think somebody shot a gun in the air and a stampede started; Marshall looked at me, I looked at him, and one of us screamed, “Run!” [Both laugh.] There was another time where I was living in Jersey City [N.J.] and I had a bunch of roommates, but we had a loft area in the apartment where I had a couch and a TV set up, and that’s where Marshall would sleep.
Eminem: You had cockroaches the size of fucking mice. I slept in that one room where the mattress was on the floor, and I woke up in the morning and I heard the roach before I fucking saw it! I never saw a roach that fucking big in my life. It was like a human. And when I stepped on it, it fucking screamed. [Laughs.] It was like, “Ahh! You killed me! Staaahp!”
Rosenberg: That was at my apartment in Queens — those were New York roaches, they were way tougher. [Laughs.] But I’m talking about after that. This was a little bit nicer; I still had four roommates, but there weren’t roaches, and it was in Jersey City. [The Slim Shady LP] was about to come out, and we had just finished shooting the “My Name Is” video — still broke, still sleeping on the couch. We had MTV on, and they played the video. That was the first time we had seen him on TV. We thought that was it: “Oh, my God, we’re out of here.”
Eminem: I don’t know if I thought that, but I for sure thought, “This is really happening?” It was so surreal that I was just in a haze the whole time. I think we walked down to that pier or some shit just bugging out, just like, “I can’t even believe…” It had almost happened for me so many times by that point that it was almost like, “This has got to be too good to be true.”
Was there a moment when you realized you actually had made it? Is that even a feeling?
Eminem: I mean, shit… When we went to the Interscope office and [Dr.] Dre walked in, that was crazy. When I was rapping at Dre’s house, the studio he had at his house, the first day we made three or four songs in a couple hours. You know, it was one of those things where I tried not to get my hopes up just to get let down again, or jinx it or something. So I don’t know. I don’t know what that moment would have been —
Rosenberg: It’s hard to pinpoint. I think it’s a series of events where you see these highlights: sign the deal, go to L.A. to work with Dre, Snoop‘s in the studio, hand in records, video on MTV, cover of Rolling Stone, going on tour, TRL —
Eminem: I remember, I had just signed a deal and we were going back and forth to L.A., and my mother had this trailer [in Detroit]. People knew that I was in that trailer, because I would play basketball at the park [nearby]. But when they put two and two together, it just became knocking on the door constantly. It was right after the video came out. And I was getting mad. [Laughs.] Like, “Aw, fuck. I guess this is happening.”
How has your friendship evolved?
Eminem: I just hate him more. [Rosenberg laughs.] We’ve been through a lot of shit, ups and downs — album releases, my overdosing…
Rosenberg: Beefs, lives and deaths. Usually he gets mad because I’ll pick apart his lyrics after the fact, and he’ll be like, “Oh, great, now you tell me?”
Eminem: On The Marshall Mathers LP, on a song called “Who Knew,” I said, “So who’s bringing the guns in this country? / I couldn’t sneak a plastic pellet gun through customs over in London.” What I meant was, who’s bringing the illegal guns in the country. This is like fuckin’ five years later, he quotes the line — “So who’s bringing the guns in this country?” — and then, his ad-lib: “They make them here!” [Laughs.] I’m like, really? You didn’t tell me that at the time? Thanks! He dissects and picks apart my shit all the time. Just like the rest of the world.
Rosenberg: I like messing with you on that stuff. I can be fairly critical. What’s your favorite thing to make fun of me about? “Oh look at me, Mr. Big Shot Manager”?
Eminem: Well, now you’re fuckin’ blowin’ up. Hey — don’t forget the little people on your way up to the top.
Rosenberg: You’ll always be the little guy to me.
I want to talk about the album. When did the concept of “revival” come into play?
Rosenberg: There was a song that had been submitted to Marshall that had a really incredible, haunting chorus with a really sticky melody to it, and we always held onto it because it stuck in our heads. And a few years later, when we were going through tracks for this album, we came upon it again and Marshall said, “You know what? I’m gonna try to write something to this.” And somewhere along the way, I had found out that the woman who performed on the chorus, who we didn’t know, had passed away during this time period. Her group name was Alice and the Glass Lake. [Alicia Lemke died in 2015 of acute myeloid leukemia at age 28.] So Marshall had said that maybe we should do something with this, and given the songs that he had at that time, it felt like maybe it was a theme that could sort of thread things together. The song was called “Our Revival.”
Paul, how involved are you in the album process?
Rosenberg: I don’t typically go in the studio until there’s a reason for me to go in there. But, throughout the process, when Marshall gets to a place where he’s comfortable playing something for me, he’ll play it for me. But he’ll do the same thing for Rick Rubin, and the same thing for Dr. Dre, and some of the people at Interscope at times. We all sort of give our feedback and say what we like and don’t like.
Eminem: Paul always tells me what I don’t want to hear. But I gotta respect it, because it’s not an easy job. When there’s things that I may go too far on, whatever it is, he’s the guy who’s there to give me the truth. Usually, when we put our heads together and we agree on something, that’s when we feel that something’s ready to come out.
I want to talk about lyrics, but I want to first start by talking about politics. Where were you guys on election night?
Eminem: Watching the TV in fucking disbelief. I was in my basement, on the phone back and forth with friends like, “He’s going to fucking win.”
Rosenberg: I saw the results coming in early in the day and I was hopeful. [But] I thought Trump was gonna win. There was a lot of voter apathy, and it was not good. That made me really feel like people weren’t gonna turn out enough.
Eminem: I called it just from the rallies he was having when he first started running. Because just watching the impact he has, they were fanatics. There is something to be said about the person who really felt like he might do something for them — and he just fucking duped everybody. I know that Hillary [Clinton] had her flaws, but you know what? Anything would have been better [than Trump]. A fucking turd would have been better as a president. When I [put out “The Storm”], I felt that everybody who was with him at that point doesn’t like my music anyway. I get the comparison with the non-political-correctness, but other than that, we’re polar opposites. He made these people feel like he was really going to do something for them. It’s just so fucking disgusting how divisive his language is, the rhetoric, the Charlottesville shit, just watching it going, “I can’t believe he’s saying this.” When he was talking about John McCain, I thought he was done. You’re fucking with military veterans, you’re talking about a military war hero who was captured and tortured. It just didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. And that’s some scary shit to me.
Were you surprised by the reaction to “The Storm”?
Eminem: Yes and no. I knew it would get a reaction, obviously; that’s what I rap to do. But where I was coming from in that cypher was a genuine place in my heart. I [hesitate] to say [I have] hatred in my heart for him, but it’s serious contempt. I do not like the guy.
Rosenberg: When I heard it, I knew that there were going to be mixed opinions. But that’s what I’m in it for: to get reactions from people through art. I’d rather something was polarizing than people not caring about it.
After you put out “The Storm,” there was some backlash from a section of your fanbase who were Trump supporters; you addressed that with the remix of “Chloraseptic” that you just put out. Was there any consideration about holding back from going after Trump on the album, knowing you might lose fans in the process?
Eminem: At the end of the day, if I did lose half my fan base, then so be it, because I feel like I stood up for what was right and I’m on the right side of this. I don’t see how somebody could be middle class, busting their ass every single day, paycheck to paycheck, who thinks that that fucking billionaire is gonna help you.
When you put the album out, how were you feeling? Were you going on Twitter to check the reaction?
Eminem: I mean, I’m not doing that.
No secret Twitter account?
Eminem: Yeah, right. [Laughs.]
Rosenberg: There’s gotta be some anxiety, right?
Eminem: You get all kinds of feelings. I think that there are things that we learn from each album, and I think there’s things to be taken away from this album and the reaction to it. Were there too many songs? Were there too many features? There were certain songs like “Tragic Endings” and “Need Me” where I felt like lyrically they would give the listener a second to breathe. I spend a lot of time writing shit that I think nobody ever gets. I don’t know if everybody goes on Genius and tries to look up meanings.
Paul, you’re taking over Def Jam. What does that mean for Shady Records?
Rosenberg: The thing about Shady Records is that it’s Marshall’s brand in a lot of ways. The stuff that we sign and release has to fit within his world. It was never meant to be anything more than a boutique label, which is why we always kept it small. As long as Marshall wants to sign and develop talent and release it, then Shady is going to exist.
Marshall, how do you find new artists? Are you streaming?
Rosenberg: He’s got an iPad these days.
Eminem: I always look at what the climate is.
Rosenberg: He puts me up on stuff sometimes that I hadn’t heard about. I hadn’t heard the “Man’s Not Hot” record [by Big Shaq] until he told me about it —
Eminem: It’s fuckin’ great. I’m always looking at what everybody’s doing. I would consider myself a lot more in tune that a lot of people think that I am.
With streaming, it seems like the bar to become a successful rapper has been lowered. Do you agree?
Eminem: It depends. I think rappers like J. Cole and Kendrick [Lamar] and Joyner Lucas rap to be the best rapper. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. Some people might not care to be the best and just know how to make good songs, and some people make wack songs. [Laughs.] Hip-hop is always evolving, though, and that to me is the most important thing about staying in tune with what is going on.
Rosenberg: I think it’s not so much the quality has gone down as the fact that this access to be able to post your music for the world to see and hear immediately has removed the barrier to entry. So you’re able to post things that, maybe earlier on, you wouldn’t have had the ability to get people to hear because it probably wasn’t good enough.
Eminem: The market is so oversaturated right now that it has shortened the life span of records; it’s here for a day, then it’s gone. You wake up and people are like, “Alright, what are you going to put out now?” What do you think, I made my album last night?
What are your goals this year?
Rosenberg: I have to figure out how to balance my job as a manager, my role with Marshall at Shady and the huge responsibility of Def Jam. If I figure out that balance, I think everything would be fine, because I’m confident that I can do the job. I just have to find the right mix of time, energy and focus to be able to do it all and still be a human and have a family.
Eminem: I don’t know what that answer is for me right now. I’m still in writer mode.