Eminem performs in June 2000. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
In recent weeks, it’s been hard not to think of N.W.A. As protesters around the globe invoked the phrase “Fuck the Police,” a voice in many of our heads — Ice Cube’s voice, to be precise — would add, “…comin’ straight from the underground.” N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” — or “____ tha Police,” as it was listed on their 1988 debut, Straight Outta Compton — was never technically a hit, but it nonetheless stands as a pop-music bombshell on the order of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” earning the group a rebuke from the FBI and an arrest in Detroit, and hampering their tour plans after police across the country refused to provide security at their concerts.
Things had changed significantly by the time Cube and his fellow N.W.A alums Dr. Dre and MC Ren hit the road with the Up in Smoke Tour, 20 years ago this month. By that point, gangsta was less an assault on systemic injustice and civility than an excuse for spectacle, an arena-sized celebration of raunchy rhymes, ganja smoke and bass-heavy beats. Most of that last component came courtesy of Dre, who, though hardly the strongest rapper on the bill, held the headliner spot by virtue of having produced chart-topping hits and collaborations for his tour mates, among them special guests Nate Dogg, Kurupt and Xzibit.
Onstage that goodtime vibe was central to Up in Smoke, despite the odd arrest in its wake. I reviewed the tour in Baltimore, a little more than halfway through its run, and it weren’t nuthin’ but a party. Ice Cube entered like a James Bond villain, lowered to the stage in a cryonic capsule to the strains of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Later, Dre and Snoop prefaced their set with a mini-movie that saw the two cavorting in a hotel suite full of topless “ho’s” before ending up in a shootout with a stickup crew in a liquor store. Notwithstanding some controversy in Michigan, the clip was more Dolemite than straight-up gangsta. But because it ended with Dre and Snoop walking out onto the stage from the screen, the crowd went wild.
But if Snoop, Dre and Cube spent the tour showing how their gangsta past could be reconfigured as pleasantly transgressive mainstream entertainment, Eminem personified the paradox of hip-hop roleplaying.
When Up in Smoke hit the road, he had just released his second major-label recording, The Marshall Mathers LP, an instant hit whose tracks were full of self-mockery, recrimination and murderous impulses (not to mention “Stan,” the song that gave us the current Internet term for obsessive fandom). Creepier still was the fact that many of the lyrics were tied to actual people from Eminem’s life, particularly his wife, who survived a suicide attempt that July, and his mother. Moreover, the use of his real name in the title — as opposed to the persona introduced on his debut, The Slim Shady LP — made it even harder to parse how much of this was fantasy, and how much desire.