Will the real King - please stand up?

Eminem's parallels to Elvis aren't enough to make him royalty

August 14, 2002|By Glenn Gamboa | Glenn Gamboa,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There is only one Elvis Presley - although, since the passing of The King, many have laid claim to his pop-culture throne.

The latest entrant is bad-boy rapper Eminem. On his current album, The Eminem Show, he lays out his case: "No, I'm not the first king of controversy/I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley to do black music so selfishly/and use it to get myself wealthy," he raps in his hit "Without Me." In his manifesto "White America," he says, "Look at my sales/Let's do the math/If I was black, I woulda sold half."

As Presley did more than four decades ago, Eminem has stirred up his share of controversy, though the "Elvis the Pelvis" brouhaha seems tame compared with the murderous fantasies and politically incorrect slurs of Eminem's lyrics.

Like Presley, Eminem is a white artist from a working-class family who took a predominantly black music to the mainstream and received more success than the black artists who came before him. They also both owe their initial breaks to ambitious svengalis who were looking to put white faces on black music - Presley's producer Sam Phillips and Eminem's black, hit-making mentor, Dr. Dre.

The similarities are enough for many in the industry to take notice, though similar talk swirled around Vanilla Ice when he first appeared on the scene.

"Eminem is the new Elvis because, No. 1, he had the respect for black music that Elvis had," says Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. "One thing I'll say about Eminem, he's very witty, very sharp, very much respectful of stepping on toes in black music. He'll take being called Elvis. He's smart and Elvis was smart. Beyond everything, I think he's courteous and sympathetic to black music, and, unfortunately, he's more sympathetic to black music than many black artists themselves."

But not everyone is sold on the idea. "It's tempting to look at the similarities," says Murray Forman, professor of communications and cultural studies at Northeastern University. "But I don't see Eminem in that framework whatsoever. He is not opening the field or the industry to whites. He's not in some sort of vanguard. He is an original, and he has been given enough room to be the star that he is, helped by Dr. Dre's acceptance. But anyone who thinks he is on the same level as Elvis Presley is operating under a misunderstanding of Elvis' role and status."

Forman says the two are stars on different scales. "While rap is wildly successful, it's not the music of an entire generation," he says. "It may be the music of the entire black youth generation, but that does not match the across-the-board resonance Elvis and rock `n' roll had in the `50s."

Audiences don't swoon at Eminem concerts the way they did in the early days of Presley's rise, and Forman says the bond between the rapper and his friends may not be as deep. Forman, author of the recent book The Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip Hop, which examines the role that location plays in rap, predicts that Eminem will never match Elvis' status.

"For all the claims he might make, he's not going to have the international impact that rappers like N.W.A. or Public Enemy had in other countries, where the gangsta posture or the posture of resistance is much more popular," Forman says. "It is important to think about his position in the pantheon of artists. If you talk about him in purely racial terms, he is alone. But when you consider what his role is, what his brand is, he is really an angry rapper, and that is not that unique. He makes some very lofty claims, but he can't back that up."

Glenn Gamboa is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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