Crowning Achievement: Being the best-selling artist of the decade, having two diamond albums.
Royal Court: Royce Da 5'9, Big Sean, Danny Brown, Doughboyz Cashout
The King of Detroit rap isn’t even from Detroit—but with the way he has represented the city on the main stage, his crown is undisputed. Eminem grew up in Warren, Michigan, but he earned his battling stripes on West 7 Mile Road, at The Hip Hop Shop, the same place where many of Detroit’s rap elite honed their skills before him. The bars he sharpened in Detroit impressed rap legend Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine enough to bring him into the Interscope/Aftermath fold.
Early on, Eminem’s musical relationship with Detroit was more multifaceted than other cities’ kings. His Slim Shady LP major debut told sobering tales of poverty and Marshall Mathers LP referenced the city’s horrific violence on “Amityville,” but there was still a disconnect. Detroiters were proud to have an artist on the national stage, but Eminem didn’t look like a Detroiter—technically, he wasn’t one, anyway. Plus, the poppy, cartoonish tales of recreational drug use (aside from weed) and rape weren’t a common ground for Detroit’s grit and earthiness.
Then, in November 2002, Eminem starred in 8 Mile—a film that gave a worldwide glimpse into Detroit. The film had embellishments, but for the first time, the world saw parts of the Detroit experience: the blue collar workers at auto plants, the city’s storied rap venue The Shelter, and even exposure to underground emcees like Miz Korona and Strike. Eminem wasn’t Detroit’s first choice for a spokesperson, but from then on, he was recognized as such, and he took the role seriously.
Since then, Eminem has continued to invest in the city that made him, visibly and silently. Publicly, he uses his celebrity to bring spotlight to the likes of Detroit car company Chrysler in a Super Bowl commercial with his classic song “Lose Yourself,” and Detroit area clothing boutique Burn Rubber with an online reality show.
Musically, his royalty remains. His last record, Recovery, had the highest-selling single of his career with “Not Afraid,” and with 4 million copies of the album sold in the U.S., his national sales supremacy remains intact. For a look at his local respect, check his proximity to Detroit royalty. He reunited with his old rhyme partner Royce Da 5’9 (a King of Detroit candidate in his own right) as the duo Bad Meets Evil for the gold-selling Hell: The Sequel, and his manager Paul Rosenberg’s Goliath Management is helping direct Danny Brown’s growing career. Detroit's rising star Big Sean added recording a song with Eminem to his bucket-list, which he accomplished this year. And this week, Eminem announced a new album, executive produced by Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin—clout that no other rhyme slingers from Detroit can claim. Birthplace or not, Eminem is Detroit’s spokesperson, and when he talks, the world—and the city—listens.
Detroit has a strong rap legacy anchored by prime and posthumous impacts of Awesome Dre and fallen legends J Dilla, Proof, and Blade Icewood, but it’s still a fickle rap city. As a result, many of Detroit’s future kings are finding success in different ways.
Big Sean used weekly radio battles to hustle his way into meeting Kanye West, and after Danny Brown paid underground dues, he used a Japanese-inspired haircut to earn the clout necessary to bring Detroit-specific tales like “Cartiers” and “Scrap Or Die” to a worldwide audience. Doughboyz Cashout earned the respect of Detroit’s west side before landing a deal with Young Jeezy’s CTE Records, while Elzhi finally garnered respect by reworking Nas’ Illmatic into a fresh new project that represents his hometown. Black Milk later established himself as one of the industry’s most reputable rapper/producers.
Many of these acts may have preferred different routes to success, but when the opportunity is there, you have to take it—and that’s what Detroit, and its rap scene, are all about. —William Ketchum