8 Mile High

Unknown rappers get to face off with Eminem.

For a movie about a word-drunk rapper, 8 Mile takes surprisingly little pleasure in words themselves. It’s pretty much a formula flick with slick production values, and only Eminem’s star power and Curtis Hanson’s direction save it. In fact, when it comes to words, 8 Mile can be downright puerile. Take, for instance, the scene in which Eminem’s character, Jimmy Rabbit, defends a gay man’s honor: “Why you messing with the gay guy, G?” he raps. “You’re the one with H.I.V.”

Eminem unplugged So, it was with some relief that I slipped the new 8 Mile DVD into my player and found that one of the extras was a featurette showing Eminem in a series of spontaneous, real-life rap battles—a rare chance to see rap’s great white hope flip the script, unscripted. (If you don’t know what a rap battle is, click on the video clip to hear Hanson’s explanation.) As it turns out, the bonus footage proves that Eminem is in many ways a better rapper than 8 Mile makes him out to be.

First, a little background: The 350 extras in 8 Mile’s climactic battle sequence, which is set in a Detroit club called the Shelter, were drawn from real Detroit clubs. “They worked long days,” Hanson explains in the featurette. “Often 12 to 14 hours standing inside a stuffy, tight, smoky space, wearing their winter parkas, yelling taunts at the rappers.” By the third day the extras are fed up with the heat, the boredom, the direction, and the incessant delays. To pass the time, a few of them launch into some impromptu rap battles of their own. And here, Hanson—who looks like he’d be more comfortable teaching math than dropping science—has a brainstorm.

“I announced that we would be having a contest,” he says, “to battle Eminem in an unscripted sequence that might prove valuable to editing the film.” Hanson asks the extras “how many of them felt, in their heart of hearts, that they had the rhyme and flow sufficient to get up on the stage and compete.” To his astonishment, 134 sign up. What follows is a frantic rap-off, with the aspiring artists taking 15 seconds each to strut their stuff in front of Eminem’s manager, 8 Mile’s executive producer, and a rapper named Craig G.

A fast dope rapper Most of what we see is about as good as a Gong Show outtakes reel, but Super MC, Jasmine “Nina da Pimp” Thompson, and 18 others are good enough to make the first cut. The second round is judged by Hanson and the audience members, who are told to evaluate the contestants “the way you would if you were at a battle” (which, in fact, they are). The third is shot on film, looks exactly like the battle sequence from 8 Mile, and pits the finalists against Eminem himself. And guess what: Even the second-round amateurs aren’t half-bad. Take the mountainous Maurice Grant, who deserves a record contract for his fast and furious speed-rapping. (I counted 27 words in one five-second burst, plus or minus a few syllables. Watch a bit of him by clicking on the video clip.) Or take “Fat Killer” Marvin O’Neill, who kicks it all off with a deft rap that takes Detroit’s disabled into account:

This heavyweight nigga that’s tippin’ the scales
For the visually impaired, I spit it in braille
For the hearing impaired, I spit rhymes in sign language
So you all can die in anguish
The invincible, lyrically indispensable
Off a fifth of gin or two I be showin’ my genitals

Future’s lame rap Those rhymes may not rate with, say, Jay-Z, but they’re no worse than 8 Mile’ s scripted “freestyles.” Compare them to the tortured rap by Future, played in the movie by Mekhi Phifer. (Listen to Phifer in the video clip at left.)        

And the insults Detroit’s real-life rappers hurl at Eminem are actually harsher, and funnier, than what he’s subjected to in the film. 8 Mile’s heavies—the Leaders of the Free World crew, headed, hilariously, by a rapper named Papa Doc—rhyme “Rabbit” with “faggot” and compare him to Elvis, Hitler, and Vanilla Ice. In the featurette, on the other hand, an unknown named Cricket compares Eminem to “a jar of mayonnaise.” Super MC is equally inventive: “Trailer trash,” he raps. “How you get whitey to battle the savior?/ Yo, that’s like Darth Vader battling Opie Taylor.”

A mute Marshall Mathers Good stuff! Unfortunately, Eminem’s hands are tied: Three days into shooting the Shelter battle, he’s starting to lose his voice, and the director asks him to pantomime his performance when he faces off with the finalists. Eminem does this rather well, but the extras know that his is a half-assed effort, and by the second battle, with “Fat Killer” Marvin O’Neill, they’ve begun to jeer and taunt him. Unlike Rabbit, who chokes in 8 Mile’s opening scene, Eminem can’t hold himself back. “Hold on, faggot,” he replies. “Let me turn this mic on.” And then he launches into an inspired attack (which you can watch on the video clip at left).

This is Eminem at the top of his game. It’s funnier, more offensive, and, strange to say, sweeter than Rabbit ever gets to be—and it wins the crowd over. It’s also more entertaining than 8 Mile itself, where the high-humor mark involves Rabbit and Future improvising infantile lyrics to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The quality drops off somewhat in the last two battles, in which Eminem “defeats” Maurice Grant with a lame rap that begins with “Yo/ I’m from the mo’/ You in Detroit/ Hoe,” and dispatches the alluring Angie Davis with threats to “eat [her] fucking fetus.” Hanson tells us that a good battler aims for his opponent’s “specific weaknesses.” Here, Eminem is so vague—any fat guy, and any woman, will do—you can’t help feeling that even his freestyle raps are a little scripted.

By this point, you’ve got a pretty clear sense that it doesn’t much matter, and you’re not surprised to find that none of the sequence made it into the film at all—the dreams of 134 of Detroit’s aspiring young rappers turn out to be just that. Instead, what’s surprising is how many unknowns out there do deserve the “one shot” Eminem raps about on 8 Mile’s Oscar-winning soundtrack. Still, given that my local video store could barely seem to keep the DVD in stock, I suspect more than a few of us are paying attention.