Eminem and New Def Jam CEO Paul Rosenberg on Early 'Broke Days,' Courting Controversy and Hip-Hop's Future
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 Revivaltrack "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.
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.