January 1999. Bill Clinton was deep into his second term, John Elway was leading the Denver Broncos to Super Bowl, and a white, brash rapper from Detroit took the music industry by storm with breakout hit "My Name Is." The video premiered on TRL (remember TRL?!) and hip-hop was never the same again.
Hip-hop didn’t fully connect with me until much later, but the “My Name Is" hype brings back vivid memories.
The song was literally everywhere. It was enormous. You would hear it on the radio five times an hour, even on the rock stations, my mother always turning it off in disgust. I remember my dad letting me actually listen to it on the way home from basketball practice, it was so exciting. A few months later, I saw the video for the first time at my aunt's house because we didn't have cable. What I remember most, though, is the controversy. Every listen had to be covert, avoiding disapproving teachers and parents, which only lead to the excitement. We even had to have a "class meeting" about rapping the lyrics out loud in school. My mom hated Eminem with a fiery passion; once she let me listen in her company, promptly turning off the track at the Spice Girls line. I don't think I even knew what impregnated meant. In fact, I didn’t know what half the lines he was spitting meant, but they were fun and exciting, I couldn't get enough.
I wasn't old enough at the time to realize it, but that whole year the “My Name Is” frenzy was a real moment. The song's release and the rise of the artist behind it captured the attention of both mainstream America and hip-hop in a way that only very rarely happens for an average 10-year-old white kid from the suburbs, with average 10-year-old white kid friends. This was one of the first times that a hip-hop record—hell, any song—really became everything to us. You could feel the electricity.
Eminem not only introduced a whole new listening segment to rap, but he ushered in the era of teenage rebellion. If you think I’m hyperbolizing or high off nostalgia, take a look at what Eminem said about the single on Genius.
"We had already filmed the video, and we saw it for the first time on MTV. It came on really late at night. I was sleeping on the couch when Paul saw it for the first time. That’s when it was like, “Okay, this isn’t a joke anymore.” We had kind of felt that, being in the studio with Dre and shit. But once that single came out, my life changed like that. Within a day. Just going outside. I couldn’t go outside anymore. In a day. It went from the day before, doing whatever the fuck I wanted to do, because nobody knew who the fuck I was, to holy shit, people are fucking following us. It was crazy. That’s when shit just got really — it was a lot to deal with at once."
It was the single that introduced him to the world and set the tone for a controversial, chaotic and profoundly immense career. It was everything Eminem was and would be in one song. As far as first impressions go, you couldn't have made a more impactful first one than Eminem's “My Name Is.” Nearly twenty years later, the GRAMMY-winning record remains one of the biggest debuts in hip-hop history. Only it wasn’t actually his debut...
“Just Don’t Give A Fuck” was released on October 13, 1998, making it Eminem’s real debut single. Though the song originally appeared on his Slim Shady EP (released in 1997), it was repurposed, reworked, and given new life as his first major label single, which of course included a video.
Looking at the video, listening to the songs side by side, it’s not hard to see why "My Name Is" took flight and “Just Don’t Give A Fuck” fizzled. In terms of being widely accessible and more interesting, “My Name Is” was the obvious choice.
“My Name Is” features that unique, catchy, yet oddly off-kilter Labi Siffre sample, lyrics that are over-the-top and offensive, but not so much so that the song can’t be played, and that video—it’s so colorful, funny and full of life. On the other hand, the video for “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” is black and white, blurred, and has this low-budget, cheesy kind of feel. Truthfully, there’s really no point in that video other than making Eminem seem off-putting. When you compare the two, it’s night and day.
So, why did Em’s camp believe that record would be a good first single? I’m wondering if initially, they tried to cut corners. Rather than start from scratch with a brand new song and brand new video concept, it feels like they took the scaffolding of “Just Don’t Give A Fuck” and turned it into a single because it would save time and money. Or maybe they were really trying to push Em as a dangerous and controversial rapper and "Just Don't Give a Fuck" was too dangerous and controversial right out the gate? Whatever the thinking was, though, the single was a commercial flop and failed to generate much if any buzz, to the extent that its existence as Em's first official single has essentially been completely wiped off the map in the larger public consciousness.
Eminem has had one of the most successful careers in music. Everything he touches turns to platinum and amid all the controversy he’s been a reliable steady hitmaker in an era where artists come and go at the drop of a hat. It feels like he's never truly faltered, he's set records for days, so it’s crazy to think that his major label career started on a blunder.
Imagine what would have happened if “My Name Is” didn’t catch on as well? Eminem was a relatively unknown, white rapper—it was an uphill battle from the start--and two failed singles would have likely grounded his entire career. In retrospect, it sounds ridiculous and it's hard to think about, but back then Eminem wasn’t Eminem, if he had two singles flop, what would have kept Dre and Jimmy Iovine interested? Why would a major label spend the time, effort and funding on an artist who was not panning out?
For most of America, Eminem’s first impression came on his second shot, and that time he didn't miss.