“What up doe, how are you doing? I appreciate the call, man”. The drawl on the phone was unmistakable. I was in conversation with the pioneer of acid-rap and horrorcore. One of the first MCs to come out of Detroit, a figure who paved the way for artists such as the Insane Clown Posse, Eminem and Kid Rock. Nervously asking if I should call him Esham or ‘The Unholy,’ he laughs. “I’m just Esham Smith. That was just a nickname. A clever marketing ploy.”
Esham was laid back and relaxed as we continued the call. He explained the origins of his love affair with hip-hop and we were treated to a blow-by-blow account of his education in the music industry. Born in Long Island, New York, and moving between his parent’s homes, he grew up on the east side of Detroit where he attended school and gained notoriety as a vocal young teen whose blood-soaked lyrical content read like a checklist of video nasties. Murder, sex, violence and Satan, were all part of the developing horrorcore sound.
Esham wrote his first album Boomin’ Words from Hell before his voice had even dropped. “I was actually 13 when I started working on that record. I was writing rhymes even then. I made ‘Devils Groove’ when I was 13 but it didn’t come out until I was 15. I was very young when I started doing that stuff.”
With over 23 albums currently on Spotify, including his two latest releases, ‘She Loves Me’ / ‘She Loves Me Not’ I wonder what made Esham first pick up the mic: “Just the freedom hip-hop has.” He tells me, “The freedom to express yourself. The artists that I heard, comin’ up were expressing themselves, and being really creative. I just fell in love with hip-hop, like any kid. It’s been a 35-year love affair since then, hip-hop was my first love. But then I cheated on her with rock n roll, then I had a slight fling with jazz before I settled down with soul. I’m all over the place with my musical palette.”
With a rapidly changing music industry, is there anyone around right now who is inspiring to the legend. “I mean, there are so many artists, man. It just depends on what genre. I listen to the newer stuff, but I can’t lie, I’m a classic kinda guy.” It’s not just hip-hop where Esham keeps it classic: “I listen to old rock bands like T-Rex, heavy metal and punk rock, but you might catch me listenin’ to Bob Dylan, Prince or (Nelly’s group) Tha Lunatics, you know. So, I’m all over the place, it just depends on where I’m at.”
There were a few names from the current crop of hip-hop stars that impressed him, “I can appreciate the newer stuff, though. People like Lil Yachty and the guy who just passed away, I forgot his name, R.I.P to him, XXXTention too. When I say that one guy, I mean, all the guys who have passed away. There are a lot of great people we lost, but these younger cats are keeping it smooth. I love everybody that comes up in hip-hop.”
With so many rap artists coming up in the game right now, would Esham ever considering signing anybody to his independent label: Reel Life Productions? “No, because the day and age we livin’ in, you don’t need to be signed to nobody. That’s why I never signed nobody back in the day because you could always do it yourself. I was always on the do it yourself program. If you’re not willing to work your own records or promote yourself, then why would anybody else be willing to do that?”
It’s a cut-throat attitude which many rappers couldn’t live up to. “Unfortunately, I saw a lot of lazy artists out there who didn’t wanna do that. It made the market risky, I didn’t wanna invest in nobody like that because they didn’t take it as seriously as me. That was back when the record business was the record business. Now, anybody can get on and make a record. Blow themselves up without some proper artist development and training.”
Esham warns though that the SoundCloud bubble can burst pretty quickly, “The thing is, you might get rich in a week, but you also might blow it all in two weeks without the proper training and all of that. That’s what record companies did for some of the more established artists out there. That type of shit don’t go on nowadays because anybody can have access to the multiverse and show people their talent. It’s not like it used to be. It’s a dog eat dog world, there’s no camaraderie.” Another key factor for Esham in keeping things classic is the audience: “That’s the difference between me and somebody who has virtual fans. I touch my fans, I hug them, we know each other. It’s like a big community. I appreciate them, we been through a lot together. I know it’s not always easy, so I give them the love back that they give me.”
Esham met Violent J of the Insane Clown Posse back in 1991 when they were known as Inner City Posse. J handed Esham a copy of their self-produced album: Dog Beats, and as their friendship grew, he eventually joined Psychopathic Records as an artist from 2002-2005, releasing 2 new albums and a compilation. He also helped form two hip-hop supergroups: the Soopa-Villainz and Psychopathic Rydas. Having been a fan of the Horrorcore rap subgenre for some time, I could hear how his music has influenced ICP and other Detroit artists.
“I planted the seed of the wicked shit and it grew into a huge fruitful tree,” recalled Esham. “ICP have roots and many branches on that tree. Those are my homeboys; we go back 30 years man. Of course, there’s gonna be some similarities and we may sound alike because we came up together. We also worked together, they got a lot of stuff with me and I got things with them too. I’m proud of planting that seed. We do all types of business. Psychopathic is down with me and I’m down with them.
“Been with each other for a long time, you know. We started a musical creation together. It’s always fresh getting together and performing. It’s like when scientists got together and made LSD. That’s what we did. We made something together for the world.”
Esham recently spoke with ICP’s Shaggy 2 Dope, on his internet chat show: Bluntly Speaking. Shaggy said that he felt people wouldn’t fully appreciate the music of ICP until they were gone, did he have a point?
“I feel like people misunderstand both the music that we made and our contributions (to hip-hop). I want people to appreciate it while we’re here. I don’t want to feel like Shaggy, but it’s a sad reality that he might be right.”
We dig a little deeper into his past and that he had attended Osborn High School with several students who went on to become popular Detroit rap artists. Was it true that he shared classroom space with D12’s Proof and Eminem? “Eminem did not go to a Detroit public school. I don’t know where that came from. Proof, yeah. He went to my school.
“Actually, I’m one of the reasons Proof became a rapper, ‘cause I was Esham, you know what I’m saying? Even in high school, I was the only kid who had a record out. I actually had two or three records out by that time. Nobody else had records or a record deal.
“You gotta remember Eminem got on through a conglomerate and through getting tied to a record label. But people like myself and ICP, you know, we worked hard. We are like Blue-Collar Workers, me especially, I’m an underdog, man. I been fighting for the Underground all my life. I been fighting the machine and the big corporations. Shout out to Eminem, that’s good for him, but he definitely did not go to my high school or anywhere near my high school or anywhere near Detroit high schools, period.”
After having some much-publicized beef with Eminem, in which the two rappers exchanged lyrical blows with the other’s camps. Proof joined the fray with some lyrical shots of his own. How did it feel being dissed on wax? “Me and Proof were good friends. I loved him like a brother, and we argued like brothers. We settled our differences before he passed away.
“Detroit needed Proof. He helped everyone, he even helped Eminem get on. It’s just a shame that he died penniless; his family were left penniless. That was a shame. We got into it, but he was a good guy, man. He did make a diss record on me, but that’s what hip-hop is all about. Me and Proof laughed about it, we forgave each other like men. They were just words on a record.”
With so much ill-feeling was he and Eminem now cool with one another? “I mean, I ain’t got no bad blood towards Eminem. I would like to hear his version of that. I ain’t got nothin’ against him. He might have some animosity towards me for some type of reason. Maybe some lyrical fury that I unleashed on him twenty years ago. There are many emcees still holding grudges because my rhymes are that fierce, bro.
“The pen is mightier than the sword and I swung a mean sword. Wounds cut deep, they still hurtin’ about my lyrical battles. I opened Hell’s doors, man. I unleashed the fury of rhymes (laughs). I even had to tone that shit down, man. I was getting a lot of flak, they turned it out and made it seem like I was the bully, you know. I was like, whatever. I just got back into making good music and feeling good about my content.”
But were there any lyrics that he now looked back on and regretted? “(For) Some of those records, I was in dark places, man. The music and lyrics reflected where I was at. I don’t necessarily like to be in those kinds of places. But that’s the sort of music I created back in the day. I don’t got nothin’ against anybody, no emcees, nobody. Especially if they come from Detroit. I will support everybody from Detroit with all that I got. I hope that they would do the same.”
Then the only question that really matters in hip-hop came around, who really is the G.O.A.T? “I’m a Detroit Lion. I don’t subscribe to anybody calling themselves the G.O.A.T. There are too many emcees that came before me, too many masters of this game, that people done stole styles and techniques from. I feel it’s my duty to, you know, shadowbox these fools anytime they think they gonna play kings. That’s what hip-hop is, it’s a blood-sport, it’s competitive. You’ll get knocked off the throne talkin’ that type of stuff. There’s no G.O.A.T, there’s no such thing as that.
“It’s so disrespectful to the art form, considering yourself to be the greatest, when you’ve studied the greatest people to come before you. That’s like being a painter and saying, ‘I’m the greatest painter to ever pick up a f-ckin’ paintbrush.’ Van Gogh will come out of the grave and fuckin’ slap you. What the fuck? That shit’s disrespectful, man.”
Artists such as 50 Cent, DMX, Ja Rule and Jay Z have told their stories in the form of autobiographies. As we are beginning to see more memoirs published, can we expect to see some written words from the pioneer of acid-rap? “I mean, I’m not sure, the story is still going. Often, I feel once you write those books, that’s the end of the story. Maybe it’s my little phobia or whatever I got going on. But naw, I ain’t wrote a book yet because the story ain’t over.”