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By Chris Faraone
Esham paid for Eminem’s sins.
The Detroit native has been rapping about his city’s murderous underbelly since Slim Shady was in short pants. You might even say there would have been no Eminem without Esham.
Esham, whose Sacrificial Lambz tour plays Harpers Ferry Friday, fancies himself the king of all Detroit hip-hop acts from Insane Clown Posse and Slum Village to Eminem and his D12 crew.
“I am to Detroit what Jay-Z is to New York,” Esham said from a tour stop in Tennessee. “I might not have sold as many records as a lot of them, but they wouldn’t have been able to come up with their styles or get their deals if I never put out records.”
At age 13, Esham introduced the violent, raucous style he called “acid rap” in 1989 with “Words From Hell.” He followed up the next year with a sequel, “Boomin’ Words From Hell,” and continued to put out at least one release every year for the next decade.
“It’s just always been so (messed) up around here that it’s helped me create a lot of music,” he said. “I just look outside every day and see the blight, so I’ve never had a problem finding material.”
To outsiders, Esham’s graphic album covers and off-color titles – including “KKK the Fetus” and “Closed Casket” – make it seem as if he’s applying the aesthetics of slasher movies to music. And while he often does, Esham says he’s mostly describing the streets of Detroit as he sees them.
“I wouldn’t call my raps imaginative,” he said. “Detroit is a great place, but economically we’re at the bottom of the barrel. This is not a thriving metropolis. This is an example of what the rest of the country should not do.”
Clearly Esham is no poster boy for the local chamber of commerce. And he’s had his share of beefs with local hip-hoppers, including Eminem, D12 and Insane Clown Posse. Esham accused ICP of stealing his psychotic rap style, and the group’s label, Psychopathic Records, of imitating his business plan. So it came as a surprise when he decided to tap into ICP’s extended fan base by signing a two-disc deal with Psychopathic in 2002.
Esham hasn’t spoken about his Psychopathic arrangement since he left the label in 2006, but he has a bloody axe to grind.
“There wouldn’t have been any of those styles if it weren’t for me,” Esham said when asked if he considers his music horrorcore, death rap or any of the other labels he and like-minded artists wear. “Still, it’s cool that kids can relate to these things I talk about and start their own projects up. It’s one big family. It’s good that so much has branched off of acid rap.”
Maybe now that he’s touring nationally, more heads will realize Esham is the template for Eminem, even if he lacks platinum-dyed hair and a cute persona.
“Artists on the mainstream level tend to emulate the underground,” he said, “and sometimes they lose focus and don’t give credit to the people who actually had those ideas first. It’s all right though. I don’t mind being that guy who everybody gets their stuff from.”
Esham, with NATAS and Royce 5’9”, at Harpers Ferry, Allston, Friday. Tickets: $13 in advance, $15 day of show; 800-594-8499.