Larry Bird is a very, very good basketball player. I think he’s an exceptional talent. But I’d have to agree with [Dennis] Rodman. If he was Black, he'd be just another good guy.”
- Isiah Thomas on Larry Bird (1987)
Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas gave that infamous quote to an interviewer just after the Pistons were eliminated by Larry Birds Celtics in the 1987 NBA Eastern Conference playoffs. Any hoops fan knows how things played out, Isiah was roasted in the media for daring to suggest bias in the press fawning over Bird; before Thomas himself apologized to Bird during an awkward press conference before the Celtics faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals that year. With Isiah's mea culpa, the press was able to focus on criticizing him—instead of thoughtfully addressing the racial elephant that's always in the room.
This week, Hip-Hop legend Melle Mel drew a similar controversy after he shared his thoughts on the legacy of superstar Eminem. In an interview with The Art Of Dialogue, Grandmaster Melle Mel stated that Em's lofty praise is often attributable to the fact that he's a white guy.
“Obviously, he’s a capable rapper. If you was talking about sales, he sold more than everybody. If you talking about rhyme style–OK, he got a rhyme style," Mel said. "But he’s white! He’s white! If Eminem was just another nigga like all the rest of us, would he be Top 5 on that list when a nigga that can rhyme just as good as him is 35?"
“If he was a Black rapper, he wouldn’t even make the list probably.”
Eminem's talents as an emcee cannot, and should not, be dismissed. Not only is the Detroit rapper one of the most skilled and inventive wordsmiths Hip-Hop has seen, he's also one of it's most accomplished artists. His artistry warrants praise: Em has proven himself one of the game's most affecting storytellers; he's an almost underrated hitmaker; he's also one of the more accomplished producers of his era. And that art has garnered him widespread acclaim in the form of Grammy Awards and platinum plaques. He has the most No. 1 albums of any rapper in history.
And THAT'S where the conversation can get complicated.
It's uncomfortable to acknowledge race when it involves someone whose body of work you respect. People may gleefully dismiss a Macklemore or a Vanilla Ice because they aren't seen as pillars of the genre, they're, more or less, viewed as white guys who scored some fame in a predominantly Black genre. But an artist like Eminem is more like a Larry Bird in that he's widely seen as being among the very best that have ever done it, but that doesn't necessarily negate the role that race has played in the fruits he's enjoyed.
And let's be honest: even Em knows that. He acknowledged it himself on his classic "White America" from 2003's The Eminem Show. When he rapped "If I was Black, I woulda sold half," it was a nakedly self-aware moment that made it apparent that Marshall Mathers is not afraid to acknowledge white privilege. But to what degree? His naysayers would use his whiteness to dismiss every accolade he's gotten; while his fans and contemporaries dismiss virtually any suggestion that his race has played a role in his stature. After Mel's interview went viral, a host of notable artists came forward with an opinion.
“He in my top 5,” Kevin Gates said. “He’s the truth. Who can make a song like ‘Stan?’ Who has made a song like ‘Stan’? The artistry of it...listen I don’t get into all that [white privilege]. There’s only two type of people, real people and fake people. Real people do real things. Fake people do fake things. I don’t go off all that.”
“And so as much as I love and worship Melle Mel," Fat Joe said. "I think he’s wrong with this one."
To be fair, Melle Mel has never been one to mince words when commenting on other rap greats' legacies. The Furious Five legend once called out Rakim, 2Pac and KRS-One in a notorious Hot 97 interview; and in the same conversation where he discussed Em, he also didn't hold back on Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and more. But the surrounding noise can sometimes drown out the more pertinent conversation.
In this age of viral commentary and memed quotes, nuance is often lost. And oftentimes, when having polarizing discussions, no one likes to acknowledge when "both things can be true." But here is an instance where both things can absolutely be true: Eminem is one of the best to ever do it--and Eminem benefits from being white. That shouldn't be a controversial statement; we've seen this sort of thing constantly throughout music history, from Elvis to The Bee Gees to George Michael to Adele. The problem is people need to associate villainous or nefarious intent to recognizing how racism works; sometimes the benefactor has no ill intent themselves—nonetheless, they still benefit from being white in a system that prefers white people.
Eminem has earned his spot amongst Hip-Hop greats. That the mainstream (i.e. white) platforms will always show a certain amount of bias towards him doesn't undercut his greatness. At this point in its history, rap greatness can mean a plethora of things. If you're looking to dismiss Melle Mel because he doesn't have Em's sales, you're missing the point of it all. Likewise, if you write off Em simply because he's not a pioneer like Mel, you're also missing why Em is great.
After the controversy surrounding his interview, Melle Mel took to IG Live to address accusations of racism towards Eminem.
“Melle Mel has nothing against nobody in Hip-Hop,” he says in the clip. “I’ve been in Hip-Hop for 40 years. Very competitive, really have nothing against nobody. I’m not jealous of nobody, I’m not intimidated by anybody or anything, and I’m not bitter. I just come across as I come across ’cause I’m a man and I say what I say, and when I say what I say, basically, I mean what I say.”
“Everything that I said, that I commented on, it was to comment on what he wrote and who he put on this said list. And I think Billboard is not known for Hip-Hop, of course, they’re known for records. So obviously, Billboard is more leaning toward guys that made records, compared to guys like myself that put in all the time in Hip-Hop."
“We’re responsible for the genre. We’re the biggest influences in the genre, and if you ask anybody that knows anything about true Hip-Hop, they will tell you that. If you ask anybody that calls themselves an MC, they will be the first to tell you that there is no modern day rap or Hip Hop of that nature if it wasn’t for Grandmaster Flash, if it wasn’t for the Furious Five, if it wasn’t for Melle Mel, if it wasn’t for [Keef] Cowboy.”
“Like I said, the word ‘Hip-Hop’ came from my crew.”