It's becoming a lot more common for studios to stage big events around the launch of their major DVD releases. Universal Studios Home Video decided to forgo the typical Hollywood Red Carpet Party for 8 Mile and instead opted to bring their DVD celebration back to St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit. In the basement of St. Andrews is 'The Shelter' the actual spot where Detroit Rappers Eminem and Proof got their start and where many more continue to lyrically duke it out in the hopes that someday their musical stylings will get noticed and be the ticket to success and away from the 8 Mile.
St. Andrew's Hall - Detroit
Before the main event a crowd gathered in 'The Shelter' to watch rap battle hopefuls from around the country compete for '1 chance' to win an opportunity to go to Los Angeles, record a Demo and possibly jump start their rap careers.
One of the things that was very clear from the get go was: good rap isn't as easy to do as it may seem, and a good rapper isn't always a good rap battler. If you aren't familiar with a rap battle, it's very similar to a boxing match, rather than exchanging jabs and hooks, each rap battler has around forty five seconds to spin lyrical attacks against their opponent. The poorer battles tend to sound a lot like gangster rap with a lot of talk of gun play and violence. The real talented rap battlers are much sharper spinning assaults on everything from the way someone is dressed, their lack of rap ability, height, weight, anything and everything is fair game. Some of the spins are so clever and so biting that they whip the crowd into a round of whoops and hollers; others, so bad the crowd will boo and yell. The winner of a round in a rap battle is determined by audience shouting and applause, so the best rap battlers tend to be able to both jab at their opponent while still playing to the crowd.
Ultimately, it was a rapper from Detroit Marvin 'Fat Killahz' O'Neil who cleaned up. His sharp lyrics and seemingly effortless jabs literally flattened the competition. One rapper who had been defeated in an earlier round was yelling from the crowd that O'Neil was winning "just because he's from Detroit". Marvin O'Neil called him up on stage so they could lyrically duke it out, and then preceded to deliver one of the more pointed battles of the night. At the end there was no question: you either have what it takes or you go home humbled with your hat in your hand.
Marvin 'Fat Killahz' O'Neil (left)
Takes on The Competition
Marvin 'Fat Killaz' O'Neil - Deleted but Undefeated
I had an opportunity to talk to Marvin 'Fat Killahz' O'Neil who also happens to be one of the rappers in the deleted scenes on the DVD. Marvin was one of four rappers who was cast from a pool of extras for a montage of The Shelter Rap Battle scenes. Director Curtis Hansen decided to hold auditions for a small number of spots to be used in a rap battle montage (which was ultimately cut from the film). O'Neil beat out 140 other rappers for a spot in the film, and had a chance to take on Eminem on Screen (who in turn showed him who was 'king').
"It was a shot where I was spinning it and Eminem was supposed to just pantomime his response", recalls O'Neil. "But he clicked on his mic and spun it back. He must have thought what I said was worthy enough to respond... He's the best out there, there's none better."
You can get a great look at the auditions for the rap battles, and the scenes cut from the film on the 8 Mile DVD. It's under the special features section under the heading 'The Rap Battles'.
Mehki Phifer (left) Ken Greffeo (center)
Eminem co-star Mekhi Phifer was very excited about the DVD release of the film. Taking a break from his regular gig on ER, Mekhi talked about his great experience on 8 Mile and his enjoyment with working with both Eminem and Curtis Hansen. "He's a Pro", Mekhi describes Eminem. "It was great working with him, he has a real energy that comes off well on screen." Phifer, who spoke a lot about how much freedom Curtis Hansen gave to the rappers on the set, described an environment where rappers were free to ad lib, something they enjoyed but struggled with as they had to keep it fresh take after take. Phifer, who has appeared in a number of films including Spike Lee's Clockers, Soul Food and "O", is a big fan of DVD, among his favorites are: Cool Hand Luke, The Usual Suspects, Godfather Trilogy and Goodfellas.
Proof is one of the members of Eminem's original Detroit rap band D-12, as well as one of the main actors in 8 Mile. I asked Proof how close the film of 8 Mile was to the reality of the rap scene in Detroit. "Musically, it's dead on, there is no difference. What you see on the screen is what it's like, but it is Hollywood so the film doesn't have the level of violence that happens in the real 8 Mile." Quite proud of his fellow rapper, Proof spoke a lot about how well Eminem represents Detroit and was very happy that 8 Mile had brought more attention to the Detroit rap scene.
Proof said it was a real adjustment working with Curtis Hansen who didn't have a lot of experience or exposure to the Detroit rap scene. "Many of us were new to acting and Hansen was new to our scene so we were all learning together." He was very pleased at the outcome, especially a lyrical easter egg of sorts. "In my rap against Em, I say 'I'll Punish Rabbit or Obsolete Future', he sits there for a second grinning widely at me before exclaiming "PROOF!". One of the nice things about the 8 Mile DVD is that it does have an English subtitle track; seeing the words used by the rappers in the rap battle scenes enhances them. Another reporter asked Proof which he thought was more important, money or fame, and Proof quickly responded back, "Respect, that's what it's all about... Respect".
Universal Studios Home Video EVP Marketing Ken Graffeo
Executive Vice President of Marketing Ken Graffeo has high hopes for the 8 Mile DVD release and spoke about the increasing expectations for the DVD releases of films. "Right now picking a DVD Release date is just as important as picking the theatrical release date, we follow it just as closely." Emphasizing the importance of the DVD release Graffeo states that, "50% of the people who see a movie on DVD didn't see the movie in theaters. The other half want added value features to get more, so there's a lot of work that goes in to picking special features which add value to the viewer while at the same time are true to the film and its story."
Graffeo talked a lot about the process for getting the content for the 8 Mile DVD. "Hansen had shot a lot of footage for a montage that was going to be at the end of the movie, but it had to be cut for time, so we knew then it would be a perfect fit for the DVD. Then after its release in the theaters Mathers was very happy with how the movie turned out so he wanted to come back in and give his thoughts on the movie, his character and how it related to the real experience of growing up near 8 Mile."
The Main Show - The Detroit 12 (D-12), Eminem and Xzibit
With the rap battles complete, and the interviews done, I moved upstairs from The Shelter to the main area of St. Andrew's hall. With some launch parties you get a long 'presentation' about the DVD, how great it is, etc. Not here. The focus for the rest of the evening was clearly on the music. The show opened with D-12, Eminem's original group, who sang a number of songs from the 8 Mile soundtrack. While I'm not a hardcore rap fan, I do enjoy good music, and so it was a real thrill to see D-12 perform in front of a home town crowd, a handful of retailers, and some press.
Eminem Sings With Friends
Eminem didn't step out into the spotlight as he joined his fellow Detroit Rappers (D-12) to rap two songs from the 8 Mile soundtrack including the Academy Award nominated song 'Lose Yourself'. At first, he sort of snuck on stage to do some of the background vocals for one of D-12's songs. The only way you'd know he was on stage was by the huge cheer from the crowd. I never got the sence that Eminem was there to bask in the glow of his superstardom.
While singing 'Lose Yourself' I really got the sense that he was enjoying rapping among his friends, the rappers he came up with from Detroit, and relishing the opportunity to lose himself in the music he loves so much. Eminem got a sobering reminder that he wasn't 'just one of the guys' when he leapt into the crowd who then swarmed him, snagging off pieces of his clothing. In all Eminem performed two songs with D-12 and then made a quick departure, as if he didn't want to draw attention away from his fellow rappers.
After D-12 wrapped their set, Xzibit, another rapper from the 8 Mile film, came on and gave an electrifying performance. During songs he spoke proudly about his own Detroit roots and the Detroit scene. Throughout the night I spoke to a number of Detroit rappers, all of whom seemed to really enjoy the 8 Mile DVD Launch Party, for in many ways it was less about the release of a new DVD and much more a celebration of a music scene that launched rappers like Eminem and that, for many rap hopefuls, will be a breeding ground for the next big rapper.