Q&A: Producer Jeff Bass on Discovering Young Eminem: ‘He Was Sitting on the Toilet, and He Came Up With the Alter Ego’Catherine McGann/Getty Images
You may have never heard of the Bass Brothers. But you’ve heard the Bass Brothers. Before Jimmy Iovine, before Dr. Dre, it was Michigan’s Jeff and Mark Bass who were flipping their shit over the sounds of a young kid from Detroit named Marshall Mathers. In the early days, the production duo’s studio on 8 Mile Road was like a second home for Eminem. And it was there that they recorded The Slim Shady EP, which would eventually make its way to Dre and Iovine and land Eminem his record deal. They’d continue to work with Em for years, producing all but three tracks on The Slim Shady LP, some of the more twisted ends of The Marshall Mathers LP, and — drum roll, drum roll, drum roll — “Lose Yourself.” With this week’s release of The Marshall Mathers LP 2, we got Jeff Bass on the phone to talk about the good old days.
How’d you meet Eminem?
My brother was listening to the radio, what today is our 95.5. It was a DJ we knew named Lisa Lisa. He called and asked her who that was, freestyling. She said, that’s Marshall Mathers. He said, “Is there any way we can get in touch with him?” She gives him the number. My brother called. And at three o’clock in the morning [Eminem] came to the studio, with a bunch of little dudes who turned out to be D12. That’s how it began. We didn’t know him, and he didn’t know us. He took a leap of faith at three in the morning.
Was he in school then?
He was working. He was flipping hamburgers at a little diner. Kind of a Coney Island. And every chance he got, he was in the studio. After work, before work. Studio.
What’d you make of him at first?
I was always kind of a hip-hop head, because of the R&B roots behind it. But when Marshall came into the picture, I wasn’t quite sure about his ability — because I couldn’t understand what he was saying! He was triple-timing, spitting rhymes: I was just trying to comprehend him. Then I started writing tracks for him. And it became apparent that he was amazing.
In between Infinite [Eminem’s official, independently released first album] and The Slim Shady EP, we figured out how to communicate with him. Because he doesn’t come from a musical background. We had to figure out a way emotionally to get through to him. So how I approached it is, any song that had a happy feel we’d call a happy tune. Angry, sad, violent — we’d use adjectives to get through to him. So that he could write the type of lyrics that’d go with the track.
Most people know Kim as a character. You have a different perspective.
He’s been with me since ‘95, when he was a young buck. I was with him when Hailie was just born. I knew Kim. She used to come into the studio with us all the time. We used to take Marshall out to the different clubs in Detroit. She would come with us, be her crazy self.
So was it clear their relationship was dysfunctional?
Oh yeah. It was always obvious. He basically lived with us in the studio on 8 Mile road. And you got to know the person. We had to deal with his mother, we had to deal with Kim, we had to deal with uncles and friends trying to be hangers-on. You really get to know a person. And it was amazing. As he would come up with the stories [on the songs], those of us who were close to him working on the project, we knew there was so much truth in what he was saying. That’s pure emotion. That’s realism. And he told it like he was speaking to every kid out there that was going through the same thing. He was their voice. It was quite incredible.
Take me back to the time between Infinite and The Slim Shady EP. What changed in him?
We pressed up Infinite. We might have pressed up maybe five hundred, a thousand records tops. We couldn’t give them away. Nobody was feeling it. We don’t know why. Then Marshall, I think he was sitting on the toilet making a poop, and he came up with the alter ego. He came into the studio, talking about this alter ego that he has now. And all the boys in D12, they all had alter egos too. It was just a great thing to start the new project with. And he went with that.
When did the big break come?
He was doing the Rap Olympics, and he was winning all over the place. And then he lost in L.A., but when we were there we had a bunch of The Slim Shady EPs. At that particular show, there was somebody in the audience watching. A young kid, 17 years old, and he saw all the passion that Marshall was putting into his show and his lyrics. And he came up to us after, “Can I get a CD?” Little did we know, he worked in the mail room at Interscope Records. And he LOVED Eminem. And what he did for us, on his own, is slip the CD in Jimmy Iovine’s listening bag that he used to take home every Friday. And Jimmy actually listened to it, and said “Whoa whoa whoa — what is this?” And he called Dre, and then Dre came and listened to it. It’s not like Dre found it on the floor in his garage. The true story was that he was called by Jimmy. And then it all snowballed from there.
Was Eminem blown away when the call from Interscope came in? Or was he trying to temper his expectations?
He was really excited, first of all, that Dr. Dre was gonna be involved. [Dre] was a big star in ’98. He was freaked out: “Oh my god, I can’t believe it!” Me and my brother were excited: “Dr. Dre wants to talk to us!” And Marshall went out to L.A. with my brother first. They got there a week before me. And it started immediately. Meeting Dre, talking with Jimmy, meeting all these people, this whole crazy period. I think it was February of ‘98.
Is that when the conversation started about the crossover potential? The whole commercial implication of a big white rapper?
All of us who were working on the project, skin color was never an issue. I mean, you got two white guys that took another white guy out to California to get a record deal in a predominantly black music. Right there, that was a little strange. But we never really played that side of the race because we just looked at it as music. We didn’t care, white, black, this, that: It’s the society and the media that makes it a big deal. “Oh, he’s a white rapper, we’re gonna get this white boy out there, he’s gonna make millions of records to all of the black people!” We were doing hip-hop music for the love of hip-hop music.
Where’d you record The Slim Shady LP?
Most of that album was recorded in Burbank. While Dre was doing his thing at his house, and at Larrabee Studios, we had a little studio in Burbank called the Little Mix Room. It was tiny.
What were the hours like?
Pretty much like 20 hours a day. We went through three or four different engineers. We were these workalcoholics, and these kids, they were being paid hourly, and they could not hang. They’d say, “It’s not worth it for me, for six dollars an hour!” We’d sleep four hours and we’d come to start it again. But we wanted it so bad. Ideas would be constantly flowing. And when you had it, you made sacrifices in your life. We moved to L.A., we left our families here in Michigan. We weren’t out there to party. We’d give ourselves Sunday off, to recuperate.
You were the gruff voice on “Public Service Announcement.”
And the voice of the “Soap” skit, and the voice of the “Lounge” skit, and the voice of the old cowboy rocking in a rocking chair before and after “Bad Meets Evil.” I always wanted to do voice-overs. I guess I got people to hear my voice on some records that sold a couple. That’s pretty cool.
Did the label give you a deadline to turn it in?
Normally they liked to have the album in a couple of months, maybe three months. We did the album in three weeks. And they weren’t very happy! They said, “You guys are gonna have to go and mix a few other records. That’s too early.” The marketing department wasn’t ready. That’s how much we worked. But we were so efficient at what we were doing. We were ready to bust out. “Here, sell this record so he can go tour.” They were going, “Whoa! Slow down!” They had to pull the reins in.
Did you know that album would do what it did?
Honestly, no. I mean, we knew it was a good record. But we didn’t know what to expect. I mean, my whole life, my dream was to have a gold record on my wall. It wasn’t about the money or the fame. I just wanted a gold record on my wall. Then one day, maybe eight or nine months after The Slim Shady LP, I call up my manager: “So am I gonna get my gold record on my wall?” He says, “Oh, no, no. No gold records. You get a platinum record.” I say, “I didn’t want that! I wanted a gold record!” He says, “Dude, do you know what platinum means? It means you sold a million!” “Oh. OK.” Then it was, you got the three-times platinum, then the four-times platinum. Oh. Cool. All we knew is that everywhere you went in the world, you heard it.
Fast-forward to The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem calls you and says, it’s time to go back to work?
It doesn’t really go like that. You never stop writing. And you gotta remember, D12 came into play. During The Marshall Mathers LP I was doing both that and the D12 album.
I’d moved back to Michigan. I had, at that time, a little boy. I had to be home. And if I had to go out west, I would go out west. And Marshall didn’t like to travel much, either, so it worked out really perfectly. He had a studio in his house, I had one at my house — there was always somewhere to record songs. You just worked. Some of the songs that were written didn’t come out for two albums. We just stockpiled songs. We just wrote and wrote and wrote.
What was the big difference between TSSLP and TMMLP?
We decided to, musically, keep it more raw. [On the first album] I’d play the guitar track for the four and a half minutes, as opposed to sampling a four-bar loop. I’d add the drums, the keyboard, pick up the bass, then add the little sprinkles on top, with the the intent of going back after we do the vocals to fix those parts. To make them flawless. This one, we kept mistakes in. Little things. I wouldn’t tune my guitar. It kind of started like a new Eminem sound. What he was talking about was gritty. And it wasn’t a perfect sound. It fit like a glove.
We gotta talk about “Lose Yourself.” Your old studio was actually on 8 Mile, and you used to describe your sound as “8 Mile Style.” So did you talk out the concept for that one ahead of time?
We didn’t really discuss concepts for songs, other than, like, “Um, [is he] gonna talk about drugs? [Is he] gonna talk about murdering?” It wasn’t like, “Let’s talk about how it felt on 8 mile.” That’s just where we were. That’s where we lived. We weren’t on 8 Mile because it was a cool thing to do. It was all we could afford, my man!
Where’d that beat come from?
Right before he got the script for 8 Mile, we had been messing around with a little bit of a groove. Just in all that was there was some drums and a guitar line that I did. Every time we’d get together in the studio, we’d pull that out off the computer and just work on it. And we just loved it. It had a lot of really heavy distorted rock guitars originally. And then the script came in, and he wrote the lyrics. You know, the character was in place, and the flow came pretty quick. And then it made sense to remove some of those hard-rock guitars and replace it with keyboards doing virtually the same thing. And we did it, and the song was done. And we’d sit back and listen to it, and it was incredible. But even at that point, you don’t know it’s a hit record. You have no idea. Obviously, it sparked something in most people that heard that song. It makes you wanna go up and do something, and become successful at something. Makes you motivated for living.
And it won an Oscar. But neither you nor Eminem was there to receive it.
My son, my next son, had just been born. He wasn’t even a week old. And it was a tough decision for me. But [co-writer] Luis Resto said he was going out there, and I knew Marshall wasn’t gonna be there. I regret it today. I wish I would have went. I was home with my kid watching it on TV like everybody else. It’s not that I didn’t wanna go. I just chose to stay with my little man.
Was it surreal, hearing Barbra Streisand saying your name?
She pronounced it correctly. So that’s awesome. She got it right.
Was the reason Eminem wasn’t going to attend because he was already in the midst of his addiction?
Ehh. We were all dabbling. A little this, a little that. At the time, he wasn’t a big fan of award shows. He could be getting better now. Back in the day, he really wasn’t interested.
Was there a moment when you realized it had gone beyond dabbling? That it was something that required serious attention?
No. I had my own issues as well. You know, you kind of close one eye. He did his thing, I did my thing, and we came together and did our thing. I mean, if I would have noticed that, paid close enough attention to that, I would have helped myself and him at the same time. But you have to go through what you gotta go through, until you realize there’s more important things [than] doing that kind of stuff. “Beautiful” [off Relapse], that was the last song we did together. We did it while he was using, then he cleaned up and wanted to use it. I always thought that the song was an incredible song.
Is it odd to think this kid you worked with way back when is now this …
Icon. Marshall, I mean, the truth of the matter is we’re not … I still love him and everything and I’m sure he still loves me … but we don’t communicate like we used to. He told me he had to experiment with other writers, other producers. It was very fair. All artists probably do that. We could only have our vision of what he should be. Life happened. Life just moves on. It’s not like he said, “Jump! You’re fired.” It was just, “I’m gonna go in a different direction.” “Cool, I wish you the best of luck.” I can guarantee that we could sit down today and write a song, and we could still put something out that the fans would love. And maybe someday that’ll happen.