He’s got a foul, filthy mouth. He’s unapologetically carnal. Been that way for a long time. He’s the type of rapper who aims to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Women clutch their bosom ("Oh my") after hearing some of his more sexually graphic songs. He’s been called a devil worshiper — a quietly vibrant rumor which he strongly denies. Others describe him in simpler, more appropriate words. "Yo, Esham wild, dog" or "Esham out cold, man."
So, over the course of an 11-year career, what have all the dirty songs, ultraviolent lyrics and themes, references to suicide, Satan and the hood gotten Esham? Twenty-four albums, that’s what. Loyal followings in locales as homey as Detroit and Grand Rapids, and as foreign as Albuquerque, Dallas, Florida, Phoenix and Cincinnati, that’s what. A guesstimated 500,000 albums sold before Soundscan began tracking his units, that’s what. Not to mention, the man released hip hop’s first actual double-CD, while 2Pac’s All Eyes on Me took the credit four years after the fact.
More: He’s responsible for the semisuccessful solo artist Dice, who signed and split with Esham before his career took off — "Man, I sank $60 Gs into him. But you gotta be willin’ to work with people," says Esham. Then there is Natas, the offshoot group whose name fueled the rumors about Satanism — Natas backwards spells ... "That’s just some shit people made up," Esham claims. "They see pitchforks in the name, read it backwards and figure we devil worshipers. That’s bullshit."
Would you believe that, despite these accomplishments, the average baggy, boot-wearin’, urban-suburban, Source and Vibe-readin’ hip-hop aficionado couldn’t tell you a thing substantial about Esham? It’s true. The man’s résumé as an independent artist stands up with such legends as Too Short, Luther Campbell and Magic Mike. Yet the celebrity status they have attained has evaded him. Esham sincerely believes that industry stereotypes about Detroit hip hop are the reason major record distributors have yet to pick up on his proven track record.
"(Record companies are) just hypocrites," he says. "They’ll let anybody else come in and pump anything they want to the people of Detroit. Detroit artists gotta go kissin’ they ass. But they’ll let Foxy Brown put her pussy all in the camera."
Esham is perturbed by the fact that the record industry waited so long to pick up on Detroit hip hop. Detroit has always been one of the top 10 markets for rap music and, to Esham, it only makes sense that a city so in love with the art would not only purchase it, but practice it. He challenges me to name local artists besides Eminem who have signed record deals in the past year. I remind him of Slum Village and Royce the 5-9. He responds, "But that’s just happening, right?" Right.
Esham never waited for the industry to come to him. Inspired by Detroit phenomena like Devil’s Night and the city’s storied reputation, Esham released his first album on — his own — Reel Life Productions while still a junior at Osborn High. Boomin’ Words from Hell sold moderately, but triggered a strong buzz on the street and launched the career of Esham the Unholy.
Because of his graphic content, radio play was never an option. So Esham and his older brother used the trunk of their car as a makeshift record store. Every market they approached got tapped. By the time Judgement Day Volume I & II — the double CD — dropped four years later, Esham was rocking places like Wichita and Denver on a regular basis.
His latest release, Mail Dominance, sets aside some of the gore for a more straightforward, hardcore approach. Natas’ new album, WWW(Wicked Worldwide).Com, is set to be released later this year. A new management team, Major Productions, is also in the picture now. The goal of this project is to continue expanding Esham’s core fan following and finally turn some industry heads.
According to manager Brian Major, Universal exhibited some interest in distributing Esham. But, after its merger with Polygram, the Esham talks "fell through the cracks."
"We’ve had our ups and downs," Esham confirms, "but we’ve been pretty successful."
As far as major league record sales go, 500,000 sales isn’t phenomenal. Yet, consider that, while a signed artist is lucky to see 30 percent of album profits, the entrepreneur keeps almost all the profits. So has Esham gotten rich while the mainstream turns its back on him? "Well, it depends on what you consider ‘rich,’" he says diplomatically.
"If you consider all the money you’ve put in your gas tank, you’ve probably gone through a million."Khary Kimani Turner writes about words and beats for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org