Two by two the young men—and one woman, Ari-Canari, brilliant red braids flowing down her shoulder—took to the stage, their actions timed by battle rapper Quest MCody.
After a toss of the coin, he gave each a mere minute to prove their worth, rapping and rhyming spiced with b-words, n-words, and f-words, the crowd cheering as each round crescendoed in intensity.
The words “The Shelter” were painted on a wall behind contestants as they got in the face of their opponents, geographic markers signaling their roots: West Side, East Side, 7 Mile, Brightmoor. Some rounds are a cappella, others with a beat track, adding urgency to their extemporaneous words as they try for the prize, $500 cash and a Shinola watch.
Rap battles play out in many corners of Detroit, but Thursday night was a special reenactment of scenes from the movie 8 Mile, released 15 years ago this week.
The film co-starred Kim Basinger and solidified Detroit rapper Eminem’s career, earning hundreds of millions in box office gold and an Oscar for its theme song “Lose Yourself,” the first time a rap or hip-hop song received such honor.
Detroit and Shady Records, Eminem’s music label, were celebrating with a re-premiere in the Bel Air Luxury Cinema along 8 Mile, the eponymous street which divides the tough, primarily black city of Detroit from its wealthy, mostly white suburbs.
A party at the St. Andrews Club was also part of the commemorations, with rap battles by up and coming and established local hip-hop stars.
Fans of Eminem and Detroit’s hip-hop scene came from across the country, and as far away as Germany. The events were fundraisers for the Verses Project, which provides musical education for local youth.
Omar Benson Miller, who played the character Sol George flew in from Los Angeles and reflected on the changes in Detroit in the past 15 years. “It’s in much better shape. It’s on the upswing, it’s on the comeback,” he said, adding, “You can tell the interest in people in Detroit coming back, and it is matching the pride people have in Detroit.”
Being back in Detroit was also a chance to reflect on working with Eminem. “It was easy. Working with Em is great. He is a workaholic. He gave it everything he’s got and it’s evident when watching the film.”
Another star was Bushman, a DJ with Detroit’s 97.9 WJLB who played himself.
Bushman is proud of his station’s music history and how it has long nurtured local talent. “We were the first radio station in the world to play a Motown record,” he said, adding, “Detroit is a music city, and many young kids look to music as a way to achieve something with their lives,” in the way that Eminem’s character Rabbit does in the movie.
Bushman said one of the first things anyone visiting Detroit does is photograph themselves in front of the Motown Museum.
A major figure in the commemorations of the 15th anniversary is Detroit musician and artist Miz Korona.
In 8 Mile, she played a competitive rapper who worked in the automobile stamping factory with Eminem’s character. During the re-premiere red carpet she said that when she first knew she would be working with Eminem, “I was nervous and I put a lot of pressure on myself, but he made it easy, he made it fun.”
She said the set “was like a family atmosphere,” and the director “allowed my mother to come to the set and watch this opportunity for me.”
Miz Korona feels that Detroit has changed in a positive way in the 15 years since they made the film, and that 8 Mile itself played a part. “The movie put a positive focus on here. This was one of the biggest motion pictures shot here, and that brought a lot of Hollywood attention here.”
During the re-premiere she said she greeted neighbors she had not seen in years and others who “flew in from Toronto and all over the world, so that just shows you the impact this film has had.”
Beyond the film’s 15th anniversary, Miz Korona and other Detroit hip-hop artists are also having a moment of glory inside the hallowed marble halls of the Detroit Institute for the Arts.
Detroit-area photographer Jenny Risher’s photography exhibit, D-Cyphered, which runs through February of 2018 features artists in the film and dozens of others.
Risher said she became fascinated by the Detroit hip-hop scene when photographing an earlier Detroit exhibition and realized the museum had nothing in its photographic archives documenting this aspect of the city’s music history. Eminem was one of the first hiphop artists Risher photographed.
“He’s really nice,” Risher said, reflecting on the 15 minutes she was allotted to photograph him. “I was a little nervous because I photographed him first in 2013, and had to work through my fears.” In the end though, she said, “he is just a regular nice guy who was at ease and that comes through in the pictures. It was like photographing a friend."
Risher feels that as a music mecca, “Detroit is pretty incredible. It takes a lot of influences, techno, Motown, ghetto tech, and it also pioneered them. Detroit is incredible because it is this huge mesh of music,” from across the country. The DIA will have a special live music event for the exhibition on December 15, with Miz Korona and other artists performing.
The one artist involved in 8 Mile and the Detroit hip-hop scene who was nowhere to be found was Eminem himself, despite being the reason everyone gathered both days. (He did not return requests for interview or comment from The Daily Beast.)
There were rumors he dressed so no one would recognize him, or that he was outside the theater greeting longtime friends.
Others not at the commemorations included those who had died since the movie was made, including DeShaun Dupree Holton, better known as Proof, upon whom the 8 Mile character Future, is based; Brittany Murphy, who played Eminem’s girlfriend; and the director Curtis Hanson.
Denaun Porter, who goes by the stage name Mr. Porter, Eminem’s producer, member of D12, and childhood friend of Eminem was at the re-premiere. Mr. Porter said he felt one of the things that made the film resonate for so many Detroiters is that “there are artists that are not well known that carry the city on their backs,” and for many of them the movie is an inspiration.
Looking back on the film though is “bittersweet,” with so many of those who worked on it no longer alive. He has long enjoyed working with Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers.
Eminem’s success, Mr. Porter said, has meant that, “when everything happened for him, it happened for me as well. There is nothing like working with my best friend.”
He added that the star was “like a big brother. Working with Eminem is like working with family.”