Eminem’s career-defining hit “Lose Yourself” was released to the masses in October 2002. Not only did the 8 Mile smash become a cultural phenomenon, it helped steer a significant and important conversation about race in the rap game. The track also made history as the first rap song to win an Academy Award for best original song at the 2003 ceremony.
Billboard caught up with Oscar-winning producer/songwriter Jeff Bass, a Detroit native who helped Slim Shady pen the prolific song, just in time for this year’s ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 26. As one-half of the production team Bass Brothers, with his sibling Mark, Bass produced songs on Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP and lent his production skills and voice to the skits “Public Service Announcement,” “Soap Skit” and “Lounge Skit” on the Slim Shady LP.
Read on to learn about Bass’ creative relationship with Em, what he remembers about the moment he won his Oscar and the song’s undying legacy.
How did you first meet Eminem?
He was already sending people his mixtapes and work, always ready to work and had a passion for it. When we first started out, my brother and I worked with artists who were really serious about the narratives that we were doing. He’d come in and we gave it a shot. We took him in as one of our own and we started grooming him. His work ethic was always impeccable. The kid could work 20 hours a day easily. Me and my brother strived for that and we worked many, many hours. A lot of people couldn’t hang with us because we were always constantly working, but Em was a trooper. He was that hungry, so he hung with us the whole time.
When did you realize that the two of you could have a really strong creative relationship?
The first project that we did was the Infinite album [Eminem’s 1996 debut], and me and my brother were pretty much executive producers on it, we oversaw the project. It wasn’t until the Slim Shady EP that we started to actually put our hands in on the music end of things. Then, for the Slim Shady LP, we were full-fledged writers with Eminem. We used to joke around a lot. He was a jokester and we were jokesters, so we got along really well. I was like the older brother to him.
What was the old studio at 8 Mile like? Can you describe the atmosphere and what it looked like?
It was a two-story building, and the main floor, which was the studio, had a tiny, little control room and two small vocal booths. There was a little section in the center of the studio that was for sitting around, kind of like a lounge in the middle of the whole thing. Not much to it. Then upstairs, there was a two-bedroom apartment which my engineers lived [in] so that they could get to work on time every single day. [Laughs.] [Our building] was covered with wood to make it look a little nicer, but we didn’t have any money back then so we just did what we could do. On one side of us was a VCR place and on the other side was this trashy motel. So that’s what it looked like, tons of character. But it was quite the trip, and we made some really great music out of that building.
About how long did it take to record “Lose Yourself”?
We started “Lose Yourself” in September of ’01, and it came out in ’02. So it took about a year, back-and-forth, to complete. A lot of the music was completed but the vocals and the words weren’t 100 percent completed by that time. I’d say it took about a year to really develop that song.
What type of creative would you say that Eminem is? Does he ask for collaborative help on the spot, or does he come up with something and then ask for approval on it later?
How we would do things is that, a lot of the time, I would do the music and track. I’d have it all ready and I would show him it, and he’d either like it or not like it. Other times, we’d sit down together raw — no music at all — and just start building something. I couldn’t explain to him in musical terms at that time what we were gonna write, but he seemed to understand me when I said that we would be doing a happy song or a sad song or an angry song. He can understand those emotions, so that’s how he was able to communicate with me on musical terms.
When you were coming up with the song, did you anticipate it taking off the way that it did? Was there ever a moment when you noticed that there was something different about it?
The only thing that we noticed, honestly, is that the track felt so good. We didn’t know why it felt so good, but it was something that felt good to us. It wasn’t until he got the script for the movie [8 Mile] where he came up with the lyrics and everything. It just came together. But something about the mode of the music really touched us. We kept pulling it out of the computer every so often to revisit it, to see if it could spark anything in us. We loved the track.
Did anything in the song change from the time you started working on it until the time it was done?
The main guitar that’s in there now — that was the original piece in there. But then, I also had rock, distorted guitars at the choruses they were taken out and replaced with keyboards. Originally, it was a little more rock-y than it turned out.
Do you think the guitar is the most special aspect of the song?
The chunky guitar in the song, I think it goes really well with the drums that were done. It rolls in a way that’s very motivating. It’s not that it’s so difficult; it’s just two, three chords that just kind of grab your soul and don’t let go. As you’ve seen the last 15 years, professional athletes have been using it as a motivational song while they’re pumping up and getting ready for a swim or a game. Even to this day, you can see it on TV all the time during big football games. 100,000 people waving their hands and listening to that song. It’s so motivational.
You were not actually at the Oscar ceremony, so where were you on the night of your Oscar win?
I was actually watching at my house because my wife just had a baby and I wanted to be with my baby. Hopefully one day he’ll appreciate that. [Laughs.]
What was your initial reaction? Did you call anyone?
I was in shock, obviously, because I never would have expected to win something like that. When Barbra Streisand announced my name, she pronounced it correctly, which is very weird, because people always say my last name incorrectly! She said it perfectly. The phones were just ringing off the hook right after that. I didn’t even have to call anyone — they all called me!
If you watch the video of the moment you all won, the cheering was insane. It seemed like everyone thought it was well-deserved. How did that feel to hear and see?
To be accepted by the peers of all genres of entertainment is quite incredible, to be honest. That’s why I went into the music business — to touch people, and to see if I could touch people. Obviously, the combination of the music and the lyrics touched millions and millions of people, and for that, I felt very grateful to do what I do.
Is your Oscar statue in a special place?
Right now, it sits in my home studio with my Grammys as a reminder of how blessed I am.
Did your win validate anything else for you personally?
Just to be able to achieve the highest, when you win Grammys and Oscars, there’s not much more than that to achieve. But definitely, I’m blessed. I’m a songwriter and a musician and it’s just part of what I am. Getting accolades and admiration hasn’t changed me much. I’m still the same dude, and I’m grateful that I can do this for a living.
How does it feel to look back at the success of the song and see what it did for the rap game as a whole?
It’s pretty amazing, especially since it came from this white kid rapper and these two white producers. [Laughs.] Just to break a color barrier because the culture of hip-hop is known to be a black culture. I think that artists like Eminem, myself and my brother being able to work with him helped break the color barrier.
It also helps to sway the conversation about race in the rap game as well.
Right. I’ve never heard anything negative about Eminem’s skills as far as his authenticity in the hip-hop game. He is hip-hop, if you want to put it in a culture like that. He was hip-hop, we were all hip-hop. That’s how we lived. It didn’t matter what color you were.
What matters is what you bring to the table.
Exactly, and he is literally the Shakespeare of the art.
How has knowing and working with Eminem changed you as a musician and a person?
I’ve learned how artists are with producers. Him and I had set this bar that was just so high. He had that gift — that artist’s gift of creating. You see all of these people who are trying to make it in the business, and you never get past a certain plateau. He is the top. So now every artist that I’ve worked with, the bar is high. They have to actually know who they are and what they want to do, as far as the artist that they want to be. The only thing that’s changed for me is that I get to see that now.
So it’s opened up my eyes for a better vision of what to look for when I’m searching for an artist who is trying to come up, and is willing to listen. That was the thing with Eminem — he was willing to follow my path and my brother’s path musically. Obviously he wrote his lyrics, but we collaborated on a lot of that stuff too. I have a clear vision of what it takes to be a successful recording artist. I can see if you’re gonna go down the right path that I’m gonna show you, or you’re not. You could be good at what you’re doing, but you need to be outstanding at what you do. Your competition is an Eminem or a Kendrick Lamar. If you can’t keep up with those guys, you’re not going to do it. The new artists coming out, the bar is so high for them.
PHOTO: Universal Pictures/Eli Reed