Eminem was born on October 17, 1972, in St. Joseph, Missouri, the only child of Marshall Bruce Mathers, Jr. (born June 30, 1951; known as Bruce) and Deborah Rae “Debbie” Nelson (born January 6, 1955). Debbie was 14 when she met 18-year-old Bruce; at age 17, she nearly died during her 73-hour labor. Eminem’s parents were in a band called Daddy Warbucks, playing in Ramada Inns along the Dakotas–Montana border before their separation. Bruce left the family, moving to California and having two other children: Michael and Sarah (born c. 1982). Debbie had son Nathan “Nate” Kane Samara on February 3, 1986. During his childhood, Eminem and Debbie shuttled between Michigan and Missouri, rarely staying in one house for more than a year or two and living primarily with family members. In Missouri, they lived in several places, including St. Joseph, Savannah, and Kansas City.
As a teenager Eminem wrote letters to his father; according to Debbie, all came back marked “return to sender”. Friends and family remember Eminem as a happy child, but “a bit of a loner” who was often bullied. One bully, De’Angelo Bailey, severely injured Eminem’s head; Debbie filed a lawsuit against the school in 1982, which was dismissed the following year. Eminem spent much of his youth in a lower-middle-class, primarily black, Detroit neighborhood. He and Debbie were one of three white households on their block, and Eminem was beaten by black youths several times. As a child he was interested in storytelling, aspiring to be a comic-book artist before discovering hip hop. Eminem heard his first rap song (“Reckless”, featuring Ice-T) on the Breakin’ soundtrack, a gift from Debbie’s half-brother Ronnie Polkinghorn, who later became a musical mentor to him. When Polkinghorn committed suicide in 1991, Eminem stopped speaking for days and did not attend his funeral.
Eminem’s home life was seldom stable; he frequently fought with his mother, whom a social worker described as having a “very suspicious, almost paranoid personality”. When her son became famous, Debbie was unimpressed by suggestions that she was a less-than-ideal mother, contending that she sheltered him and was responsible for his success. In 1987, Debbie allowed runaway Kimberly Ann “Kim” Scott to stay at their home; several years later, Eminem began an on-and-off relationship with Scott. After spending three years in ninth grade due to truancy and poor grades, he dropped out of Lincoln High School at age 17. Although he was interested in English, he never explored literature (preferring comic books) and disliked math and social studies. Eminem worked at several jobs to help his mother pay the bills, later maintaining that she often threw him out of the house anyway. When she left to play bingo, he would blast the stereo and write songs.
At age 14, Eminem began rapping with high-school friend Mike Ruby; they adopted the names “Manix” and “M&M”, the latter of which evolved into “Eminem”. Eminem sneaked into neighboring Osborn High School with friend and fellow rapper Proof for lunchroom freestyle rap battles. On Saturdays, they attended open mic contests at the Hip-Hop Shop on West 7 Mile, considered “ground zero” for the Detroit rap scene. Struggling to succeed in a predominantly black industry, Eminem was appreciated by underground hip hop audiences. When he wrote verses, he wanted most of the words to rhyme; he wrote long words or phrases on paper and, underneath, worked on rhymes for each syllable. Although the words often made little sense, the drill helped Eminem practice sounds and rhymes.