The story behind Eminem and Elton John’s iconic (and controversial) 2001 Grammys performance

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— Story by Taryn Ryder and Rewind experience created by Tim Chaffee and Quinn Lemmers

The Grammy Awards are known for flashy, unusual musical pairings, but no duo caused a stir like Eminem and Elton John in 2001.

Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP was one of the biggest hits of the previous year. It cemented him as a rap star and force to be reckoned with in the music industry — love him or hate him. And people really did either love him or hate him. For every critic hailing the Detroit native as a lyrical genius, there was another criticizing him for homophobic and misogynistic messages. (The track “Criminal,” for example, features the line, “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/That’ll stab you in the head/Whether you’re a f** or a lez.”) Even though Eminem repeatedly said his lyrics weren’t to be taken seriously, the rapper’s four Grammy nominations set off a firestorm.

GLAAD announced it would be among the groups protesting Eminem’s “hate-filled lyrics” outside Staples Center in Los Angeles on Grammy night. Then, less than two weeks before the telecast, it was revealed that John would take the stage with Eminem to perform his hit song “Stan.”

Yahoo Entertainment spoke with former Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich about how Eminem and John’s unforgettable performance came to be.

According to Ehrlich, who was the showrunner of the Grammy Awards for 40 years and the architect of the event’s signature musical team-up moments, there was no hesitation that Eminem’s participation (solo or not) might prove to be too controversial for network television.

“I produced the show, so a lot of it was my decision. We wanted him, there wasn’t any question,” he recalls. “Granted he was — I don’t want to even use the word controversial. He was an extremely unique artist who was not hesitant about expressing his point of view. And by the way, some of that point of view was pointed at the Grammys.”

(That’s true. Eminem’s hit song “The Real Slim Shady” features the line, “You think I give a damn about a Grammy?/Half of you critics can’t even stomach me, let alone stand me.”)

According to Ehrlich, both he and Eminem, real name Marshall Mathers, had the vision that he’d perform with another artist. Whose idea it was to recruit John differs a bit.

“I was like, ‘The only way I’ll perform at the Grammys is with Elton John,'” Eminem told MTV News in 2001. “And I was saying it in kind of jest, thinking it would never happen. The idea of it started becoming more, ‘OK, this is a way to really flip it around and really f*** people’s heads up.”

Ehrlich tells Yahoo, “Well, I don’t want to rewrite history if he says that that’s fine. It’s not exactly the way I remember it. But, you know, great ideas have many fathers.”

“I remember getting a call,” Ehrlich continues, “It might have been someone at the label, it might’ve been someone from [Eminem’s team], but I think we had already been thinking about it, just not necessarily in those terms. We were looking for a duet partner because they had expressed to us that he was interested in performing with another artist.”

Ehrlich had a decades-long relationship with John, so he says “it was easy to talk to Elton” about the potential collaboration. The iconic singer took to the idea immediately.

“As soon as we got the message to Elton that we were interested, he sparked to it,” Ehrlich recalls. “He said, ‘This is exactly the kind of thing that I want to do. I want to break down these barriers. If [Eminem’s] OK with it and he wants to do it. I’d love to do it.'”

Although everyone hoped to keep the collaboration a secret until the big show, buzz of the shocking pairing started to leak. The Recording Academy confirmed John would join Eminem for a rendition of “Stan,” sparking even more backlash. GLAAD released a statement saying it was “appalled that John would share the stage with Eminem, whose words and actions promote hate and violence” against gays and lesbians. “We were all flabbergasted that [John] would do this,” a spokesperson told Entertainment Weekly.

In “Stan,” which is about a deranged fan obsessed with the rapper, Eminem raps in the final verse how what he says shouldn’t be taken literally. John explained he could separate the rapper’s Slim Shady character from the real-life person. “If I thought for one minute that [Eminem] was [hateful], I wouldn’t do it,” John told the Los Angeles Times amid the uproar.

The duet was still a go. Ehrlich drove to an offsite location to watch the pair rehearse and was blown away at what he saw.

“It was a word I don’t often use. It was palpable,” he says of Eminem and John’s chemistry. “You could see that they were both big fans of each other’s.”

Creatively, Eminem and John were also in sync as to what the performance would look like.

“I believe it was Marshall’s concept as to how to integrate Elton into it,” Ehrlich remembers. (John sang the chorus vocals performed on the original track by Dido.) “It was Eminem’s moment. So what I didn’t want to do, and by the way, neither did Elton, was to step on that. So Elton was in the background. That was the way he wanted it. He didn’t want to take the spotlight away from what Marshall was doing. It worked out for everybody.”

Although Ehrlich remembers the 2001 Grammys as a “very strong show,” he knew early on Eminem and John’s moment was going to be the most talked about of the program. That’s why it was held until the final moments of the three-hour telecast. But Eminem and John gave producers a clear directive that they didn’t want the promotion of their performance to seem “exploitative.”

“Both of them were very careful about what we could do because they didn’t want it to feel too exploitative, which I don’t think it did,” Ehrlich says. “We honored what we said we would do.”

And so did Eminem and John.

Despite protests on Grammy night — people held signs outside Staples Center that said things like “Don’t Award Hate” — the artists delivered an unforgettable six-minute rendition of “Stan.” John put his spin on the chorus from a piano positioned behind Eminem. They didn’t come together until after it was all over. At the end of the song, they held up their hands in a show of unity and hugged.

“It was the picture that went around the world, where the two of them got up, Elton left the piano, came centerstage and they did this really remarkable and really emotional embrace,” Ehrlich remembers. He says that “really kind of sealed the deal” to make it one of the most memorable moments in Grammys history.

As for whether John and Emimen’s embrace was rehearsed or spontaneous, Ehrlich can’t recall.

“I don’t remember. I’m a big fan of artists embracing when we do these moments, so maybe I mentioned it, maybe it was spontaneous. They obviously — they really did like each other and it really led to a continued friendship from that day on,” he says. (That’s true, as both stars have talked about their close bond spanning two decades now.)

What wasn’t rehearsed was when Eminem flipped off the audience after the embrace. “I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘That’s Marshall,'” Ehrlich laughs.

After going three for three, Eminem lost out on the biggest prize of the night for Album of the Year. (Which is still questionable, no offense to Steely Dan.) Some reviews called the performance “anticlimactic” because after all the build up, there was no on-stage drama. But the performance didn’t appease protesters, with one telling the Guardian at the time it’s “like Barbra Streisand embracing Eva Braun.”

While Eminem and John’s performance is one for the books, they both got much more out of it than headlines. The pair sparked a genuine friendship. After relapsing in 2008, Eminem revealed it was John who helped him get sober. John has acted as his sponsor in recent years.

“When I first wanted to get sober, I called [Elton] and spoke to him about it,” Eminem told The Guardian. “He’s somebody who’s in the business and can identify and relate to the lifestyle and how hectic things can be. He understands … the pressure and any other reasons that you want to come up with for doing drugs. … I reached out to him and told him, ‘Look, I’m going through a problem and I need your advice.'”

During a 2017 interview, John said he and Eminem have “been amazing friends” ever since the performance. “I just adore him,” John shared on The Graham Norton Show, revealing Eminem sent him a NSFW wedding gift after marrying David Furnish. “Shows you how homophobic he isn’t.”

Twenty years later and Eminem still has his detractors, though; most recently it is Gen Z who is trying to cancel the rapper on TikTok for “tone-deaf” lyrics. (Someone may want to tell them where the word “stan” comes from, which has been part of our lexicon for two decades.) As for whether Eminem really could have been canceled in 2001 had social media been around, don’t bet on it.

“I can’t really speak to the backlash to Eminem these days. I found him to be very approachable, great to work with,” Ehrlich says. “And Elton, I’ve had a lifetime of great moments on television with Elton. … He’s wonderful. And characteristic of the way that he embraced the Eminem situation, anytime I’m either with him or talk to him, he’s really interested in the future of music, particularly with artists. He continues to be a fan of the evolution of the changing face of music and in 2001, Eminem was the changing face of music.”

Behind the scenes, Ehrlich has nothing but fond memories of putting the “amazing” performance together.

“You would think it would be moving mountains to get both of them to do that, but as it turned out, it was not that difficult at all,” he adds, saying it’s definitely in his “top 10” Grammy moments of all time.

“The Grammys continue to take a lot of criticism and a lot of it is justified, certainly this year with the nominations it’s justified,” says Ehrlich, who has been nominated for five Emmy Awards for his production work on the Grammys. “But the show itself? I’ve always been proud of these kinds of things, which are performances that you’re going to see anywhere else.”

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