For more than a decade, up until his shooting death on April 11, Deshaun Dupree “Proof” Holton was a leading figure on the Detroit rap scene. In the mid-’90s, as host and frequent participant at the famed open-mic night at Maurice Malone’s Hip-Hop Shop, Proof carved out a legacy as an unparalleled battle MC, and—as depicted by Mekhi Phifer in the 2002 movie 8 Mile—played an instrumental role in pushing his friend and rhyme partner Eminem to worldwide superstardom.
Proof was born in Detroit on Oct. 2, 1973, the son of record producer McKinley Jackson. He attended various Catholic schools as a child, and went on to Osborn High in his teens, but dropped out to pursue a career in rap before graduating. He formed a duo, Funky Cowboy, in 1996 with producer J Dilla—who also died earlier this year—and later, the multiplatinum sextet D12. While Phifer’s 8 Mile character, Future, was based on Proof’s real-life persona, Proof himself appeared in the movie as Lil’ Tic—the MC who intimidates Eminem’s B-Rabbit into choking in the opening battle scene.
Always one of Motor City’s most approachable stars, Proof could regularly be found at clubs, restaurants, concerts and bowling alleys, and he continued in his support of local hip-hop. Last summer, he launched his own label, Iron Fist Records, with his solo debut, Searching for Jerry Garcia, and planned on releasing the work of his artists Purple Gang, Woof Pak and Supa MC.
A few weeks before his death, Proof sat at the Iron Fist offices in the Michigan Building, about two blocks from the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit. He was in a good mood, happy with the 50,000 copies Searching for Jerry Garcia had sold, planning an overseas tour with Kid Rock’s DJ, Paradime, and looking forward to starting work on the next D12 album. Shrugging off recent talk of problems within the group, he was quick to defend Eminem against attack, and recounted a recent run-in with one of his camp’s biggest detractors. He also touched on the strange highway shooting of his label mate Obie Trice, his new album, his position in the Motown hip-hop scene and a life that seemed nowhere near finished.
You’ve always stood by your friendship with Eminem. Over the last couple years, he’s taken a lot of heat from certain figures in the industry. In an interview with XXL, Suge Knight tore into him with some pretty venomous statements. He called Em a “racist,” and basically compared him to a slave master.
Well, I had the privilege of meeting Suge Knight. I’m from Detroit, and I guess I don’t understand the fear that some people strike in others. I mean, Suge is doing bad, everybody knows it. The industry banned him. I personally think he shot himself. That’s just me. I mean, what he says don’t even count. When he’s running the record label as a Black man and somebody’s White running a record label, and it’s all the same shit across the board, where’s the slave-master mentality? That makes Suge a slave master if that’s the case. He has a platform to speak from, but most of the things he be saying is bullshit.
Why do you think it’s so popular to rip Em?
High profile! Like I had told Em one time about Suge, if you shut up saying stuff about him, that makes him stronger. If you attack him, you take away the only credibility that he’s got. And that is, the streets believe he’s just some hard-assed muthafucka. But if you approach it like, Yo, he’s not! Like Snoop did on that song “Pimp’d Slapp’d 2 (Fuck Suge Knight),” that shit is hard. ’Cause they’re ain’t nobody saying nothing to Suge. Em had a couple of things they wouldn’t let him say. You know, the labels and shit. If Suge really looks at himself, he destroyed himself. I mean, you had Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac. You got all these big artists, and you’re going to let the streets dictate how to run a record label? It’s like, Okay…
I’ve always been in the hood. But just ’cause I got love for rapping and people in general, I don’t give a fuck what color nobody is. A person’s a person. That’s just the way I operate. I’ll get the “Uncle Toms” and all this kind of shit… But me and Em will be dawgs forever. There’s no doubt. There’s nothing that anyone can say to me about Eminem at all. It’s like, just stop it, okay?
You said you met Suge. This was last year, right? You were in Vegas with Trick Trick? What went down that day?
Well, I was upstairs, and they said that Suge was downstairs. So I was like, I’m going downstairs! He’s with like two or three big dudes. When I came down there, Trick was already there, and he said he told Suge he’s gonna have to see me or something to that effect. I’m like, I don’t want to talk to that nigga. Then I was just chillin’ with some friends, and one of the dudes that was with Suge said something to me. I was like, I ain’t messing with that shit. It wasn’t nothing. So then Kid Rock was downstairs. I love Kid Rock to death. Me and Bob go way back, and this night he decides to be the peacemaker. So when I see Suge next to Kid Rock, I wanted to post up just to make sure that Suge wasn’t trying no crazy shit, you know. But he wasn’t. I guess they knew each other. Then Kid Rock says to Suge, “Hey, that’s my childhood friend. Proof! Come here! Come here!” I’m like, man, that’s fuckin’ Suge Knight. I’m not about to come talk to him. But I walk over there, and Suge sticks out his hand. And I’m like, “I ain’t shakin’ your muthafuckin’ hand. Get out of my face with that shit.” He pointed like, “You, you, and you come outside.” I said, “Man, that’s the last thing you told Tupac, and we ain’t seen him since.” Once I did that, the way his face looked was priceless. I don’t try to tell that story too much, ’cause I’m not trying to be that kind of person. But I know the kind of people I’ve been around all my life. Most of the certain ones, I can put them in the same category, ’cause of this look that they’ve got. When I looked at Suge and that shit wasn’t nowhere there, I was like, I can’t believe it. It was almost like a letdown. It was like, This ain’t the guy. This guy can’t be one of them guys. I’m not even one of those guys, but I know them guys, and he’s not one of them dudes.
When you’re in other cities, do you feel like you have to represent Detroit in a certain way—let others know that you don’t take any shit?
If you can survive in Detroit, I’ll be damned if I’ll go anywhere and be hoed out. ’Cause this place is a muthafucka. They say there’s like two or three murders a day in Detroit. They don’t even make the news, that’s how much murder happens here.
Just like all that beefin’ with Suge, I ran into Chris Gotti the other day at the Compuware thing. Kind of the same thing Suge tried to do to me. I know the owner of the Compuware building and his wife, so I wasn’t about to tear up no shit. You know they tried to rush me down in Miami. Which they didn’t do anything. I’m like 165 pounds and five or six of y’all can’t get me. They was all just DJs and kittens. [Laughs.] I walked out with scratches.
Obie Trice was shot this past New Year’s Eve while driving down the freeway. Do you think there was any connection to rap, or was it just an unlucky, wrong-place, wrong-time kind of thing?
I think it’s a Detroit thing, honestly. I was at a show in Toledo when that happened. I drove all the way back thinking the worst shit ever. But it was a good thing the bullet didn’t really penetrate. I’m glad he’s hardheaded. People don’t know that Obie is actually my cousin. But we didn’t find that out ’til later, after being label mates. That’s some wild shit!
You’re known for being out on the scene here in Detroit, and for being approachable, down-to-earth. Has that become more difficult lately?
A lot of times when I’m out and about, I get to hear a lot more shit. When it comes to preserving hip-hop, like there was about to be a big rumble at Northern Lights on Tuesday. I took it upon myself to personally get on the phone and call both sides of the party like, “You’re not going to Northern Lights to fight. This is like the only hip-hop shit we got going in Detroit that’s real, and you guys are not going to fuck it up.” And they didn’t. So with the bad, there’s some good from me being on the scene and knowing a lot of rappers and stuff, so we can still preserve the scene. ’Cause I am the “Mayor of Hip-Hop.”
In that regard, you chose an interesting title for your album, Searching for Jerry Garcia. The Grateful Dead guitarist is not a name that carries a lot of currency in the hip-hop community.
You know what? It’s like a catchphrase when you say it to a Black person. They say, Who? It goes to show how closed minded people can be. Me, I’m open-minded, ’cause my father was a musician. He produced Tower of Power, Jones Girls, Marvin Gaye. Going to Catholic schools made me accepting of people of different cultures. I came across Jerry Garcia on a documentary on a whim. [My friend Mark and] I had just watched Searching for Bobby Fischer, and we’re watching this documentary come on. It says that Jerry Garcia’s demise came from stress, drugs and poor diet. Mark was like, “Fuck Bobby Fischer, that’s who they should be looking for.” And I was like, “Riiight!” He was the epitome of what an artist is. He did jazz, rock, whatever!
You had a lot of high-powered guests on the album. 50 Cent, Nate Dogg, Method Man and B-Real…
Method Man and B-Real! When people say Proof is down-to-earth, it’s because of those two people. I met Method Man in like ’94, when he first came out. He shot me his phone number, and we used to kick it on the phone, talkin’ ’bout doing a song together. We did the song, and it just showed me that once you did get on, you didn’t have to act a certain way. A lot of people tend to take that shit to their head. The things the fans say to you let you know how everybody else acts. When they say, What are you doing here? I live in Detroit for one, and I can come and see titties when I want to see titties! But that just shows you how distant others can be. [Laughs.] I think some people just let it go to their heads. I know that people let it go to their head, ’cause I catch myself in certain situations doing some wild shit. I’m like, That’s really not cool. I can be on the phone and just hang up. I’m like, [to myself], You couldn’t even say bye or anything? Like, where am I going? Maybe I’m distracted? Whatever it is, I know that that wasn’t right. Like, wow—what did I just do?!
I’m sure you don’t mind some of the public attention. But how do you deal with the overzealous fan who approaches you at an inopportune time? Like when you’re eating with your kids or taking a piss in the men’s room or something?
This is one thing I figured out about fans, it’s why I try to be gracious to them: The people at home don’t see the work when they’re at home watching TV. You don’t understand the work behind it. You just share the moment. Say Marilyn Manson’s my man. Say I’m watching Marilyn Manson on TV. I’m just a fan, right? When I see Marilyn Manson, he doesn’t know about my house, but I know my house and where I found my moment with Marilyn Manson at. So I gotta say something to you right? Now, I might say the dumbest shit in the world because I don’t know what to say. I feel like I know you. I don’t know you, but we had this moment at my home. At that moment that I’m talking to Marilyn Manson, he can’t feel what I’m feeling. They don’t share getting the beat, writing the rhyme, going in the studio, shooting the video. When the video’s shot, then we share just this one moment. But you can’t explain that to nobody that’s drunk at the bar.
Back before you were famous, back when Em was crashing at your house way back when. Did you ever imagine how big it would eventually get?
Let me tell you the illest story about what I say when people ask why I didn’t finish high school. I used to wake up, walk over to Em’s house to go to school at lunch. I had this little scam on lunch cards. I stole a bunch of lunch cards and gave them to people, then I would collect money from them at the end of the week. I’d go up there at lunch and stay for about three hours in a row. I’d never go to class! Em said to me one day, “Man, why are you going to high school? We’re gonna be rappers.” I was like, “Okay.” I go and talk to my mother. Say, “Mom, I want to drop out of high school and be a rapper.” She said, “Okay, you just got to get a job.” So I called Em, and I said, “Em, I can’t drop out of high school unless I got a job.” He said, “Okay, I’ll call you back.” He called back like three minutes later and had gotten me a job at Little Caesars. [Laughs.] Just imagine if he had been wrong.