“I put my soul through the ink.” — Proof

DeShaun Dupree Holton, a.k.a. Proof, a.k.a. Big Proof, was a Detroit-area rapper, born on this day in 1973. He was killed in still-mysterious circumstances at a pool hall in Detroit in April 2006. The story of his death took some time to come out, and this piece in The Guardian did a good job of attempting to get at the real truth.

But let’s talk about his life. He’s probably most well-known for being “Eminem’s best friend” – the two met when they were teenagers – but that does him a disservice. Here’s the thing about Proof.

He was what Malcolm Gladwell called “a connector” in The Tipping Point. Gladwell writes:

My social circle is, in reality, not a circle. It is a pyramid. And at the top of the pyramid is a single person — Jacob — who is responsible for an overwhelming majority of the relationships that constitute my life. Not only is my social circle not a circle, but it’s not ‘mine’ either. It belongs to Jacob. It’s more like a club that he invited me to join.

These people who link us up with the world, who bridge Omaha and Sharon, who introduce us to our social circles — these people on whom we rely more heavily than we realize — are Connectors, people with a special gift for bringing the world together.

Proof was one of those people. Eminem is just the most famous person in his vast web of interconnectedness.

Every single hip hop artist who came up in Detroit around that time, the 80s, the 90s, has a Proof story, and it’s always the same story, albeit with tiny details changed. Proof was there at a crucial moment, Proof hooked the person up with another person who could help, Proof said the ONE thing that helped the person out of a slump, Proof did the ONE thing that put the person on the right track. There are hundreds of stories like this. They’re still coming out. He was a guardian angel, cheerleader, helper, to everyone he met. He was a flawed human being – as we all are – (you’ll never catch me saying “He wasn’t a perfect person” because … who is?) But his modus operandi, his overriding principle, was to bring people together. He did it naturally and he started OUT that way. He was that way as a kid. Eminem talks about him all the time, but Eminem is so famous he tends to blur out other people – something he himself would not want. Proof was that way with HIM, yes, but Proof was that way with EVERYONE.

I am not sure if you can TRY to be a “connector.” I think you just have to already BE like that. It’s automatic: How can I help? I imagine you have to be very observant too, in tune with what is going on with other people, the opposite of self-focused. With Proof, the help he gave often came without the person even asking for it. Proof just noticed a problem on his own and stepped in to help solve it.

The most famous example of this – of course, because it’s from Eminem – is from back when they were high school kids together. Proof noticed his friend Marshall wore the same dirty sneakers every day. Sneakers were very VERY important and Marshall’s were a mess. Proof didn’t say anything about the sneakers, didn’t tease Marshall about them, but he noticed, and he intuited – correctly – the shame his friend must feel about his clothes, his sneakers, wearing the same thing every day. This isn’t the kind of thing that would have to be spoken, and one can imagine Marshall not wanting to talk about it at all. But Proof – a teenager, remember – saw the situation and knew he could fix it. Easy. He couldn’t fix the problems of the world, but he sure as hell could get his friend some new sneakers. So that’s what he did. BUT, and here is Proof’s social-emotional genius: He didn’t present them to Marshall in a deliberate “Here is an important gift” kind of way. No. Instead, he tossed the brand-new Nikes at his friend, saying, “I’m sick of seeing you in those dirty-ass sneakers.” So … it wasn’t charity, you understand.

This moment is so crucial to Eminem that he shared the story in his eulogy at Proof’s funeral, and he has also rapped about it countless times, the most recent time in 2017’s heart-wrenching “Arose”. 11 years after Proof’s death. Proof giving him the sneakers was a moment of unconditional kindness – life-changing for a person who experienced almost none of it in his life. Proof NOTICED. Just the NOTICING part of it was huge.

I’m very curious about people like this. They know something we don’t. They have the secret.

Proof was the “connector” of the larger Detroit hip-hop scene. People called him “the mayor.” He knew everyone and was generous in spreading knowledge around. He should have been PAID for this stuff, he worked it like a job. Everyone has said that when Proof died a lot of things fell apart, the sense of community fell apart with him. Everyone knew he was important – he was the kind of guy who had 60 best friends – but once he was gone, everyone realized just how much of a binding agent he had been, not just for individual people but for the whole culture in Detroit. His death ripped Detroit apart. Crowds lined the streets to watch his funeral procession go by.

There’s an MTV clip from Eminem’s first year of fame, when he basically took over MTV, those nutty TRL days, when a totally anti-social bleached-blonde sociopath was a Teen Heartthrob. The surreal 1999 moment when a newbie – with the nastiest meanest most profane lyrics on the plnaet – took over POP music. Not just hip hop but POP. So this clip is haunting: Eminem and Proof freestyling, just like they did when they were kids. Eminem’s in a car and Proof is leaning in the window. They’re basically telling the story of their shared childhoods and their friendship, amusing each other, laughing at each others’ cleverness.

You can really see what was lost when Proof died. This is who Eminem was when he “arrived.” Yeah, his lyrics were insane and violent, but he was not this grim scowling dude. He was the class clown, madcap, manic, funny. There is a lot of footage of Eminem and Proof together (Proof was his side man when they went on tour), but this is my favorite.

As Eminem’s fame exploded, he wanted to take all of his friends with him, the people he knew since he was a kid, his hip hop Detroit friends. And for a while he did. The goal for him was to use his fame to help launch their careers. To aid that, and also just to have fun, Eminem and Proof formed D12, a “supergroup”, with longtime friends Bizarre, Mr. Porter, Kuniva and Swifty McVay. (Never mind that there weren’t 12 people in the group, it was a nice play on words/numbers.)

As someone who was “around” back then, watching the Eminem thing take off, I remember being a little put off by D12, although of course I listened to it. I was “in it” for Eminem, and the non-Em tracks can be pretty grim. Eminem did rap a lot about drugs, but he rarely rapped about, you know, having a good time and partying. The D12 stuff is one long crazy party. (On Eminem’s FIRST 2020 album, Music To Be Murdered By, he pays tribute to the D12 years with “Those Kinda Nights”, about the parade of clubbing, hookups, partying.) I remember seeing the video for “Purple Pills” when it first aired – it was one of their radio hits – and it is an ode to casual drug use. (They were forced to re-name it “Purple Hills” to get on the radio.) They were young guys, street kids as of yesterday, who suddenly bumped around town in limos and had their pick of … everything.

As Em rapped in “Sing for the Moment”:

It’s fucked up ain’t it
How we can come from practically nothing to being able to have any fuckin’ thing that we wanted

By the second album, you can feel the strain that Eminem’s fame put on everyone else. Eminem is absent from a lot of the album. He just didn’t have time to devote to it. In the rather extraordinary song “How Come”, different members of D12 do separate verses where they express their problems with each other. It’s very Fleetwood Mac-Rumours-esque. The video is a little corny, but it’s fascinating to hear them air out their grievances in this way.

Proof “goes last”. A chill had come into his relationship with Eminem. They had been friends since they were teenagers. Eminem’s fame was too big, it took Eminem too far away. Eminem felt it too (he says it in his verse). Proof shares his side of things:

But PROOF is just acting out, the party was stoned
Shady made it so my babies ain’t starving at home
See the devil in you grin, since the ghetto we been friends
Whenever real intelligence that’s forever till the end
I be the hatred in your eyes and the Satan in your lives
And wasting my times with these snakes in disguise
How come when you talk it’s with bitter and spite
And how come it’s my fault for what you did with your life
And everytime I go to hear you and play you look away
We barely embrace, you can’t even look me in my face.

He was an amazing performer too. Instantly recognizable voice. As the crazy times got even crazier, Eminem retreated into a fortress of fame, by necessity, and the other guys went their own ways, including Proof – who continued to tour with Eminem, though, as his hype man, his side guy, a constant presence in all the concerts, by Eminem’s side.

But the journey of D12, a bunch of guys who had known each other since they were kids, having a blast, being rock stars, was over. It died without the oxygen of Eminem. Eminem harbors a ton of guilt. He felt responsible for the guys, he felt he let them down.

Back in 2004, as a couple of really intense industry beefs piled up, making everyone extremely nervous, Eminem came out with a song called “Toy Soldiers”, where he laid out step by step what was going on and why it needed to stop. Someone was going to get killed. It was a warning cry. Have we learned nothing from the Biggie/Tupac situation? In the video, Proof plays a friend who’s been shot as a result of one of these beefs swirling around Eminem and Dre and 50 Cent. Eminem stands in the hospital corridor, waiting anxiously to hear any news, watching a bloody Proof being worked on by the doctors. This is exactly how it all played out in real life just two years later. The video is queasily prophetic.

That same year, 2004, Proof came out with a solo album called I Miss the Hip Hop Shop (where he used to emcee rap battles). It’s interesting that his solo album would have such a nostalgic title, and it says a lot. He longed for simpler days, when it was just about coming to a rap battle on Saturday nights, when everyone was there for the love of it and nobody was making any money. If you’ve seen 8 Mile, then the Mekhi Phifer character was supposed to be Proof. Also if you’ve seen 8 Mile, then you’ve seen Proof himself. Proof plays Lil’ Tic, a rapper in the first rap battle, the one against whom B. Rabbit “chokes”. It’s so fun to see them together, a scene they had lived in real life so many times.

The following year, Proof came out with a second album, with the beautiful title Searching for Jerry Garcia. Proof tripped over Jerry Garcia’s music by accident, and became captivated with the guy’s attitude towards life, his love of his fans and music, his complete indifference towards money. There’s a funny story about D12 members gathering to get on the tour bus to head out on some huge tour, where they were going to be gone from Detroit for months. Proof showed up at the last minute, without a bag, not even a knapsack. The only thing he had with him was a bag of potato chips. He got on the bus with just the shirt on his back. He felt a kindred spirit in Jerry Garcia: “I’m like a disciple, preaching the gospel of Jerry Garcia. The dude is phenomenal.”

The final song on Searching for Jerry Garcia is a dark confessional song called “Kurt Kobain.” Proof was Gen X. Cobain and his death loomed over the 90s for all of us. Proof lived a wild life, he loved to party, he consorted with all kinds of people, including some dangerous ones. And he did not hold back when he got into a fight. Maybe he sensed he had a date with destiny. Who knows. Whatever way you look at it, “Kurt Kobain” is a chilling song, with or without knowledge of what came next. You can feel his heart here. The opening and closing lines alone …

Proof released the album on August 9, 2005, on the ten-year anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death. He was very proud of the fact that Garcia’s family gave him permission to use Garcia’s name.

In the wake of Proof’s death at the age of 33, all of the members of D12, as well as other friends, came out with songs of tribute to him. Eminem’s grief was extreme and prolonged. His prescription pill use escalated to the point that he overdosed in late 2007 and almost died. In 2008, as he tentatively got sober, he went into the studio and recorded a song called “Difficult.” It was not meant to be heard by anybody. It was for his ears only, a way to work through his feelings. But the song leaked and … I’m warning you: “Difficult” doesn’t even begin to cover the experience of listening to it. He sounds obliterated – holding on by a thread, so full of emotion he can’t even really feel any of it – the emotion is both spilling over and also numbing him completely. At one point, he tries to say the word “casket” and can’t do it, but I have to point out that this is his genius as a songwriter, even when he is in a STATE like he was in when he wrote and recorded that song: he must have been working the song out on the page, and couldn’t get past the word in the writing of it, so he included the not-being-able-to-get-“past it” into the song. You see: “Past it” rhymes with “casket.” At another point, he says “melatonin” when he means “melanin” – a kind of mistake Eminem in normal circumstances would never make. This is one of his most devastating tracks. Again, it was not meant to be heard, and it’s not hard to see why. But we have it, and so here it is:

In one of his many many many songs that are either about Proof or mention Proof, Eminem expresses embarrassment about how huge his grief was, and how he now feels like he made Proof’s death all about him. He forgot to be there for other people who were ALSO grieving. He is very sorry for this and feels a lot of guilt about it.

Other Eminem songs where Proof is prominent:

“Going Through Changes” off of Recovery, the highest-selling album – period – of 2010. He’s two years sober. He’s in therapy. He’s starting to work through some things, trying to be able to talk about Proof, and incorporate the loss.

“You’re Never Over,” another track off of Recovery, is more explicitly about Proof, and addresses Proof directly. It’s a howl of pain, the same howl of pain in “Difficult”, but he has distance now, he’s able to shape it, express it.

Three years after Recovery came The Marshall Mathers LP 2, where he looped back to his record-smashing 2000 album The Marshall Mathers LP, re-visiting the subject matter in that earlier album. In “Groundhog Day” he travels through the bleak landscape of his childhood, where he was abused and neglected, until he discovered hip hop, until he discovered he could actually put together rhymes. Proof was a huge part of helping him achieve his dreams. Proof is even more important than Dr. Dre in a way, because Proof was the first. Proof was a powerful factor in opening up doors for Eminem in what was pretty hostile territory. Proof vouched for him. It’s impossible to express how important this was.

Proof is mentioned in, off the top of my head,
“Deja Vu”
“Arose” (where he shouts, at one point, his voice cracking: “GOD, WHY DID YOU TAKE HIM?”)
“Walk On Water”
“Don’t Front”
“My Darling”.

In 2015, Eminem appeared as a guest feature on Yelawolf’s song “Best Friend.” It is one of the best verses in Eminem’s career. His performance in the music video is explosive. Scary almost. (Notice the shot where his “Proof” tattoo is shown prominently.) It’s a religious song, and “Best Friend”, in Yelawolf’s terms, is the Man Upstairs. God is present in Eminem’s verse too (and other deities) but then it becomes clear that when he refers to his “Best Friend” up there it’s Proof he’s talking about. (“Doody” was Proof and Eminem’s trash-talking nickname for each other.) Watching the video, seeing Eminem flailing around in that church, reaching up to the ceiling, shouting up into the air … is one of the clearest tributes to Proof’s impact.

So let’s get to the tribute songs written by the members of D12, as well as close friends like Obie Trice and Royce da 5’9″. Speaking of which, Royce posted on his Instagram page footage of an early interview he did with Proof, a clip he had never seen. He said he almost cried watching it.

Royce’s “Proof” song is called “Security.”

D12 member Kuniva’s song to Proof is “Lights Out”:

D12 member Swifty McVay’s Proof song is “Guardian Angel”:

And Obie Trice pays tribute to Proof in “Ride With Me”:

Some people have an endless supply of generosity. They may have nothing but they operate from a place of abundance, not scarcity. They give without caring about what they get in return. You got a problem? This person will try to help and they won’t wait for you to ask. Whether it’s giving Nike sneakers to the raggedy white boy on the block … or giving an up-and-comer tips on the business, or providing constructive criticism on a lyric, or giving someone a prominent spot in a rap battle on the night producers will be there … Proof would do it.

Who knows what kind of career he might have had, had he lived. He was a good man. He made a difference while he was here.

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4 Responses to “I put my soul through the ink.” — Proof

  1. Jayme says:

    Thank you for writing this.

  2. sabin says:

    God damn this was amazing, thank you!

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