When hip-hop disses and dignity collide with cocked guns and hit orders, what’s the outcome? One-time archenemies Royce da 5’9" and D12’s Big Proof have an answer.
by Khary Kimani Turner
It’s near midnight, on a muggy Friday, June 4, 2004. Ryan "Royce da 5'9"" Montgomery and DeShaun "Big Proof" Holton, two of Detroit's most respected international rappers, confront each other on a downtown street. A heady conflict had been brewing between the two, and tonight it comes to a head.
Royce and Proof are puffed up. They exchange words, and nearly come to blows. No, make that blasts — gun blasts. They brandish revolvers. And each is backed by his own angry, animated crew — feuding families of Shakespearean proportions. Things could get really ugly, but by some miraculous fluke, they don't. Maybe the cops' swift action keeps the men from blowing each other away. Or, maybe, the two rappers are growing up.
Flash forward one year. The lights are dimmed in the reddish engineering room of the Canton studio where Royce da 5'9" records. He stands quietly in front of the massive mixing console, almost still, save for a slight head bop to the beat. Tracks from his third solo album, the independently released Independent's Day, are blaring over the studio's speakers. Royce is dressed in a traditional blue Detroit Tigers baseball cap, polo shirt, blue jean shorts and white sneakers. It's a decidedly more conservative style than the bejeweled shtick the brash emcee rocked a few years ago. For Royce, though, it's appropriate. He's more reserved these days.
Big Proof, Royce's erstwhile archenemy, is seated next to him. He wears black jogging pants and a white T-shirt emblazoned with the title of his long-awaited solo debut, Searching for Jerry Garcia, which will be released on his own Iron Fist imprint late next month. His outfit is also, in many ways, a symbol of how he's changed since selling 4 million albums with his group D12, whose most popular member is one Marshall "Eminem" Mathers.
It's a strange scene seeing these two together, given what went down a year ago. This time there are no guns and no cops, only friendly gestures and banter. Today, they're repairing their relationship by talking, for the first time since that night a year ago, about how and why it happened.
Royce is keen on getting Proof's opinion of Independent's Day, which will be released this week on M.I.C., the label Royce owns with his business partner Kino Childrey. Proof will later play a track from his forthcoming album, on which he wants Royce to record a guest vocal. The tentative title of the song? "I Was Young." It's as if these guys are best pals.
Maybe they should be: The two emcees have parallel histories. That their release dates are separated by a month is more kismet than coincidence. They are both independent solo artists. Both had — Proof still has — close relationships with Eminem. And they're both card-carrying members of an elite club in hip-hop culture. Call it the beef club.
Conflict — beef — in hip-hop culture is expected by fans, by the media, even by its artists. It's a culture bred on competition and legendary clashes, both verbal and physical. MC Lyte vs. Antoinette. Boogie Down Productions vs. the Juice Crew. The Notorious B.I.G. vs. Tupac Shakur. It's the shit of legends, and, by now, yawns.
What's different about beefs today is that rappers, and record labels, make money from these conflicts. The Game's recent 15-minute recording, "300 Bars," attacks 50 Cent and a host of others. It also makes him fodder for tabloid journalists, a fixture on Internet sites and helps tour business.
But hip-hop beef sometimes sours. It gets violent.
"The whole mind-set has really been the failure of a runaway capitalist society," says Dr. Carl Taylor, professor of sociology at Michigan State University. He says the marketing of hip-hop beef offsets the damage to revenue done by the Internet. "It's so fitting that these bastards [record companies] ran with it.
"On the flip side, young people have been allowed to wallow in it themselves, instead of learning resolve."
In light of Taylor's opinion, the story of Royce and Proof becomes important. The two are hip hop's version of biblical bros Jacob and Esau, musical brethren turned tragic enemies who could have ended up dead, much like Shakur and B.I.G. But through shared and separate chains of events, they wound up here, reunited.
Royce and Proof,s story is complicated. They met in 1996 on an Oak Park basketball court through mutual acquaintances. They later became friends through hip hop.
Proof was already a fixture on Detroit's scene when Royce emerged. Both quickly developed reputations for their ability to humiliate opponents in rap battles.
Their respective styles reflected their personalities: Proof is a self-described clown whose ability to make people laugh is uncanny ("It's funny, I'm a little dude, and I got big teeth. But they never got knocked out."). Royce is a lion of a lyricist, given more to visceral outbursts than jokes ("I will put this mic down, and beat yo ass up").
"Royce could spit," Proof says, sitting next to Royce on a couch in the studio's band room. "He was whuppin' ass out there."
Both emcees were known to win battles so handily that irked opponents often tried to fight them. Hence, the two connected. They're both fathers — which might be a telling fact in the mending of their beef — and they've been known to take their sons to Chuck E. Cheese together. Royce was present when Proof won The Source magazine's national rap battle in 1999. He studied Proof, and other emcees who preceded him.