What do we have to prove?

Editor’s Note: After this story went to press, Metro Times learned that 35-year-old Keith Bender Jr. died at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit. The police believe that Bender was shot by Proof.



One thing I know is that life is short.

So listen up, homeboy. Give this a thought.

The next time someone's teachin', why don't you get taught?

      —Run-DMC, "It's Like That"



Dear Detroit Hip-Ho— no ... Dear black Detroi— no ...

Dear God, what are we doing to ourselves? And what were they doing?

"I just got a clean bill of health from the Army. I'd better relax," Keith Bender Jr. should've been thinking.

"I have too much going right in my life. I'm leaving this fight alone," rap star Proof should've said.

Whatever sparked that fight in the early morning hours at C.C.C., it shouldn't have led to guns being fired.

Deshaun "Proof" Holton is dead, and Bender's fighting for his life. Two families have been destroyed.

And we're frozen.

No one should suffer these things. This isn't about typical rap shit. It's about stupidity. The shooting strikes at the heart of hip hop because those of us who knew and loved Proof knew him as a delightful personality prone to asinine, often self-created predicaments, the kind you hoped wouldn't one day cost him dearly.

But he did pay dearly.

This freak scene involved three intelligent individuals who've lived long enough to have perspective on their lives. The wrong choices were made. One started the spat, the other responded, and a third, Bender's cousin Mario Etheridge, ended it in a round of bullets.

It's all sickening, and it hurts like hell.

I considered Proof a friend, though scores of people were closer to him, including some who had beefs. Ours was a professional acquaintance based on mutual respect. As interview subjects go, he was one of the best quotes in town. I had the pleasure of watching him evolve from host of the legendary Hip-Hop Shop's Saturday afternoon open-mic sessions in 1995 to a multiplatinum-selling member of D12, a group that couldn't have existed without him.

I learned that the man was conflicted, his persona and fame balanced precariously against his ideas of life and family. His reputation as an easily provoked hothead was longstanding.

In fact, a relative of mine had an early morning confrontation with Proof last fall at Detroit's Northern Lights Lounge. The next day Proof and I discussed the fracas. He said they were under the influence. Proof soon made amends to my relative.

But I never pegged the rapper for a murderer. It's difficult to imagine him as cold-blooded as the ongoing police investigation suggests. That Proof shot a man is a bitter pill to swallow.

Proof had a police record. It included three arrests for assault, one involving Spudd from 102.7 (WHTD-FM), though neither was convicted of wrongdoing. Proof had been charged over the years for carrying a concealed weapon, being in possession of a stolen vehicle and disorderly conduct

The Detroit Police are moving quickly through an investigation of what went down at C.C.C., the after-hours Eight Mile nightclub where Proof was slain. Compared to cases involving seminal artists Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Jam Master Jay, there's less mystery surrounding this one. Maybe it's because there are no tight-lipped music industry hangers-on who refuse to cooperate with the cops. With C.C.C. looking at various reported violations, illegal operating hours and an average of two police runs per year over the last decade, according to news reports, the cops have a lot of backs to push against the wall.

But the details are not the bottom line here. The question is how did Proof, a man with a successful solo career and a new lease on a challenging life, get into this situation?

Proof had personality and was a natural comic — more Rudy Ray Moore than Richard Pryor. His swift wit drew on the moment — Proof was a born heckler, the guy who tossed the story aside and went straight for the punch-line jugular.

Proof stayed in contact with the east side streets he grew up on. In an interview last June, he joked about defending himself: "I don't understand it, man. I'm skinny, and I got big-ass teeth. But they never got knocked out."

He could also freestyle about anything. He'd create on-the-spot rhymes at the expense of emcees he battled, or to the joy of attendant fans shouting rap topics in an attempt to trip him up.

I peered beyond Proof's wit. I figured someone that skilled, alert and scarily spontaneous had to be sharp. He was.

Khalid el-Hakim was Proof's friend and vice president of his Iron Fist record label. He says Proof was an avid reader who studied Hebrew. Sun Tzu's The Art of War was a Proof fave.

Mark "Doughboy" Hicks, Iron Fist's promoter, marketing man and close friend to Proof, recalls the rapper's "ambassador" attitude toward Motor City hip hop.

"He would treat an executive at Interscope [Records] the same as he would the guy he was buying a juice from at the corner store," Hicks says.

Hicks' account of how he heard about Proof's death is chilling. Hicks fought insomnia the Monday night before the shooting. That's why he was up at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning, watching the news broadcast on WDIV.

First report: A rapper had been involved in a shooting. "I thought, 'Aw, man,'" Hicks says. "Here we go."

His phone rang. Someone asked if he'd heard.

Second report: Proof is mentioned by name and identified as the victim. Hicks froze.

Today, not two days after the shooting, I actually hear a smile in his voice, which is a Hicks' M.O. He's an affable dude, lives on the bright side of life. I also hear shock and disbelief.

Proof was not unlike many successful black men from urban centers like Detroit, comfortable both in the streets and in pricey hotel suites.

Black street culture in Detroit is plagued by unemployment and underemployment, crime and drugs. It's rough and unforgiving. After obvious systemic factors — the histories of white flight, racial tension, etc. — are analyzed, the bottom line is still sink or swim. The hood says, "Get it how you live." Translation: Use what you've got to get what you want. Satisfaction comes in immediate, material bites. Returns on investments are shiny things that can be placed in hand ... today. Cars, cash, women. Fuck a stock and bond. It's an environment that breeds a greedy desire for hasty gratification.

And when you have it, go back to the hood and show — or share. Proof was one to share. He'd won the prestigious national 1999 Source magazine battle. He'd toured as Eminem's hype man, the cat next to the star who rocks crowds to accent performances. He'd gone multiplatinum and became a pop star with D12 and began living the good life. He'd gone solo. He'd since given friends jobs, trained them, kept them close and stayed close to home.

But home was a dangerous place. Proof showed us that hanging in the old country with new fame ain't easy. It puts you in clothing that no longer fits. It attracts a heady mix of admiration and resentment.

And in the interview last June, Proof said he indulged in the pop star life a bit too much.

"I'll tell you this," he said, sitting in a hotel room at the Atheneum in Greektown, "no man is prepared for what I experienced with Em or D12." The man who barely drank during the Hip-Hop Shop years was exposed to a world where drugs were available anytime, anywhere.

That's not to say Proof didn't work. He'd become an entrenched D12 team member, a Joe Dumars type to Em's Isaiah Thomas, on multiple levels. Hicks says Proof had an unfaltering work ethic and would often arrange tour set lists, consult on stage schematics and make suggestions to help pace arena-sized performances. By his own admission, he partied hard on the side. He was a rock star.

I was surprised at how openly Proof discussed his D12-Eminem experience; it was the first time I spoke with him on record about such things. He was calculating, but not too much so. He said he'd fucked up a lot and had beefs to settle. He felt highly misunderstood in the Detroit rap community.

His biggest beef, with rapper Royce da 5'9", was the first to be resolved. He described an old-fashioned downtown showdown in which they brandished pistols and got arrested. They never intended to use them, he insisted. It was a misunderstanding that, over time, became a pissing match.

The two showed cooler heads in jail that night. They squashed the shit, Proof said, laughing, adding that they were actually embarrassed, and that it was far from a publicity stunt. Besides, the rappers were grown up, they had children; Royce, one child, and Proof, five.

Proof wanted to be a better parent. He'd grown careless; that mind-set damaged his marriage. (Proof and his wife Sharonda were on the mend when he died.) He didn't speak much about his children, preferring to keep that side of his life private.

Proof was at a career crossroad. While D12 was (and is) still together, it's not clear when the next release will come. But D12 members had begun to take care of themselves. Proof and Bizarre struck solo first, releasing indie albums, and Bizarre had a stint on the most recent season of VH1's Celebrity Fit Club.

Proof spoke about his Iron Fist roster of artists — Supa MC, Purple Gang and Woof Pak — but also pondered the biggest issues in his life. His intent was to get out of his own way. He said he needed to find balance.

"I'm a clown. I wanna have fun. Now, if you switch it," he said, hinting at the conflicts of the past two years, "I get turned on, and I just handle that. I don't wanna be no gangsta, 'cause a gangsta is one who uses violence to communicate. I'm a rapper. I wanna spit lyrics, do witty things. But it gets confused along the lines, 'cause I walk with gangstas."

And other thoughts he shared are now eerie upon review:

"We're not taught to control our destiny," he said. "I've never been this scared in my life. I control the rest of my life right now."

Proof wanted to leave the detrimental parts of his lifestyle behind, especially after rap group Fat Killahz presented him with a "Hip-Hop Mayor of Detroit" award at the Detroit Hip-Hop Awards in early 2005. He took the award seriously, and began mending fences.

He and Royce toured overseas together in December and recorded several songs together. Their healing arguably influenced others to settle beefs. Royce and Trick Trick, Proof's friend, settled a long-lasting cold war, and Proof began extending olive branches to other foes.

He talked to el-Hakim, who's also an educator, about sponsoring some of his middle-school students. His 2005 release Searching for Jerry Garcia, meanwhile, sold 60,000 copies. Proof kept few profits from the album's sales, though his indie deal paid him nearly $7 per copy sold (major record companies like D12's home, Interscope, pay artists an average of less than $1 dollar per unit). Proof began putting his time and money into developing Iron Fist's artists. He became the guy who was the first to report to work and the last to leave.

It makes sense. Searching was a concept album meant to symbolize Proof's desire to reclaim his true(r) artistic self. In fact, Searching depicts several moments in which Proof dies, foreshadowing his death at the hands of gun violence. On "Forgive Me," Proof raps: Quick tempered, short fuse and pissed at God, demons pulling at my soul 'til it's ripped apart.

(In another eerie twist, Proof was murdered in Eminem's 2005 video for "Like Toy Soldiers." In it, a bloodied Proof dies as a result of gunshot wounds — and shows Em frantically showing up at the hospital to see Proof before it's too late. It's a bone-chilling, life-imitates-art scene.)

I got a firsthand glimpse of Proof's reformation last month when, while talking at the Northern Lights, I asked him to serve as a guest lecturer for a class on hip hop and poetry I teach at Oakland University. Aware of his ability to engage groups on multiple levels, I couldn't think of a better person. But I knew he kept late hours, and my class meets in the morning.

"Man, that's the kind of stuff I want to do," he said. "Just give me the date in advance, 'cause I just won't go to sleep that night." Due to a rigid course schedule on my end, it never happened.

Proof was set to tour Nicaragua, and was tapped for an Australian tour supporting rapper The Game. In fact, the Iron Fist team — el-Hakim and Hicks, Proof and company president, rapper First Born — planned to open an office in Sydney, a city Proof loved.

This is probably the most surreal article I've ever written. It's like, the man was on the mend, and then the man is dead. But Proof still liked to hang out. He'd gone to C.C.C. before. He'd show up at Alvin's, Northern Lights, at the C-Note Lounge (another killing took place at a CD release party for rapper John Drama just days after the Proof shooting).

If you know anything about the culture of Detroit after-hours spots, think blind pigs, the illegal prohibition-era drinking houses popular in Detroit, Chicago and other cities. You go there after the 2 a.m. closing time when you're not ready to call it a night.

"He had friends in many places," el-Hakim says. "He didn't care where he went. It could be MTV one night and a grimy Detroit spot the next."

And I will remember him that way, the way he lived. I will remember how he died. I'll brood over this tragedy for a long time to come, because I'm just as pained and angry as I am shocked and sad. And I'm not the only one. My job allows me a therapeutic out, but it doesn't answer all my questions.

And at what point do we lean on wisdom and perspective from our history, and resist impulses of tense moments? And when do we — not hip-hop, but young, black men — start considering the consequences of our actions on our families, children and culture?

As much as I love hip hop, I'd be a fool to deny that we smear shit on ourselves in our music, but call it cologne. And our children are left to grow up in the aftermath of the mental conditioning. Many of Proof's verses contained violent punch lines, rhymes about murder and death. But it's an open secret that 99 percent of rappers who rhyme about such are spewing fiction. Look at Proof, just another dead rapper? Hardly. There was a person behind the persona. His family is changed forever.

"I think we have to stop ignoring that the shit we say affects the general consciousness of people," says local poet Jamaal "Versiz" May, who was a close friend to Proof. "All these idle threats on wax, 'I'm'a kill you, I'm'a tie up yo kids,' that shit ain't cute no more. You gotta start asking what effect does it have on people, and the way rappers manifest their own destinies."

We have a role as men in this society, but our actions suggest that we only accept a portion of that responsibility. Yes, I will remember Proof as the wonderful and conflicted person he was. But I will also ask why he couldn't exercise enough restraint to consider the moment. To consider tomorrow.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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