Beyond beef

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.

"I learned from them to go for the jugular," Royce says.

Royce also respected Eminem who, at the time, was just starting to build his own career. Proof was also a friend of Em — they had connected, also through hip hop, years before meeting Royce.

All three rappers struggled to get their careers off the ground in the late 1990s. They each landed record deals.

Em' was discovered by Andre "Dr. Dre" Young and signed to his Aftermath Records imprint around 1997. Royce signed to Tommy Boy Records two years later. Proof was signed to a small label that fashion designer Maurice Malone had launched in New York City.

Royce had been touring with Em' between 1997 and 1999. When Royce got his record deal and began recording, Em' replaced him with Proof. By then, Proof had parted company with Malone.

Royce says he wasn't thrilled about not touring with Em'. He thought the replacement would be temporary, but respected Em's decision to make Proof permanent. Things were amicable among the three.

But a conflict began when the superstar formed his powerhouse label Shady Records and began grooming his six-man rap group D12 (both Em' and Proof are members of D12.)

Between 2000 and 2003, discord between Royce and the other members of D12 festered and became ugly. Eventually, the tension would center on Royce and Proof.

The only member of D12 Royce knew besides Em' and Proof was Rufus "Bizarre" Johnson. The portly Bizarre, whom Metro Times profiled last week ("R-E-S-P-E-C-T," June 22), once had a musical rivalry with Royce's older brother when the two rapped at an Oak Park high school.

But D12 thought Royce was arrogant and abrasive. In fact, Royce was developing a similar reputation among many of his peers in the local hip-hop community. Royce thought he was simply misunderstood, that he was just an aggressive lyricist with a quiet personality. He was also hitting the bottle, hard. He didn't take the D12 hostilities toward him seriously, at first.

Then in 2003 things ignited.

Preparing for Eminem's first "Anger Management" tour, Royce recorded a rhyme for a promo mixtape compiled by Em's then-DJ, Green Lantern.

Royce's verse included this line: "Fuck anger management, I need to hire somebody to manage my anger."

The Shady Records camp took it as a diss. They declared it as such publicly, and the rumor mill lit up local and national Web sites, chat rooms, pagers and interviews.

Royce, in a statement released in March that year, said, "Why would I diss Eminem, the illest fucking lyricist on the planet?"

Then a contentious exchange of two-way pager messages between Royce and Bizarre got to Royce and pissed him off. He says Bizarre paged him with the message, "What's up, my nigga?"

"I took offense to that," says Royce, who responded by ordering Bizarre not to bullshit with him. When Bizarre countered that he was only attempting to keep the peace, Royce fumed.

"It ain't gotta be no peace," was Royce's response. "Me getting angry."

The day after the pager exchange, Royce called D12 "wack" in an online interview. Royce admits that he knew it was wrong to vent that way, but he thought he was under attack, and went on the offensive.

The verbal jabs ensued. D12 cast Royce as a turncoat on a widely distributed DVD called Beef II, directed by Quincy Jones' son QDIII.

Proof had, by now, sided with D12. He'd become convinced that Royce had grown arrogant and disrespectful. The group recorded "Smackdown," a complete Royce dis.

FM 98 WJLB played the song on air in winter 2003. Royce responded the next day by going to WJLB's rival station, WDTJ 105.9, where he unleashed a barrage of insults at D12. He then recorded two scathing diss songs about the group, "Malcolm X" and "What We Do."

All hell broke loose between the camps, and the stage was set for voyeuristic fans — a private affair on the national public square, hip hop's newest high-profile beef, and it involved associates of the biggest pop star in the world. Royce was the established underground rap star with one album, 2002's Rock City 2.0, under his belt. D12's 2001 debut, Devil Night, was double-platinum.

But the conflict between Royce and Proof became such that even voyeurs — the fans and media —considered it over-the-top.

Then Royce says Proof left a threatening message on his voicemail, cocking a gun over the speaker.

Proof says he caught a rumor that Royce had put a hit out on him. "I heard it while I was overseas," he says, laughing, leaning casually on the arm of the studio couch.

"It got to the point where so many people around us wanted the beef to happen," Royce adds, "that they started makin' up shit. We hadn't had enough words for me to want to kill him."

Earlier on the night the emcees finally had it out, Proof had heard that Royce was downtown. He collected his crew, and hunted down the rapper to resolve the beef that had gone too far. Proof says he wanted peace but was ready for conflict. And Proof took his entourage because he knew Royce wouldn't be alone. Maybe Royce and Proof know each other too well.

Royce claims that the guns came out only as warnings, but clear warnings. "It wasn't like the O.K. Corral," he says. "I was like, 'I'm feelin' uncomfortable. You feelin' uncomfortable. Let's walk over here and talk it out.'"

So they talked, leaving their respective mobs standing off to the sides. Slowly, they began to clarify their positions. Slowly, the tension eased. And then ...

"Woo-woo-woo!" Proof says, twirling his finger in the air to signify a police car siren. A nearby cabbie had called the cops. They were soon in the downtown clink, in neighboring cells.

"It took us to be in jail to sit there and really kick it and converse," Proof says. "It's like, 'Yo, man, we in jail! With felonies and shit! What the fuck? That's when I realized it was crazy."

Neither men wanted to be the "bigger man backing down out on the street," Royce says.

Proof, who turned 26 that night in lockup, says stark realities hit them there. They were role models, whether they liked it or not. And they were married men, with children old enough to remember such incidents.

In court, the two lucked out and received leniency; their concealed weapons charges were dropped.

But when the news of the fight and arrest got out, damage was done to their careers.

"Ain't no label gonna sign somebody they think they might have to bury," Royce says.

Proof considers how the saga impacted Detroit's national image, even if from a musical perspective. "With this beef, we lost a lot of time," he says. "We took about two or three years from Detroit."

Further, the conflict may have caused outsiders to view Detroit as a hip-hop coulda-been.

"I would say their beef only hurt the people who see Detroit hip hop," Kim Osorio, former editor-in-chief of The Source, says. "Because nationally, it was like, 'Here's a city that doesn't really have any representation other than Eminem. And the guys that are considered the next best thing are battling each other. So all it did was force people to look at these guys like, 'Wow, they can't even get along to help the city prosper.'"

Chaos reigns in the absence of wisdom. Ask Royce. While proud that he did what he thought necessary to fight for his career, he also says he was easily provoked in those days. He says his competitive edge — that homegrown sense of outspokenness — has always been mistaken for arrogance. And though the rapper is often misunderstood — this anger as a rap-culture weapon of advancement — he knows he's responsible for his actions.

"Man, do you know how much respect I have for Eminem?" Royce says. "He and Paul [Rosenberg, Eminem's manager] did so much for my career. I should apologize, 'cause beefin' with his crew put him [Em'] in a fucked up position."

Ask Proof too. He's relieved that they were ultimately able to "deal with each other as men."

Both sides, Proof concedes, missed an opportunity to do for Detroit hip hop what Atlanta producer Lil' Jon has done for the South.

"If I could undo any beef," he says, "It would be D12 versus Royce. Royce is very important to this hip-hop puzzle in Detroit. He is a graphic muthafucka. If I defused it, the unity in the D would be unstoppable."

So Royce and Proof came to a truce and moved on.

But peace was slow to come.

Proof endured harsh criticism from local old-school hip-hop legend Champtown. His marriage of four years soured, which, he says, was his fault. The only detail he offers of the ruined union is this: "There's no man alive who can be prepared for the whirlwind that happened with Em'."

Then Reginald "Mudd" Moore and Bernard "Thyme" Russell, members of his original rap group, 5ELA, called Proof out in a Metro Times article ("Life Beyond Proof," May 19, 2004) for allegedly abandoning them years ago to go to New York with Malone. He has since reconciled with Moore, who appears on a song from Searching for Jerry Garcia with Proof and Slum Village member RL "T3" Altman. He and Russell aren't on good terms.

The most widely publicized spectacle, however, took place at Club Panacea last June. A public appearance Proof made at an event sponsored by 105.9 FM went haywire. While making a drunken speech, Proof says the station's program director, Charles "Spudd" Spence, tried to take the microphone from him. They struggled, and Proof slipped off the stage. His crew, Proof says, mistook it as an attack from Spence and jumped the program director.

Details are unclear, but Spence was injured. Vicki Preston, head of Promotions for the station, was also hurt in the melee.

As a result, RadioOne, the company that owns 105.9, dropped D12's music from its playlist.

"I never intended for that to happen," Proof says of the altercation. "But what I don't get is, he [Spence] goes and gets all of D12's stuff pulled. When they took the records off [the air], I felt that's one of the ways I eat. Had he [pulled] Proof's record, I can feel that. But there are five other [D12] members who had nothing to do with it."

Then Proof recorded a contrite song for Derty Harry — a mixtape he released as a teaser to Searching — called "Apollo G's." On the song, he apologizes to both Royce and Spence.

Spence opted not to talk to Metro Times about the incident.

In an e-mailed statement Spence wrote, "I am in support of all members of D12 and when they have another record we can sit down face-to-face and discuss airplay."

While Proof dealt with newer conflicts, Royce released his second solo album, the dark, critically hailed Death is Certain on Koch Records last year. It was widely considered to be his finest work. He used the project to exorcise his personal demons, speak about past beefs and declare a need to move forward as an artist.

The disc showed Royce's ability to put together a complete album that's brutally honest — he's not afraid to appear imperfect before his fans.

The lead single, "Hip Hop," was produced by DJ Premier, the legendary DJ who'd worked with Notorious B.I.G., Nas and many of the genre's luminaries.

"Primo [Premier] really loves Royce," Proof says. "I went to some show and Primo got in my ear, like, 'Man, what's up with you and Royce?' I said, 'Man, we done with that.' But it's dope that Primo really had Royce's back like that, to come talk."

Royce appeared on BET's prestigious video program Rap City and premiered an innovative clip for the single. But radio support was minimal, and local radio programmers were chilly toward the album. Royce says he was a victim of his own reputation.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, Death is Certain sold 45,000 copies. The numbers seem small, because indie artists normally don't get the star treatment of, say, an Eminem.

"I feel like everybody was against me," Royce says. "But I still maintained. It didn't affect me creatively."

Now the days are, apparently, good for both rappers. There's a "full-circle feel," Royce says.

Royce, who was a high school athlete, gave up the booze eight months ago, and began hitting the gym.

"I was going through a fifth of [Bacardi] Limon a day," he says. "I was feeling bad, sluggish. I had water weight on my face. I got that bloated look."

He lost 30 pounds on a hard cardiovascular regimen, and then put on 15 pounds of muscle through a self-designed weight-training program.

"See, me, I'm an alcoholic. Along with spare time comes bad shit. That's when I do the dumbest shit," Royce says. "A lot of those kinds of people wake up in jail. I felt like that would be selfish of me to take myself away from people who depend on me. I had to make a conscious decision."

He achieved some balance. Lost the bad weight, gained some good weight, and even got rid of some excess beef. His conversations with D12 members Swifty and Denaun Porter have gone well; there's understanding. Royce did apologize to Em' manager Paul Rosenberg for his role in the D12 saga. He and Bizarre aren't necessarily cool, but they co-exist.

Some of Proof's conflicts are resolved, others aren't, but he says it's time to move on. His Searching for Jerry Garcia is a stilling of troubled waters.

Further, the album doesn't spell the end of D12. They will record again in the future, Proof says, but this is a time to fly solo. His bandmates are working on projects of their own, and will join Em's Anger Management tour later this summer. But D12 is necessary for their individual survival in this business.

"People see you on MTV and equate that to makin' money," Proof says. "The dollars are made by Shady Records. I get, what, 50 cents for every record sold? That I gotta split with five other muthafuckas?"

Simple math suggests Proof made a few hundred grand in royalties, and more in performance-based work.

Both Royce and Proof's new albums are hard-hitting.

Independent's Day feels like a happier version of Death, and re-ups Royce's relationship with such producers as Carlos "Six July" Brody, who contributes tracks full of dramatic horn and drum arrangements. The two rappers' mutual friend Juan — of Detroit's underground kings Street Lordz — appears on two songs. And Royce unleashes his younger brother, Kid Vishis.

The music is as aggressive as Royce's flow. Where his last album was intense and moody, his latest should go lengths to re-establish, and redefine, his street cred.

"I came out saying I'm the King of Detroit," Royce says. "I should've been uniting with people, helping people with their career. My new thing is to help. That's what a leader does."

Proof's Searching for Jerry Garcia is as eclectic as a record crammed with high-caliber guest artists can get. Among others, Em', 50 Cent and Method Man appear on the disc. Lending production assistance is Cypress Hill's B-Real, Detroiters Sick Notes and B.R. Gunna, Porter and DJ Salaam Wreck. Proof's also grooming his own crew, the Purple Gang.

And what's with the title of Big Proof's album? Dead hippies are hardly the territory of rap inspiration, nor is their "peace and love" manifesto. Or is it? Proof says the title was simply inspired by a Grateful Dead documentary.

"Jerry Garcia died from a poor diet, drugs and stress," Proof says. The man can relate.

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