Rapper in Eminem's shadow
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The Independent Online

DeShaun Holton (Proof), rapper: born Detroit, Michigan 2 October 1975; married (three children); died Detroit 11 April 2006.

DeShaun Holton, known throughout hip-hop by his rapping alias, Proof, had been Eminem's best friend and right-hand man ever since the pair met when they were teenagers. He also introduced the world's most famous white rapper into Detroit's black hip-hop circles, and co-founded and named Eminem's multi-million-selling rap sextet, D12. But Proof's one solo album, Searching for Jerry Garcia, released quietly late last year, showed he was a singular, frustrated talent himself, one racked by self-loathing. Once considered the leading MC in Detroit, he knew he was doomed to stand in Eminem's shadow.

DeShaun Holton was sitting on the wall of his mostly black school, Osborne High, when Eminem, then going by his given name Marshall Mathers, handed out a flyer for a talent show he was performing in. Soon, the pair were swapping raps, and bonded. Holton's mother would take Mathers in for the night when his own notoriously combustible mother threw him out, and the two boys consumed rap music voraciously, developing encyclopaedic knowledge and taste. "We checked everything," Proof recalled. "If it was wack, we would know, because we were bright."

He also smuggled Mathers into his school, putting the scrawny-looking white kid up to battle his eager black school friends, whom the prodigious Mathers reliably beat. "Damn, it was like White Men Can't Jump," Proof fondly recalled. More importantly, Holton was the legitimising black figure who guided and backed Mathers in his early forays into tough Detroit rap clubs, where he was often the only white face. When Mathers made his first breakthrough performance, at a day-long rap "battle" at the Hip-Hop Shop, Holton was running the show.

When Mathers became Eminem and the biggest rap star in the world, after The Slim Shady LP (1999) and its follow-up, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), he repaid his debt. He and Proof had formed D12 in 1995. The name stood for Dirty Dozen, referring to the group's six Detroit rappers, and their aliases. The intention was "to be disgusting," Proof said; the group would be a refuge for all its members' scatological, juvenile impulses. But before they had recorded anything, and just as Eminem's career took off, one member, Bugz (Karnail Pitts) was shot dead in Detroit, during an argument with strangers. "It just makes you look at life more serious," Proof said.

D12's two albums to date, Devil's Night (2001) and D12 World (2004), were nevertheless mostly light-hearted, patchy affairs. Minus Eminem, the five others recorded one of pop's first responses to 11 September, "911", with Damon Albarn's cartoon group Gorillaz, when they were stranded in London after the Twin Towers fell. But they were pushed to multi-platinum success largely by Eminem's involvement; attendance at their gigs plummeted whenever he was absent. The potential jealousy this might cause was wittily addressed in the single "My Band" (2004), in which Eminem acted the egomaniac superstar. But the reality was very different. As D12 member Von Carlisle, aka Kuniva, explained:

There's a million things Em could be doing besides doin' an album with D12. But we're the only real friends he has. We grew up together, lived together, flipped burgers together. There's a bond between us that nobody can break. And there's a whole thing with him feelin' like he owes it to us. He knows without D12 there wouldn't be a Slim Shady.

Eminem agreed: "They're my foundation. If I lose my foundation, then what have I got?"

Proof was still at Eminem's side when the director Curtis Hanson asked the pair to drive him round the Detroit they had grown up in, as he prepared the Oscar-winning 8 Mile (2002). Starring Eminem and based on his life, the film was named after 8 Mile Road, the nondescript avenue that acts as a rough racial borderline between Detroit's black inner city and its white suburbs. Proof appeared in the film in the small part of Lil' Tic. But Mekhi Phifer's strong performance as Future, a character clearly based on Proof, confirmed his real importance in Eminem's story.

Proof's own story, however, appeared to be put on hold, as his best friend became a global superstar. Though he produced several tracks for albums on Eminem's Shady Records, when his own solo début was finally finished, it was pointedly released on a small indie label, avoiding charges of nepotism.

Musically, Searching for Jerry Garcia was unremarkable, and it contained its share of sometimes parodic, clichéd odes to guns and "bitches". But, on a few remarkable tracks, it was also one of the few hip-hop albums to wrestle with doubt, and a despair which bordered on self-loathing. Proof is first heard sniffing coke backstage at an awards show for Detroit's leading rappers, muttering to himself: "I feel like I'm letting them down . . . I don't feel like I've accomplished anything at all." Other tracks show a fascination with rock stars dead before their time, including John Lennon and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia.

The long closing track "Kurt Kobain" then entered a singular heart of darkness. It finds Proof trying to find "shelter where no God is", and "wishing for my demise, so I could kick it with Bugz". His self-disgust at his stardom is made clear as he raps: "Fame is an illusion, I'm still losing . . . I wish I could take it back." As is common in hip-hop circles, where violent death is often imagined, and sometimes found, Proof then depicts himself beside his own tombstone, asking "just let the tears run over my grave, Shady". A final, self-administered gunshot, as if Proof has truly bonded with the Cobain of the title, make the whole track a long, poignant goodbye from a clearly troubled man who had, at the end of his life, found a singular way of expressing his pain.

That he should actually meet his death from gunshots, during a pointless argument in a club on 8 Mile Road, is depressingly emblematic of the Detroit life he almost escaped.

Nick Hasted