The voice crackling over the cell phone belongs to a cat with three days left to live: D12 rapper Proof, Slim Shady's right-hand man, and a respected hip-hop artist in his own right, who was slain early Tuesday, April 11, in a three-way shootout that the Detroit po-po are still trying to untangle.
"Whatup, dude? It's P letting you know I'm safe," Proof says in a phone message left for Phoenix MC Sho-Time on the Friday prior to his demise. "I made it back, and I miss you niggas already. Keep it cool, keep it low, keep Brutus under control. Peace."
According to Sho-Time, part of the local hip-hop duo HeadLine with his partner A-Rocka, that last bit was a little inside code between him and Proof.
"Proof's also known as 'Derty Harry,'" explains Sho-Time, who was tight with the fallen rap star and collaborated on what may have been Proof's last recording, which was made in Phoenix just days before he returned to Detroit. "He's called that because when he gets drunk, he acts crazy. It's his alter ego. The same thing happens with me. When I get drunk, I'll be acting crazy. He called my alter ego 'Brutus.' That's what he means by 'Keep Brutus under control.'"
Whether Proof kept the lid on his Derty Harry doppelgänger in his last hours is still up in the air. Reports indicate that Proof (real name: DeShaun Holton) was involved in pre-dawn gunplay with two other men at the CCC club on 8 Mile Road, made famous by the Eminem flick 8 Mile. Detroit cops have stated that Proof shot first in the altercation that led to his death. As of press time, another individual involved in the conflict, Keith Bender, remains in the hospital in critical condition from a bullet wound to the head.
To hear Proof's Arizona pals tell it, Proof was building a life for himself in the Valley. He bought himself a crib at 51st Avenue and Baseline Road, with the assistance of his best friend in Phoenix, producer Fade of 22/20 Music Group, and he was in a serious relationship with a local gal, Autumn Bruce, who met the rapper a year ago at the Sporting House, in downtown Phoenix. (According to Fade, Proof was in the process of a divorce.)
He played pool at Clicks, and was a regular customer of the stoner-friendly sammy shop Cheba Hut. He frequented Scottsdale nightclubs such as Next, but also enjoyed kicking it at gritty strippeterias like Pantera Showclub on the west side. And he liked rocking the mic at local venues like the Brickhouse Theater, the Blunt Club at Hollywood Alley, and, most recently, at the Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe, for Ghostface Killah's performance.
"He loved it out here," Sho-Time insists. "The last night he was here, we were at Pantera, and they were playing some D12 songs. When we left at 2 in the morning, he was like, 'Man, I don't even want to go back.' But he had to go back to handle some biz."
Proof had taken Sho-Time under his wing, giving the younger artist advice, as well as a selection of beats from his own electronic cache -- an unusually generous move from one rapper to another. Proof and HeadLine laid down a track titled "Take It or Leave It" on Thursday, April 6, right before Proof jumped on a plane for Detroit after nearly a monthlong stay in the Zona. But Proof's local contacts went beyond Sho-Time. He stayed at Fade's house on most visits to Phoenix, and he was tight with hip-hop artists Pokafase and Mega-Man, as well as Power 92.3 personalities JX3 and Da Nutz. Emerg McVay of Bionic Jive knew Proof from Bionic Jive's days of touring with D12, and had nothing but positive words to say about the late rapper.
"He was always down to earth and never acted like a big star, though he was," says McVay. "When you hung out with him, you always knew you were going to have a good time."
Indeed, from all accounts, the 32-year-old was an intelligent, charismatic individual -- a guy obsessed with playing chess, cards, pool, and those video trivia games you always find at bars.
"We'd go to this bowling alley Brunswick, and then to this little bar called Uncle Monkey," remembers girlfriend Bruce via phone from Detroit, where she'd flown in to attend Proof's funeral services on Wednesday. "He liked to go sing karaoke, or stay at home and play Spades. We clicked from the very first time we met. He was like a male version of me, that's how close we were."
Proof did roll with security, but no one remembers him packing gats or being violent, despite his so-called "Derty Harry" persona. Fans will recall that Mekhi Phifer's 8 Mile character "Future" (which was inspired by Proof) was the voice of reason -- Eminem's conscience, almost. How, then, does one reconcile the portrait drawn by friends with the claim by some that Proof shot first, and therefore got what he deserved?
"I don't see Proof initiating a fight," comments Pokafase. "It's way out of character. I would liken it to someone saying, 'You know Will Smith is down at the church tonight beating the shit out of women.' It's that far-fetched to me."
On the other hand, Pokafase speculates that self-defense might have been the reason Proof pulled the trigger.
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"I don't condone killing anyone," he emphasizes. "But I do feel that it is perfectly justified if someone is threatening your life, to react. Of course, I'd like to believe the best, because it's my friend. It sucks. I'm taking it kinda hard."
Aside from Bruce, Sho-Time and Fade will be part of an Arizona contingent attending both private and public services in Detroit this week. When they return, several are scheduled to appear on a special edition of Power 92.3's Friday Night Flavas dedicated to Proof.
Sho-Time points out that Proof's career was on a roll. His 2005 CD Searching for Jerry Garcia had been a critical success, and a mix tape called Hand 2 Hand had just been released by Proof's label, Iron Fist Records. He'd also just finished a marathon recording session for an upcoming mix tape.
"I don't know if you've heard someone say before they died that they were really happy," says Sho-Time. "But Proof was so happy. It's a real tragedy."