It’s a mild, 60-degree November day and D12 member Swifty McVay is drinking hot tea the way a 10-year-old might drink grape Kool-Aid.
â€œI ain’t got the flu or nothing,â€ Swifty says. â€œI’ve just been on this tea-drinking kick for the last few weeks.
What’s more, the emcee’s stocky build, clear complexion, black T-shirt and jogging pants make him look more like a member of the UAW than of the most notorious rap group ever to come out of Detroit.
Later, he scurries up a narrow stairway to a room that’s converted into a recording studio. It’s cluttered with instruments, computers and speakers. Swifty’s new production team, Da Fyre Dapartment â€” Mark Fenton, who owns the East Side bungalow he’s in, Marlin Benson and Teresa Creggett â€” are busy tweaking tracks, smoking squares and watching football. There’s warmth here. It could be a family barbecue.
Swifty can’t hold back the jokes, and he grins constantly, between sips of tea. He has good reason to be happy. He spent many months of 2005 touring with D12 on Eminem’s Anger Management Tour, has two quadruple platinum plaques under his belt and his mixtape, Forrest Fyres, drops in January.
â€œI’m just trying to keep on making music. That’s all I’ve ever been about,â€ Swifty says.
It’s true, the rapper’s long journey in and up through the hip-hop biz is admirable. Born Ondre Moore in 1975, Swifty grew up on Detroit’s West Side and was into gymnastics. He graduated from Mumford High School in 1993 and was a mainstay at the fabled Hip-Hop Shop. There were run-ins with cops, and Swifty even did jail time. â€œI sold weed, been locked up for buying stolen vehicles, but hip hop was always my comfort zone,â€ he says.
In the meantime, Swifty was in a host of local hip-hop groups, including the Sinbad Boys, the Narcotic Clan, Outcast, and Rabies â€” the only crew to make noise before D12. Rabies, whose inspiration was Onyx and Redman, landed a BMG deal in 1997 and released a single, â€œIf the Beat Don’t Stop,â€ before getting booted from the label.
â€œWe had a single with an option of an album deal, which means the label has the option not to put yo’ album out,â€ Swifty says, laughing.
In early 1999, storied Motor City rapper Proof was putting together an all-star lineup of local emcees (including Eminem) to form a group called D12. Swifty, who had Rabies going and wasn’t asked to join, says he supported D12 from the beginning. â€œI always had love for them cats,â€ he says, in a tone that’s nostalgic like a major leaguer reminiscing on his first childhood home run. â€œOne day Bugz [an early D12 member] thought it would be good if I joined the group.â€ So Swifty joined D12 in 1999.
Three weeks later Bugz committed suicide.
â€œBugz’ death was hard for all of us, but we dealt with it,â€ Swifty says, ruefully.
â€œAdding Swifty to the six-man group was the last request of our fallen member, Bugz,â€ Proof says in a separate interview. He goes on to say that Swifty is D12’s â€œmood-setter; whenever he’s around there’s a lot of grenade pins on the floor. [He’s] our pinch hitter.â€
While Swifty is thankful to have joined D12, resentment festered in certain Detroit rap circles â€” some thought themselves more deserving of the coveted D12 slot. Swifty’s explanation: â€œA lot of cats turned Proof down when he asked them to be a part of D12. Don’t hate; ya’ll know who ya’ll are.â€
D12 and Em’ know as much about â€œhatin’â€ as Lil’ Kim does about implants and nose jobs. Beefs with such locals as Champtown, 5ELA, Royce, DJ Spudd and Esham, and with such nationally known heavyweights as Ja Rule, Benzino and David Mayes have filled many column inches in Metro Times and around the world. Through the drama â€” which no doubt raised D12’s public profile â€” Swifty has often been the group’s de facto peacekeeper.
â€œSee, I don’t put a lot of people in my circle and I don’t talk bad about nobody,â€ Swifty says. Then he stands and reaches for more tea. His voice rises: â€œBut if somebody wanna talk about my dogs on wax, I’m gonna go at ’em, rap on the track first, or swing first. You can’t hate on my crew; I don’t stay neutral.â€
In a much-talked-about February 2004 article in the Source magazine, Detroit emcee Champtown called D12 â€œhouseniggasâ€ and implied that since Em’ didn’t originally sign D12 to his Shady Records, he wasn’t financially looking out for his group the way 50 Cent was looking out for his G-Unit crew.
Swifty doesn’t see it that way: â€œHe [50 Cent] passed the ball to his boys a certain way, and Em’ passed it to us a certain way. Both ways worked; it was our job to dunk the ball. Eminem worked hard for his and looked out for us; being in the background ain’t bothered us. We know how to play our positions.â€
Contrary to street talk that suggested Em’ kept most of D12’s royalties, Swifty’s doing well financially. â€œAll of us were able to get the chips we wanted to get. I went from Hanes to Joe Boxers, my socks changed, my ride changed, my zip-code changed and my family hasn’t wanted for nothing since I’ve been signed,â€ Swifty says, getting almost defensive.
The rapper does acknowledge that contractual errors cost the group, which he chalks up to youthful naÃ¯vetÃ©. â€œWhen you got a 70-page contract, you’re bound to miss something,â€ he says. â€œBut when you’re new, it ain’t really nothing you can do anyway. You gotta take it or leave it.â€
Swifty swills more tea and begins telling D12 road stories involving Proof getting lost while crowd-surfing in Japan, and fans storming the Madison Square Garden stage. Songs from Forrest Fyres spill from the studio monitors. Raw lyrics ride atop strident baselines and beats. Swifty’s latest is similar, in a good way, to D12.
â€œThe music is no different, it’s still me,â€ he says. â€œBut in D12, I brought a lot of the Swift out. In my solo [recordings], I’m bringing out Swifty McVay, which is a little bit more crazy.â€
Along with the Fyre crew, D12 DJ Kareem Hicks and Eminem are assisting in Forrest Fyres’ production. Hence, Swifty’s betting that his solo album will fly. And why not? His Fyre Dapartment is charged, and he’s got the D12 cred and associations. But there are snags: It’s nearing the release date for his album, and the label and distribution details are still being worked out. Swifty might put the album out under his Fyre Dapartment moniker.
It wouldn’t be the first time Swifty put on a label hat. In 2003, he started Rabbit Entertainment and signed longtime friends, Raw Collection. But after a solid street buzz, the relationship dissolved. â€œThey felt the pace I was going on wasn’t fast enough, so they choose to venture off and do their own thing,â€ Swifty says.
Vibe magazine suggested in the current issue that the lack of interest in albums from D12’s Proof and Bizarre might â€œfinally convince them to just be happy living off Eminem.â€
Is Swifty concerned with the lukewarm commercial and critical response to Proof and Bizarre’s 2005 solo records?
â€œI don’t sit back and wonder, I hope this don’t happen to me. I believe in myself and in what they [Proof and Bizarre] are doing too.â€
And of D12?
Swifty says the group is doing another record in 2006. Em’s greatest hits collection is out this week, and the superstar is working on Obie Trice’s new album as well.
Then Swifty talks about the importance of local camaraderie: â€œDetroit lost its identity when Berry Gordy took the music away. Now we got a lot of new labels and artists, and the people are starting to support again.â€
Support or no, Swifty’s well aware that without major-label backing, getting Forrest Fyres to D12-adoring kids won’t be easy â€” at least not without a bit of swift divine intervention.
â€œIf it’s meant to work,â€ he says, â€œGod will make it so.â€