What’s next for Detroit hip hop? (Detroit Free Press article)

Shell-shocked by deaths and negative publicity, rappers ponder a future of making music without the guidance of Proof and Jay Dee

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So now what?

It’s never exactly been easy to be a part of Detroit’s fledgling hip-hop scene. There have been complaints that national labels snub this city’s music, gripes about how it’s difficult to sustain an area fan base, and moans that commercial radio won’t play local stuff that lacks major-label backing.

It’s always been hard, but through the difficult waters, there were two innovators who championed Detroit music: producer and rapper Jay Dee and rapper and label owner Proof.

The two friends were forefathers of Detroit hip-hop. As a producer, Jay Dee put a distinct Detroit sound on the map, while Proof made national noise with D12 and Eminem. But more than that, they both continued to serve as ambassadors of Detroit’s witty, biting and soulful brand of hip-hop. They pushed up-and-comers and spent time on the underground scene, even though they were linked with national and major labels.

They both died earlier this year within two months of each other, Jay Dee from complications of a rare blood disease and kidney failure, and Proof in a violent gun battle that police are still investigating.

The latter death continues to rock the scene. There’s great potential that the legacy of Proof, born Deshaun Holton, will be scarred — Detroit police are pinpointing him as the one who started the confrontation that also left another man dead.

Some popular artists on the Detroit scene wondered if the music should stop — or change. Others wanted to quickly trudge forth, the way they feel both Proof and Jay Dee, born James Yancey and also known as J Dilla, would have wanted.

And everyone waits to see who will emerge as the scene’s new leader, the person who’ll be a mentor, wheeler-and-dealer and cheerleader for a community that’s still hoping for a hip-hop brotherhood on par with that of Atlanta, Houston or New Orleans — one that toasts the multiplatinum, international success of several big-name acts.

“Proof and Dilla were two prime examples of people who attained a certain level of success and then came back home and tried to do things to help people get where they needed to be,” says Detroit rapper J. Hill. ” Unfortunately, we don’t have too many that made it in this game right now. Music is all about who you know, it’s all about relationships. We don’t have many powerful people who we know who can point us in the right direction and give us some guidance.”

PAINFUL NEWS

When Dilla died in February, days after releasing his much acclaimed “Donuts,” which he recorded almost entirely while stuck inside a California hospital room, it put Detroit hip-hop on pause.

With his group Slum Village and as a producer for many other big-name acts, he was the first person from Detroit who got a big taste of the national hip-hop scene. His streetwise but soulful and musically tight production style influenced some of the world’s biggest rap and R&B stars, from Kanye West to Janet Jackson to Erykah Badu, many of whom he worked with.

People in Detroit were just getting into the thick of mourning his passing when news came early on a Tuesday morning in April that his friend, rapper Proof, had been shot and killed in an after-hours club on Detroit’s east side.

It seemed as if the entire Detroit hip-hop crew gathered that Tuesday night at Northern Lights Lounge, a regular weekly meet-up spot, questioning the music they were making.

“When Jay Dee died, I looked at my MPC and was like, ‘I don’t think I can touch it,’ ” Paradime, Kid Rock’s DJ and a popular Detroit rapper himself, says about the sampler favored by hip-hop producers. “When Proof died, I was like, ‘I don’t think I can pick up my mic again.’ ”

Others shared his sentiments. “I went back and forth, like, ‘I’m done with this,’ ” says Hill, who has a bachelor’s degree in radio television communications from Wayne State University and is now working on a master’s in education. “But I look at it now like I love the music. I love to make music. I’m just going to make what I got in my heart and put it out here for the people.”

The overwhelming consensus was that the two Detroit hip-hop innovators would want the music to go on.

TIGHT CREW

Dilla and Proof were there back in the mid-’90s, trying to organize and rally a Detroit hip-hop scene, but so were others.

It was the beginning of a small fraternity of future rappers, producers and managers, and if you were even thinking about being in the business, you knew one of these guys, including D12, Phat Kat, Slum Village, DJ House Shoes and DJ Dez.

Fashion designer Maurice Malone’s Hip Hop Shop was ground zero for Detroit hip-hop.

In those early days, Proof and Dilla collaborated creatively and rose quickly to become the go-to guys on the hip-hop scene. Dilla came back to the shop with a record deal for production work for national artists. Proof was the guy who was taking meetings in places like New York, trying to drum up support of Detroit hip-hop.

Phat Kat was one of the first rappers in Detroit to score a national label deal with his group 1st Down in 1995. “Right now, it’s just going to take a lot of people to step up and just start being their own men,” he said. “That’s what it’s always been about from the beginning. Those two cats were always at the forefront. We’re going to keep it moving. Hopefully we get something positive out of this negative stuff. It ain’t going to stop. The music is going to still come out of here.”

Phat Kat, born Ronnie Watts, is upset with the way the music is being characterized.

Music has always been visceral — it’s been a way to keep out the generation before, a way to communicate in a metaphorical language that doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else outside of the genre. Hip-hop is no different, and there was violence long before it, says Phat Kat.

“What’s really been bugging me with the media is that people are trying to incorporate hip-hop with violence. Hip-hop ain’t got anything to do with violence. … It’s been violent before hip-hop. People are getting it twisted, thinking it’s what they see on TV,” Phat Kat says. “Hip-hop is on a respirator right now, and I’m just really trying to breathe life back into it.

Still, is it time for the music to change? Those on the hip-hop scene say it’d be disingenuous to ignore that Detroit is a high-crime city and that the roots of hip-hop are in reporting tales from the streets.

“I’m not knocking anybody,” says rapper Ren Cen. “By any means if you live it, speak what you live. The problem that I have with rappers is that they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t say if you kill this dude, you might get killed yourself or you’re going to get life or you might go to hell.”

There’s a certain level of responsibility, says Hill, that goes along with putting the music out.

“We have to watch how reckless we are with our lyrics. That’s not to say that I might not do certain things with my music. You have mature television; you have mature movies. And you have mature music,” Hill says. “Music will reflect the times. It’s going to reflect what’s going on. Whenever I’m having a tough time, I make my best music because I write a lot of truth. A certain amount of what’s going on is going to be what’s in your music. I’ve been living in Detroit city all my life. You see a lot of things. … You only can report on what you know.”

GOING FORWARD

All that aside, people are still optimistic that Detroit hip-hop is on the rise.”We’re in a building place right now,” says rapper Bareda a.k.a. Mr. Wrong of the rap outfit the Raw Collection. “The world is taking notice. It’s a lot of struggling artists in this city. It’s hard for an independent artist to get noticed in the city. I mean, we have to go up against major-label artists on the radio.”

Proof’s record label Iron Fist Records is working quickly to get music out. Later this year, it’ll be releasing an album called “Time Will Tell” that Proof recorded a few months ago in under 24 hours. The label is also working to put out music by Proof’s artists, including Woof Pack, Purple Gang and Supa MC.

“We’re still moving,” says Mario Butterfield, Proof’s hype man, who heads up the marketing and art department for the label. “He pretty much left us with all the pieces. We just have to put them in the right place. In his office, he has all of these various chessboards from around the world. Every time someone would come in he’d ask them if they played chess. So that’s what we’re doing — moving the pieces around and trying to figure out how to operate in this industry game.”

Guys like Phat Kat are moving tens of thousands of units overseas and many rappers and producers here make music their full-time job.

“With the passing of Dilla and Proof, I think it’s been like a reality check for Detroit hip-hop. A lot of people are burying the hatchet,” says rapper Guilty Simpson, birth name Byron Simpson. “People are letting bygones be bygones and getting everything in order. Hopefully we don’t have to experience another death of one of our hip-hop icons. I definitely see progress happening.”

Major labels are signing up local rappers and producers to create music. Recently, Bareda got signed to Tantrum/Universal Records and is expected to release an album with the label in early 2007, and Simpson, who is working with D12’s Denaun Porter, was out in Los Angeles earlier this week meeting with labels, including Stones Throw Records in Los Angeles, the same label that last worked with Jay Dee.

“Proof opened the door for everybody,” says his manager Mike Eckstein. “Now we just need to keep walking through it.”

Contact KELLEY L. CARTER at 313-222-8854 or carter@freepress.com.

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