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Maintaining an image can be deadly in rap

Despite success, ‘keeping it real’ means not leaving violent streets behind
/ Source: The Associated Press

He felt obligated to "the streets," friends say, so Proof stayed close to give back what he owed — and paid with his life.

The killing of Eminem's right-hand man highlights the paradoxical set of issues that bolster rappers' careers while putting their lives in danger. The result has been a nearly 20-year series of rap murders that underscores the increasingly perilous state of young black men in America.

Proof, born 32 years ago as Deshaun Holton, earned wealth, fame, a spacious suburban home and his own recording studio as Eminem's sidekick and a member of the platinum-selling group D-12. Yet after an argument inside a seedy Detroit after-hours club early Tuesday morning, police say, Proof fired the first shot in a gun battle that left him dead.

Proof's friends say his allegiance to the ghettoes of his hometown, and his willingness to confront dangerous situations, grew even as his success afforded him other options.

"These guys have to be out there, in some of the worst and wildest places," says Detroit entertainment executive Mark Hicks, who once managed Proof and D-12. "That's where their hardcore audience is. Most of the guys who are hot resonate in the streets. And it's also where they will run into a lot of trouble. So in rap, just doing what it takes to be well-known puts you at risk."

The club where Proof was shot in the head is on the same Eight Mile Road that he and Eminem made famous in movies and songs. He joins a long list of rap stars such as Run DMC's Jam Master Jay (slain in 2002 in a Queens, New York recording studio) and Scott La Rock (whose 1987 killing in the Bronx was the first high-profile rap slaying) to die in their own communities.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

And of course there's Tupac Shakur, the patron saint of slain rappers, who was famously doomed by his fascination with "thug life."

Many wonder why rappers can't simply use their wealth to insulate themselves — as athletes often do — from the violence and bloodshed that too often mark their communities.

But Khnum Muata Ibomu, known as of the rap duo dead prez, says rappers' success can't protect them.

"Money and notoriety don't shield you from violence," he says. "When you have resources and you live in a community like Detroit, where people don't have much, it makes you a target. It makes you a target for your resources, of envy. It makes you a victim of your own ego, and your own need to feel important and appreciated because we live in oppressed conditions. Like Puffy says, 'Mo' money, mo' problems.'"

Davey D, a California-based radio personality and journalist, says that while money may change some rappers' material conditions, it often does nothing to transform their mindsets.

"You can still be a million-dollar thug," he says. "And it doesn't insulate you if you decide to go back to your old neighborhood and places you grew up. If you're looking at D-12, the perception might be that they have sold lots of records and they don't need to be on 8 Mile. But when you don't (show up in the neighborhood), they consider you somebody who has sold out."

Many rappers also feel a sense of bravado, a need to prove that despite their wealth and success, they're unafraid to confront the conflicts and complications that face their brethren.

"There is a certain honor associated with not backing down, which will contribute to escalating certain situations that people who don't have that image to uphold might sidestep," says sociologist Michael Hunt, director of the Ralph Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA. "If your image is predicated on boldness, on in-your-face lyrics, if you're in a situation like that, and it gets out that you did back down, it doesn't help your sales and your image."

But rappers and their audiences don't bear all the blame, says Hunt and others, pointing to a music industry that encourages rappers to "keep it real."

"If I went to jail tomorrow, I'd have to take a long, hard look at myself, at improving my lifestyle," says Davey D. "In the music business, I don't have to do that, even on the executive level. So you can go in and out of jail and as long as you are still producing (good music), you can keep on doing that." believes that this is, at least in part, why young black athletes haven't suffered the same brutal fates as their music contemporaries.

"Many of us rappers are trapped within the stereotypes and images projected and sensationalized by the media," he says. "We find ourselves trying to live these wild-cowboys ideas. Our concept of manhood is taught on a street level.

"In the rap game, it's one of the few jobs where you can smoke weed all day and actually be working."'s partner, M1, says rappers have to work harder to change the demands of the music industry, as well as the social and economic problems that have led recent studies to conclude that the nation's huge pool of undereducated black men is falling even further into joblessness, poverty and prison.

And yes, M1 says, that means rap stars remaining true to their communities.

"Proof gave back. He was part of his community. He didn't deserve to die," he says. "The problem isn't that he was at a club. The problem might be that the people at the club didn't know what he represented."

"He had a beautiful home, a nice studio and a wonderful family," says Hicks, his former manager. "But he couldn't just stay home and not be seen. Proof was a people person, and the streets won't love you if they don't see you. You have to be a field general. You gotta be out there."