Murder on Eight Mile: R.I.P. Proof

D12, local MCs cope with the slaying of a Detroit hip-hop legend

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The C.C.C. club sits on a particularly grimy stretch of Detroit's 8 Mile Road, its shabby wood-paneled facade wedged between J's Liquor Shop and a massive Mega Pawn. This boulevard, which Eminem made famous, roughly separates the city's haves from its have-nots, and the C.C.C., a notorious after-hours spot, sits squarely on the latter side. It's not the kind of place most famous rappers would spend their Monday nights. But it was here that Eminem's mentor, D12 mastermind Proof, born DeShaun Holton, was killed in a gunfight in the early-morning hours of April 11th.

At around 4:30 a.m., Proof and another patron got into an argument over a pool game. Witnesses say that Proof pulled out a gun and hit Keith Bender Jr., a Desert Storm veteran, in the head with it before shooting him once in the face. With Proof's gun still pointed at Bender's bloody body, Mario Etheridge -- Bender's cousin and the club's bouncer -- shot the rapper three times, once in the head and twice in the chest. He was dead on arrival at St. John Hospital. Bender died eight days later as a result of his injuries.

Etheridge turned himself in to police the day after the shooting. Two days later, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy charged him with carrying a concealed weapon and discharge of a firearm in a dwelling or occupied structure. Though Worthy did not charge Etheridge with Proof's murder, she added, "Our investigation in this case is far from over."

The day after the shooting, someone had scrawled "RIP Proof" on the thin aluminum sign outside the C.C.C. club. Across the street, a telephone pole became a makeshift memorial, festooned with cards, stuffed animals, balloons, a pack of Newport Lights and a bottle of Olde English 800 malt liquor.

Since the early 1990s, Proof had worked to put Detroit hip-hop on the map, hosting battles at the Hip-Hop Shop (depicted in the film 8 Mile), forging alliances among the city's best rappers and encouraging a shy young MC named Marshall Mathers. "He was, and always will be, my best friend," Eminem said in a statement days after the shooting. "He pushed me to become who I am." Mekhi Phifer portrayed Proof in 8 Mile (the rapper had a bit part, as battle challenger Lil' Tic), and insiders say it accurately portrayed the way he coached Em to overcome his fear of public performance. "Proof would call me at one, two o'clock in the morning with just syllables, like, 'Yo, an abominable region, an abdominal lesion,'" Eminem told Rolling Stone in 2004. "That's how we fed off each other. My loyalty dates back to the days of living on fuckin' Dresden, on the East Side, in my kitchen wishin' we could do something."

Eminem's longtime manager Paul Rosenberg remembers how Proof recognized the young Mathers' talent and helped him develop it. "If you were white, you were automatically knocked down ten levels," says Rosenberg. "Proof encouraged him to be himself and gain confidence." D12 cohort Kuniva says Proof had the same effect on all the members of the group, which he founded in the Nineties: "Without him, none of us would be doing this. He gave all of us that courage." Following the shooting, the five surviving members of D12 gathered to console one another. "It's just a real hard blow to take," says Kuniva. "I'm kind of in denial."

Beyond the grief of losing a dear friend, people close to Proof struggle to come to grips with the way he died. After years of toil, Proof had finally crossed over to the other side of the tracks. D12 released two albums on Shady Records, and Proof released a solo album, Searching for Jerry Garcia, bringing his eclectic tastes and sharp tongue to the masses. But something drew him back to one of the grittiest clubs in one of America's grittiest cities, his hometown.

"This was his neighborhood, just a place where he felt comfortable," says Detroit MC Royce Da 5 9, who had known Proof for years and had feuded with members of D12 in the past. After he heard about Proof's death, Royce called D12 member Swift to quash the beef. "As artists, we just gotta be careful with the decisions we make," Royce says. "It sounds like something spun out of control."

Police and local residents say C.C.C. was generally open from 2 to 7 a.m., after other clubs closed in accordance with local law. Club manager L.A. Bryant says, "We don't operate on an after-hour basis" and insists the shooting happened at about 2 a.m. Second Deputy Police Chief James Tate says the incident happened hours later and adds that eighteen police reports have been filed about the club during the past decade, covering shootings, fights, underage drinking and other violations. In February a bouncer was shot five times. "I would never go to this club," says local fan Corey Van Aelst, who adds he's heard that other people have been killed there.

Que Feezy, a tattoo artist and aspiring MC who lives three blocks from the club, says famous rappers invite jealousy when they hang out in places like the C.C.C. "Everybody's been drinking all night, police ain't gonna be around, ain't really got tight security," he says. "On the real, he had no business being in there whatsoever. If I make it, I definitely won't be coming back round no hood spot."

In the days after the shooting, dozens of stories circulated. Initially, some said D12's Bizarre was wounded, and others thought two people had been killed and police were hiding one victim's identity. Even as witnesses came forward to say Proof fired the first shot, people close to him refused to believe it. "I've known Proof for twelve years -- he would never do something like this unless he thought his life was threatened," says Hush, a local MC who has recorded with D12.

The police worry that, even if they decide Etheridge acted properly, others might seek their own justice. "Now his name's out there, and you have a legion of Proof fans," says Tate. "The possibility of retaliation is always the scary thing."

But most fans just want the violence to end: "Proof has kids that will never see their father again over something petty," said Allysia Moore. "What's the point of violence? What is it gonna solve?" She stopped by the impromptu memorial to express her sadness with a simple sign: "When will it stop?" Looking beyond the C.C.C. club across the street, she offered an answer: "It seems like it's never gonna stop."

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