The details surrounding the early years of Eminem and Proof’s friendship are best left unpacked through the music itself. Songs like “Groundhog Day,” released as a bonus track on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, paint a picture of their dynamic; two young aspiring emcees eager to show off their new music, gauging each other’s improvements and providing constructive criticism as equals. “I remember Proof would visit, couldn’t wait to play him my new shit, he’d go cuckoo ballistic,” rapped Em, lost on memory lane’s scenic route. “Go through the roof for his shit / It’s like we knew the instant we touched a mic that both of us two existed to do this shit.”
During his recent appearance on Mike Tyson’s Hotboxin’ podcast, Eminem opened up about the role Proof played in sparking his hunger for battle. “We came up rapping together but he would kind of go do his own thing,” explains Em. “I’d be working at factories and Proof was out there on the grind and he started making connections and then he met J Dilla from Slum Village and a lot of the early Detroit hip-hop that was exploding onto the scene.” At Proof’s insistence, Eminem tried his luck at the Hip-Hop Shop, where he was tasked with winning over an audience of ten.
It didn’t take long for Em to acclimate himself, and before long he was a mainstay in the Hip-Hop shop battle circuit. Due to Proof’s practice of deciding the match-up’s by way of a random draw, Em even found himself going up against Kuniva, who would later become his D12 groupmate. As Von quickly found out, Em was well deserving of his reputation as a formidable battler. One has to wonder, would Slim Shady have come to such a conclusion without the confident co-sign of Big Proof?
Despite the fact that Em and Proof are among hip-hop’s storied bromances, they never really connected for a fleshed-out collaboration on wax. That’s not to discredit the expansive catalog of D12, which found Em and Proof sharing the stage on no shortage of tracks, but rather to lament the absence of a Bad Meets Evil style duet. For the most part, the lone times they connected as a partnership was strict to kick freestyles. Excluding the extensive and highly amusing nineteen-minute epic that is “I’m Rockin Babe,” a song that might very well be one of Eminem and Proof’s first pieces of recorded music.
Things would only go up from there, and their sharpening skills ultimately paved the way for equally well-honed freestyles. A classic video recorded on March 13th, 1999, a few weeks removed from the release of The Slim Shady LP, found Em and Proof gleefully trading bars off the top of the dome; a testament to not only their comfort as friends, but as creatives. “We all up in your sight like cataracts,” spits Proof. “Me and Em tag-team, beat any ya’ll on some battle rap.”
It would be altogether irresponsible to overlook what might very well be their crowning achievement, the seven-plus minute freestyle known as “Just Rhymin’ With Proof.” Originally released as a B-side on the “Quitter” single release in 2000, this masterclass in off-the-dome back and forth freestyling finds both parties deftly toeing the line between outlandish lyricism and genuinely solid rhyme schemes. Based on the sample size of recorded freestyles, Em and Proof are seldom in a serious state, seeming to spur one another into fits of giddy laughter and mutual appreciation for a clever line. The trend continues within D12’s classic half-hour freestyle on Tim Westwood, a cypher that once again finds Em and Proof rhyming as equals — though never missing an opportunity to crack a joke. “Hey ‘Em, your nuts are large as hell,” spits Proof, only for Em to close the scheme with “thanks, I was in the garage and fell.”
Away from the mic, their friendship becomes evident in the remaining pieces of behind-the-scenes D12 footage circulating the internet. One particularly enlightening snapshot arrived during the creation of Tony Touch’s “Get Back,” which found Em, Proof, and Bizarre laying down verses in the studio. In the clip, Em can be seen laughing at Proof’s inability to record a specific line, going so far as to mercilessly troll his inadvertently melodic delivery. “Y’all slipped something into my weed, or something,” remarks a flabbergasted Proof, prompting further laughter from his D12 compatriots. In fact, examining a few old school D12 interviews reveals the importance of comedy within their inner circle; the camaraderie was seemingly built around laughter. With Proof being acknowledged as the unofficial general, it’s clear he played a pivotal role in keeping the morale high. It’s no wonder that his passing all but spelled the end of the Dirty Dozen — at the very least, Eminem’s involvement within it.
Twenty-four years removed from Proof’s death, his spirit continues to live on. Not only through his music, which includes his solo debut Searchin’ For Jerry Garcia and contributions to two D12 studio albums, but through Eminem’s as well. Songs like the tragic “Difficult” and the triumphant “You’re Never Over” paint two different pictures of the complexities of grief, highlighting the lowest points of loss and the valuable lessons learned through life. It’s not entirely fair to say there would be no Eminem without Proof, but perhaps there would be no Eminem as we have come to know him. Take a moment to reflect on one of hip-hop’s great friendships, and show some love to Big Proof. Rest in peace.
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