I have to let the world know that if it weren't for D12, there wouldn't be a Slim Shady," says Swift of his infamous D12 cohort, Eminem. "The name 'Slim Shady' stems from the creation of D12, and that's what he introduced to the world in 'Hi, My Name Is ' That's just to let everybody know that he was always in the group."
Swift and the rest of his crew -- Proof, Bizarre, Kon Artis and Kuniva -- aim to let the world know that they're not just a bunch of lackeys who latched onto Eminem's success: They're riding with Shady Records because of their talent, not because they're down with a multiplatinum superstar.
D12 came together during the first half of the '90s in Detroit's burgeoning hip-hop scene. Every Saturday afternoon, the MCs would convene at the Hip-Hop Shop, an open-mike club owned by fashion designer Maurice Malone. "We called in to work or got off of work and did whatever we could to meet up at that spot every Saturday, because that's all we had," Swift recalls. "So this went on for years and years. We used to listen to each other flow on the microphone, and we all respected each other as MCs. Through that, we all got cool just meeting each other every Saturday."
Toward the latter part of the '90s, as the Motor City's hip-hop scene continued to grow, local rappers -- particularly the members of D12 -- started getting serious about careers as rap artists. Before the formation of D12, Swift was signed to BMG Records with a group called the Rabies; Kon Artis and Kuniva were close to getting a deal as Da Brigade; Proof released a much-talked-about single, "Searchin'"; and Bizarre was putting the finishing touches on his independently released album, Attack of the Weirdoes. Eminem had already released a disappointing solo effort called Infinite and was looking for a new and different direction. The group of MCs continued to meet up every week at the Hip-Hop Shop and supported each other at their individual shows. At that point, Swift says, they felt that to have any chance of breaking out, they needed to stick together.
"Proof was in New York one day and said, 'We got an all-star team of guys as friends; we just need to come together as a pack,' " remembers Swift. "So we came together as D12, but we had another identity, Dirty Dozen. We would speak our minds and say things that everybody was scared to say. So from that, we all agreed that whoever got signed first was going to come back and get the rest of the fellas."
Shortly afterward, Eminem created his Slim Shady alter ego for the Dirty Dozen projects; he then recorded and released The Slim Shady EP. The major underground buzz surrounding the EP landed Eminem cameos on other artists' singles and albums, along with appearances on The Wake Up Show with Sway and Tech, and in the Rap Olympics, where he placed second in a freestyle battle tournament. But the moment that later changed Em's life -- and, subsequently, D12's -- was when Dr. Dre picked The Slim Shady EP out of a stack of tapes in Interscope head Jimmy Iovine's office. After listening to the disc, Dre signed Eminem to the Aftermath imprint.
"When I heard he got signed with Dre," Swift says, "the first thing I said was 'Oh, it's over with!' I was very, very excited. From the first time I heard Em rap, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to make it. No doubt! So when we heard that, we were more and more motivated."
But when Interscope/Aftermath dropped The Slim Shady LP in 1999, with the exception of a production credit for Kon Artis (a.k.a. Denaun Porter), the rest of D12 was nowhere to be found. After Eminem moved to Los Angeles, the group started to get anxious and began questioning his loyalty. But Em quickly returned to Detroit and made it clear that he was going to keep his word.
"There were a lot of things that we couldn't understand," says Swift, "because we were on the outside looking in. But we had to remain patient and hold on. There wasn't any slack or anything like that from him being out in California, with the exception that we didn't understand how things were. But when he came back, he let us know how things went; we gave him that respect. He was in the industry now, and we were trying to get there. But he kept us motivated, and then everything came together."
D12 made its first appearance on 2000's Marshall Mathers LP, on the song "Under the Influence." That same year, Eminem launched Shady Records under the Aftermath/Interscope umbrella and began work on D12's debut album, Devil's Night. The record dropped the following year with the lead single "Purple Pills," followed by "Fight Music." Although the disc was certified platinum later that year, most of the attention was directed at Eminem and not the rest of D12.
"When it was time for us to shine," Swift says, "the people who interviewed us would ask us ten questions about Em. So we used to just sit back and say, 'Man, they really don't take us seriously.' We had to let the world know that we have always been doing this and we're in it to win it."
In an effort to establish itself as a separate entity and keep the D12 name fresh, the collective put out a mix tape during its hiatus. Proof also released a vinyl-only EP called Electric Kool-Aid Acid Testing and an album with rapper Dogmatic called Promatic; Kon Artis produced tracks for 50 Cent, G-Unit and Obie Trice, while the rest of the squad made appearances on other Shady Records projects.
When the crew finally reconvened in 2003 to work on the follow-up to Devil's Night, it wanted to establish itself as individuals in the minds of fans instead of just Eminem's boys.
"It was real hard for the audience to really tell who was who," Swift admits. "So with this album, D12 World, we had to establish our own characters and let everybody see where we were coming from through our eyes, individually. We all played a big part in making this album, and we just thought we had to step up our game and let the world know, 'Hey, it's time to establish ourselves.' So Eminem gave us the ball, and we had to run to the end zone with it; he gave us the opportunity to get loose."
The first single from World, "My Band," plays on the fact that Eminem's success has overshadowed D12's efforts. Swift confirms that there is no bitterness within the group about Em's popularity, although he admits that there is sometimes tension in the studio.
"To be honest with you, we might have differences because Eminem is a producer and Kon Artis is a producer," Swift confesses. "So there might be some differences here and there as far as which track is going to be used for whatever. To the MCs that don't produce, if we get a nice track, we're going to rap on it regardless if Em and Kon had a disagreement. They always smooth it out at the end of the day, anyway."
While everything is cool within in the D12 camp, the outfit has engaged in several beefs with outsiders over the past couple of years. The most notable was with Benzino and The Source magazine, which D12 and Eminem are no longer wasting any breath on, in music or the media. The crew also had issues with Jermaine Dupri and had a physical confrontation with Ja Rule and Murder Inc. But one quarrel that didn't get much press was the one with former Eminem associate Royce Da 5'9". Even though the beef has apparently been squashed, on the song "How Come," Eminem's verse seems directed at his former rhyme partner.
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"'How Come' is really about everybody," Swift explains. "Whether they rap or don't rap, people can relate to having friends that you fell out with. Everybody had different experiences of things that went on in the past for their verses in the song. It's a from-the-heart type of song. I understand that everybody went through it in their lives at one point in time."
Tension aside, plans for solo albums are in the works for all of the band members, but Swift maintains that this year is all about D12.
"It doesn't matter what people think about us," he says. "All we want is for them to take us serious as rappers. At the end of the day, I want you guys to say, 'Yeah, I can relate to that, but you know what? They're some fresh MCs, and they rap over good music.' "
D12 appears with Slum Village and Bonecrusher Saturday, July 10, at H-Town's Arena Theatre, 7324 Southwest Freeway. For more information, call 713-988-1020.