In the spring of 2004, the hottest commodity in my high school journalism class was a CD-R that had Usher’s “Yeah” back-to-back with D12’s “My Band.” Just those songs a bunch of times. Both were radio rips I’d gotten off Kazaa. iTunes was less than a year old and it wasn’t exactly the industry’s premiere platform for debuting new music. It was still doing single-song giveaways via Pepsi caps. Two years after The Eminem Show, Marshall Mathers was still the most dangerous MC on earth. He was so hot that a posse cut by a group of hardcore rappers was as in-demand for high school kids as one of Usher’s biggest songs of all time.
Even now, as rap has entered a previously-unknown phase of pop dominance, D12’s success was uncanny. Compared to the blockbuster boasts of their peers, the Dirty Dozen’s raps felt like slice-of-life tales from folk heroes. Rappers often talk about their music feeling like a movie, and then they hardly have any characters. D12’s verses distinguished them not just from the mainstream, but from each other. Even at its most sinister, its wackiest, or both, D12 World is overflowing with personality and authenticity. And that’s why it’s still so slick today.
But capturing that authenticity is never as easy as sitting down and turning on the mic. Capturing the moments and telling those stories takes careful craft. And D12’s personality-packed roster made that as easy as it did difficult for Denauan Porter, who produced the album alongside Eminem – and raps all over it as Kon Artis. Mr. Porter had been working with D12 and Eminem since 1996, and as the group got more famous, his role as a producer became more and more important.
Until “My Band,” D12’s biggest success had been “Purple Pills,” (“Hills” on many radio stations) a drug ballad that was probably bigger than anyone expected. But The Eminem Show made Em bigger than ever, and coupled with the strength of “My Band,” this was probably the closest a hip-hop group had gotten to household name status since Wu-Tang. For Mr. Porter, this meant one thing: more work, coupled with moments of clarity that didn’t always seem so clear until somewhere down the line.
This was the group’s biggest public moment. What was that like, compared to previous experiences?
Mr. Porter: As a producer, I was already successful in a sense, so as an artist, I was just figuring out, ‘I’m gonna do a solo album, I’m gonna do this, this…’ When you’re in that bubble you don’t really understand the totality of the effect you have on fans.
You’re living something and almost experiencing it later.
Later, when you look back, it’s like, ‘Fuck, that was a big deal!’
D12 World was the second album. Did you go into it with a different mindset than Devil’s Night?
I went it to it thinking, ‘I really gotta produce these songs. On a production end, it was one thing, but as an artist, writer, or rapper at the time, I wanted to really stand for something. All of the verses that I did, most of the verses it wasn’t just rapping. I was going through changes. A lot of experiences. I was losing a lot of friends. I was losing a lot of my old life and how I was as that person. And then it really dawned on me during that album, the one thing I significantly remember, relationships became void. I couldn’t really hold a real relationship. I was the only one at the time that was single. I realized I was in a wormhole of just music. I kind of realized being a regular 20 year old… that wasn’t ever gonna happen. Regular life, at that point, was not gonna happen. And I was still trying to have that.
I missed that part and I was still trying to grasp on to where I came from, the relationships that I had, trying to build things. I didn’t have children. Still don’t. I go through this constant battle. So every verse on that album, I found a way to say something significant to me. And that’s the one album I don’t listen to. I’ve listened to Devil’s Night a couple times, but ironically I never really went back to the album because it was like a lot of pain in it for me. The world was… it had already changed. I just didn’t realize it.
I think you’re on more songs than anyone else if my math is right. You talked before about how rapping put the fear of God in you and producing at the point you could get in there and do what you had to do?
I had learned a lot from Dre and just working with him I realized how much respect he had for me as a producer. I had at that point met every rapper that I grew up listening to. I was producing for all of them. And even with the climate switching, I working with a lot of new rappers. I produced songs for Maino and I was super confident doing the production but when I was rapping at that time, Eminem is this huge star. You’re standing next to a giant trying to figure out how to cast your own shadow. I felt like I had something to prove.
D12 is a group where everybody can rap. Not just a couple of the guys.
It was a good dynamic. People always talk about Bizarre and ‘he can’t rap.’ Listen to the rap today. Bizarre was doing what most of these kids do today. It wasn’t for everybody but it worked with us and he had his position. We knew what we were gonna do. Everybody played their part.
D12 World is lived in. The guys have eclectic voices and styles and they bounce from the club to the booth to house parties to running errands. But for anyone who hadn’t been rocking with D12 for a while, or who was only listening because of Eminem, they may have just seemed like Eminem’s group. Em, no stranger to critics or responding to them, went into his playbook for a classic Marshall move. D12 cartoonishly mocked this “lead singer” idea on the first, poppier single, and then went for the throat on the second with “How Come,” which is a darker and deeper examination of many of the same themes. Mr. Porter prefers the latter approach.
“My Band” leaves you wondering at the end how everybody actually feels about the “Eminem” thing. Was it therapeutic for you guys or was the difficulty with his fame a little embellished?
I understood the play we had to make as far as that song. It was creative. It was what we did. I think that place we hold in music, it was the only one. It’s unfortunate because when you talk about great groups, or anything like that, they always attribute it to Marshall’s success. Even still, that song has truth in it. For me, it was a song that I didn’t necessarily wanna do. I didn’t really look at [Em] like that. Our relationship went way back further.
You were answering something that an outside force had put on the relationship.
Exactly. So my view and the things I didn’t understand… me and him, we’d always bump heads and he was like big brother. It made sense what he was saying, I just wasn’t listening at the time. But I’ve never had a problem with his position in the group. That’s a heavy position, and the more I grew I understood it. I was growing myself. I didn’t necessarily wanna make that song, and I hate listening to it. I hated performing it. Transparency has always been our thing. And that’s just what we are. There’s a difference between transparency and placing attention somewhere where it’s like, ‘Alright, this don’t really mean shit to me.’ I felt we had way more in us, and more talent, and we could have made different songs.
“How Come” didn’t get as much play as “My Band” but it had legs.
That was a transparent song but I felt like it was a different take. I could talk about one of my other friends that wasn’t in the group. It was me using rap to express the shit I was actually going through. That’s why it was a perfect song. I think my verse is a little bit more intense, because I’m good at taking a situation I’m actually going through and playing a role so it fits. At that time I felt like me and Em’s relationship was closer than ever because I was just trying to figure shit out. I had a lot of questions. He warned me about a lot of shit. I was getting a lot more pointers and direction, so it was hard to write it if I was just writing about him saying, ‘We don’t really do this, we don’t do this…’ It was just a great song. We made a great song.
Do you think other guys in the group felt versions of what you felt, and they brought that, or do you think you were in a pretty unique position?
I think I was in a pretty unique position but I had an insight that they might not’ve had, too. [Em and I] grew up together. The most important years of my life—becoming a man—he was the older influence. Him and Proof. My position was super unique, so it was easy to speak from. But I think that’s the job of art. You have to get people to relate, or make them believe, what you’re actually doing. Because you wouldn’t know that me and him didn’t have a problem.
This is a group album. Were you guys really planning out verses and shit or was it just like, “Who’s here today? Who’s gonna go in?”
We would have ideas. Em would have a vision for a song. He would say, ‘I can hear this person doing this, or let this person set it up,’ and that’s the way he produces. I’m more like let me create the mood, and if they feel this mood, I would create 10 moods to get one feeling. I would have a hook. I was always great for bringing the idea together. I was always doing the hook, then I’d do my verse first. It may not go first but it’ll go. Sometimes as a producer it’s not like I had the same respect as Em. With him, they came in and it was like, ‘Okay, we gotta do this.’ With me, even being in the group, I never got that respect. I had it from Proof, but I always had to fight for that respect. That was one thing that I went through that I just never liked. I thought I had proved enough by producing. I was at the Grammys every year. I know what I’m doing. Trust me with it. I had to always lead with the beat and the hook and hopefully it got on. Proof always saw the vision. I think that’s just the struggle I went through in the group. Sometimes that happens. It just so happened that me and Em were both producers. He could produce but I was more of the veteran producer, but he had the respect.
“I was always trying to create this identity and I’m good at putting things together and trying to create an identity for something.If it was Royce coming to me with five songs, I’m gonna make those five songs turn into a feeling. A moment. We take those moments, take that dream, paste it together, and make his dream a reality. As a producer, that was the one frustrating thing I was always fighting for.
The Eminem factor
The drive to make D12 World a success in his own eyes was defining for Porter, and as he’s said, the artistic drive that came along with being a producer spilled over into his rapping. But for someone that ambitious, that wasn’t enough either. There probably is no such thing as “enough.” That’s the point. And during the recording of D12 World, a studio session with another ambitious producer-rapper impacted Denaun in ways he still thinks on.
When I revisited this album, I was surprised by how much it didn’t sound like an Eminem album. There are songs he’s not even on.
Mr. Porter: That’s definitely what we were trying to do. But when you have that many people in the group, everybody has a lot of ideas. Everybody is making music outside the group, now, too. We made the mistake of not taking that seriously enough. There’s a lot of feelings that would get in the way, you know? That album became ‘Let’s work with this producer, let’s work with this producer…’ Kanye came in.
How did that happen? Because he wasn’t that big in 2004.
No, but we knew about him. Chicago was right up the street, so I always heard about him. And he was doing shit for Roc-A-Fella. He played us the video for ‘Through the Wire’ before it came out. I think what Kanye was able to do with his career was great. I always admired his confidence, even when it was overshot. I think he had a good background. This is a producer who raps. I was listening to it, and I saw that video, and I never got to tell him, but that video inspired me to be a better artist. He came up with the concept, he had this song, he was telling this story. It wasn’t just a producer who rapped. He was an artist. When I saw that [‘Through the Wire’] video, he inspired me. I don’t just gotta be a producer that can rap his ass off. I know how to make songs. So I sing it, write it, produce it, everything. I did everything on this album. I didn’t really give it that much thought but was a very defining moment for me, even right now.
D12 would never get bigger than D12 World. Proof’s passing shook the group, but it wasn’t the only force at play. The success of D12 World and “My Band” almost prevented the group from getting more successful. All of them were more in-demand. Everyone had bigger ideas, and those ideas often seemed less convergent than ever. Eminem would release Encore before the year was out, and then go on the longest hiatus of his career and perhaps of any rapper this century. For Porter, it was too many pieces to hold on his own.
Did that feel like the end of the road for another D12 release? Was there ever talk about putting out another record?
We did. Em and Paul, I sat down with them. But I was grieving in my own way. I was going through it.
And probably in a different way than most people because you had that different relationship [with Proof].
Completely. Everybody has their own history with somebody, so I can’t tell them how they should be grieving. But what I felt was when he was gone, nothing was the same for me. I didn’t care about money or anything. I didn’t give a fuck about none of that. None of that mattered. I cared about the music and how it felt. I maybe made some mistakes in not trying hard enough to get them back up on the horse.
“They didn’t wanna record at the time. Maybe they weren’t ready. It became apparent to me that their needs were different. We tried to go to the studio and record in LA. Swizz Beatz came in. We had a song with Nate Dogg on it. It was one of the last songs that Nate Dogg did. I can’t find the record. It was the most amazing Nate Dogg beat and song. It would’ve been a hit. But everybody had their own ideas. Three 6 Mafia came in, a bunch of people came in. And it’s not that they’re not dope. I wanted to do it like we normally do it. I was living there already. I was like, ‘We can rent this [apartment] for a month. We need to re-bond.’ And I sat down with Em and Paul and they were asking, ‘You think you can do it?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. If you can get them to trust me.’
“If they can do it, I can do it.”
I wasn’t trying to take anybody’s place. I wasn’t trying to take Proof’s place. I was just trying to produce the album. I think we just needed to re-bond. Me and Proof used to always say, ‘Fuck this, let’s go on the road. No bodyguards, let’s just do it.’ We’re like the Grateful Dead. Those kind of groups. We’re not Wu-Tang. That’s not our fanbase. I went back to that. Let’s stay in the same apartment. I don’t give a fuck about sleeping on the couch. Jokes on each other, getting into arguments. Literally. And all we had to do was that. Imagine if we’d done that, and maybe had some cameras around to catch the good moments in the studio. We would’ve been able to pick up and keep going. That’s how Proof did it. Proof was one of the first people I know, him and Cam’Ron, did these big independent deals back in the day. He had a studio. He had a mission. People there always getting paid and loving music. He had his team. I saw that and I wanted to be the same.
Well, like you said before, you’re doing something in this bubble and you don’t know how you’re gonna come out on the other side.
I didn’t know Proof was going to pass. That was the most surprising thing in my life. I knew that if we didn’t change some things, we would be in trouble anyway. After D12 World and after Proof, that was it. I am no stranger to fault and flaw, and hindsight is 20/20. But I could’ve done it better, knowing what I know now.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018.