Tragedy follows the men who find themselves at the center of Detroit's rap world.
In the Eminem flick 8 Mile, actor Mekhi Phifer plays Future, the right-hand man to Rabbit, the film's hero. Future is at the center of the Detroit hip-hop scene, hosting open mics, promoting shows, dropping sharp 16-bar raps off the top of his head, lending his conscience to his best friends when they've lost theirs.
The character is based on Marshall Mather's real life confidant Deshaun "Proof" Holton. One writer described him as an "award-winning freestyle lyricist who can be a hype man, front man and good man simultaneously." Detroit's hip-hop community simply called him "the mayor." Proof came up with the Goon Sqwad, gained local notoriety with the group 5 Elementz and jetted about the world with D12. With his record label (Iron Fist) and undying love for the Motor City's fledgling music scene, his focus remained local, which immortalized the rapper. On April 11, 2006, after shooting and killing a man following a fight at an after-hours club on East 8 Mile Road, Proof himself took multiple bullets to the head and chest and was dead at 32.
From the eastside slums to the million-dollar homes in the northern 'burbs, laid-back rapper-producer extraordinaire James "J Dilla" Yancey is another Detroit legend. Dilla's demeanor — cool, confident and wise — allowed him to work with the best rap and soul acts in the industry. Artists sought him out for that signature Dilla sound heard on countless hits. Many of Detroit's notable performers — Amp Fiddler, Phat Kat, Raphael Saadiq and the group he helped found, Slum Village, to name a few — remain connected through him. And the same can be said for some of the genre's most notable global artists, including Mos Def, De La Soul, Erykah Badu and Janet Jackson. Dilla was an innovator and he united people. Having suffered from a rare blood disease, Yancey died on February 10, 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday.
Eugene Howell, 37, is still alive — though at the moment we find him in the Intensive Care Unit of an area hospital. Known in the Detroit hip-hop (and Twitter) community as Hex Murda, Howell suffered a massive stroke on Sept. 13.
Murda isn't a rapper or producer, he's a behind-the-scenes hustler: a manager, adviser, bodyguard and brother to the city's most notorious rap acts. Rapper Marv Won calls him Detroit's gatekeeper.
"Hex doesn't need to be on stage to be a star, he's a star anyway," Won says. "People always tryin' to find him, they gravitate towards him in a room. If you're tryin' to get something done in Detroit, he's the man. That's just the way it is."
Ronnie "Phat Kat" Watts goes one further: "He's the crazy glue," Kat says with a laugh, "and you can quote me on that." Kat, see, considers Murda "a brotha from anotha mutha."
Murda has a rep. Just as his middle finger finds camera lenses and his menacing glare finds grown men pissing their jeans, his fists have a special way of finding jawbones. He's the dude you'd want on your side if (for whatever stupid reason) you pissed off Suge Knight. And like that Death Row Records boss who reputedly dangled Vanilla Ice off a 20th floor balcony, Murda's a ruthless businessman attached to a stable of talented rappers. Unlike thug Knight, however, he puts his artists first, going above and beyond to further their careers. And as callous as he might seem, Biba "the Diva" Adams, a notable Detroit promoter and manager in her own right, gets to call him Pookie. They say that together a grown man's fists are the same size as his heart. Hex Murda has big fists.
"He is the most lovable guy I know," Adams says. "My girlfriends and I have always called him a big teddy bear. But I'm sure outside of the circle he can be a pretty intimidating guy."
Won adds: "If Hex got love for you, there's nothin' that man won't do for you. He'd kill for you — he'd die for you."
When Murda entered the lives of Phat Kat and Marv Won, it wasn't his brawn that impressed, it was his business-minded brain. "Hex, oh, he's a genius — smartest man I know," Won claims, adding that Murda can crunch numbers just about as well as he can crunch bones. "But it's not just the numbers game; Hex sees the plan, the long-term, knows what the right move is."
An elder statesman, Murda got his start early on in Detroit managing the Almighty Dreadnaughtz, a group that launched the careers of Supa MC and the more notable rapper — and Stones Throw recording artist — Guilty Simpson. Won got Murda's attention after winning a rap battle against then-Dreadnaught Shi Dog. Phat Kat's reputation as a local rhyme slayer also got Murda to take notice.
In the last 10 years, Murda has worked in some capacity with about every notable emcee in the city, most recently taking Black Milk under his wing, which subsequently took Milk's career to the next level.
"Everyone was pretty much trying to do their own thing before Hex started to roll it all together," Kat says. "It was cliquish. Now, with Hex in the mix, anyone and anything is just a phone call away."
Adds Adams: "There just aren't a lot of people in Detroit that can truly manage someone's career and take them to the next level."
Prior to Murda taking the wheel, Adams managed Black Milk, but she has no ill will toward the other promoter. "Hex opened 10 times as many doors as I could for Black Milk," she says, noting that Murda has been a major influence on her budding career.
"Watching him do his thing I learned to always be aggressive," Adams says. "I'm a female, so I'm not going to punch a guy in the face like Hex would, but I'm going to stand my ground and I'm not going to be ignored or disrespected. The number one thing he taught me is to never do anything for free."
At a recent gig in Los Angeles, Phat Kat was set to perform with Guilty Simpson, ElzHi and Black Milk. Of course, their homey Hex was there to make sure all went as planned. It didn't.
"We usually get paid before we go on stage, but there was this promoter who kept ducking and dodging us the whole night," Kat recalls. "So, we all do the show and at the end of the night the promoter guy is doing the same old thing, trying to avoid the money situation, you know, nowhere to be found. Man, it was about to get real ugly up in there — Hex was 'bout to beat the ugly out of LA. Instead, he just played it cool and made a few calls. Before you know it, here comes the dude running up with the money, shaking. That's just how Hex is — he gets it handled. Always."
Whether out of sheer fear, respect or both, Hex Murda is the silent king of Detroit's rap world. Not Eminem, not Kid Rock. His methods could certainly be considered unorthodox, but it's the results he gets, not how he gets them that'll will write his legacy, a story Detroit's hip-hop heads are praying still has some chapters to be written.
"Detroit without Hex?" considers Won. "That really wouldn't be Detroit."
The "Fucking Get Better Bro" Benefit for Hex Murda is Saturday, Oct. 17, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit; 313-961-8137), featuring performances by Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Paradime, Fatt Father & Marv Won as the Fatt Killahz, Trick Trick, Royce da 5'9", Phat Kat, Slum Village, Danny Brown and DJ House Shoes.Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org