"I'm a hardcore MC. I'm a lyrical assassin," Ondre "Swift" Moore replies during a phone interview from a recording studio. "Which means, I'll go there with you, or, to translate, challenge you, match wits with you. But on the flip side, character-wise, I stick to family. I believe in loyalty, you know what I'm sayin'? I don't believe in getting too close to people if you ain't family."
We know what he's sayin'. Despite his intimidating lyrical assassin status, Swift seems like a nice guy. He doesn't make you feel as if you're boring him with potentially tiresome D12/Eminem questions. On the group's new single, "My Band," Eminem sings, "These chicks don't even know the name of my band." Is there some truth to those lyrics?
"Some people perceive it, like, 'He's the lead singer, woo-woo-woo,'" Swift answers with some tension in his voice. "We just want the audience to know that we not a band, we're a group. We've always been a group. We've always been together, friends through hip-hop."
By now, every pop music fan knows the story of these friends. D12 -- or Dirty Dozen -- is the crew Eminem used to run with back in his hometown of Detroit. Proof formed D12 back in the mid-'90s; at the time, they were more a loosely aligned crew of solo MCs than a full-fledged group. In 1998, Eminem, who at 31 is slightly older than the other members (Swift is 28), was discovered by Interscope Records CEO Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, and he proceeded to unveil his Slim Shady persona to the world via his independently released Slim Shady EP (which Interscope put out a year later as The Slim Shady LP). Eminem-less, D12's many members kept grinding away in the Detroit underground, developing a surrealistic "horrorcore" style that bore a strong resemblance to Gravediggaz, Brotha Lynch Hung, and Esham, and dropping freestyles and mix-tape tracks that have never been widely distributed. But Swift says Eminem was still loyal to his crew. "When he came out with 'Hi, My Name Is,' that let the world know, 'D12 does exist, and I'm representing for them and with them,'" Swift explains.
Then Eminem blew up. Interscope invited him to set up a boutique label called Shady Records, and the first group he signed was D12, which Proof had solidified into a six-man team. The group's resulting 2002 debut, Devil's Night, was widely characterized by critics as Eminem's Svengali attempt to shore up his street cred. (It didn't help that hip-popper Nelly's St. Lunatics crew dropped an album around the same time.) But Slim Shady devotees still snapped up over a million copies.
Surprisingly, both Devil's Night and this year's follow-up, D12 World, are solid collective efforts, mixing humor with a slightly unhinged flavor, and both yield more than their share of good tracks. D12 World drops jams such as "I'll Be Damned," a funk attack against groupies and gold diggers that Swift claims was his idea, and "Leave Dat Boy Alone," on which he rhymes, "We comin' too strong, so it's irrelevant to blast you/We master ready, slash like relatives of Manson."
The radio-friendly single "My Band" largely overshadows D12 World's other strengths, but when Swift raps, "See I know how to rap/It's simple, but/All I did was read a Russell Simmons book/So I'm more intact, trying to get on the map/Doing jumping jacks while getting whipped on my back," you gotta give D12 credit for penning rhymes that are catchier than crabs. Lyrical assassins they are indeed.
You might think that working under the shadow of one of the most popular rap artists of the past decade wouldn't agree with a hardcore MC who still chops it up with Motor City locals. But Swift says he doesn't mind. He's paid enough dues in the rap underground to happily appreciate mainstream success in all its forms.
"When you get the TRL, MTV, and Direct Effect crowd, then I can do nothing but thank the Lord and be happy," Swift says. "If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be where we at. I don't feel uncomfortable. At [famed Detroit club] the Hip-Hop Shop, every MC wanted to be on [this] level. That was what it was all about."