Detroit Emcee/Producer Denaun Porter Reminiscences About His Early Days in Hip-Hop

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(Photo Credit: Gerard Victor)

Denaun Porter has been behind producing many hit hip-hop records since around the turn of the millennium. He's been a member of the rap group D12 and a right hand man for Eminem. He, himself, went through his own meteoric rise as a producer when Dr. Dre put him on just after Eminem first shook the music world up. As someone still in his late teens, it was a lot for the Detroit native and even 15+ years later, Denuan Porter is still trying to figure it all out.

Recently, Denaun released Stuff In My Backpack, a project that pays homage to an era and to his own experiences from when he first discovered hip-hop and also represents a new step in the right direction into showing that solo artist side of him that many of us, including many of his famous friends, have long been waiting for.

Recently, I was able to chat with Denaun Porter. We talked about those early years in hip-hop and the struggles that came with it that he still deals with, along with what he learned from Dr. Dre, Eminem, Big Proof and J. Dilla.

Stuff In My Backpack is one of your newest project. What's the idea behind it?
The main thing I've been sharing with people is that this the first time I'm doing anything more than a song here or a hook or producing for somebody. It's like me as an artist. I started loving hip-hop and just learning about around I call it the Tribe era, which was maybe 92-93. I wasn't a part of it. I knew about RUN DMC and Beastie Boys, and I was up on it as far as hearing it here and there, but I wasn't into it. It still didn't grasp me the way they it grasped, like lets say Eminem or the people. I went back to the way I created music at that time with just MPC or just chopping up samples and things like that. That was the premise of it when I started, but I will always have this backpack with me. I always had my backpack around that time. It would be like when I was walking down the street and I would have my bag, the older guys would be like man "What's in your backpack?" I was like "My stuff!" because I didn't want to say; never telling them what it is but it was my stuff in my backpack. If you look at the artwork, everything that's in there symbolizes a part of me. Like I'm really into sci-fi movies. I'm really into Marvel comics. I'm into, obviously, production. What better to place to start than when I started loving music and I feel I could put a project out like that, not be judged for it because I could do whatever I want. Obviously, I can make bigger songs, but this is just the beginning for me though.

It doesn't sound like just a hip hop project.
First of all, sometimes as artists we sit on a project until the time is right. I've decided I was going to put this out some years ago and it took me still then years to put it out. This is just an EP. It's not my album. I wanted to put out a theme album. I want people to have an experience every time. This has jazz kind of feel because at that time when it started they used a lot of jazz samples. I wanted to go back and mess with that. It's an easy listening album but its fun. I had just got finished doing the Robert Glasper album so that's what helped me get back into that mode to keep the theme going.

We've been waiting for like 15 years for a solo project from you. Why now?
Obviously, I was in the group. When I was in D12, I was hiding behind that. I had a lot of self-hatred in a sense and I didn't love myself. Then, when we lost Proof and we went through that time, I was going through a lot myself. I found out I had a heart condition. I went through dealing with that. I was obviously in Michigan and not only did I lose Proof, but I lost other friends. I just didn't love myself. I didn't believe in myself. I was afraid. There's one line that I say that I didn't use on this project but it's a part of my album, I said "I'm I just an outer space nigga that's hoarding me because I'm afraid aborting what I'm recording". I feel the people are so critical that the minute you put something out, they have an opinion. They are not just listeners and they're not just fans at that point. Everybody is an expert. The Internet has made everybody an expert. You can be afraid of that if you don't love yourself enough to know "Oh! You don't fuckin' matter!" I'm just trying to actually talk to you and I'm expressing art! If you don't like it, you walk by that painting. You don't sit there and throw other paint on it. I didn't love myself. I had to go through figure myself out. I don't know who I was. I didn't know if I was just some guy in a group. I didn't know if I just a mega producer. I didn't know if I was just a CEO. I had to realize I was all of those things and this is just another part of me. The reason I'm choosing to do it now is because Proof always told I should do it, Eminem always told me I should do it. Everybody always felt I should, but I had to feel like I should. I feel like I should now.

The whole Eminem thing, how big he got so quick must have been overwhelming.
Trying to still matter next to a giant, yeah! And then not only did that happen for him, right after he got signed by Dr.Dre, Dre picked me up as a producer. I had just got Dilla's attention. He let me come over. When I got over there, Pete Rock was there. I'm asking questions. I'm learning shit. I went from him to Dre, now I'm caught in between this tower and this tower, and that tower doesn't want to step on the toes of that this tower. Dre isn't want to make Em feel funny if he was working with me too much, and I didn't want to make Em feel funny if I was working with Dre too much. That shit was unbelievable. I don't know anything about being a regular 18 year old. I don't know nothing about that. When I was 18, everything was changing. I'm oversees and people screaming my name. It's crazy. Then I'm producing. And I went straight to #1 hits. I didn't understand that shit. It affected the shit out of me. I didn't know what to do with it. I didn't know what to do with it financially. I didn't know what to with it when it came to the fame. I didn't know what to do with it at all.

I bet that was a lot to deal with.
Sometimes it was too fast too quick. Nothing about it was harsh with it came to, "Oh woe is me, I'm so famous." I was just trying to figure out where I fit in. It's always all about those people. Its like hey I got talent, I can do these things. Then I was doing it. I would do it, then I would go back to my cave. You produce a #1 hit these days, these kids the way that it works today, they produce something and now I got all the money in the world and I'm showing the world. That's stupid. You better make sure you can keep it. That's the most important thing. Somebody put $200k in front of you when you 18 years old and you got a couple hundred thousand dollars sitting on the table, the first thing you'll do go buy everything you can think about it. But when you get down to that $20k, its like where's the next one coming from. I was thinking about that when I got the first check! This is it. This is all you'll make.

Did you ever think any of those guys could say "screw it" and not work with you anymore?
Look, I had to keep Dre's attention. I still have to. You have to pay attention to who you are working with. If I feel I didn't have it, Dre didn't hear from me. I didn't sit there and hang up under him every time I made a beat. I wanted his respect for life, not for that moment. I don't give a shit what happened in the beginning. It's always somebody else that's going to come along. Beats are one thing, but as a person, that is my brother! Like when I see Dre, we ere just together the other day talking about the Mayweather fight. We weren't talking about music. He did say, "How the fuck you going to come to the studio and aint bring no beats?" Well, I've been working on some other shit, bro. I'll definitely bring you some shit next week. We just love playing beats. We just have that kind of relationship. I never had the I'm worried about him not liking my shit, I'm more so concerned with the fact that his knowledge is something that I can always learn from. It was never a business model. When I first came in, it was like I had to make sure I had my business straight talking to this man. That's what I focused on. I did that but then I got to know him and you know what, this is my boy. I can say that if Dre was riding down the street, and I see him, its like, "Yo, what up?" and its not like we just saying "what up?", handshake and walk pass. That's more valuable. When I talk to him, we don't talk about money. I don't think about how can I make more money from Dre. I want him to feel like he got a friend that he can trust and talk to and he can hang out with without having to feel like his life is different from mine. That's my homie. I was never worried about that with Em because I knew I was dope. I know what they like and I'm not going to make music just for them. I make music for me. It might be a song that they don't like, but I do. I never worried about that because I'm dope. I wouldn't be there if I wasn't dope. Proof wouldn't have never asked me to be the group if I wasn't dope. Proof used to call me wack before. He did that for YEARS! I'm a 15 year old. I got shot when I was 15. A year later, I'm sitting there. I'm about to make beats. I just liked rap at the time. I was playing him rap songs and he was like "Nahhh, this aint." I felt like the dudes he thought was dope I was better than. But whatever they have, I don't have it. So I need to figure it out and I had to get better. It made me better. Eventually, Proof asked me for a beat. I must be dope. I produced a whole album for Eminem. We did Infinite. He had a producer and when I heard his producer's beats that he was dealing with before, I don't even know. Man, Em don't even know this, I had only been doing beats for 3-4 months before I met Em. I just tricked him into thinking I was doing beats forever. I didn't even have a sequencer. I was just making beats without a sequencer and making them sound good enough and went on to produce the whole album for him. I had to be good. Right now, we were in Africa and kids were holding up Infinite signs. That blew my mind! I stopped in the middle of the show. Look at this sign. We still get excited about shit like that.

What were the biggest lessons you learn from Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Proof?
Proof, the biggest lesson I learned was how to be a man and take care of yourself. If you're looking for a hand out from somebody, you're already dead. If my whole life is based around looking for a handout, people blame other people because their successful and they're not. Proof never did that. When Em got on, he decided we're still doing the D12 thing. Em is doing what he's doing, we're doing this. We're going to go out, we're going to jump on this tour and going to do this. I was like "How we going to do all that?" We just going to do it. We started doing it and we were working while Em was working. Same way he built it, we starting building and then everything came back. Just came back full circle. It got a point where it had to be a very awkward position for Proof being hype man, then being the D12 guy. The leader. Those guys didn't understand the business. I was already working with Dre at this time so I was learning the business fast as Em was. I was learning it extremely fast. I didn't understand the business like the back of my hand but I knew I couldn't wait on Em to give me something. I had to work for it. He would respect me more if I did that. That's what Proof taught me. Don't look for another man to carry you. What kind of man are you if that's the case.

It wasn't guaranteed that Eminem could put you guys on.
Right, and what good were we to him if we were looking at his fame saying "Yo man, what about us?". We look stronger as a crew if we were out there trying to hustle. That's what Proof taught me. Just because I make a million dollars doesn't mean you have a million dollars. It means I might be able to take you to dinner a couple times but it doesn't mean you are living on the same street. Em just taught me how to be a stand up person. My father was whooping my ass. He was trying to get me to understand. You got to keep this job, this and that. You know when I learned how to keep a job? When Em got me a job at Gilberts and I was working as a dishwasher. When he wanted to go to a battle, it was like "Yo, I'm taking off too". He's like "Nah, we both can't take off! We're both going to get fired". I learned that I'm going to have to miss some times. You got to be a man. There stand up people. Dre is the same way. The biggest lesson I learned from him was if you have an idea and you are working with an artist, it's sometimes easier to work with a new artist then it is a person that is set in their ways. If I was to produce a song with Busta [Rhymes], and I always wanted to get those songs back from Busta and say like "Yo, let me add shit to this because its not done". He let Pharrell do it, but Pharrell is a bigger name. I didn't earn his trust as a producer. What I had to do is go out and start doing these other things until one day, Busta was like "Do you want to add anything to this?" Definitely want to add something. I had to earn his trust. Dre taught me how to earn people's trust as a producer. Don't think about the money first. Go in and do what you love. Money will come.

What about your time around J. Dilla?
Man, I was just a fan. I was amazed every time he touched the drum machine. He knew where a sound was. He knew how to take and look for a sound. That amazed me. I saw Dre do that too recently where he knew what kick to use. I want this exact kick. He could remember the sound of a kick. I still got to go through them until I find the right one. This dude knows exactly how to drive right to it. Dilla was like that. He could think of a record. How do you know that there's this bass line on this record? Not play it, but take a sample from another place and put it with this record and it sounds exactly the way that he hears it in his head. He can go to his records and add that to a beat that's not from the same record. How the fuck do you do that? I didn't understand that. Dilla was OCD. Its funny that you go to his refrigerator, everything was lined up perfectly. If you take one thing out, you had to put another thing back the exact same way. That explained a lot of how he was able to find these records though. He took something that would normally be weird to everybody else and something that was to some people a disability. Eminem is the same way. Royce is like that. I know a lot of people that are like that. I have similar ways. Dilla was strong enough to take something like that and use it to his advantage. That made him amazing. One of a kind.

Denaun's "Stuff In My Backpack" is available now and can be purchased via iTunes. For more information on Denaun, visit iammrporter.com.