We grew up on X. Menacing, muscular, magnetic, hypermasculine X. His music pierced our late teens and early twenties with chillingly raw and uncompromising emotional intensity and sincerity, a gruff and a growl, and dogs. In the aftermath of Tupac and Biggie’s deaths — a period when rap threatened to go soft — DMX personified rap’s hardcore archetype. X was the Big Dog.

In an April 13, 2000 review “DMX Reigns as the Dark Prince of Hip Hop”, the critic Touré captured one of the best depictions of X at the time. He wrote:

“He raps in the roughest and grimiest voice in hip-hop, the sound of gravel hitting the grave. His records speak of death constantly, crime casually and moral consequences occasionally. His music — the best of it from producer Swizz Beatz — is skeletal, drawing on the brittle sounds of dance-hall reggae, the pulse of old-school hip-hop and ominous keyboard swells that resemble horror-movie scores.”

He was a sonic testosterone, a man who could whip your ass and philosophize about the constant struggle in Yonkers all in the same gruff growling voice. DMX aggressiveness spilled on the streets, not once. The on-mic and off-mic personas were largely similar. Just before DMX signed the record deal with Def Jam, he got into a violent altercation in Yonkers. The result: a broken jaw. Def Jam Executive at that time, Lyor Cohen, could not believe all the news. He wasn’t sure if the X hype on the streets was real. To his utter astonishment, DMX, with his jaw wired, put on a mad live performance for Cohen, an impression so strong, that the executive made his signing a top priority for the record. The rest is history. DMX single-handedly rescued the label.

1998 was hip hop’s glorious year. The Lox dropped Money, Power & Respect in January. In March, Scarface dropped My Homies,  Killah Priest’s Heavy Mental and Gangstarr dropped The Moment of Truth. Big Pun’s Capital Punishment dropped on April 28. DMX’s album It’s Hell and Hell is Hot and Snoop Dogg’s Smokefest Underground all dropped in May. Black Eyed Peas dropped Behind the Front in June. Wu-Tang Clan’s The Swarm came in at the end of the month. Snoop Dogg dropped a second album that same year in August, Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told. In the same month of August, MC Lyte’s Seven & Seven hit the charts, Biz Markie On the Turntable and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill plus Xzibit’s 40 Dayz & 40 Nightz. Fat Joe came with Don Cartegana on September 1 starting a mad month, with Jay Z’s Hard Knock Life (Vol 2), Outkast’s Aquemini, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Last Movement being released on September 28.

Look, I know this list is getting longer, and I’m only mentioning a quarter of the rap albums in that year, but Ice Cube, Method Man, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and RZA all released an album in November. In December, Redman started the ride with Doc’s da Name 2000, Busta Rhymes followed with E.L.E (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front, and DMX closed the year on December 22 with Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood.

The competition for visibility and radio play was fierce. It was not an easy year for any album. Yet this is the year DMX made history. He released his first two albums in the same calendar year. Both albums, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 2000 making DMX was the first living rapper to achieve this. DMX topped the charts with two albums released six months apart in a year that featured more than 100 rap albums, many of which have been cemented on historical plaques as the best rap albums of all time. The only comparable feat were Tupac’s albums All Eyez on Me and Don Killuminati: 7 Day Theory in 1996, all released posthumously.

In the prime of his career, not even Jay Z could beat DMX commercially. Current bankable stars, the Drakes, Eminems and Kanye Wests could not have survived the extreme competitiveness of that year. Credit to Jay Z, though, he matched his wits with X in “Money, Cash, Hoes” on a Swizz Beatz beat, it was a show-stealing posse cut for X. DMX released his fifth album, Grand Champ, in 2003, debuting at No.1 on the Billboard 200, and became the first Ruff Ryder artist to release five consecutive chart-topping albums, creating a blueprint for later Def Jam acts. While this has been eclipsed by other artists since then, DMX was a first and his legacy was already cemented and name sculpted in history as one of the greatest rap artists of all time by the turn of the millennium.

In the And Then There Was X album, recorded in 1999 and released in 2000, DMX pulled an all-time monstrous collabo with Sisqo on ‘What These Bitches Want”. This was an age of hypersexuality and hypermasculinity in rap and licentiousness was centerpiece for a hardcore rap brand. Emerging from the heat and feistiness of adolescence, we rapped along with X: There was Brenda, LaTisha, Linda, Felicia …Dawn, LeShaun, Ines and Alicia … Teresa, Monica, Sharron, Nicki … Lisa, Veronica, Karen, Vicky … Cookies, well I met her in a ice cream parlor, to the many beautiful women in X’s life.

The gruff voice and signature growl electrified listeners with “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”, “Get at Me Dog”, “Party Up (Up in Here)” and “X Gon’ Give It to Ya”. To rap lovers who grew up in the Lil Wayne and Kanye West era, starting in 2004 onward, perhaps the best way to show the difference between the two eras is X’s performance at Woodstock in 1999. The concert is often described in the terms of “when DMX performed in front of the whole world.” I don’t know whether there are other YouTube videos out there of better quality, but this one here, is DMX in his glorious prime.

Aggressiveness was one thing and nearly every artist of that era laced it to a degree, but X’s appeal was the tough mix of overboard machismo and emotional sincerity. Of all the artists that emerged in the post 2Pac era, DMX was the closest, in style, to 2Pac. One can say that while 2Pac’s narration of his life in music was grimy dark and eliminated any hope for escaping the stranglehold of emotional pain, DMX grimy dark lyricism always held onto some hope. DMX always hoped that one day he would be able to heal from his emotional pain. DMX’s suffering was not a secret. He shared it all in his music. Best captured by music critic Kelefa Sanneh in a 2006 article in the New York Times:

“Even more than Eminem (who balances his paranoia with a mischievous sense of humor) or Tupac Shakur (who balanced his laments with smooth, swaggering boasts), DMX makes it impossible for listeners to ignore his suffering and desperation.”

Critics at the time called X the heir to Tupac Shakur. In private, to Swizz Beatz, and close bothers, DMX always cut off any conversation of being branded as a direct descendant of Tupac. DMX was DMX. X. He was born and raised in the poor neighborhood of Yonkers in New York. He rapped about the tough life in Yonkers, but like nearly all young men in the deepest ends of these projects, DMX was introduced to hard drugs at a young age. He was given crack cocaine at just 14 and that marked the beginning of his life-long struggle with cocaine and the ensuing devastation, as a young boy sold mixtapes on the street, and jumped in and out of juvenile detention centers and group homes. Drugs and crime.

In 2000, in the Rolling Stone cover story, he told Touré:

“I robbed niggas. I’m not ashamed of that. That’s my shit. Robbery. I’m not a hustler. I’ve tried it. That’s not me. I’d rather do the stick-up shit. But what got me over was, I had a rep in Yonkers. Niggas knew DMX would get ya. And I’d be straight-up robbin’ niggas, no mask or nothin’. Half of my weapon was my face. I’d just walk up to niggas and be like, ‘Yo, lemme get that.’ I wasn’t the biggest nigga in the world. I couldn’t beat everybody, but dawg, my rep superseded me.”

The introspectiveness, in acknowledging his personal troubles and mental torture, and the hope for reprieve as best displayed in tracks such as “I Miss You” featuring Faith Evans, in which he sings about the death of his grandmother — “When you died, I cried like a baby, I begged the Lord to take me cos no one else could give me what you gave me” — and narratives of what has changed or remained the same since she died. The collaboration with Aaliyah in “Come Back in One Piece” and Mary J Blige in “Sincerity” were X at his best and showed glimpses of his softer edges.

“I’m Slippin’” is, however, the track that best depicts DMX’s life. The song starts with a quotable: “See, to live is to suffer but to survive/ Well, that’s to find the meaning in life”. “I been through mad different phases”, he raps, “to find my way and now I know my happy days are not far away/ If I’m strong enough I’ll live long enough to see my kids/”. The music video, which begins with X being rushed to the hospital, with paramedics struggling to resuscitate him, is eerily prophetic.

On April 2 2021, TMZ broke the news that DMX had been “rushed to the hospital after collapsing at home”, that he was in a critical condition. A family member told TMZ that “paramedics tried resuscitating him for 30 minutes, and during that time he was deprived of oxygen. Doctors told the family the lack of oxygen severely impacted X’s brain. One family source said, “It’s not looking good.”

Today, April 9 2021, DMX was pronounced dead, from a drug overdose. He has died from the thing, introduced to him at 14, the thing he fought his entire life struggling to defeat and finally failed at 50. Earl Simmons, the rapper we know as DMX, the family announced, died on Friday at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York, one week after suffering a heart attack.

The statement read:

“We are deeply saddened to announce today that our loved one DMX … passed away at 50 years old at White Plains Hospital with his family by his side after being placed on life support for the past few days,” his family said in a statement. “Earl was a warrior who fought till the very end. He loved his family with all of his heart and we cherish the times we spent with him. Earl’s music inspired countless fans across the world and his iconic legacy will live on forever. We appreciate all of the love and support during this incredibly difficult time. Please respect our privacy as we grieve the loss of our brother, father, uncle and the man the world knew as DMX. We will share information about his memorial service once details are finalized.”

The death closes the lid on a two-decade career beset by struggles with drug addiction, legal troubles, and family troubles. He was a rap legend and a musical icon. The success of DMX’s albums gave Def Jam a new life. The chart-topping run is what paved the way for Jay Z’s breakthrough. DMX was also a cultural influence that burst beyond the seams of rap music to great success in movies such as Belly, Romeo Must Die, and Exit Wounds.

This weekend we play only DMX to celebrate his musical legacy.

Rest well, DMX.

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