Someone who knew what he was talking about once told me you can find out all you need to know about a rapper from the first line of the first single off their first album. While others spit that Wonderama shit me and my conglomerates shall remain anonymous, caught up in the finest shit. Hi kids, do you like violence? Wanna see me stick nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids? From the depths of the sea, back to the block, Snoop Doggy Dogg funky as the-the-the DOC. Jay’s the smooth crimes guy, Em’s a self-aware pop-culture pustule, Snoop’s the dude who can say any old shit and make it sound cool. Here’s DMX’s: What must I go through to show you shit is real?
DMX was an artist who dealt in absolutes. Heaven and hell. Life and death. Do battle or break bread. Sin and salvation. Dog and cat. But it all flowed from that first line in “Get at Me, Dog,” a declaration to maintain the real at all costs.
Eminem might have said he made the underground spunned around and do a 360, but DMX had already done it three years earlier and hadn’t bothered to point it out. Here was a guy who came up in the New York battle scene, paying the bills by robbing people, sometimes with his pit bull riding shotgun, other times armed only with the unyielding intensity of his face. And then he sold 16 million albums in five years, starred in four movies — at least two of which, Belly and Cradle 2 the Grave, are just completely perfect — gave the world Swizz Beatz, and, for all intents and purposes, that was it. X still made music and toured never really fell off from a quality or charisma standpoint (see his guest turn on The Lox’s “Bout Shit” for reference) but the lightning had left the bottle. And the sort of lightning that DMX had managed to corral is never really under our control; its nature is of ubiquity thrust upon us, the ever-roving eyes of culture pausing because they cannot help but be entranced by our perfection, it is scary and it is exhilarating and it leaves whether or not we are ready and it is dark and Hell is hot.
But for a moment, there was only X. Jay Z might have been the king of New York, but DMX was the master of the universe. Or to put it another way: The Rolling Stones are an all-encompassing rock band because they lasted forever, notching hit after hit, gold record after gold record, until it seemed like they’d always been the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. DMX was The Beatles: a short run, full of unfuckwithable music, whose true impact upon culture we’ll never quite be able to understand unless we were there. He shared every side of himself without pretense or artifice. He was honest and direct, like we’re talking make-multiple-songs-where-a-demon-tells-you-to-do-evil-shit-and-oh-by-the-way-its-name-is-Damien-level direct. He was good everywhere, from a DJ Clue mixtape to Woodstock ‘99, his voice a blur of shredded-throat staccato rhymes, screams, growls, barks, chants and everything in between. All it took was one syllable to know that X was on the mic, his voice as unmistakable as Biggie’s, Eazy-E’s, or James Brown’s. Each record began with a track that was half mission statement, half incantation, and each ended with a prayer. If you’re reading this you know what his music sounded like, because he was DMX. It was the Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy, laid bare.
I first discovered DMX when I was nine, looking through those old magazine inserts that you’d fill out and send off and get like 10 CDs for $30 and probably keep getting them whether or not you wanted them. You know the ones I’m talking about; they were always printed on coarser paper than the rest of the issue. Anyways that’s where I saw the cover of Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, and I mean, the dude was covered in blood, what else did nine-year old me need to know? I had no idea that this was the same guy I was hearing on the radio all the time, in snatches and spurts, and soon at middle school dances in a crowd of sweaty kids pogoing vaguely in time with Swizz Beatz’s crashing arpeggios. (Later it all came together, probably when I saw the trailer to Cradle 2 the Grave, set to “X Gon’ Give It to Ya.”) That’s what made DMX so powerful: his music had so much energy and charisma that it could resonate with literal children, but at its core, the bark and the bite came from a place of pain.
DMX was abused by his mother as a child, he was definitely an addict, and I cannot imagine that the same people who told him it was a good idea to put out three records in two years, tour constantly, and costar in a Steven Seagal movie even remotely had his best interests at heart. This isn’t to say that DMX didn’t have agency in the situations he was in, or that he wasn’t responsible for the choices he made (this includes both impersonating an FBI agent in an attempt to steal a car, despite being DMX, platinum-selling rapper and movie star, as well as using the first verse of “Where the Hood At?” as an opportunity to deploy a shockingly homophobic Ja Rule diss). But when there’s pressure to perform, regardless of the context, you make decisions with the short term in mind, and those around you will look the other way and most will be gone long before you have a chance to ask them to help you clean up the long-term mess.
For a while in the early 2010s, DMX lived one county below near where I grew up, presumably because of its proximity to either his family or the regional classic hip-hop touring routes where he was active for most of the decade. Him being there wasn’t an area-shifting factoid; by then, he was just some guy, albeit one who made the local papers whenever he got pulled over for a driving violation, which was often. Sometimes he’d show up somewhere and perform just for the hell of it and it was great. Like I said, he was just some guy.
But he was always just some guy, even at his apex, when he was allergic to both sleeves and not going platinum. He was a man of God and a man of the people, torn between sin and salvation, his addictions and his generosity, peppering his records with threats. The only time I ever saw DMX live was in 2012, at S.O.B.‘s in New York. The place was packed; my friends and I had gotten there early and camped out right in front of the stage on the left side; I distinctly remember refusing to drink a drop of liquid, alcoholic or otherwise, so that I wouldn’t miss a second because of something trivial like needing to go to the bathroom.
It’s been nearly a decade so I don’t remember much, beyond the giddiness of the crowd and the gratitude of DMX himself. He had spent the past half-decade in and out of jail, living outside the city, not making much in the way of music, and now, he was back, in all senses of the word, like he’d never left, even if it was only for a night. At some point he handed someone in the crowd a bottle of liquor, announcing that we’d be playing a game he called “Sip and Pass,” sending the bottle from one end of the stage to the other in what I can only describe as an extremely pre-COVID communal ritual. He played every song you’d have hoped he’d play, delivering each word as if it were new, projecting to the back of a cramped rap club as if it were Madison Square Garden. By the time it was over, I was covered in sweat, whose I don’t know, so caught up in the rapture of the moment that it only felt right that just before we left the stage DMX had us all bow our heads in prayer.