DMX’s career is over.
Sure, it’s seemingly been over for the last 15 or so years of nearly a dozen arrests, drug abuse and bizarre concert appearances. But now things seem as dire as they’ve ever been after news broke that DMX faces up to 40 years in prison for tax fraud. It’s the tragic final act in a career underrated in recent years. But let’s be clear: no rapper ever reached the heights DMX reached at his peak. While X’s legacy has been surpassed by rappers like JAY-Z and Eminem, whose longevity enhanced their standings in rap and pop culture circles, Earl Simmons’ legacy should stand above most as an immovable force that saved rap music when the genre was seemingly on life support.
Here’s where rap was in 1997: the genre’s two foremost luminaries, Tupac and Biggie, had just been gunned down in two separate incidents. The media painted rap as so dangerous that it would soon die in self-destructive turf wars over coastal beef. Rap was undergoing an identity crisis. How do the artists embrace their street roots but stop from promoting the same sort of violence that ripped its legends from us? This was especially true for the people closest to Biggie and Pac. They couldn’t turn around and make violent music in the wake of very real death.
So Puff Daddy, Biggie’s producer and head coach, went full bling, turning his Bad Boy label into an empire of shiny suits, remakes of 80s pop songs like Sting’s “I’ll Be Watching You” and Lisa Stanfield’s “Been Around The World.” Dr. Dre was trading his g-funk marijuana-laced tunes in for corporate chic and ghetto waltzes on painfully awkward songs like “Been There, Done That.” Rap was tiptoeing around a new identity while respecting the recently departed. And while Bad Boy was seeing unparalleled popularity in the months after Biggie’s passing, a tide was turning against the flossy music.
That’s where DMX came in.
Earl Simmons was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1970 before moving to Yonkers, New York as a young child. A tumultuous upbringing and a violent household led him to be raised in group homes, turning to back alley robberies to survive. By the early 90s, Simmons, going by the rap name DMX started tearing up the freestyle circuit (once infamously battling a young JAY-Z on top of pool tables in a New York bar), making a name for himself on DJ Clue mixtapes. He would soon steal the show on LL Cool J’s “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” single.
X signed to Def Jam and released 1998’s “Get At Me Dog” as his first single. And it changed everything.
The video, in black and white, showing X on stage, sweating, swearing and snarling his way through the song was banned from MTV, who was also trying to reckon with its role in rap violence. “Get At Me Dog” was the unofficial anti-shiny suit anthem. An indictment of a rap music that was leaving the rest of us behind.
I was 12 when DMX’s debut album, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot was released on May 12, 1998. The album dropped eight months after my parents divorced. I lived alone with my mother in a shiny new apartment, a downgrade from the house I lived in with my parents. I was fat. I was starting middle school. I was a mess. And I was falling out of love with a version of hip-hop that would rather hide its issues under a diamond veil than acknowledge the rot at its core. That didn’t speak to me and I wasn’t alone. There was a clear line of demarcation between mainstream pop rap and underground music that didn’t have the outlets necessary to break through to the mainstream. I needed something that spoke to where I was in my life.
DMX didn’t just rap. He snarled, sometimes literally barking through tracks and attacking each bar with a mimetic canine ferocity. He was blunt. Direct. And a damn good lyricist, stringing together multisyllabic rhyme schemes in every verse.
Then I heard DMX’s second single, “Stop Bein’ Greedy.” The song is a stick em’ up anthem about poverty and the violent impulses it brings. While I wasn’t poor by any stretch, I could relate to the frustration of seeing other rappers celebrating a life I felt like I’d never reach. DMX encapsulated that anger. The rap world had no choice but to take notice.
It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 off the strength of the unstoppable “Ruff Ryders Anthem” single, pushing the then-popular jiggy rap to the background. DMX single-handedly broke the post-Biggie/Pac ice of rap being too timid to go back to its hardcore roots. While so many A-listers were burying their problems in Cristal and synths, DMX was unafraid to be emotional, exploring mental health by talking about his schizophrenia, paranoia and fears about religion. He delivered an openness rap hadn’t seen on a large scale since Tupac was alive.
The album was such a massive success that Def Jam pushed X’s follow-up, Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, ahead to December of 1998. That album was also a chart-topper, making DMX the first rapper ever to put out two number one albums in the same year. By the end of 1998, DMX was a household name. He would reach heights no rapper had ever seen yet and maybe haven’t seen since. His first five albums, in fact, were number one on the Billboard 100. He’s still the only artist to do so. X had major studio movies like 2001’s Exit Wounds and 2003’s Cradle to the Grave written with him in mind as the leading man. Drake, for all of his crossover appeal, isn’t making this happen.
DMX always seemed to be an artist teetering on the edge of sanity. He regularly rapped about his struggles with anger and drugs. Sadly, those issues snuffed out his stardom with little fanfare. In 2004, DMX was arrested for impersonating an FBI agent while trying to commandeer a vehicle at JFK airport. He’s been arrested for everything from drug possession to failure to pay child support (he’s fathered 15 children, many outside of his marriage). His concerts have been largely incomprehensible messes, causing been serious concern for his well-being. Needless to say, his musical output has been nonexistent. And now that he faces possible decades in jail, it’s time to face the fact that DMX’s career is probably done.
Careers tend to be defined by the most recent history and DMX’s is ugly. So it’s easy to forget what kind of mark DMX left on rap in the late-90s.He saved rap from itself in 1998 and took hip-hop places to which it had never been and might never return, speaking to an entire generation of fans in the process. Earl Simmons as rapper may be gone but, for my contemporaries, he will never be forgotten.