DMX may be one of the most troubled stars in music history with a biography worthy of a full posting, but his issues gave us music loaded with self-searching lyricism. Born Earl Simmons, DMX grew up fatherless with an abusive mother in Yonkers, New York. His mother raised him a Jehovahs Witness, and once refused to claim compensation for an accident that caused the young Simmons to suffer minor injuries because it went against her faith.
As a child, he was beaten and abused by his mother and her numerous boyfriends. These beatings were so severe, the young Simmons lost teeth and suffered from cuts and bruises across his face. The abuse continued into his teens, forcing the teenager to wander the streets of Yonkers at night, where he befriended stray dogs. These early friendships later formed a considerable part of the rapper’s image.
Simmons took his stage name from the Oberheim DMX drum machine he rapped along to while he lived in a children’s home. Simmons later changed the interpretation of his name to Dark Man X. In the same children’s home, DMX started rapping and bonded with the other boys over their shared love of Hip-Hop. These friends encouraged him to continue writing music despite their teachers’ objections.
The Early Career of DMX
DMX started rapping from an early age, but after serving a prison sentence for stealing a dog from a junkyard, he began taking the art form seriously. In 1991, at the age of 20, he released two mixtapes and featured in the legendary Source Magazine’s Unsigned Hype column.
This led to his first record deal with Columbia and a single titled Born Loser, in which DMX details his troubled life but states he’s now making something of himself. However, the track failed to attract much airplay, and Columbia released DMX from his contract.
Born loser shows a lyricist stacked with potential and an MC with a natural flow, but the song lacks the typical delivery of the artist known as DMX. The gruff voice stacked with aggression and yelling at an audience. Listening to ‘Born Loser,’ it’s impossible to recognise the track as a DMX song at all.
Two years later, he released ‘Make a Move,’ a song with the recognisable DMX voice and a glimpse of the style that would turn a kid from Yonkers into a global superstar. DMX would go on to work with some of the biggest names in the New York music scene, such as Ja Rule, Jay-Z, and LL Cool Jay before landing a deal with the iconic Def Jam Records.
It's Dark and Hell is Hot
DMX’s debut album, ‘It’s Dark and Hell is Hot,’ debuted at number one on Billboard charts and the RIAA certified the album platinum towards the end of 2000. Critics loved the album. The source credited the record with four mics out of five. Pitchfork called the album the ‘Dante’s Inferno of Rap,’ an apt comparison as DMX searches for his soul as he traverses hell, the equivalent of his difficult life.
The album opens with the aggressive, head-banging Ruff Ryders Anthem. The song serves as a single, but also as a warning to anyone who opposes him. Stop. Drop. Shut em down. Open up shop — the chorus repeats.
What the fuck you gonna do
When we run up on you?
Fuckin’ wit’ the wrong crew
Don’t know what we goin’ through
The last line symbolises what the album represents — an outlet for the beat within a young Earl Simmons. Throughout the album, DMX explores the darkest parts of his mind but sheds light on the environment that turned him into the artist barking through a speaker.
The first single, Get at Me Dog, set the tone with a chorus stating that anyone who wants to be a killer, should get at him. Dogs bark in the adlibs. In the verses, DMX calls out the state of Hip-Hop in the late ’90s and aims at the rappers who play a gangster in the studio but fail to live up to their stage life. The song introduced the world to an aggressive young man prepared to do whatever he must to win.
Despite the aggression, the album showcases DMX’s vulnerability. Songs like ‘Look Thru My Eyes’ have DMX confronting his struggles. He raps about loneliness and what it feels like to view yourself as an outsider, constantly put down by everyone around him. Three verses over a melancholic beat express the solitary confinement of a man prone to violence and aggression as he calls out everyone who wants to, or wishes, harm on him.
Look through my eyes and see what I see
Do as I do, be what I be
Walk in my shoes and hurt your feet
Then know why I do dirt in the street
“If I Don’t Fly, Then I’ll Die Anyway.” - DMX, Let Me Fly
In ‘Let Me Fly,’ DMX begs for death if he isn’t allowed to triumph. DMX views success as his sole option, and he’s desperate enough to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. On the second verse, he raps, ‘I sold my soul to the devil, and the price was cheap.’
Two tracks later, DMX holds a conversation with Damien, where DMX states his intentions to ‘do good,’ but Damien leads him astray with the promise of a better life. Damien serves as a representation of the devil. The chorus justifies DMX blind faith in evil as he rattles off a list of street slang for different people and questions how easy it is to tell the difference between the good and the bad.
The snake, the rat, the cat, the dog,
How you gonna see em when you living in the fog?
In ‘The Convo,’ DMX states ‘I tried to do good, but goods not too good for me.’ The song shows a conversation between DMX and God as he analyses his behaviour and searches for absolution for his misgivings. God, portrayed by DMX, raps, ‘no, put down the gun, and write a new rhyme, you’ll get it all in due time, you’ll do fine, just have faith cause you mine.’ At the start, DMX argues with God, but God goes on to explain that he had always been around. The song and the album come to an end with DMX’s realisation that ‘it was you, (God)’ who was there bringing light to his darkness.
DMX scares feint hearted listeners with an abrasiveness that sounds as though he’s about to tear through the speaker and attack. There’s a threatening presence when he breaks into rampant rages on songs such as ‘Stop Being Greedy’ where DMX warns listeners that he’ll do ‘whatever he has to, to break through the door.’
Even after finding success, the aggression remained. On Rob All Night, from the Grand Champ album, celebrating his successful career, he tells the world what it should expect from him. ‘If I’m gonna rob, Ima rob all night, if I’m looking for something then it’s probably a fight.’ Listening to DMX and songs like these, you may dismiss his violent lyrics as senseless brutality, but DMX seems aware of the perception some may have about him. He looks in on himself and explains the way he is and why he writes the way he does by speaking intimately about his life.
DMX’s introspection comes from his exploration of his relationships with God and the devil. Of course, like any Hip-Hop artist, he had his fair share of party songs, but his music doesn’t paint a pretty image of the street life. It’s raw and unedited. His biggest hits have catchy hooks, that pulls you into his world. On the second verse of X Gon’ Give it To Ya, he raps, I’ve been doing this for 19 years, you want to fight me, fight me these tears, as he threatens an unnamed enemy. DMX found a way to weave commercialisation, and he’s dark reality into hit-singles and albums adored by hardcore rap fans and mainstream critics alike.
“And it ain't about the dough, it's about getting down for what you stand for yo”
DMX, X Gon’ Give It To Ya
On ‘Party Up,’ a regular song on party setlists,’ DMX opens the first verse with another threat. ‘If I gotta bring it to you cowards, then it’s gonna be quick.’ DJ’s still play the song today, despite its 1999 release. The beat thumps like an ordinary party track, but DMX brings his typical aggressive delivery with abrasive lyricism that allows no one to consider DMX soft. ‘Party Up,’ along with ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’ and ‘Where The Hood At,’ offer aggressive street minded lyrics with catchy chorus spat ferociously over melodic hip hop beats. It’s songs like these that keep the artistry of DMX alive with the unrelenting brashness of a tortured soul.
The Softer Side of DMX
DMX rarely expresses his softer side, but it’s there and spun with his typical street-like attitude. ‘Good Girls, Bad Guys’ explores the adage of good girls who like bad guys. Unlike most Hip-Hop songs told by a patriarchal voice, the song gives female rapper Dyme a chance to fight her corner. The final verse shows that there are two sides to everyone’s version of events.
Man, I got shorty stayin out late (Well I keep him wit a cut
And his nails stay clean) At least I get a nut
And I got honey rebellin (And I stopped him from sellin)
I be gettin away with murder, right? (shit, I ain’t tellin)
Straight out the hood (yeah, you get mushy)
I got honey suckin dick (and I got you eatin pussy)
I can be good in a bad way (I can be bad in a good way)
And again, on Don’t Gotta Go Home, DMX drops his rough exterior to confess the reasons driving his compulsion to commit his well-documented extra-marital affairs. In the song, DMX speaks to his mistress, as they talk about their need to escape their stressful lives. ‘It’s like I love my wife, but we going through things and I ain’t going home tonight.’
He’s female vocal assistant, Monica, promises to treat him better and pleads with him to leave his wife. DMX responds with one of his most humane verses, considering his deep hyper-masculine image.
Come on ma, like it ain’t that deep
Like there ain’t no love there
like I don’t hate that I gotta creep
We go to sleep in each other’s arms
And I feel like this is where I belong
And if loving you is right then I ain’t wrong
This is the same old song, wife and fam?
Gotta be a father and husband, but I’m still ya man
A soft-spoken DMX reminisces about life with his friend before he passed away on ‘Ayo Kato,’ and he has a song dedicated to his grandmother. But his compassion shines on ‘Who We Be,’ where he raps, ‘my mother, my father, I love em, I hate em, wish god I didn’t have em, but I’m glad he made them.’ Despite everything, DMX believes his story has a purpose, and everything that happened was, and is, part of a higher plan.
Grand Champ – The Celebration Album
The production on ‘The Grand Champ’ album feels more upbeat and celebratory compared to earlier albums, especially ‘It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.’ On this album, DMX opens up again, but he speaks more positively about his life. On ‘The Rain,’ he acknowledges that he knows he’s now the only one who can stop the rain. Although he thanks God and credits him with helping him through his troubles.
The album has an upbeat tempo that glorifies everything DMX once spoke poetically about; however there’s still a sense of regret about the life he leads. It feels as though DMX has dealt with his issues and celebrates the man he’s become by talking about everything that made him this new man. The album ends with Thank you, a song that gives thanks to his God for helping him through. ‘In the name of Jesus, I don’t have to go through what I went through anymore.’
There’s not much to separate albums if we judge the lyrics in written form. However, it’s the music that suggests a change in DMX mentality at this stage of his career. After three platinum albums and successful acting career, DMX was at the top of his game. The beats kicked up their temper, but the same aggression remained. The only difference, now, was DMX was thankful for the help he’d received even if the only person he wanted to thank was God.
Lord Give Me A Sign
This, if not one of his best songs of all time, is at least one of my favourite songs. The lyrics speak of a man seeking redemption from his past crimes, and when it involves a man like DMX, there’s an abundance of flaws. DMX seems hell-bent on swearing off the devil and begs his lord saviour to help him overcome the demons he still has left to face.
Devil I rebuke you for what I go through
And trying make me do what I used to
But all that stops right here
As long as the Lords in my life I will have no fear
If there’s one song to introduce a new listener, it’s this one. The verses and the songs symbolise everything DMX is, every significant moment from this great artist, rolled into one lyrical onslaught. There’s the typical aggression, the pleading with a higher power, and softness from the man who was brought up by the streets. DMX’s power doesn’t come from his aggression, but his ability to hit you with his vulnerability.
I’m gon’ make it wrong or right
Make it through the darkest night
And when the morning comes you’ll see
All I have is God in me.
What makes this song great is the finality of its sound. It feels as though DMX has come to an end and made peace with the man who first burst onto the scene with ‘It’s Dark and Hell is Hot.’ As a gospel choir helps DMX sing out his prophetic song, the beat stops and DMX asks the lord one last time for a sign. However, the celebration of DMX and a legendary career came to an abrupt halt. Fame and success couldn’t stop the self-destruction DMX promised should his music fail. The kid who befriended stray dogs grew to become one of the biggest stars on the planet, but unfortunately, the troubled story of DMX doesn’t end there.