Remembering DMX the troubled genius with a beautiful soul – Jerry Chiemeke
In December 1999, my father purchased a CD player with a 3-disc changer. Anyone who lived in the Delta Steel Company (DSC) area of Warri in the late 1990s would remember what the transition from video cassettes to compact discs meant to households: it was a sign of moving up in the world. The first VCDs we acquired included the Michael Jackson documentary called History, a compilation of 80s and 90s romance songs – Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” struggled for space with Sade’s “Smooth Operator” – and an English dub of the Jackie Chan film Who Am I? These were all entertaining, but none of them registered emotionally.
One day in March 2000, Stephen, my elder brother, returned from school with a CD whose casing made for curious viewing. It was easy to tell that it was a music album – the “Parental Advisory” warning was bold enough – but it was the front cover that bought my attention: a balding black man with piercing eyes and a scowl. The album, 18 tracks in total, was called And Then There Was X, and by the time I heard “this is not a f****ng game” on the opening track, there was no going back. Stephen and I played that CD until it scratched. We instantly developed a lifelong connection with this man who accompanied his hard-hitting lyrics with frequent growls.
Growing up at Yonkers in New York, DMX, born Earl Simmons on December 18, 1970, did not have the easiest of childhoods. He never knew his father, who cut off all ties with his mother barely weeks after he was born. His mother (and her boyfriends) beat him up on a regular basis, and by fifth grade, he had been expelled. By the age of 14, he had taken to the streets, finding solace in stray dogs and befriending abandoned kids in foster homes. He began to write music, and his beat-boxing skills caught the eye of a local rapper who, while mentoring him, allegedly introduced him to crack cocaine.
In the early 1990s, DMX struggled to get noticed. He would engage in rap battles at small venues – including a closely-contested rap battle with future hip-hop mogul Jay Z – but while the streets acknowledged his prowess, the big break just wasn’t coming: he once handed his demo CD to talk show host Wendy Williams, who tossed it from her car unto the streets a few minutes later. By this time, his on-again-off-again girlfriend Tashera, who would be his wife for 15 years, had already given birth to a child. DMX fended for his young family by committing robberies.
By 1997, Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G had both been murdered. Jay-Z’s profile was rising, but a lacuna still existed in the hip-hop space. DMX had stayed out of trouble long enough to convince Def Jam to sign him, and he had since joined Ruff Ryders, a label put together by music executives and brothers, Derrin “Dee” Dean and Joaquin “Waah” Dean. He appeared on The Lox’s 1997 single “Money, Power & Respect”, and while Lil Kim’s verse was the most talked about, he also made a huge impression.
1998 was the breakout year for DMX. Two albums, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot and Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood were released, and both records not only topped the charts, they each went multiple platinum. Beyond the commercial numbers, or the production nous of Damon Grease and Swizz Beatz, what made DMX stand out was the grit, aggression and passion in his music. The bars came at you like a street urchin tugging at your shirt, they drew you in, and if you grew up in a rough neighbourhood, you found that the lyrics were relatable. Where Bad Boy Records (led by Puff Daddy) focused on bling and shiny suits, DMX and his colleagues galloped around the streets with motorcycles and dog sleds. “Ruff Ryders Anthem” was aptly named: DMX unwittingly found himself at the forefront of a movement.
In 1999 the winning streak continued, with And Then There Was X hitting No. 1 and ultimately going platinum. This record was not as dark as the previous two, and singles like “What’s My Name” and “Party Up” pulled huge numbers. He captured the hearts of a 400,000 capacity crowd at the Woodstock Festival later that year, and at 28, he was clearly on top of the world.
One Tuesday evening in April 2000, my brother and I were listening to “Bring Your Crew”(off the Flesh of My Flesh album) and we got so carried away that we did not know when we started singing along to the lines “I got blood on my hands and there’s no remorse/I got blood on my d*** ’cause I f*** the cops”, much to our mother’s horror. The reprimands were frequent, but we couldn’t be bothered; it was what his music did to us.
By Christmas of 2001, my mother had passed, and in fact the first anniversary of her death was on the cards, but DMX had released his fourth album The Great Depression two months earlier, so my brother and I resorted to the record as a coping mechanism. “Who We Be” and “We Right Here” turned out to be hit singles, but there were underrated gems like “Trina Moe” and “When I’m Nothing” (which featured the Grammy-winning Stephanie Mills & sampled her 1979 hit “Whatcha Gonna Do”). The second verse of the latter features lyrics like “is the love gonna be the same when/we realise that the game ends/even me, will I have the same friends/even when I ain’t got the same Benz”, which in hindsight turned out to be ironic, considering how the last ten years of his life played out.
By 2003, Stephen and I were really struggling to process our mother’s demise, but we still found time to hum to Grand Champ. While it scored huge numbers, the album lacked the verve of its predecessors, but there was still room for a street anthem in “Where The Hood At”, a club banger in “Get It On The Floor”, and a diss track addressed to Ja Rule in “Dogs Out”. The noise from our room cost my father a few hours of sleep, but he didn’t complain much.
After all, his boys were coping with a notable absence.
By the mid-2000s, music changed rapidly. Illegal downloads affected album sales, and the record labels suffered: Ruff Ryders went into a hiatus. The terrain was different, too, in terms of who was relevant: the likes of Kanye West, 50 Cent and Lil Wayne were the artists dominating the airwaves. But the biggest blow to DMX’s career came when Jay-Z rose to leadership of Def Jam, and began to push back the dates for the release of DMX’s sixth album, even though production had long been completed and “Lord Give Me A Sign” had been released as a single. DMX ultimately left the label, and the album, The Year Of The Dog…Again, flopped spectacularly.
By this time, however, the commercial failure of an album was the least of DMX’s problems. The legal troubles were piling up, and early career success could no longer paper over the cracks. The loss of his grandmother Mary Ella Holloway, and his dear friend Aaliyah, had begun to take its toll on him: he was clearly a broken man. DMX would spend a huge chunk of the late 2000s and early 2010s going in and out of jail for a wide range of offences, including tax evasion, animal cruelty, drug possession, failure to pay child support, probation violations, car theft and illegal possession of firearms, among others.
DMX had a style of music that was unique: it was gritty and honest all at once. There were the songs that made references to cars and women in typical hip hop-speak, as with “What These B*****s Want”, but he especially loved to harp on the themes of friendship and loyalty, as with “Dogs For Life” , “No Love For Me”, “Here We Go Again” and “Number 11”.
But his most intriguing attribute was his inclination towards the spiritual, in spite of a professional outlook that suggested the opposite. His discography is laden with tracks containing prayers that were as poetic as they were emotive, as well as songs that depicted him conversing with God. “Ready To Meet Him”, “Angel”, “One Minute With Your Son” and “Thank You” are testament to the fact that in another lifetime, DMX could have been a preacher. He had planned to start a gospel rap show in 2010, but his frequent run-ins with the law put paid to that idea.
DMX suffered from multiple personality disorder and bipolar disorder during his lifetime, but being the storyteller that he was, he translated his pain into art, creating a trilogy of narratives where he sets himself against a malevolent force: “Damien” (off It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot), “The Omen” (off Flesh Of My Flesh) and “Damien III” (off The Great Depression). The Damien character is representative of the devil, and beyond the reality of an alter ago drawn from his mental health struggles, it also illustrated DMX’s literary inclinations: there are parallels that can be drawn between Damien and Mephistopheles, the demon from Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.
Beyond his mastery of the mic, he also had amazing acting chops. He was the bright spot in the 1998 crime drama film Belly, and when movie director Andrzej Bartkowiak decided to roll out three action movies – Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds and Cradle 2 The Grave – casting DMX in each film proved to be a masterstroke. The movies have become cult classics.
By 2008, I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Benin. I moved into the hostel in the first month, and after five weeks of watching my hair grow to the point of resisting combs, I needed to choose between two barber’s shops. One afternoon, I heard “Ain’t No Way” booming out of the one on the east wing. There was no second-guessing where I chose to cut my hair for three academic sessions.
After a few rough years, my relationship with my brother improved greatly, and we would bond over YouTube links to “One More Road To Cross” and “How It’s Going Down”. But by my mid-20s, it was “Slippin” that had become the soundtrack of my life: it was what I played on my way home after my first armchair session with a therapist in 2016, and it was what I streamed on repeat in January 2017 when I was told to stay indoors for weeks to “avoid thoughts that tilted towards self-harm”.
2020 brought with it a global scourge that forced everyone indoors, we were bored enough to sign up to TikTok, and some users were nice enough to introduce a younger demographic to the greatness that was DMX’s musicianship. The #DMXChallenge evoked memories of a time when my peers knew the lyrics of “What These B*****s Want”, especially that memorable second verse which ran along the lines of “there was Brenda, Latisha, Linda, Felicia, Dawn, Leshaun, Ines and Alicia…”
Later that year, Verzuz TV had Snoop Dogg and DMX on a two-hour versus “battle” that was in many ways a virtual concert, attracting 2.7 million views. The Lox featured DMX on a track called “Bout S***”, and there was talk of a new album. The Ruff Ryders Chronicles documentary – aired by the BET network – revealed ugly details of how DMX was mistreated by the leadership of the label, but fans were willing to forgive. After nearly a decade, the big dog looked like he had finally conquered his demons, and he appeared healthier than ever. Things looked good.
Then on April 2, 2021, a huge dark cloud surfaced.
It’s hard to tell if the urge to indulge in drugs was triggered by the sight of weed and alcohol on his Drink Champs interview with veteran rapper N.O.R.E and DJ EFN, but DMX had (reportedly) overdosed, and it had caused a heart attack. It went from bad to worse, he was placed on life support, and as the days rolled by, his organs began to fail.
On April 9, 2021, I woke up from a strange nightmare. I went about my day with a huge feeling that sometime was wrong, and when my brother sent me the Spotify link to And Then There Was X via WhatsApp, I knew that the worst had happened. I responded by sending a Spotify link to The Great Depression. For both of us, it felt like something which had formed an integral part of our childhood had been taken from us.
DMX was not perfect by a long shot, but it was his vulnerability and his openness that made him loved by many. He was flawed, but he was human, and that was something his fans could relate to. There will be other days to talk about the influx of drugs into the black American community in the 1980s and how it has ruined many families across generations, but DMX was as much a victim as he was a participant. He kept fighting to stay afloat, he succeeded in spite of the torment, and while he may not have lived a long life, he definitely lived a full one.
The first few seconds of “I Miss You”, a song written in memory of his grandmother (off The Great Depression) run in the lines of “I know that my saviour lives, and at the end he will stand on this earth/my flesh may be destroyed, but from this body I will see God/yes, I will see him for myself/and I long for that moment”. DMX believed in paradise and the afterlife, and I find myself rooting for him, hoping his faith is rewarded: that man yearned for God in spite of his imperfections; he could have passed for a modern-day David. He was troubled, but he was beautiful too.
Jerry Chiemeke, a frequent contributor to The Lagos Review, is the author of Dreaming of Ways to Understand You.