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Revisit DMX’s October 1998 Cover Story: ‘RUFF RYDER’

This article originally appeared in the October 1998 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Karen R. Good | Cover photography by Butch Belair

Hot off his “Get at Me Dog” single, DMX sold one million records in five weeks. People say he’s the “next Tupac.” But who is Dark Man X? He’s got a 50-Cent dog chain round his neck, he sees ghosts, and he spits rhymes. Why do so many believe in him so quickly? Karen R. Good finds out what wags the dog. Photographs by Butch Belair. Cover photo by Jonathan Mannion.

Call him Ishmael the Outcast, for Earl Simmons’s Dark Man X is more than a mysterious superhero or villain. Dark Man X is a repercussion of invisibility; he’s what happens when one is misunderstood and ignored. The world’s willful blindness, in turn, makes him Everyman, as when he rhymes on his gold single “Get at Me Dog”: “I’m just robbin’ to eat / And there’s at least a thousand others like me / Mobbin’ the streets.”

What else do you expect from a man who’s been called nothing at all? Except X.

Herewith a man who sees ghosts; their terror has kept him loosely alive.

Wednesday night service at the Ritz in Washing­ton, D.C. A small club, dark, hot as hell. Short­ly after 1 a.m. Revelers hang slack off the wooden rafters, fannin’ as sure as they are shouting. Loud­speakers plead with folks crowding the stage to “back the f**k up!” Fire marshals try to shut it down.

All DMX needs is a nice piece of stage on which to stand and travel in combat stance. If this were a big show, he might be in full dog gear: leather strap vest, chains, pitbull for fearsome effect. But tonight: white tank top, red sweats, plain white Nike’s, 50-cent dog chain round his neck, Newports in back pocket, tat­toos rising from his back and shoulders. The people love DMX because somehow they believe him: his severe poetry, energy, truthfulness.

Except for Wise—the disturbing hype man so inclined to drop his draws and dangle a nondescript penis—the DMX show is no frills. From “Stop Being Greedy,” he moves into a medley of drive-bys (his guest appearances on Cam’ron’s “Pull It,” L.L.’s “4,3,2,1,” the Lox’s “Money, Power & Respect,” and Mase’s “24 Hrs. to Live”), then hits ’em with Dark’s battle cry, “RuffRyders’ Anthem” (Stop! Drop!). His finale is the golden “Get at Me Dog” that’s got folks shouting his lyrics all the way back to the door. “I love my dogs,” he says, “but where’s my b**ches?!” and one girl boosts herself onstage and wraps her arms round X’s neck. Necessary madness. Liberation. Before DMX exits the stage, he growls: “Love….”

Tonight has been an exorcism, you understand, as DMX is plagued by demons. “People believe you can only catch the Holy Ghost in church,” he explained weeks earlier. “No. I get it onstage.” Then he told me the story of his life.

One time I was locked up, and they had a live band rehears­ingfor a Christmas show. They had the drums, bass, key­boards—live music, yo. I got ‘ta rhymin, and after a while, it was like a circle of sweat around me. Long as they jammed, I...rhymed. I just found myself just like, losin’ it. I don’t know where the f**k I got the wind from ’cause I smoke; got bron­chitis and asthma. Maaaan, listen. I got to bouncin; my eyes are closed, I don’t see sh*t, I don’t hear sh*t but the f**kin’ beat, and I’m rhymin’, you know? I’m rhymin’!

Blood is better than Thug according to DMX. He keeps a cup of Blood Passion, a concoction of Hen­nessy and Red Passion Alize. The recipe is derived from Tupac’s Thug Passion, which was, according to Tupac, “one part Alize, one part Cristal.” X’s drink is intrinsic to the interview process, as the few blunts smoked have not rendered 27-year-old Earl Simmons (“My alias,” DMX says) completely invisible. It’s about 3 p.m., and there’s much to do. He’s backseat in a Town Car leaving the Manhattan offices of Ruff Ryders, the management company he got down with after his unsuccessful 1991 single on Columbia Records, “Born Loser.” His Def Jam debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, topped Billboard’s Top 200 and sold 251,000 units the first week.

We’re headed to a rehearsal for Hot 97’s Summer Jam concert; after that, a stop at the aforementioned New York superstation (WQHT 97.1FM) for an inter­view with Funkmaster Flex; after that, wherever the spirits lead him. He situates his cup, lights a Newport, and starts: “I don’t like talking to people—sober. Sober is Earl: answer the question, two words type of sh*t. Drunk is X. Yo! Whut up! Have a good time! You wan­na talk to X. You don’t wanna talk to Earl.”

Drinking provides DMX the ease to say what he wants without “cushioning the blow”; though he insists that he doesn’t drink to escape. “I can’t escape my problems,” he says, searching his pockets for a cig­arette. “But it makes me look at things in a different light.” He pauses. “Well, it’s not that bad. I can smile right now because God got me, yo. He pu—Look! Look! 1-800-DIAL-G.O.D.!!” DMX screams sudden­ly, pointing wildly at the passing traffic. “You see that truck right there?! It says 1-8o0-DIAL-FU**ING­ G.O.D.!!” The lettering on the truck seems like a com­mandment. Goddamn! I shout.

“Ohhh, no! Don’t say that sh*t! Do not use His name in vain!” DMX scolds me and scoots away as if lightning really was to strike. I meekly apologize to God, and DMX resumes his loosie hunt—under seats, through pockets, mumbling, “I’m like the losingest sh*t….” The car stops; a last sip of Blood Passion, a spark of a found Newport, and DMX instructs, smil­ing: “Step lively!”

But once in the studio, DMX feels no need to rehearse. “Why we gotta make them feel better about what the f**k we do?” he says to nobody in particular. DMX speaks like he rhymes: a most unusual staccato dialect, deliberate rises and falls, almost like humming. He’s got a sweet face, and at five foot ten and about i6o pounds, though, he looks almost slight. Under his left eye, there’s a bitter scar, the result of getting jumped by 10 guys last year. The fight also left him with a broken jaw. He says it was wired shut when he recorded his absolution poem, “The Convo.”

A woman comes into the studio. Her name is Cookies, with an S—”Got a fresh batch” is one of her phrases—and she’s known DMX four years. They met in Harlem. At that time, she was Muslim. “The only thing that showed was my eyes, my hands, and my feet.” Not today. Today, she’s wearing a sheath dress that falls gracefully, showing off her thick, shapely figure. DMX stops for a moment to give her a hug and pose for her camera. She sits down and discusses an article she read about DMX. “Now they comparin’ you to Tupac,” she says. “That sh*t kills me.” DMX has never met Tupac. Admired him, though. He says nothing, just smiles.

His silence is understandable. The frequent comparisons are as disconcerting as they are flattering. The two men—or rather, the man and the ghost—are similar in pas­sion, cadence, conflict, and charges. Both are contradictory, confrontational poets with difficult lives. Both beautiful and hard­headed. Both with a raging, redemptory religious fervor. Both ostensibly out of control.

“I think Tupac was just a strong-minded black man,” DMX has said, “and that’s what America fears—a strong-minded black man.”

When you hear DMX on “Prayer” (“And I fear that what I’m sayin’ won’t be heard until I’m gone / But it’s all good ’cause I really didn’t expect to live long / So if it takes for me to suffer / For my brother to see the light / Give Me Pain Till I DIE! / But, please, Lord / Treat him right”), you realize it’s never the moral of the story that matters. It’s being the martyr, dressed like the sacrificial lamb. If they must die, brothers want to go out in a blaze of glory—wild style. (Remember me as the one that died gunnin’.) Because if you can’t command a certain respect, rev­erence, nobility, and mythologizing in this life, you’ll get it afterward.

Some black men, X men, are so absolutely scared of—or familiar with—death and its gradual approach, that they’ve embraced it (DMX has a tattoo of the Grim Reaper being led by hounds). So familiar with its formidability, they call on it, challenge it, shadow box. “I live to die,” X rhymes on “Get at Me Dog,” “That’s where I’m headed.” And though there is nobility in confronting fears, living to die ain’t noble or fearless. It ain’t living.

X’s friend Bundo stops by the rehearsal with Bobbi, the one-year-old pit who, released from her chain, runs happily to her friend. DMX’s voice rises, his eyes go all soft as he showers Bobbi with pats, confirmations, and hugs. “That’s my boo! Hey, girl! Love you, Bobbi! Huh? Huh?” X walks out of the studio, takes a rag, and ties it to some nearby scaffolding so Bobbi can show her jumping skills. “Get it, girl! Hang! Not with the front teeth! That’s a girl!” Soon the rag is in shreds and Bob­bi lies down panting in the shade. DMX still wants to play. “Get it, girl?” he tries. She looks away. “Damn,” Cookies says, “give the b**ch some credit.”

DMX growls playfully at Cookies. “Dogs first, females, then ni**as” is how he counts his friends: “See, there’s competition with ninetysomething percent of men, which means ego, envy, or the agony of defeat. You’ll find short of ten percent of real ni**as that don’t have any problems saying, ‘Yo, I love you.'”

It’s been said that a man is like his dog. DMX was born in 1970, the year of the dog. Death and spirits can be seen by dogs. The Egyptians believed that a goddess, whom dogs were known to accompany, kept the powers of darkness fettered by a heavenly chain. When the chain breaks, it is said to be the last days of the world. “And if the dog’s off the leash,” DMX has promised, “the dog’s gonna bite.”

Cover photography by Jonathan Mannion

A 29-year-old exotic dancer accused DMX of sodomy, rape, and unlawful imprisonment this past June. Though he was arraigned in Bronx Criminal Court on July 18, he has not been indicted. He says he never met the woman, calls her accusa­tions bogus, and maintains he doesn’t go to strip clubs unless he’s performing in one. He even agreed to give blood samples for DNA testing. “You know I got a gag order,” he says after the rehearsal, “but I don’t give a f**k about a case. I didn’t do that. Certain sh*t is out of my character. I’m not that pressed for pu**y. Come on, man—half the time I don’t even have enough energy to f**k a b**ch.”

The idea that the lyrics to “X-Is Coming” seem to implicate him—”And if you got a daughter older than fifteen / I’ma rape her”—seems not to trouble DMX. He says the song is figurative, “what you would do to your worst enemy.” Then he asks: “What about the movies when they kidnap the guy’s f**kin’ family? I got so much flack over those two bars.”

Maybe men who use “b**ch” freely don’t under­stand that there is no such thing as figurative rape. (But what happens when you can’t see your mother in oth­er women’s faces because you feel like a motherless child?) It’s an endless struggle: Women who love hip hop instinctively understand the (ah, figurative?) lynch­ing of black men and their need to express that pain through art or violence. But we still wince at the lyric, psychosexual beatdown received in songs like Black Moon’s “Ack Like U Want It” and Kool G Rap’s “Talk Like Sex.” I could go on. This brutal posturing is about emasculation—and fleeting tastes of power.

But I digress. VIBE has learned that the NYPD is pursuing another suspect. That comes as a relief to Earl “DMX” Simmons, but he’s not celebrating. When asked the moral of this story, he says, “That motherf**kers is grimy. Long as I know I didn’t do nothin’ wrong, fuck what the world thinks. God know I didn’t do it.”

Dog. Dog.” This is DMX, exasperated that the driver has passed another liquor store. Cook­ies gently reminds him he has an interview to do. He barks: “This is the interview!” Overhead, a black hair billboard for no-lye relaxer that reads YOUR MAN, MY HAIR. HIS FINGERS, YOUR DRAMA. Another sign, just ahead on the left, reads LIQUORS. “Right here, papi,” Cookies tells the driver. She and DMX file out of the car to pick their poison while I stare into the jowls of a pit bull. When DMX returns, he has the two large bottles necessary to keep him “Bloody”; this is the third round today. It’s 9 p.m.

“God bless the dead.” DMX passes each bottle and asks me to “pour a little for Boom.” Boomer was DMX’s first pit and best friend. The canine was killed by a passing van but is forever immortalized in tattoos on DMX’s back and shoulders. “Wh0000a! Easy,” he says of my heavy-handedness and takes the bottles back from me. But wait, I ask, This is for Boom, right?!? DMX concurs, clinks the bottles together, and, in a clean break, spills the contents on himself and Bobbi, who’s nestled under his feet.

DMX just sits there and stares ahead. Bobbi looks up at her friend, then looks away, disgusted. DMX gets out of the car, cursing under his breath. “Shiiiit. Sh*t.” He shrugs, charges it to his dog gone. “I guess [Boomer] wanted it all.” Cookies walks up laden with Styrofoam cups full of ice and straws. DMX is stand­ing on the sidewalk in Chelsea, stripping down to his shorts. “What happened?” she asks.

“I’m giving it up to Boom and break the whole fu**ing bottle.” “Ohhh….” She turns back to buy another bottle. “D is just drama.” DMX stands on the street in his checkered boxers. He looks at me, the Reporter. “I can see the headlines now,” he says, throwing up his hands: “Rapper: Soaked.”

And so DMX’s pants, smelling of cognac, hang on the seat to dry as the car maneuvers uptown. “Yo, can we get the AC on? Please?” Cookies has transferred to another car. Bobbi is nestled atop my left thigh; X’s head rests on my right shoulder. His speech is slurred at times, yet he’s amazingly astute.

Shadows of neglect hover over Earl Simmons’s childhood. Born December 18, 1970, he grew up in the School Street Projects in Yonkers with “five sis­ters, a mother, and no father.” Earl was that child who you knew had a good heart (all children do) despite his bad deeds. An admitted truant, he grew up in an abusive home, began robbing frequently; once stuck up a schoolmate with a sawed-off shotgun. The Hate U Gave Little Infants F**ks Everybody.

He wants us to know that the oldest war, good vs. evil, consumes him. It's a battle between vision and blindness, between advancing into the light and retreating into anonymity and shady night moves.

When Earl was barely a teenager, he and his moth­er went to a group home under the pretense of a brief visit. His mother spoke privately with the supervisor and then asked X how he liked the cottage. “It’s all right,” he’d said, “but I’m ready to go.” She then told Earl that he would be staying for a little while, and she would be back soon. Even then, he did not cry. She returned 18 months later, but by then, the ground­work had been laid for Earl’s revolving-door relationship with correctional institutions.

It was his grandmother, the late Mary Ella Hollaway, to whom It’s Dark is dedicated, who told him that “the Lord may not come when you want Him, but He’s always on time.” She was the only one who laid claim. “I was her baby,” X says. “I was nobody else’s baby in the whole world, but I was hers. And I never felt that feeling before her or after.” He writes when he is in pain and, by 1988, had almost 200 songs written, about “stories, philosophies, and old fears.”

I ask DMX if he’s happy, because by sheer will and defiance he’s survived. He and his fiancée, Tashiera, have a five-year-old son and plan to marry this fall.

He also has a lead role in video director Hype Williams’s first feature film, Belly, beating out 2,000 contenders for the role of Tommy, whom DMX describes as “a grimy ni**a. Robbin’ ni**a. Everything about money. Ni**a can dress his a** off, though.” DMX quickly dissolved Artisan Entertainment’s ini­tial doubts about his ability to carry the film. “When we began to shoot, everyone involved saw D had an immense talent,” says Williams. “He has a very strong presence—you can’t take your eyes off the guy.”

I ask DMX if he’s happy. He shakes his head no. He says he feels categorized. Because he is a bald­headed black man who curses, all folks see is “a ni**a­—who raps.” He’d rather we focus on the root at which Earl Simmons and Dark Man X converge, and the cause of the split. A battle of extremes consumes him, between vision and blindness, between advancing into the light and retreating into anonymity and shady night moves.

“Some ignore; hold it in,” says X of his struggle. “That’s why they eventually explode and you see the postal worker killing the whole office.” Soon, though, conversation ceases. The Apollo Theater nears. His name is on the marquee for a “Survival of the Illest” tour date in July. It’s 11 p.m., and his three-car caravan parks on the busy strip. “I’m f**kin’ drunk,” DMX mutters, slipping on his damp fatigues.

Cymara and Jetta, two twentyish women from Yonkers, are taking a summer’s night stroll down one-two-five. Both work as nurses, take classes, help raise their siblings. Both knew DMX back in Yonkers, when DMX stood for Divine Master of the Unknown and he drove a ’79 Ford Pickup ni**as called Lamont. Jetta is quiet but prone to breaking out in rhyme. Cymara is uncut. Thin braids waterfall down her back. She has a beautifully sculpted face, like an Indian woman’s, she works a cute blue jean halter dress, and she carries a copy of Rasta and Resistance in her purse. Fire walking, she steps to DMX: “You told my mother she goin’ to hell an’ sh*t!”

Recollection warms his face. She’s from Y-O. He begins, “I remember—”

“SEE! Own up! Own up! You told my mother she goin’ to hell!” Gestures wild and sweeping, Cymara pulls out a Dutchie and starts licking to roll.

“‘Cause she—” DMX, trying.

“And then you said, But I still love you! That’s why, yo! I swear—do you know him?” She’s turned to me. “I know him. And I love him. Ni**a wrote a rhyme about my dead brother. Pretty ni**a, curly hair, you knew him? I got his name tattooed on my arm.” She tilts, gives a little shoulder. TYSON is emblazoned over tribal marks that translate “to mourn for.”

“Your brother was my man,” DMX says.

Cymara nods. “D wrote a rhyme about my brother. He would argue with my mother! He gon’ make me fight him—ha-ha! He told my mother she goin’ to hell.” Cymara sparks the blunt. “The night his album released in Yonkers, he gave my mother forty dollars. She asked him for money and sh*t ’cause we…we real ni**as. Our parents do sh*t. Everything he rhyme about is the realest sh*t.”

I ask, Is the rhyme about your brother on the album?”

No! That’s why him and my mother was arguing. She was like, Why the f**k you didn’t put my son on your album? ‘Cause she be buggin’. My mother’s my friend, right? She be goin’ through it.”

Cymara clearly remembers the night she heard DMX had been accused of rape. Her first thought was, That’s a lie. “Yo, we was on our way to the f**kin’ jail that night with FREE DMX banners an’ all that. And you don’t even know me like that.”

“But without you knowing me,” he says, “you do know me.”

“‘Cause, you know…” Cymara starts, and DMX joins in, “that’s mymansanem …”

The rhyme Jetta’s been nursing all night erupts. She touches her glasses (Yeah), moves (check it), pre­pares (uh…), and spits: “They turn in’ my block into a war zone / Wonderin’ why / Brothers in camouflage is on roam / You policin’ us / Nah! They policin’ you! / And if the bullets start poppin’ / Jetta pull the trigga too! / Find out who’s the bigga you / Make a hit or two / If you white, how you gonna say this is what a ni**a do? / Spit at you….”

She eases out of her rhyme. “Ooooh, my goodness. Nevah lose my ‘hoodness!” Cymara joins in. “Oh my goodness!! Nevah lose my ‘hoodness!!” This night’s got Cymara hype, and she says to DMX, “I LOVE YOU! I. Love. You. Not like a fan but like—damn. You keep it real for us.” DMX sits on the hood of the car, receives her grip. He ain’t grinnin’, but right now, he feels good. Proud. “I love him,” Cymara continues, turning back to me. “Don’t you?”

This article originally appeared in the October 1998 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Karen R. Good | Cover photography by Jonathan Mannion