On December 18, 1970, Earl Simmons came into an unforgiving world that seemed intent on making quick work of him. The only logical conclusion one could draw is that the troubled Mount Vernon, New York-born, Yonkers-schooled kid had made a deal with God. If he could survive horrific physical abuse, come out on the other side of foster care, group homes, jail, and drug addiction, and lift himself out of a treacherous life as a homeless stickup kid who robbed would be marks armed with only a pit bull, he would become at one point, the biggest music act on the planet—DMX…but, that was all easier said than done.
DMX, the grimy, animated, multiplatinum rap legend who passed away Friday (April 9) at the age of 50 after suffering a heart attack on April 2 that left him fighting for his life in a coma, described his turbulent life succinctly on 1998’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”: “All I know is pain, all I feel is rain…” In a 2019 GQ interview, Dark Man X spoke candidly about his horrific childhood. “[My mother] beat two teeth out of my fucking mouth with a broom,” he recalled of one of several such violent incidents, which took place when he was just six years old. X’s battles with alcoholism and crack cocaine were as much a part of his mythology as his obsessive love of dogs. His inner demons had inner demons. And yet, somehow, someway DMX became hip-hop’s purest superstar.
Following the tragic deaths of beloved icons Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., hip-hop was heavily in its conspicuous consumption period of the Shiny Suit era. Jay-Z was up next with his breakthrough 1998 release, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, which would go on to sell over five million copies. But even as Hov was now headlining his own “Hard Knock Life” arena tour, he routinely found himself being upstaged by DMX, an opening act who didn’t fit easily in the aspirational balling lane of the times. He looked like he had just walked off the streets: shirtless, jeans, boots. X didn’t so much perform. X left his heart and soul onstage each night. He tearfully said a prayer at the end of most of his gigs. This was different. Still, it was all set up for future billionaire mogul Shawn Carter, who battled a hungry X back in 1993 before the two became famous, to take the reins as the new king of New York.
Murder Inc. mastermind Irv Gotti is the man responsible for bringing X to Def Jam Records (the game-changing hip-hop label that LL Cool J built), who understood his appeal before anyone else. He saw X as the jagged crown jewel of an imposing, back-to-basics movement led by the rapper’s Ruff Ryders outfit, which would later include the concrete street rhyme trio The Lox, soon-to-be super-producer Swizz Beatz, and double platinum female spitter Eve.
Rap was quickly changing at breakneck speed. Master P, Outkast, and Cash Money Records were letting it be known that not only did the South have something to say, they were eyeing a complete takeover. Yet a grizzled 27-year-old MC who made his bones battle rapping on the streets of Yonkers wanted his first. The from-the-gutter material of DMX’s 1998 introduction It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot was both fight and redemption music. Listening to X rhyme on such salt-of-the-earth yet ominous tracks as “Get at Me Dog,” “Stop Being Greedy,” and “Niggaz Done Started Something” effortlessly came off as the flip side to the dope boy-to-riches story of his Marcy Projects label mate who wore a suit and posed next to a Bentley Azure convertible for his album cover. X wasn’t so much trying to make it. He was trying to find peace.
However, that was hard to do when DMX was busy taking over the world. In less than a year, he followed up his no. 1, four-times platinum debut with another chart-topper, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, selling a combined 7 million copies in the US alone. DMX was now a global behemoth. He flexed charisma as a movie star, highlighted by his turn co-starring with hip-hop giant Nas in the cult classic ‘hood staple Belly (1998) and found mainstream box office gold in the action flicks Exit Wounds (2001) and Romeo Must Die (2000), featuring martial arts legend Jet Li and R&B princess Aaliyah. DMX’s whip-flash success almost seemed like an afterthought…at times even a mistake.
“I don’t like to show off with cars and jewels and sh*t,” he once told me during a promotional run for his 2001 album …And Then There Was X. “I know God can take all of this away at any moment. If I’m being real, I’m not even supposed to be alive.”
Here so, you have the dichotomy of the same man who was instantly signed after rapping for Def Jam execs in a Yonkers, New York recording studio with a wired shut jaw (X’s penance for robbing a neighborhood kid) to years later dropping a crossover pop single in 2000’s “Party Up (Up In Here),” an infectious rap-along so ubiquitous that it has become a sing-a-long staple at NFL, NBA, MLB, and soccer games across the country.
Yet, fame couldn’t hold back the darkness. There were continuous bouts with substance abuse for a tortured soul who experienced his first high at 14 when he was tricked by a mentor into smoking a weed blunt laced with crack. X went through stints in rehab and by 2004 he was arrested again for possession of cocaine, possession of a weapon, driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs while attempting to carjack a vehicle while impersonating a federal agent. For more than a decade, DMX was in and out of the headlines for a bevy of substance-fueled offenses. At times the hip-hop hero seemed indestructible, surviving an alleged near-fatal 2016 overdose at a Yonkers Ramada Inn after being revived by Narcan.
By 2019, after canceling a series of concerts, he checked himself into rehab. “You never know when the things you stored away are going to come out and just fall all over the place…” X told rapper and social activist Talib Kweli of the life-changing event a year later on his People’s Party podcast. “Let me open this door and start dealing with this sh*t right now before it comes out at the wrong time and I just have a meltdown…that’s what’s helped with addiction and sobriety.”
Maybe another part of his pact with God was showing the unbridled joy of a man who had went through hell and back. Video of his now-iconic Woodstock 1999 set of DMX performing “Ruff Ryders Anthem” in front of an ocean 200,000 fans dominated Twitter upon the news that he was in grave condition. There is a myriad of stories of DMX befriending random, everyday strangers, such as Jennifer Fraser, a white lady who met the rapper on a flight to San Diego on a trip to celebrate her stepdaughter Mia’s college graduation. “He talked about his kids, he has a lot of kids,” she posted of X’s reported 15 children, describing him as “authentic and candid.” “He worried about them and told me how much he enjoyed being a father returning again to stories of his grandmother and her influence in his life and as a parent. He talked about her illness, cancer. He talked about his faith.”
Indeed, how could such a restless soul still enjoy life? By now everyone has seen DMX’s surreal, smile-inducing impromptu 2012 rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
He once backed up goddaughter and actress Paige Hurd, joining in with his trademark “WHAT!???” adlibs during a too-cute sing-along of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
Paige Hurd singing Shake it off & DMX w/ the ablibs is the content I needed to see today pic.twitter.com/6VOunvNMsK
— That Maxxy Girl (@MBiggavel) April 6, 2021
There’s the time he was filmed at a Lisa Lisa concert dancing and singing the words by heart to her 1984 hit “I Wonder If I Take You Home.”
DMX dancing & singing to Lisa Lisa’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home” is quite possibly my favorite video of X because of just how much joy he has pic.twitter.com/uhedRIU1gf
— Talia Adaiah Caldwell (@ESOTERICTalia) April 9, 2021
And that was him doing the two-step to Michael Jackson’s deep Thriller album cut “Baby Be Mine.”
It’s fitting that one of DMX’s last public performances was his memorable July 2020 Verzuz battle with West Coast king Snoop Dogg. Well, it was less of a battle and more of a celebration of hip-hop and brotherhood that drew in a record-breaking 2 million viewers. “Dogs and God are the only two things capable of unconditional love,” the raspy-voiced X said. “So when you do some f**k sh*t I’ma be mad…but I still love you.”