Dreams of fame, fortune and a lavish lifestyle are common among many figures within the hip-hop community. But for some, the responsibility to stay true to the unwritten codes that govern the culture while maintaining street cred paramounts one’s reputation.
During the mid ’90s, hip-hop’s identity became more varied, especially on the east coast as The Notorious B.I.G., Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy Records, steered the visual ship from 40 ounce malt liquor and army fatigues to champagne and high-end fashion.
However, in the wake of Bad Boy’s success, there was a sizable contingent of the community alienated by the glitz and glamour. Enter DMX in 1998, whose brand of music spoke to the heart of the streets with an energy and aura that would make him one of the biggest stars in rap.
Just years prior, Earl Simmons battled with his career while in and out of prison. X found a home with Ruff Ryders, a management company founded by Joaquin “Waah” Dean and Darrin “Dee” Dean. After a failed stint on Columbia Records, DMX and Ruff Ryders would go back to the drawing board, with X building a buzz on Mic Geronimo’s classic 1995 posse cut “Time To Build” featuring a young Ja Rule and Jay-Z.
The rapper would hit another stride in 1997, scoring high-profile guest spots on LL Cool J’s single “4, 3, 2, 1,” Ma$e’s “24 Hrs. to Live,” “Take What’s Yours,” and The LOX’s “Money, Power & Respect.”
The hype would lead to DMX inking a record deal with Def Jam Records in 1997, as well as the release of DMX’s highly-anticipated debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, the following year on March 12, 1998.
Boasting production from Dame Grease, P.K., Lil Rob, Swizz Beatz and Irv Gotti, with guest appearances by Ma$e, The LOX, Faith Evans and additional Ruff Ryders talent, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot would make an immediate impact, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 251,000 copies sold in its first week.
Led by the singles “Get At Me Dog,” “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” “Stop Being Greedy” and “How’s It Goin Down,” It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot dominated radio and would become the soundtrack to the streets, with many hailing the artist as a rap savior and an icon in the making. Selling over five million copies worldwide and shifting the paradigm of hip-hop, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is regarded as one of the most impactful debut albums of all-time and a bonafide classic that’s synonymous with one of the most exciting eras in rap.
It’s anniversary has come and gone, but with the tracks aging exceptionally well, VIBE dived deep into the album by ranking it in its entirety.
15. “For My Dogs”
X dials up Kasino, Loose, Big Stan and Drag-On for a show of crew love on “For My Dogs,” a posse cut that finds the five pitbulls busting out of the kennel with a succession of rhyme spills. Produced by Dame Grease, the track trends towards the lower end of tracks from DMX’s debut, but remains a serviceable cut worthy of an occasional spin.
14. “I Can Feel It”
Dame Grease reworks a sample of Phil Collins’ classic “In the Air Tonight” for “I Can Feel It.” The somber track catches Dark Man X in a state of reflection and introspect. X’s rendition falls short of the original due to guest star Nardo’s pedestrian vocal performance on the hook.
A vivid tale of an ATF sting operation is spun on the album, which finds X going toe-to-toe with law enforcement in a blaze of glory. Although the track is more of an interlude than a bonafide song, “ATF” is among the more explosive numbers on the latter half of the project and captures the Ruff Ryders grand champ in the heat of the moment.
12. “Crime Story”
A sample of Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In” serves as the foundation of “Crime Story,” an epic crime parable that finds DMX on the run during a murder spree and evading the capture of the NYPD. As far as storytelling goes, the song has it all. There’s a precision-like attempt to the track that features sheer comedy with a mix of wit. It’s one that will surprise a listener who’s only jammed to the rapper’s major singles.
11. “Look Thru My Eyes”
“Burning in hell, but don’t deserve to be/Got n**** I don’t even know that wanna murder me,” DMX laments on “Look Thru My Eyes,” a hard-boiled heater that finds the Yonkers heavyweight attacking with the vigor of a canine off it’s leash. Add in subtle wrinkles like the whimpering dog at the beginning of the song and “Look Thru My Eyes” stands as an exceptional deep cut that helps make up the fabric of this classic.
On “Damien,” DMX makes a deal with the devil in exchange for riches, but learns that the cost is too pricey to pay. Produced by Dame Grease, “Damien” is a testament to DMX’s originality and imagery and ranks among the greatest storytelling songs of its era.
9. “The Convo”
“Somebody’s knockin’, should I let em in,” DMX ponders on “The Convo,” inspired by his relationship with God. Creating a dialogue with the man above with production by Dame Grease, X gets insight to the unanswered questions that have plagued his psyche on what is one of the more heartfelt and impassioned inclusions on his high-powered debut.
8. “X-Is Coming”
DMX gives fair-warning to his foes on “X-Is Coming,” a menacing number that’s equal parts grisly and sinister. Flowing over an eerie soundscape provided by PK, the entertainer shows little remorse, or boundaries. It’s some of the more controversial lyrics of his career, a few of which would prove particularly problematic today. Political correctness aside, “X-Is Coming” is required listener for any fan of aggressive lyricism, to which DMX provides royally.
7. “How’s It Going Down”
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is known for bringing the hardcore element back to rap, but DMX smooths things out with “How’s It Goin’ Down,” an addictive track that foreshadowed his unexpected turn as a hip-hop sex symbol. Produced by PK and released as the fourth and final single from the album, “How’s It Goin’ Down” would make a minor impact on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 70, but was a major hit with fans in large part due to its Hype Williams-directed music video, which has lived on to become one of the defining clips of DMX’s career.
6. “Let Me Fly”
“Let Me Fly” is a composition that finds the rapper in search of freedom and independence in the spiritual and literal sense. Produced by Dame Grease, with additional production from Young Lord, “Let Me Fly” shines due to its hook, as well as X’s lyrical guile and poignant transparency.
5. “F***in Wit’ D”
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot’s finest moments arrives when X is in a state of attack, which is the case on “F***in Wit’ D,” a rollicking number that captures the Ruff Ryder spitting with reckless abandon. “What’s on y’all n****s minds, f***ing with me/Y’all know somebody has told you about f***ing with D,” X barks, doing his bidding over production by P Killer Trackz and Dame Grease, putting all competitors on notice that him and his camp are nothing to be trifled with.
4. “Stop Being Greedy”
PK and Dame Grease flip a sample of Diana Ross’ “My Hero Is a Gun” into the backdrop for “Stop Being Greedy,” an ominous number that would play a major part in introducing him as rap’s hottest newcomer. Released as the second single from the album, “Stop Being Greedy” would showcase DMX’s various moods, from laid back and conversational, to aggressive and confrontational. It further enticed the rap populus to crown him as the people’s champ and the grim reaper of the Shiny Suit era.
3. “N****z Done Started Something”
In an era where posse cuts were essential to completing rap albums, DMX rose to the occasion with his own, testing his mettle against affiliates Ma$e and The L.O.X. on “N****z Done Started Something,” a bruising selection produced by Dame Grease. Known for anchoring battle royals during his rise to prominence, DMX holds court on the last verse in an awe-worthy moment.
2. “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”
When DMX proclaimed “something new” at the beginning of “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” even he probably had no idea how true that statement would prove to be. Released at the third single, the track would mark a changing of the guard, snuffing out the popularity of the sanitized brand of rap at the time. Despite posting modest numbers on the charts, “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” would help launch the careers of both DMX and producer Swizz Beatz, who crafted the track that would take Ruff Ryders to the top of the food-chain.
1. “Get At Me Dog”
The pinnacle of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is the album’s lead-single, “Get At Me Dog.” The song would seemingly stop the entirety of the rap world in its tracks and become a cultural timestamps for anyone who was around to experience it in real time.
Originally a mixtape freestyle, “Get At Me Dog” was reworked using scattered verses from the rapper. The song peaked at No. 39 on the Hot 100 and won over video countdowns, where the Hype Williams-directed video televised the revolution. It also became a playlist to nightclubs like The Tunnel (R.I.P.), where it would become an all-time banger.
Although It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is greater than the sum of its parts, “Get At Me Dog” was the key component in the machine that manufactured DMX, and remains a certified classic til this day.