It's Dark & Hell is Hot: A Tribute to DMX

Hopefully, there's heaven even for those who have lived through hell.
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And I fear that what I saying won't be heard until I'm gone
But it's all good, Cause I didn't expect to live long
So if it takes for me to suffer for me brother to see the light
Give me pain till I die but please lord treat him right -
​DMX "Prayer"

Happily Ever After. It’s the ending fairy tales promised when catastrophes are conquered, when good triumphs over evil, and once you beat the odds. From naïve children to hardened adults, we silently cling to this belief, the simple idea that if we can overcome the obstacles that lay before our path, an eternal paradise awaits. Isn’t that what the lottery is? A gamble for the chance to escape the gravity of financial worry and truly fly. In 1998, DMX won the lottery and flew to prosperity, becoming only the second rapper ever to net two Platinum-selling albums in the same calendar year. He had seemingly reached the promised land. 

DMX entered the game bearing the fangs of a Cerberus with a bark from the depths of Hades; he was unlike anyone hip-hop had ever heard before — rampaging passion coated his tortured poetry, mixed with an explosive energy of a bull born seeing only red. His voice had a distinctive, intense gruff that perfectly matched the raw imagery he illustrated. He made New York into this dog-eat-dog underworld where you could live and die by your gun. It was both brutal and brilliant. X wasn't a rapper who wore a shiny suit; he came dressed for war. No one saw him arriving with such swift dominance, and no one foresaw his painful fall.

Fairy tales end when the books are closed, lottery winners are forgotten after the news reports their victory; we don’t get to witness them lose all their winnings and eventually fall back to Earth. Sadly, we never stopped watching DMX, a troubled man that never could escape to paradise, a man that never received his happy ending. His path led only to more darkness, more despair, and more obstacles.

My memories of Dark Man X are vague. I witnessed his reign over hip-hop through the ears of a seven-year-old who couldn’t help but get rowdy in car rides as “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” played. It was one of those songs Dad would cue up at the highest volume, and the car would vibrate like a Nintendo 64 controller with Rumble Pak; the energy surged into my soul like a sugar rush. I didn’t know what kind of shops he was opening or what shops he was shutting down, but I mouthed the words without hesitation. I would watch my little brother some years later have a similar reaction to “Party Up.” He barely had a mind old enough to lose, but visions of a five-year-old acting an absolute fool in the backseat come to mind every time the song plays.

A decade later, I was 17, with a soul weighed down by my teenage doubt and stress. I was a young man drifting in this world very worried about my present and future, so I searched for music that captured the feeling of fear and failure that haunted me; discovering “Slippin” was like being enveloped in a darkness that surpassed my own. This is where light didn’t enter, what rock bottom sounds like, a voice singing from the pit of despair. There’s genuine anguish that makes the song so absorbing, but what stunned me most is that DMX wasn’t without hope. 

In the chorus, he acknowledges the slip, the fall, but also that he has to get back up. It’s not blind optimism because the song doesn't end with him standing on the mountain top, and it's not self-absorbed loathing for pity but a man who knows his demons better than his angels. I return to his darkness when I need a reminder that we aren’t defined by our slips or falls but if we have the strength to get back up. Sadly, DMX has spent a lifetime slipping, falling, and searching for the strength to stand.

“See to live is to suffer but to survive, that’s to find meaning in the suffering”

Suffering is what DMX knows; it greeted him very early as if from the womb darkness was waiting with open arms to adopt him. It followed him in his mother’s home, where he was introduced to poverty, torment, abuse, and hunger. He was so hungry he once swallowed her perfume because it smelt good, good enough to eat. The emptiness of his stomach is what led him to the world that awaited outside. That was the beginning of his misfortune, the start of years of group homes and juvenile institutions, cold streets and stray dogs, prison cells and rap music, God and faith, alcohol and cocaine.

There was addiction, alcoholism, and violence, but little love or compassion — until he met Tashera Simmons. But by then, the trials and tribulations had turned the boy into a man. He found God and rap music while locked away, but even when he started pursuing music as his priority, trouble was never far. Before he signed to Def Jam, he was beaten almost to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Karma found the perfect day to come for all the times he did wrong. Being briefly hospitalized with a mouth wired shut didn’t stop DMX from going to the studio where Lyor Cohen awaited. Lyor arrived as a favor to his newest Def Jam employee, Irv Gotti. Lyor swore when DMX began to rap, he could hear the wires breaking in his jaw as the aggressive lines flowed from this aggressive man. He was signed on the spot.

DMX met his demons before becoming the industry's top dog; you could say they helped make him a successful rap star. It took seeing hell and living in that inferno to burn down booths and create the kind of music that pours out from deep within. The very flame people gravitated toward was born from what was burning him internally; he was a man on fire. The reason why his music took off and so swiftly is that people either related to the world he saw, felt his passion, or were allured by the man. You never knew what X would say next. It didn’t matter if he was lyrically holding his own with greats, describing brutal acts of violence with Damien, or having a sincere moment with God; people wanted more.

It's a bit crazy thinking back on how being a dog was his brand; it would be interesting to see an artist attempt to pull that off in this meme era. The music sold and continued to sell well until his fifth album, making him the first artist ever to achieve five consecutive number one albums. If he had retired as he planned, it would have been a flawless career. Beyoncé joined him last year when her self-titled surprise album made her the first woman to achieve the five-album feat.

Several years back, JAY-Z credited X as the rapper that made him step up his performance. They co-headlined a tour together in '98-'99. Jay admits humbly that X tore him to shreds onstage. There’s a clip going around Twitter with the caption, “DMX performs for a continent.” It’s actually a couple of seconds from his set during Woodstock '99, but it looks to be a miniature country by the crowd's vastness. It’s insane to watch and witness how these songs impacted such a boundless number of people at the height of their novelty. 

One of his career's most important performances can’t be found online, but it’s mentioned in his VH1 Behind The Music. During the prayer that ends his shows sometime in '98 after the release of both his Platinum albums, X breaks down in tears, and fans in the crowd begin to cry with him. Irv Gotti says backstage that X was on his knees, crying, asking God, “Why me?” “I didn’t know how to interpret the love,” DMX would say. Even at his highest height, he was still low. Even with hundreds of thousands of fans, he still felt alone. You can escape your environment, but you can’t escape yourself.

Even after the sales began to drop, the movies tanked, and a new arrest was present with each MediaTakeOut refresh, you hoped that he would clean up his act and get himself together. The wave he brought didn't last forever, but it made an impact, from breaking Swizz Beatz and the Ruff Ryders to the horrible but iconic Belly. Even before breaking out big, DMX was a part of some great hip-hop moments. He rapped on "4, 3, 2, 1" with LL Cool J and Canibus, cyphered with Mos Def and Big Pun — and predicted that he would go Platinum — and rapped alongside JAY-Z and Ja Rule as a group that crumbled before it could begin. It's easy to forget once someone fades to the back. 

I found an old interview that X did with Sway after the success of ... And Then There Was X, and you can tell from the conversation he was focused. He had his loving family, had a new label; his career was striving. His faith was strong; he bought and fixed up an old church in Yonkers and had big plans to build a teen mother shelter. Reading the transcript, and you can imagine his happy ending was near, that he would continue to do great things with this gift that grew where the sun didn’t shine. Fast-forward to today, and it's almost like X is a completely different man.

Sway: I understand that you might be building a shelter and a kitchen?

DMX: Yeah. That's the foundation. My wife is in charge of it. It's called the Mary Ella House, after my grandmother. It won't be for the homeless. It would be for teenage mothers. We'll take them in. Rather than give them a job, we will put them back in school. Give them knowledge. Get a GED, and then send them off to college. Then they'll feel a lot better about themselves. They're in there for the kids, and they'll stay there, but they have to stay in school. You leave school, you leave here. We only help those who want to help themselves. I know it's hard out there. A lot of teenage mothers, man.

“Loving you is complicated.” Looking at the line, it could easily be something from one of DMX’s old notebooks. Kendrick said It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot is the album that inspired him to start rapping. Not a big surprise. They both carry pain and guilt that can only be fully expressed to the microphone. I also believe both came to the same conclusion, that the meaning of their suffering was to voice their plight and hope it could help anyone that listens. Even knowing about Kendrick’s maad city, there’s very few artists that have continued to go into the bleak abyss as often as X. Maybe that’s why his music has never had a successor; in this new generation of artists, no one is crowned as, “The new DMX.” His first few years in music were truly rare; I can't think of an artist who broke out as big and as fast. In this current climate, a new dog using his old tricks would likely be overlooked.  

When I heard about X recently collapsing and being rushed to the hospital, I saw tweets that seemed to believe that this would be it, that he went to the edge of no return. I thought about his recent years — the Zimmerman fight, his son attempting to sell his plaques on eBay, desires to be a Pastor, all the headlines, and his scene in Chris Rock's Top 5. But it wasn’t until I threw my headphones on and listened to the music, listened to those first four albums, that I was truly saddened. 

I knew if he died, then all around the world, headphones everywhere would be listening to him bark once more. That’s what happens when great artists die — we remember them in mourning, celebrate their classics, and miss them dearly for the good times they brought. His time on top might have been over a decade ago, and he certainly hasn't been a perfect role model, but when he does leave, it's going to sting.

So let’s remember him today while he walks among us. Not for the bad times or the headlines, but the music and message he left us with. I want these roses to reach his hands before a gravestone, and when the day comes that he goes, for all the pain and suffering that he’s endured. Hopefully, there's heaven even for those who have lived through hell. 

By Yoh, aka Mr. Shut Em Down Open Up Shop , aka @Yoh31

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