May 3, 2019, is the date. A venue is sold out in Detroit, Michigan for an artist in a standing room only hall. The energy is palpable and everyone anticipates the main act coming on stage, as he is fashionably late. Fast forward and there he is, DMX standing on top of a speaker rapping like it is 1999. This was the 20th-anniversary tour of his first album, “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot”, an album that itself has become forgotten to history much as the artist that crafted it all those years ago. Yet here he was, with the same energy and ferocity that he came onto the scene in his 20’s. Now an older man, a wiser man, reflecting on his life and this tour is a full circle of sorts.
DMX represents many things to a millennial rap fan. The songs that he crafted in the early part of his career are anthems at bars and parties to this day. Iconic songs like “Ruff Ryders Anthem”, “Party Up”, and “What’s My Name” are songs that can be recited by so many. Yet DMX is also a cautionary tale of being unable to make a transition, of being unable to leave an old life behind despite achieving success on the highest level. What has resulted is a forgotten legacy. An artist that bridged the gap between the old New York hip hop scene into the modern globalized hip hop scene of today.
The Void of Tragedy
Many hip hop aficionados will often refer to the mid-1990s as the “golden era” of hip hop. Classic releases from the Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and 2Pac defined the era. Yet the untimely deaths of 2Pac, Notorious BIG, Big L, and Big Punisher put a dark cloud over the genre, as so many of its young stars were now gone. There was a gap that needed to be filled as the face of hip hop. From this chaos, two iconic rappers rose to prominence: Eminem and DMX.
History has been kind to Eminem. He enjoys a place as one of the highest regarded lyricists of all time and is credited with the widespread mainstream acceptance of the genre. Eminem brought in white America into hip hop and exposed many to the culture of battle rapping. Lost in the meteoric rise of Eminem was the raw rise of DMX. A swift contrast to the eventual pop appeal of Eminem, DMX embodied an aggressive and formulated raw delivery that tapped into the roots of the golden era.
DMX came into the ether of hip hop as something of a throwback in terms of delivery and content. There was an understated rawness to his style that felt incredibly relevant to the everyman. Something relatable beyond the tropes of the bling era. The future of rap seemed to be in the hands of Earl Simmons.
Three Rings of Excellence
One of the hardest things to capture in the hip hop genre is consistency. This is a bit of a more predominant issue in hip hop in large part due to subject matter. Where rock bands and pop artists take time to develop a sound, they are not as harshly criticized for a switch in the subject matter. Rappers, on the other hand, are raked over coals for switching their content from street life and violence to more club-friendly and pop-centric. As a result of this, there are countless examples of rappers having what is called “a fall off moment” between a debut and sophomore album release.
This happened to a staple of hip hop, 50 Cent. His debut album, “Get Rich or Die Trying”, is regarded by most as a street classic. His follow-up, “The Massacre”, still used some of the streetwise references but saw a heavy influx of more radio-friendly songs such as “Candy Shop”, “Disco Inferno”, and “A Baltimore Love Thing”. Where this fast-tracked 50 for popularity and a spot as a household name, it did take away from his reputation as a gangsta rapper. And while he remained very relevant due to business ventures and the shift to acting, his music career took a back seat.
With this difficulty in mind, it is amazing that DMX had three critically acclaimed albums released in a row. “It’s Dark And Hell is Hot” exposed the world to the gritty, raw, and unapologetic style of DMX. Menacing production was the backdrop of themes of street life and personal reflection. The style that DMX ushered in was one of relatability, where themes of a hard life and struggling through that resonated with so many users. Even as the popularity of “Ruff Ryders Anthem” grew, the themes throughout the album were evident.
His second album, “Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood”, continued this theme and perhaps became even darker. Consider that the top single from this album, the incredibly raw and exposing “Slippin”. A song that is still a favorite by many let the listener into DMX’s mind, showcasing his struggles as a young man. In this song, we see the transformation of a mind being molded by his environment. The song was shockingly a commercial success, cementing DMX’s place at the top tier of mainstream hip hop.
With no end in sight, DMX released his third studio album, “…And Then There Was X”. A personal favorite of mine, the hit singles from this album are still in heavy rotation today. Songs like “What’s My Name” and “Party Up (In Here)” is still very likely to be on a playlist at a party or social event. This album saw some more pop-friendly songs from DMX such as the Sisqo featured “What These B*****s Want” and “Good Girls, Bad Guys”. Yet in that slight crossover shift, the ruggedness and themes of street life are still present throughout the release.
With his third studio album, DMX cemented himself as a staple in the hip hop consciousness. 2 years of three albums and many hits led to the thought that DMX was the future of the rap genre and perhaps music in general. The praise was getting on to levels of calling DMX the reincarnation of 2Pac. DMX was selling out shows and doing festivals with cult-like crowds, and there was no end in sight. Yet when we discuss the greatest rappers he is seldomly mentioned. This is because much like his rise, his fall from grace was equally phenomenal.
There is a classic skit from Dave Chappelle’s short-lived Chappelle’s show entitled “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong” where Chappelle plays Vernon Franklin, a man that defied the odds to get to the top of the corporate ladder at his company. All seems to be going well for him until his white colleague makes an off-color comment causing Franklin to go back to his upbringing and “keep it real”. While this is a caricature-like description, the parallels to DMX are quite evident.
DMX had a very traumatizing and difficult childhood, to say the least. The son of two very young parents (neither of his parents was 20 when he was born), DMX was subjected to physical abuse and was sent off to boy’s homes as a child. When he was a teenager, he would roam the streets of Yonkers, New York to escape the neverending cycle of abuse that he faced at home. This in many respects molded his style where he exposed the harsh realities of his younger years through introspection; and the music was the tool that he used to expand upon his explorations through the city.
In his youth, he found himself being exposed to the criminal and drug-influenced culture of New York City in the 1980s. These beginnings never left him, as he carried his trauma and habits into adulthood and his music career. While it can be suggested that DMX may have had the most meteoric 2 years in rap history, what would follow was a decade of struggles and battles that saw him fade into obscurity.
His fourth studio album, ironically, was named “The Great Depression”. It is at this point where his struggles in his personal life have bled into his career. Since 2001 he has been imprisoned and arrested on drug possession, animal cruelty, robbery, and tax fraud. The story is one of modern tragedy. Where the protagonist struggles to rise to power, then attains it, and ultimately falls from power. An argument can be made that DMX is a victim of an environment that he could never escape. But the way I look at the way that his life has unfolded is one of constant struggle under a microscope. This microscope creates pressure, and a few times he has folded beneath it. The true tragedy of this is that his legacy has been impacted because of these circumstances.
Not many rappers can claim to have three well-received albums in a row. Even rappers like Jay-Z and Nas had slight drop-offs in quality in their first three albums. DMX was on a trajectory to be a mainstay in hip hop as Jay-Z has been and how one of his proteges Jadakiss has been. What has resulted is a reality where DMX had a remarkable 2-year span followed by two decades of irrelevance and struggles.
The byproduct of this is something of forgotten greatness. When people have their debates over the best rappers and who dominated an era, the two-year explosion of DMX is rarely ever mentioned. I have always felt that there are many parallels in rap music and professional basketball. The cultural significance of hip hop and basketball have always been intertwined and catering to a similar younger demographic. In the recent history of the NBA, two eras stick out to many fans: the 80s with Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Lakers and the 90s with Michael Jordan’s Bulls. But in between those two eras, was another team that bridged these eras together: the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons served as a team that dethroned the Celtics and Lakers and the team that the Bulls had to overcome to become dominant. Yet history does not look too fondly upon this Pistons team because they were rough around the edges and their dominance was very short-lived. The fall from dominance was as rough as the team’s persona, highlighted by a lack of sportsmanship at the end of a loss to Jordan’s Bulls. There was no slow fade into the next team, only controversy, and what-ifs.
This situation is not too far off from what DMX’s rap career has been. He was the bridge between the 2Pac and Notorious BIG era into the Lil Wayne, T.I., and 50 Cent era. His rise was so quick after years of trying to break through the industry and toiling with label issues. As he descended into personal ruin, the next generation began to take the mantle and dominate the hip hop landscape. Eventually, even his proteges had surpassed him in the eyes of hip hop fans.
DMX in recent years has seemed to get a better handle on his demons by taking his rehabilitation from drug addiction more seriously. He has also reunited with Def Jam in the effort to rekindle the magic from 20 years ago. He is a man that has been humbled by reality after reaching heights that many only fantasize about. His contributions to the genre should not be ignored, yet they are seldom discussed. On some level, DMX is a personification of hip hop culture as a whole. He embodies a neverending struggle with highlights thrown in to break up the hard times. In the end, DMX may have had the greatest two years that any rapper has experienced. His legacy is not one based on long stretches of excellence, and he may not be in the conversation of one of the greatest rappers but he should be.
Thank you for reading this article, I hope you enjoyed it! If you did, please consider following me on Medium and Twitter to be notified of when I post new content. Also, please take the time to check out some of my other music-related posts!