Credentials: It's Dark And Hell Is Hot, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of my Blood, guest spots on "Money, Cash, Hoes" and "Money, Power, Respect."
As history tells it, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana saved rock from the death grips of hair metal in the early ‘90s. After the glitz and glamour of hip-hop’s shiny suit Jiggy era, the emergence of Yonkers badass DMX was celebrated in the same way.
His debut single, “Get at Me Dog,” had no overwrought ‘80s pop sample and its accompanying visual was a gritty black-and-white account of a night at legendary hip-hop nightclub the Tunnel, rather than an ostentatious display of wealth. The rap community welcomed this long-missed hardcore approach to the music with open arms, but DMX was more than a contrarian alternative to the popular hip-hop of time. He was, in his own right, an excellent rapper.
In subverting the mainstream, DMX became the mainstream. It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and achieved multi-platinum sales. Timing plays a role in this success, but really, so much credit is owed to the fact that DMX was rapping with a truly original, at times jarring, audaciousness. His style was rooted in the wizardry of East Coast lyricism, but tracks like “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” branched beyond that foundation, also incorporating a no-nonsense precision that had been relegated to acts from other regions—Juvenile, Trick Daddy—who were gaining attention at the time.
DMX made history in December of 1998 when he released his sophomore album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, and it too debuted at No. 1, making DMX one of the few artists in any genre to drop two chart-dropping LPs in one year. “Slippin” was the album’s only single, and though it didn’t perform well commercially, the album still went triple platinum.
By then, DMX’s triumphs weren’t a surprise. He was a movie star (Hype Williams’ feature-length debut, Belly, released in 1998), but his way of rhyming made everyone feel like a close friend. His energy, honesty, and vulnerability—”Didn’t keep a haircut or give a fuck how I dressed”—looped America into his narrative, and X has been impossible to ignore ever since. Jay-Z won the Best Rap Album Grammy the following year and boycotted the ceremony because DMX wasn't nominated. What does that tell you?
Honorable Mentions: Jay-Z, Big Pun, Lauryn Hill
DMX's record-setting run places him at the front of the pack, but 1998 saw several other hip-hop artists soar to equally dizzying heights as well. It was the year that Jay-Z became a pop star, selling five million copies of Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life on the back of his massive Annie-sampling title track single. It was the year that Lauryn Hill stepped out as a solo force, selling eight million copies of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the album that earned her a historical five Grammys in early 1999. It was the year that Big Pun finally saw the potential of his buzz fulfilled, and dropped his critically acclaimed platinum debut, Capital Punishment. The accolades and mind-numbing sales figures each of artist were well-deserved, with Jay, Lauryn, and Pun all serving as model examples of the benefits an artist can reap as a result of settling in an uncompromising creative zone. — Ernest Baker (@newbornrodeo)