How the New DMX Documentary Reveals the Many Layers of Earl Simmons

We spoke with Chris Frierson, director of the new HBO documentary ‘Don’t Try To Understand,’ about spending a year with the late rap icon DMX.

DMX HBO Documentary 'Don't Try to Understand'

Image via HBO

DMX HBO Documentary 'Don't Try to Understand'

DMX’s legacy is steeped in the kind of honesty that just “is,” and Christopher Frierson’s new documentary Don’t Try To Understand embodies that. The film, which debuted last night as part of HBO’s Music Box docuseries, gives a glimpse at the late music icon as he came home in early 2019 and sought to get his music career and life back on track. 

Cameras followed DMX everywhere between January 2019 and March 2020 — to shows, record label meetings, and though the streets. Frierson got a firsthand glimpse of what the director calls X’s “amazing” connection with the people who love him, from tearful ciphers in Yonkers projects to conversations about the gospel with fans. 

Frierson tells Complex that he’s a longtime fan of the dog and wanted to tell a story about him that gets past the salacious exploitation the late rapper dealt with in his career. The team behind Don’t Try To Understand captured the full scope of X as an artist, as well as Earl Simmons as a human being.

Anyone familiar with X’s music and career knows he had his demons, and the documentary shows those moments as well. Frierson told X that they planned to capture everything, “warts and all,” and he says the rapper was fine with it before filming (and after seeing the finished product in early 2020). Fierson says these scenes aren’t meant to evoke a particular emotion, but to simply show viewers what it really was with X, and have them draw their own conclusions. 

“The moments that are the ‘uglier moments,’ they become less ugly and more just the reality of the situation in his life,” Frierson says about the filming process. Eventually, X became genuine friends with the team, as evidenced by him calling them family during the documentary’s tear-jerking final scene.

Frierson is grateful, not just for the documentary, but for X inspiring him to take on his own demons. We spoke with him about being around the rap icon, an original ideation of the doc (which thankfully didn’t happen), and more. The conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below. 

View this video on YouTube

What made you want to tell DMX’s story?

I’ve always been really interested in characters and people [whose] narratives have been defined more by the media and outside forces than their own. I remember the day I got Flesh of My Flesh when I was 16. Ever since then, I’ve had a connection with Earl, and DMX, and his music. 

Over the years, during his down periods, I think the salaciousness of some of the things that he’s experienced [have] been exploited and become his persona. That sort of thing where you live long enough to see yourself become the villain type situation. He’s been maligned to a certain point, which I think overshadowed the message of what his music was. I worked at Mass Appeal production company in development, and I really wanted to tell his story and had an opportunity there. That’s how it started.

But long story short, how we got here is: At Mass, we used to have rappers coming through all the time, so I wrote a deck, pitched it, and everybody at the company was like, “This is fine.” It’s just one in another of the millions of decks that you got to do. He came through. I wasn’t there that day, but it was the day he got locked up for the tax thing in like early 2018. Over the course of the year, while he was in jail, I became friends with his manager Pat, and we were trying to make this thing happen, trying to contact the jail [and] the feds were not having it. When we found out he was going to be released in early January 2019, I convinced my boss at the time to give us a little bit of money. And I grabbed two guys from our office and we drove down to West Virginia. So that scene when he comes out of the jail, he’s like, “Hey, hey, hey,” that’s the first time I met him.

Oh, wow.

I talked to him very briefly through the prison video phone thing once, but he didn’t really know that this was happening. Because when he comes out, in the film, you hear him go, “Oh, you guys weren’t fucking around,” because he sees the cameras. So, I hopped in a Suburban and two days later, we were in New York. During that time period, we got to know each other a little bit and sort of set off on the journey.

You said that at one point you were trying to communicate with the jail about the documentary. What were your plans with that ideation of the doc?

I mean, at that stage, I didn’t really, really visualize what it was going to look like, but I knew that a jail interview could be a good starting point. Also, I just wanted to get started with it because, in this business, opportunities are very fleeting. So my whole thing was like, let’s just go and see each other, meet each other. Maybe if we can bring cameras in, that’s cool. If not, that’s cool, but [it was an idea] to get things going and it didn’t work out and I think [that’s] for the best.

Why do you say that?

Because, at the end of the day, I wasn’t really into the jail interview thing because that really fits into that box and that narrative just visually speaking. So, it was great to have that not happen. Having a sit-down interview with Earl locked up, in hindsight, wouldn’t have been what we wanted. I don’t know if we would’ve even used it actually, but us meeting that day when he got out and driving to New York, I think that laid the foundation for the trust that we established with each other, which I think would’ve been harder to do when he was going through it down there.

HBO DMX documentary 'Don't Try to Understand'
DMX HBO documentary 'Don't Try to Understand'

Latest in Music