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DMX rhymed from his soul in gritty growl that revealed both the toughness in his spirit and the pain in his life. He was a rap legend who became a dominant figure in the late ’90s after releasing both his debut and sophomore albums in 1998 and his third album in 1999. All three debuted at No. 1 and sold millions. He was sonic testosterone and a fixture in the boomboxes and the clubs with his distinctive growling voice that evoked the sound of a pitbull that could rap. He rhymed about the streets, his toughness, his pain, and Christianity, all over the beats of his friend Swizz Beats, who he helped make a central producer in hip-hop culture. He was in a supergroup with Jay-Z and Ja Rule called Murder Inc, and he was such a star that he was also a success in the movies—he made one with Nas called Belly and one co-starring Aaliyah called Romeo Must Die and one with Steven Seagal called Exit Wounds. In his movies, as on his records, he was a tough guy. He undoubtedly was, but this was a cover for the pain he carried from being mistreated throughout his youth by the adults in his life.
His government name was Earl Simmons and he grew up in Yonkers, New York, which was not a hip-hop hotbed. When I interviewed him for the cover of Rolling Stone in 2000, he talked at length about the pain of his childhood, referring to himself as something of a rage-filled recluse. “I didn’t have much of a childhood,” he said. “It was always dark in our house.” He described a family that didn’t have much, and a mother who was physically and emotionally abusive toward him. He recalled going to first grade filled with anger at kids who had fathers and didn’t wear hand-me-downs. He fought a lot, and he fought dirty. “I didn’t fight right,” he told me. “Head butt a nigga, grab a nigga nuts and pull ’em out, I’d fuckin bite you… I was fighting from real anger—fuck you, you nice-dressin’ motherfucker.” One day, a fight went too far after a classmate said something he didn’t like. “I jumped up, grabbed a No. 2 pencil and stabbed him right in his fuckin’ face.” The old rage of the moment rose up in him as he told the story. “Then a teacher put her hands on me in breaking the fight up, she kinda threw me down… Charged her… I’m wildin’ now… Throwin’ desks aside… They cleared the kids out, called the principal and the gym teacher, and they wrestled me to the ground and sat on me for, like, 10 minutes.”
After that, everyone thought he was a troubled kid, an image DMX hated even as an adult—through gritted teeth, he said, “Wasn’t… no… bad… fuckin’ kid.” He said he was so smart that he was easily bored, but the idea that he was a bad kid would shape his childhood. After first grade, he was sent to an institution for troubled boys and spent seven years in the system, hardening him. He once escaped and when he returned home, his mother made him go back. When I interviewed him, he was still furious with her for how she treated him throughout his childhood. “Fuckin’ bitch,” he said. “So many times I thought about killin’ that bitch. But I would always think of how I would feel if she was gone. No matter what I did, I knew I still loved her. I love her, but I can’t stand that bitch.” When we spoke, he had not resolved his issues with his mom, and he said they were not on speaking terms. She refused to talk to me about him.
He was a comedian, he was the life of the party, he was a man in turmoil and trauma, but from his music to his movies to his ministry to his jokes, X knew how to make the people around him happy.
When X got out of the system and returned to the streets, he became a thief. “I robbed niggas,” he bragged. “I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not a hustler.” (He didn’t sell drugs.) “I’d rather do the stickup shit.” He was so good at fighting that he knocked people out quickly, and soon his rep preceded him to the point that he didn’t need to fight. “Half of my weapon was my face,” he said. “I’d just walk up to niggas and be like, ‘Yo, lemme get that.” Tough guys were afraid of him. Meanwhile, he was developing as a rapper and being encouraged by his friends. He got a chance to rhyme for Lyor Cohen, the head of Def Jam, but the day before their meeting, he was beaten up in the street and left with a broken jaw. He went to Cohen with his jaw wired shut, but as he rapped, his passion and his energy were so powerful that Def Jam signed him and he became one of the legendary label’s major stars, thanks largely to his first three albums: It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot; Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood; and ...And Then There Was X. It was totally unusual then to release three albums from one artist in such a short span of time—these were released as CDs between May 1998 and December 1999, before the era of streaming, which meant that the label was asking people to pay about $18 for each album. Conventional wisdom held that one artist couldn’t get people with little disposable cash to part with more than a bit of it each year, but X shattered that thinking, going multi-platinum three times in about 18 months, an unheard-of feat that spoke to his ability to quickly come up with a truckload of compelling records and the intense loyalty of his fans.
X wore the trauma of being a Black man in America on his sleeve—he was a rapper who often seemed engulfed in anger and rage. Given his painful youth, his abusive mom, his time in the system, the stress of the hood, it’s easy to see how all of that led to someone who was in deep spiritual pain. This may explain his devotion to Christianity—he read the Bible, though he was more spiritual than religious. He was a deacon who aspired to become a pastor. He rapped about Christianity and its principles sometimes.
Outwardly, he was often joyful. The man I met was always making jokes and turning every moment into a party. Throughout our days together, he was constantly blasting Stephanie Mills and Sade and singing along with them and smiling. On one of those days, he called his longtime girlfriend at least six times—I lost track—and constantly told her, “I love you, boo-boo!” I remember a man who was smiling all the time and making jokes to strangers to put them at ease. But underneath that outer layer, there was tremendous pain that was fueled by a life that seemed to be in near-constant turmoil. DMX was arrested numerous times in multiple states for crimes like drug possession, animal cruelty, and DUI. He did many short bids in prison. In Chris Rock’s film Top Five, when Rock goes to jail, it’s no surprise that he finds X already there. X battled drug addiction throughout his adult life and sometimes struggled with crack. It seems that he had a lot of inner trauma to silence.
Some people will remember him for his high-energy songs perfect for inspiring people to bring out the energy they need to power through tough moments, but the DMX I will remember is this one. We were in LA in 2000, when he was one of the biggest names in hip-hop. It was around midnight and he was driving an Escalade down a dark street, going way too fast. X drove the way he rapped, full out. He stomped the gas pedal to the floor so we—he and I and two gigantic bodyguards—were pinned to the back of our seats. Then he mashed the brake hard, jerking the car to a stop so we all lurched forward. It was stressful. But he was having a ball, singing along with Stephanie Mills and smoking a cigarette and talking nonstop.
Then he interrupted his own monologue. “Which way is the hotel?” he said. He was staying at a swanky hotel that screamed of superstar rapper excess. A bodyguard said it was behind us. As the car sped down the street, without braking fully, X used both feet and both pedals to make the truck screech and turn at once, so we turned 180 degrees to face the opposite direction, sliding over the road as if on ice. Then we zoomed off. It was some movie stunt car driving that had me certain that we were going to crash, and I really should have asked to ride in another car because I did not think getting into a car accident due to X’s wild driving was worth it. Then, as we sped up the road and my heart pounded, he turned to his bodyguard and said, “I wish I had my license.” ’Scuse me, what? I was unsure at that moment whether he meant “I wish I had my license on my person instead of, like, having left it in the hotel,” or if he meant “I wish I was legally licensed to drive.” Surely it was the former, right? I said that to calm myself. But I was wrong. Months later, it became clear that he was not licensed. Of course he had not gone to New York state and asked them to legalize his right to drive. Fuck the state.
As I sat in the back seat, scared stiff, knowing that we were definitely eventually going to crash because the guy’s driving was totally out of control, X looked in the rearview mirror at me and said, “Yo, man, don’t fart in my truck, man!” What? “If you’ve gotta fart, just say so and we’ll stop, because I can’t be driving around with that smell in the air, man. What the fuck?” I could not tell if he was seriously mad or if he was joking. “Yo, just admit that you did it,” he said. “Don’t act like you didn’t. That’s wack.” I was almost certain that I had not farted, but he was digging into me so intensely that I doubted myself. Maybe I had in the midst of his insane driving and hadn’t noticed it because I was so afraid that we’d crash. I was paralyzed, unsure if I should apologize or remain silent or… Then I noticed his two bodyguards hunched over, fighting to muffle their cackles of laughter. X flashed a little smile at me, releasing the tension. “But if you fart in my hotel room!” he barked. Now the bodyguards were howling with laughter. He was a comedian, he was the life of the party, he was a man in turmoil and trauma, but from his music to his movies to his ministry to his jokes, X knew how to make the people around him happy.