DMX was a ruff rider from start to finish; the American rapper’s music endures for its aggression
The essence of DMX as a hip-hop artist emerges as one who could balance violent, toughened delivery with give-a-damn melodies worked in with his distinctly gravelly voice.
The world mourns the passing of American rapper DMX aka Dark Man X aka Earl Simmons, who passed away on Friday at the age of 50 following a heart attack. As fans revisit the late artist’s crowning work from the late '90s and early 2000s, which included several chart-toppers, heavyweight collaborations, and soul-bearing deep cuts, the essence of DMX as a hip-hop artist emerges as one who could balance violent, toughened delivery with give-a-damn melodies worked in with his distinctly gravelly voice.
Many in India were likely exposed to DMX because his climb to music stardom coincided with the commercialisation of hip-hop at the turn of the millennium. Alongside artists like Ja Rule and Eminem among others, you could find CDs of DMX’s landmark albums such as his seminal debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot (1998) as well as …And Then There Was X (1999), among the first five albums from the rapper which topped the charts worldwide, sold several millions, and were released by Def Jam and Ruff Ryders, the latter being DMX’s own imprint.
By the time these albums (and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood) were out in quick succession, DMX had already seen his share of incarceration and crime in his life from adolescence to adulthood. On a song like ‘Get At Me Dog,' he raps: “I'm just robbin' to eat/And there's at least a thousand of us like me mobbin' the street/When we starvin', we eat whatever's there.” When this song dropped in 1998 as DMX’s official debut song, everyone took notice of a toughened rapper who was not just flexing.
Of course, as is the case in American hip-hop, there was a lot of flexing. Where he sometimes avoided acknowledging comparisons to 2Pac, the influence was right there in the no-holds-barred delivery and often grisly lyrical content. Everyone from crews like Run DMC and Wu-Tang Clan to lesser known rap figures such as Onyx were counted amongst DMX’s inspirations.
But when you heard albums like It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, one knew that DMX was already carving an inimitable identity in the rap world.
Songs like ‘X Gon’ Give It To Ya’ and ‘What’s My Name?’ (more recently revived into pop culture lore thanks to its use in Deadpool films) were a loud and clear notice to every other rapper out there that DMX was marking his territory as one of the most menacing voices in not just hip-hop but American mainstream music itself. The rapper worked with producer Swizz Beatz on the regular, leading to one of hip-hop most popular celebration tunes, ‘Party Up (Up In Here)’ in 1999. It was incredibly infectious, and showed that DMX could bring the heat and scare a few but also lean back and obviously, party down with his Ruff Ryders crew.
The label got its own dedicated, legendary shout-out as well, on DMX’s first album itself, no less. ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ was that shot of signal fire in the air, the rapper telling the world with total conviction that no one can touch them. His lyrics also gave off a touch of vulnerability, which we would also hear on songs like ‘Slippin'.' DMX raps on ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’: “Give a dog a bone, leave a dog alone/ Let a dog roam and he'll find his way home/ Home of the brave, my home is a cage/ And, yo, I'm a slave 'til my home is the grave.” At the same time, it is important to point out that this song, as well as a few others like ‘X-Is Coming,’ contained unabashed mentions of rape, which DMX did not exactly learn how to defend or apologise for, only terming it “figurative” when asked in interviews.
Even as drug abuse (and subsequent criminal sentencing) took over DMX’s life soon enough, he still barked and snapped like a man who had nothing to lose. Songs like ‘Where The Hood At?’ from the Grand Champ album in 2013 were unsparing about his position in the rap game, sounding off on would-be usurpers.
As much as DMX often had a confrontational stance, he got along with plenty in the music world – Jay-Z and DMX ran together on several songs like ‘Blackout’ and Ja Rule’s ‘It’s Murda,' while LL Cool J birthed the four-way throwdown called ‘4, 3, 2, 1’ with Canibus, Master P, Method Man, Redman, and DMX in 1997. Everyone from Sean Paul to Mary J Blige, Eminem and much later, Machine Gun Kelly too, had DMX bust in with his snarl, while many metal and rock fans might remember him from nu-metal/rap-rock band Limp Bizkit’s 2000 song ‘Rollin’’, whose “Urban Assault Vehicle” version brought in X, Redman, and Method Man. The gargantuan collaboration was produced by Swizz Beatz, with DMX ad-libbing in the chorus and penning a lethal verse that could take down any opponent, even as he bared his heart in the most DMX way possible: “I ain't never been s**t, and ain't gon' be s**t/That's why I take s**t, whenever I see s**t”.
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