A Profound Vessel for Pain, DMX
Since there was no way to falsify the life that forged him, the rapper, who died Friday, had no imitators. He was a colossus, a fire-starter, and a healer all rolled into one.
Even when he was the most popular rapper on the planet, DMX was a one-of-a-kind fire-starter: gruff, inspiring, agitated, and poignant. Simple heart and pure vigor. A healer and a drill sergeant.
“It's Dark and Hell Is Hot,” “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood,” and “... And Then There Was X” were his three majestic, bombastic albums released in 1998 and 1999. Each one debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and has earned several platinum certifications. For hundreds of thousands of people, he played at Woodstock '99. In 1998, he appeared in the groundbreaking hip-hop noir film "Belly." He also and convincingly growled like a dog in his songs.
Yet, since there was no way to falsify the life that forged him, there were no DMX clones in his wake. Hip-hop superstardom came after a traumatic childhood marked by bullying, drug use, violence, and other traumas for DMX, who died Friday at the age of 50 after suffering a heart attack on April 2. His triumphs felt more cathartic than triumphant. He was a conduit for profound suffering even at his rowdiest and most celebrated.
He never concealed his pain, never let shame overshadow his reality, particularly as he grew older and his public struggles — numerous arrests, stints in prison, and ongoing drug issues — threatened to overshadow his musical legacy. His humanity had the same noble quality as any of his songs.
DMX has been a titanic force in hip-hop since the release of his debut Def Jam single, "Get at Me Dog," in 1998. He favoured iron and concrete, rapping with a muscular throatiness that transmitted an excitable kind of mayhem, just as the genre was heading toward polished sheen. The staccato bursts on Swizz Beatz's early masterpiece "Ruff Ryders' Anthem" matched DMX's melancholy jabs: "All I know is pain/All I feel is rain."
Between 1998 and 2003, his voice was unrelentingly coarse, and he used it for one chest-puffed anthem after another: “Party Up (Up in Here),” “What's My Name?,” “Who We Be,” “X Gon' Give It to Ya,” “Where the Hood At?” He rapped a lot like he was trying to win an argument, with a lot of repetition and terse phrasing for full effect. He didn't alter his approach even when he flirted, as he did on "What These Bitches Want."
As he tackled his own troubled past on "Slippin'," however, he tempered himself a little, as if to offer himself some grace:
They put me in a situation forcing me to be a man
When I was just learning to stand without a helping hand, damn
Was it my fault, something I did
To make a father leave his first kid? At 7 doing my first bid
Despite the fact that DMX's reign at the top of the genre was relatively short, just a few ferocious years, he was never forgotten. That's partially due to the turbulence of his personal life, which saw him arrested hundreds of times for offenses such as cocaine possession, aggravated assault, driving without a license, and tax evasion. He saved homeless dogs and had a tribute to one of them, Boomer, tattooed over his entire back, but he also admitted to animal cruelty charges.
DMX, however, remained a sympathetic figure: he was a wild and broken man. As an infant, he was physically abused by his mother, and he spent a lot of time in group homes. He started committing crimes when he was young, specializing in robbery. Many of the stories in his 2002 autobiography, "E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX," are brutally honest.
Last year, he revealed in a heartbreaking interview that the person who first inspired him to rap was also the one who first introduced him to crack, forever tying the art that saved him to the addiction that threatened to destroy him.
Between his musical talent and his traumas, DMX's life became a tug of war. He started to disappear from the charts in the mid-2000s. His appearances on the big screen in films like "Belly," "Romeo Must Die," and "Exit Wounds" gave way to appearances on voyeuristic reality shows like "Couples Therapy," "Dr. Drew's Lifechangers," and "Iyanla: Fix My Life." His quest for redemption — his desperate need for it — became a core theme in his public persona.
By the time I first saw DMX live, in 2000, on the Cash Money/Ruff Ryders show, he had already mastered the art of taming arenas on the Hard Knock Life and Survival of the Illest tours. It was as startling as any show I'd ever seen, a hurried yet orchestrated display of raw charisma and power. He came to a complete stop at the end of his set to say a prayer. Thousands of people in the room went from boisterous to quiet, sideswiped by DMX's gospel. His body was soaked in sweat, his voice was gruff, and thousands of people in the room went from boisterous to silent. A few weeks later, I saw the tour again, and the scene was just as vivid.
By that time, he'd been doing it for a while, shocking audiences with his religious zeal. “Every night, it almost brings me to tears because all I get is love. In 1999, he told the Source, "It's like I'm taking them to church." “I love them to death. I'm at a loss for words. It's enough to see how they look at me. I can't help but fall in love with them. And I'm not taking them to the wrong location.”
DMX has done a version of the prayer every time I've seen him in the two decades since, from a small comeback show at S.O.B.'s in New York to an Easter Sunday convocation with Kanye West at Coachella, bringing a conflagration of a performance to a halt. On the surface, it seemed to be a blessing, an opportunity to spread a message of mercy and hope in the most unlikely of places. But he was also a naked supplicant in those moments, weeping for us and asking us to cover him in exchange.