DMX refused to be denied. He growled, barked, and rattled the industry’s door until they let the dog in to eat. In 1991, after sparring in freestyle battles, the Yonkers native landed in The Source’s coveted Unsigned Hype section. Songs came in the early ‘90s (“Born Loser,” “Make a Move”), but there was no hype. Fast forward to 1997. DMX was finally gaining ground, appearing on DJ Clue mixtapes.
And then it all happened in 1998. That was the beginning of his worldwide takeover from the music charts to the box office. DMX’s Ruff Ryders/Def Jam debut It’s Dark and Hell is Hot was the first of five consecutive albums to debut at number one. He followed it up with the triple-platinum Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, which earned him the distinction of being the first artist with two platinum albums released in the same year. He then waited no more than a year to release the five-times platinum …And Then There Was X in 1999.
DMX’s prolificacy doesn’t explain his popularity, but there were innumerable reasons his music resonated. His gruff voice, a graveled and smoky rasp, was unmistakable. The intensity and charisma of his delivery never faltered, audible in every literal growl and bark, every concussive “WHAT!” ad-lib. On singles like “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and “Party Up (Up in Here)” DMX chose beats that were as aggressive and thundering as his delivery. They hit the radio and music video countdowns with blunt force.
DMX also offered a compelling duality. He was hard and vulnerable, physically unbreakable but clearly a broken man, haunted by a traumatic childhood. Albums bolstered by big, riot-starting singles featured scores of songs full of pain, anger, violence, and penitence. DMX might tapdance his Timberland’s across your face at the slightest provocation, but he’d repent after fleeing the scene. The sins of the present were always weighed against their potentially eternal consequence. He was the pastor of the projects, reminding you of the demons on his shoulders while he told you to believe in God.
The timing couldn’t have been better for DMX’s incredible run of albums. He filled a void in New York rap. This was the end of the “Jiggy Era.” Jay-Z was the hustler turned businessman, cool and contemplative as he took over blocks, founded a record label, bought clubs, and brokered multi-million dollar business deals. Diddy and Bad Boy had taken things to a bottle-popping, patent-leather-wearing extreme. Their lifestyle was unattainable, and DMX provided the gritty antithesis. He made anthems for those popping wheelies on ATV’s in the projects and doing pull-ups behind bars. Even at his peak, he was on the block in a tank top.
DMX became a star both on record and off. He appeared opposite Jet Li (Romeo Must Die, Cradle 2 the Grave) and Steven Seagal (Exit Wounds) in action movies that topped the box office. Even without the movies and the soundtracks on which DMX appeared, though, his catalog remains as large as he was in the late 90s and early 2000s. Once he got in the door, he ensured the world would never forget him.
(Get at Me Dog, Ruff Ryders Anthem, Party Up (Up in Here), Who We Be)
Between 1999 and 2003, DMX had 12 solo songs on the Billboard Hot 100 alone. His chart dominance began with the Dame Grease-produced “Get at Me Dog.” Originally released as a freestyle on DJ Clue mixtape, “Get at Me Dog” was the first single from DMX’s debut It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, and an unlikely hit. DMX wrote new verses for the album version, each one reminding you that he would rob to survive and kill if necessary. “Get at Me Dog” was a stick-up kid anthem, a reminder of the wealth gap Black Americans face and the desperation it engenders.
“Ruff Ryders Anthem” was the fourth single from It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. Somehow, it is the lowest charting DMX single on the Hot 100. Yet it remains the quintessential DMX song. If someone told you they’d never heard DMX before, you would instinctively play “Ruff Ryders Anthem.” The beat from a then-unknown Swizz Beatz, though simple, remains indelible. You can almost see Swizz pounding out the strange, almost video game-like melody and the drums that hit like bare knuckles against bone. The sparseness of the beat works because it leaves ample room for DMX’s inimitable voice. He delivers every menacing line with an almost bouncy cadence, landing his syllables on the drums. Then there’s the hook, which is almost like a call-and-response. As soon as you hear, “Stop!,” you’re ready to yell, “Drop!”
There is no DMX song larger than “Party Up (Up in Here),” both commercially and in popularity. It was a massive hit on the radio, in the club, and in movies (e.g., Gone in 60 Seconds, How High, Hardball). Once again, DMX’s success is partly indebted to Swizz Beatz, whose beat for “Party Up” is the aural equivalent of someone pulling the fire alarm. It blares from beginning to end, the frenetic and thundering score to countless bottle-service and parking lot brawls. DMX, per usual, matches the intensity of the beat with the violence of his lyrics. Every second, he is prepared to commit an assault. With “Party Up,” DMX distilled anger, gave it a soundtrack. No matter who or what is making you lose your mind, you can put on “Party Up” and feel justified in that anger.
Though many of his songs became synonymous with turning up, DMX had singles like “Who We Be” that struck more emotional chords. The second single from DMX’s fourth album The Great Depression, “Who We Be” is one of the most personal and profound DMX singles. He lays bare the poverty in Black neighborhoods, as well as the injustices of the carceral system and the ephemerality of fame. You can hear the hurt in every bar.
The Dog Is Here
(24 Hours to Live; Money, Power & Respect; Tear It Up)
DMX’s presence on the mic was so commanding that he often worked best alone. Whenever he appeared alongside his peers, all focus shifted to him. Case in point, “24 Hours to Live” from Mase’s 1997 Harlem World. DMX gets the sixth and final verse, offering an unforgettable answer to Puffy’s opening question, “If you had 24 hours to live, what would you do?” At the time, DMX vowed to go full Tony Montana on his enemies, make amends with his mother, and spend time with his kids before a shocking end to the day. (You simply have to listen.) On The Lox’s “Money, Power & Respect.” DMX raps the anchor leg again. Instead of rapping about money or power, however, he lets you know what could happen if you cross him. In X’s world, fear equals respect.
In 2004, Yung Wun called on DMX for the hook of his Billboard-charting single “Tear It Up.” Wun, David Banner, and Lil Flip all turn in serviceable verses, but DMX carries the song, barking and yelling over the grand, brass-heavy marching band beat. No voice could’ve cut through like his. No one else could’ve made you feel like there were going to be more collisions in the stands than on the football field.
A Softer Side of DMX… Kinda
(How It’s Goin’ Down, What You Want)
DMX doesn’t make love songs. If you had to choose two excellent DMX songs that deal with matters of the heart, or at least two that approach them, they would have to be “How It’s Goin’ Down” and “What You Want.” The former is arguably the most sensitive song DMX ever made. He cares for the woman with whom he’s having an affair, but he doesn’t want to break up her family. On “What They Really Want,” however, DMX plays the coldhearted mack. He believes in democracy in the bedroom and hooks from Sisqo… but not much else. If he feels a partner catching feelings, he’s stealing her belongings and leaving. At the very least – and this is certainly that – DMX never lied. His honesty here and throughout his catalog was one of his most redeeming qualities.
Article originally published on uDiscoverMusic.com.