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Earl Simmons suffered a lonely and abusive childhood where as a troubled kid he would sometimes wander the streets and befriend stray dogs. Uprooted from his native Baltimore at a young age, the Yonkers transplant did several stints in New York’s Children’s Village group home, where he first started fiddling with drum machines and beatboxing as a means of escape. He segued from DJing to rapping as a young adult, taking the name DMX from the drum machine he used. The young rapper made a name for himself on New York’s battle circuit with a commanding voice and overwhelming tenacity. Aggressiveness would become his calling card as an MC, a defense mechanism held over from when the days when armed robbery helped him survive on the streets. His battles to live and cope both in and outside of rap would lead to 1998’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, his haunting debut, a tragically clear-eyed criminal manifesto that dared to greet damnation with defiance and a psalm.
Rocking a skull-embroidered hat, DMX the Great appeared in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column in January 1991, garnering comparisons to LL Cool J, PMD, and Hit Squad’s K-Solo (whom DMX had met in prison). The earliest DMX demos were tedious, without the defining presence he’d grow into. But it was in the ring that he truly built his rep, making an indelible mark on the underground scene with heavily rhythmic flows and a battler’s bluntness. When he traded bars with Jay Z in a cramped Bronx pool hall in the late ’90s, head bobbing violently, cigarette in hand, he proved himself to be a raw, almost boorish alternative to Hov’s shifty slick talk. The energy in the room clearly favored X’s style. Jay would later ask industry maneuverer mutual friend Irv Gotti, “You think he’s better than me?” to which Gotti replied, “If you look in the hood, there’s less niggas like you and more niggas like him.”
The Unsigned Hype column was known for producing deals. True to form, DMX signed to Columbia Records imprint Ruffhouse in 1992 and immediately cut a promotional single called “The Born Loser.” The track introduced his depressive tone, an ominous and confessional space that would later bring life to his most discomforting scenes. But true to its title, it failed to generate any buzz or airplay, and his overbooked label let him off the hook. (DMX claimed he was under-promoted because of groups like Kris Kross and Cypress Hill.) A few years later, Puff Daddy, head of the burgeoning Bad Boy Records, took interest in X and fellow Yonkers corner boys the LOX, but in the end chose to sign the latter over the former, deciding that X had no commercial prospects. “One thing I respect about Puff, at least he told me to my face what he felt,” DMX told “Drink Champs.” “‘His voice is too rough, he’s not marketable.’” DMX returned to the underground scene, emerging on LL Cool J’s 1997 album Phenomenon with a verse on the now infamous posse cut “4, 3, 2, 1.” Buzzing once more, he followed Gotti to Def Jam.
When Gotti pushed for Def Jam to sign DMX in his first meeting, he got laughed out of the room. “I remember when I left the office, [A&R executive] Tina Davis said, ‘if DMX don’t sell, your ass is fired,” Gotti remembered in an interview with Complex. He didn’t seem to fit with the rap moment. This was a year dominated by Puff Daddy and Bad Boy, who landed six of the seven highest-charting rap songs, delivered a huge critical and commercial success in Harlem World, and won Best Rap Album at the Grammys for the 7x-Platinum album No Way Out (famously and controversially defeating Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever). Putting money behind DMX would run counter to Bad Boy’s “shiny suit” era of glam rap.
But X brought Def Jam executive Lyor Cohen up to Yonkers for an early Ruff Ryder session and convinced him to sign the MC. At the time, DMX’s mouth was wired shut because of an altercation he’d had with some guys he was accused of stealing from. In an interview with DJ Vlad, Ja Rule remembered the ferocity through which he ripped through the wiring: “He had got into a fight or somebody got jumped… and he was rhyming with the fuckin’ wires in his mouth. Crazy shit. Like the shit about to pop. I was like ‘Okay, I like this dude.’” When they left, Cohen turned to Gotti and proclaimed, “We got the pick of the litter.”
Through his connections at Bad Boy (namely, his friends the LOX and Ma$e), DMX began working on his debut album with a producer from Harlem named Dame Grease, a fellow Yonkers product named P.K. (or P. Killer Trackz), and Grease’s unknown protege from the Bronx, Swizz Beatz. Under direction from Irv and Lyor, Grease, P.K., and X worked up a single called “Get at Me Dog” in ’97, and released it in February of ’98. It functioned as an abrasive prelude, but was at least partially aimed at X’s longtime rival K-Solo. They brought the song to Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex, who aired it and added it to the first volume of his Big Dawgs mixtape. It soon took off, peaking at No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 that May. Gotti remembers the video as the turning point: “We back to the hood, and X is the leader of this revolution.” Filmed at New York’s Tunnel nightclub, packed, sweaty, and shot in black and white, X’s crusade is articulated in its opening seconds: “Let’s take it back to the streets, motherfuckers!”
“Get at Me Dog” set the stage for It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, which explores the furthest depths of the human experience. But there is no more fitting introduction to the album than the Swizz Beatz-produced “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” a confrontational, fang-bearing mark of ferocity. The song functions much like a warning shot: Cross this threshold at your own peril. “It’s about to get ugly/Fuck it dog, I’m hungry,” he snaps. The song was a defining moment for both DMX and Swizz Beatz, but it almost didn’t happen. Swizz made the song in Atlanta when he was just a DJ and then moved back to New York to join the Ruff Ryders. DMX didn’t like the song initially, claiming it was some “rock’n’roll track” and he needed some hip-hop shit: “I’m not doing that. It’s not hood enough,” he told the producer. But Swizz and other members of the Ruff Ryders team pushed him to make the record, and it became the theme song of a movement.
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot was not only the springboard for the Ruff Ryders campaign—launching the careers of Swizz Beatz, Eve, Cassidy, and Jin—it was the catalyst for a greater shift on the New York rap scene and beyond. It was a reset button for street rap, setting the stage for runs from 50 Cent and G-Unit and Cam’ron’s Diplomats crew. “Hittin’ niggas with gashes to the head/Straight to the white meat but the street stays red/Girls gave me head for free cause they see/Who I’ma be, by like 2003,” X rapped on the intro. It didn’t even take that long.
Like Dante’s Inferno, DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is a fiendish epic that explores the nature of sin, highlighting acts of violence, wrath, greed, treachery, and lust. The album exposes an internal struggle waged between a man and his demons—a man searching for one light in an all-consuming darkness. He has a talk with god (“The Convo”), but the devil is constantly whispering in his ear and wearing him down. He’s unsure whether his rhyme skills are the product of a contract with the devil (“I sold my soul to the devil, and the price was cheap”) or the generosity of a loving creator. It’s this duality that makes up one of the most gripping psychological studies in all of rap lore: What happens when a God-fearing man makes the devil his ally?
The centerpiece is “Damien,” a winding back-and-forth saga between X and his Hadean accomplice. The album builds to this moment, where X is seduced by his greatest admirer. In the throes of his own greed and pain, DMX embraces wickedness as a fair price for freedom from destitution. By the end, the song becomes a parable about the dangers of giving into desire when Damien coerces X into crimes he doesn’t want to commit: “Either do it or give me your right hand, that’s what you said,” he threatens. “I see now, ain’t nothing but trouble ahead.” Traces of “Damien” can be heard throughout the “Lucy” thread on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which also examines the points where fame and sin meet. (Kendrick has cited It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot as a major influence.) But “Damien” is even more tightly wound, the relationship more clearly articulated and its energy more affecting. The dynamic “Damien” is a microcosm of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, which is either in constant motion or disclosing ongoing conversations—whether internal, interpersonal (“How’s It Goin’ Down”), or divine (“Prayer”).
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot debuted atop the Billboard 200 in May and was certified platinum by June. DMX quickly released his sophomore album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, in December of ’98, and it was double platinum by January. In between the two, he starred in Hype Williams’ directorial debut, Belly, alongside Nas, and the film almost immediately became a cult hit among rap fans. So in a grand total of eight months, DMX became the biggest rapper on the planet. His moment was so colossal that in 1999 Jay Z boycotted the Grammy ceremony (the year he won Best Rap Album for Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life) because DMX was not nominated.
“That was the year DMX took over the world,” Nas remembered in a 2013 interview with Pitchfork. Already a star on New York’s rap scene, the Queens rapper was standing in close proximity when the DMX atom bomb dropped. “There was a guy who worked on Belly with me and DMX who’d heard the record, and every day he would try to tell me how incredible this music that was about to come out was,” Nas recalled. “I tried to get a description, like, ‘What do you mean?’ And he just couldn’t say anything. He just kept saying, ‘It moves your soul.’ He did not lie.”
Nearly 20 years later, there is still no album like it. So many of the songs on It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot document violent crimes and the flood of emotions they induce. They move swiftly, jerking around corners and through alleyways, simulating a rising heart rate and a racing mind. His peers were shooting stills, but X was dealing in savage action sequences (“ATF”) and the shadows they cast (“Let Me Fly,” “X-Is Coming”). Everything about the music—from the harshness of his voice, to the murkiness of his beats, to the bruising nature of his flows—was in service of a supreme hardness. In ‘98, the biggest MCs on the New York scene were narrators using radically different sounds to tell their stories. Busta erupted with pure energy. Big Pun enchanted with an effortless fluidity. As Wu-Tang swarmed, Tribe was in the midst of their love movement. Black Star were a conscious voice for hood theorists. Jay Z brought business acumen to the drug trade. All were reporting live, sharing their powerful perspectives from different city blocks.
But DMX wasn’t a rapper in the trenches; he was a messiah in the gutter, painting a portrait of a community laid desolate by corruption, and the sociopaths its conditions were breeding. He was the voice of the street corners and the graveyards, telling stories of the lost and the damned. From on high, he demanded empathy for man, who were cold to murder and unapologetic for their crimes because he knew it’s hard to be good in a world this broken. “There’s a difference between doing wrong and being wrong, and that ain’t right,” he says on “Let Me Fly.” He breaks the moral compass, then drags you into the abyss.Share