DMX - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Hip-hop has long been an expression of the tumultuous conditions many of rap’s most prominent figures were born into. There has never been an artist who exemplifies this more than DMX whose unmistakably abrasive flow reflects a tortured soul sometimes attempting to fight hope and sometimes indulging in destruction. hip-hop’s answer to heavy metal, DMX has been able to focus his ballistic delivery to create some of the genre’s most aggressively memorable anthems.
DMX was born Earl Simmons on December 18, 1970 and was raised in Yonkers, New York. Despite a childhood riddled with crime, arrests, and unstable family life, DMX utilized hip-hop as an outlet to vent. Specifically, Simmons showed a bent for the art of beat-boxing, a medium in which the artist creates percussion and bass lines solely through the use of their mouth. While sharpening his claws in the early days of hip-hop, Simmons favored the Oberheim DMX drum machine, the same machine that has been used to create hits for Run DMC, Stevie Nicks, and Roni Size. Simmons would also adopt DMX as his stage name and the backronym Dark Man X was later created. As a beat-boxer, DMX performed in the background of several tracks by hardcore-rap pioneer Just-Ice. In 1991, magazine The Source tabbed the 21-year-old DMX in their “Unsigned Hype” column. DMX soon signed with Ruffhouse/Columbia Records. Despite releasing his first single, “Born Loser,” on the label, his deal with Ruffhouse fizzled and DMX was released from his contract.
In 1997, Def Jam signed DMX and he began to make a stir, lending his aggressive flow to tracks by LL Cool J, Mase, and The Lox. When DMX’s debut album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot (Def Jam) was released in 1998, hip-hop radio was largely dominated by pop-oriented artists like Puff Daddy and LL Cool J. Swinging the pendulum the other way, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot features DMX’s nihilistic and gritty interpretations of his bleak surroundings. “Ruff Ryder Anthem” features DMX’s angry raping paired with the bouncy production of the now a-list producer, Swizz Beatz. DMX’s lyrics on “Get At Me Dog” are peppered with what became his trademark dog barks. Canines, specifically pit bulls, remain a consistent theme throughout DMX’s catalogue, sometimes as metaphors but often in literal comparisons as DMX often notes his fondness for dogs. The call and response chorus that asks “y’all n**** wanna be killers?” was perhaps a challenge to the pop-heavy aesthetic prevalent within hip-hop at the time. Despite being criticized for its extremely violent themes and other malicious content, the album instantly ascended to number one on the Billboard 200 and Billboard R&B/hip-hop Albums charts, and publications like Rolling Stone and The Source highly praised the album. DMX’s candid and stoic mentality quickly sparked comparisons to Tupac Shakur. Later that year, DMX starred alongside Nas in the urban drama Belly as the accomplished drug dealer, Tommy. Belly is the first of many films DMX has starred in including Exit Wounds, Romeo Must Die, and Cradle 2 the Grave.
Just seven months after It’s Dark and Hell is Hot was released, DMX released Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood (1998 Def Jam). The cover featured DMX drenched in blood and this gruesome image instantly let audiences know that despite the lucrative success of his debut, the follow-up was not going to adulterate the unapologetic and malevolent content. The image may also be a biblical reference as DMX often features conversations with God on his albums, creating contrast to the high quantity of violence. Like DMX’s first album, My Flesh, Blood of My Blood debuted at number one on the Billboard Charts, making DMX the second rapper ever to have two albums debut at number one (Tupac Shakur was the first).
1999’s And Then There Was X (Def Jam) is an album raging with duality. Now one of hip-hop’s elite, DMX introspectively muses about the cost of fame as well as his acknowledgment of the conflict between the crime he raps about and his often referenced relationship with God. A large chunk of the criticism towards the album was the accusation that the production was steered into more mainstream territory. This claim was without a doubt largely due to what has become DMX’s most prolific single, “Party Up.” The amount of success the single has snagged is vastly due to the jumpy synthesizers provided by longtime collaborator Swizz Beatz. However, despite the amount of commercial success the song acquired, DMX’s lyrics remained gruff. “Party Up” also hears DMX mocking West Coast rapper Kurupt, regarding DMX’s affair with Kurupt’s former fiancé, Foxy Brown. Since its release “Party Up” has been used in numerous movies, video games, and it has even been claimed by Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps as his favorite warm-up song. The aggressive tone on the other two singles “What’s My Name?” and “What These Bitches Want” is also testament to that fact that DMX had not let up in terms of his brash content. And Then There Was X was also DMX’s third album to reach number one. The album has since gone platinum six times, making it his best selling album.
DMX’s animalistic flow, which forcefully created a niche for the Yonkers-bred rapper, began to seem redundant by the time he released The Great Depression (Def Jam) in 2001. While the album became DMX’s fourth release to land at the top spot on the Billboard charts, it did not stay at the top for long. The first single “Who We Be” was a fast-paced but bipolar attempt at self-assertion. Despite some initial buzz, “Who We Be” along with the other singles “I Miss You” and “We Right Here” deflated in popularity quickly. Critics were generally unmoved by The Great Depression and the album has essentially been called DMX’s most mediocre effort.
As the enthusiasm for DMX’s albums began to decline, his arrest record began to bloat. Between 2000 and 2001 DMX served several sentences for marijuana possession and driving without a license. Legal problems aside, DMX released Grand Champ (Def Jam) in 2003, named after a blue chip dog fighter who has won at least five fights. This title was appropriate considering the album was DMX’s fifth album. Sure enough, Grand Champ debuted at number one, making DMX the only artist ever to have five albums debut at number one. However, like The Great Depression, sales plummeted quickly after Grand Champ’s debut. The album also came under scrutiny for being too formulaic. Many felt the legitimacy of DMX’s rage on songs like “Where the Hood At” lost vitality with quasi-dance tracks like “Get It On the Floor.” The album’s poor sales combined with DMX’s mounting criminal record assured Grand Champ would be his last album on Def Jam.
At one point in 2003, DMX declared that he was done with hip-hop and claimed he would retire so he’d have more time to read the Bible and nurture a deeper relationship with God. These plans were scrapped upon the advice of rapper-turned-pastor Mase. Following DMX’s pipe dreams of the clergy, criminal problems began to arise. In 2004, DMX was charged with cocaine possession, weapon possession, and driving under the influence, as well as stealing an automobile and, shortly thereafter, impersonating a federal officer.
In early 2006, DMX re-signed with Columbia. The fluctuation of labels caused his next album to have many delays but eventually, Year of the Dog...Again (2006 Columbia) was released. The album debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 and was a mere 1,500 copies shy of grabbing the number one spot, snapping one of the most significant runs in music-sales history. The reviews began to ascend slightly, but DMX was still in search of reclaiming the success that his first three efforts found. In 2007, Def Jam released a greatest hits compilation called Definition of X: Pick of the Litter (Def Jam). A mere four songs out of the twenty tracks are from DMX’s final two albums on Def Jam.
DMX is gifted with one of the most distinguishable deliveries in hip-hop. His hard-to-swallow mentality has been uncompromising since his ground-demolishing debut. Despite critical problems with his later releases, the true significance of Dark Man X lies within the boldness of his first three releases. DMX is due a large chunk of credit for reinvigorating an enthusiasm for hardcore hip-hop.