All you motherfuckers know Evan McGarvey speaks from the heart.
It’s been gnawing at me, this fear that the garden of ‘90s cultural anniversary pieces blossoming across the Internet this year might fade without paying respects to DMX, and his singular presence in at the turn of the millennium. I cannot stomach the idea that DMX—the least representative and most haunting rapper of his era; the apex predator of rap from 1998 to 2000 — might not just be given short shrift, but, worse, flattened to a punch line.
The crazy guy who made dog sounds and then self-destructed, remember him?
A few years ago I taught high school in South Florida. My students were Black, White, Latinx, East Asian, South Asian. Most were funny, thoughtful and willing to do the work. They turned the school-issued iPads into mobile arcades. They had siblings struggling with Oxy. They seemed to like Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” I knew a few had unstable housing situations. I witnessed kids live in the joy of a hit single (“Get Lucky” meant a lot) at school dances.
A student of mine, a New Yorker whose parents came from Senegal, a kind, savvy boy and rap fan, asked me about my favorite rapper in class one day. Many of my students knew that I had co-written a book about Biggie and 2pac and I was flattered to be asked. I said that right now I liked Kendrick Lamar a lot.
“No, but who did you listen to when you were in school?”
I mentioned DMX.
“Mr. McGarvey, how are you so old?”
He slumped in his seat.
Then he turned to his classmate and basketball teammate and whispered something. His friend laughed, make the “arf! arf! arf!” dog bark and they both laughed more.
DMX: first as force of nature, then as farce.
One of the minor failures of my teaching career was that I didn’t halt the class there and detail exactly how 1998 DMX makes Lil’ Yachty and Post Malone sound like Nicktoons runoff. But I couldn’t communicate that the intensity of DMX, the spectacle of hearing someone committed to the dark, dark energy of being a hurt person, cut through the “everything will be getting better forever!” sophistry of late ‘90s America like little else in music (Kurt Cobain had died in 1994; Tupac in 1996) and like nothing else in rap.
How could I have? Generally, my students presented themselves as “over it,” in the healthy and ancient way that teens can be. DMX offers a kind of affliction, a Dantean plunge, as Sheldon Pearce argued in Pitchfork last year, into the photo negative darkness of Bad Boy’s shiny suit revelry, into felt experiences of many young people, especially black people and people of color, in post-Reagan, peak-Giuliani New York: poor, hungry, ignored, misdiagnosed, incarcerated, enraged.
I’ve been told that the themes of a writer’s career choose the writer. I’d like to believe it’s the same with a critic’s own favorites. So how does the music of DMX choose someone?
You tell me if the following tercets seem like sentiments scribbled via Sharpie against a bathroom stall or like stoic-martial lyrics chiseled on a citadel wall:
I CANNOT CONTAIN
THE BAD SHIT
ON MY BRAIN
I NO LONGER SEE THE SHADOWS
KEPT ME STRONG
Twenty years ago, Earl Simmons, DMX, was rap’s man in black. He made lines for tattoos, for the young, for the poor, for the angry, for the afflicted, for a game or a party or a fight or for staring at candles in a four-cornered room.
He released two albums, It’s Dark And Hell is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood that bookended 1998, coming out in February and December, respectively. …And Then There Was X came out in the last days of December 1999. This set of albums blasted opened space in chart topping rap for trauma, reflection, personal wounds, and a wild, Nietzschean will-to-power.
Remember the buzzing, two-fingers-on-a-Casio intro to “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and how it felt like a cable loosed from a battleship’s engine room was about to swing into your adrenal glands? Remember how DMX gives himself two voices—one cowed and one carnivorous—on “Stop Being Greedy” and alternates between the two, worrying and devouring and menacing and mourning, like the speaker of Andrew Marvell’s “A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body”? Remember how DMX swung his voice with violence, like the way Mephistopheles might use a chthonic belt sander to scour names out of the book of the living? Remember “Slippin’” and how easily he talked about his family and sense of perpetual defeat with swift end rhymes and repetition, “Damn, was it my fault, something I did / to make a father leave his first kid at seven doin’ my first bid?”
Those first three albums would eventually sell a combined fifteen million copies at the peak of brick-and-motor retail and Clear Channel hegemony. Critically, DMX’s minigun cadence and mastery of monosyllables made the ‘clean’ radio versions as furious as the explicit originals. Beyond commercial success, DMX also scared the daylights out of the other rappers of his day. Swizz Beatz, who started producing DMX as a teenager, described the piercing, dangerous urgency of his sound and DMX’s ethos, and how it cut through the happy haze of late ‘90s conspicuous consumption rap: “We wasn’t accepted. People were scared of us.” Irv Gotti tells a story in which police and fire marshals shut down a DMX show in North Carolina and X, undeterred, jumped on top of a van, told the officials to fuck off, hectored the crowd with “they can’t stop us!” before turning the “stop!” into the hook of “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” as the crowd rolled like a deep ocean wave and the cops stared in awe.
The people who listened to DMX in the 90s—I’m one of them—are older now. Growing older, learning over and over that life doles out horror unequally, learning that rage is a often self-defense mechanism, learning that there are a few versions of “you” (“’Cause you know, I can either spread love or shed blood”), I know now that DMX’s art hails from a potent place, the spot where biography and performance, realism and theater, sink their hooks into each other. If you wanted to, you might even say that the Grand Guignol violence and Opus Dei self-flagellation in DMX comes from a similar place as, for instance, Sylvia Plath’s use of Holocaust imagery in her poetry (“An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew”). Sometimes the performance requires the horror.
If you’re reading this, you might know the shorthand of DMX’s life. If not, DMX recalls his childhood, adolescence and the years leading up to the release of It’s Dark and Hell is Hot in E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX, which was published in 2002. If you’re interested in how Earl Simmons became DMX, I highly recommend it.
Earl Simmons was born to a Jehovah’s Witness mother and a father who abandoned them while Earl was a child. Abuse, he tells us, was a daily constant, both from his mother and from various men who came into the household. He was sexually assaulted by a woman at 14, found safety in raising street dogs, robbed people for excitement and for money, starting rapping and singing for his friends in juvenile institutions, and took his name both from DMC—rap’s original muscular shouter—and from the DMX drum machine. He grew up in Yonkers, close enough to the city to dip in and out of clubs and rapping contests, but far enough away to be an outsider. He had spent in time in juvenile hall before he left primary school. That would not be Earl Simmons’s last time in the system.
Since 2000, he’s been arrested and charged over a dozen times for crimes like drug possession, reckless driving, and animal cruelty in various states. He has struggled with an opioid addiction and was sent to a mental health unit in an Arizona prison, on judge’s orders, at the end of 2010. Currently, he’s in Federal prison after being convicted for tax evasion in 2018. He and his legal team played “Slippin’” for the judge at sentencing. Judge Jed S. Rakoff was not unmoved. From The New York Times, “‘in the court’s view Mr. Simmons is a good man, a very far from perfect man,’ Judge Rakoff said. ‘In many ways he is, to give the cliché, his own worst enemy.’”
Finishing DMX’s autobiography, you too might see him through a new perspective. Right-this-minute social concerns ripple through the book. His life reminds you of the failures of the social safety net in black communities, the school-to-prison pipeline, mental illness, the power of arts education on the young and poor—the episode in his autobiography in which a community center counselor encourages his imitations of Slick Rick and impromptu rapping is maybe the book’s most affecting—angry young men, gentrification, addiction, self-harm, autofiction.
Some artists describe things; others have the rare gift to let their work embody something. This essay isn’t about me, but I’m still trying to track down how DMX’s music became a part of me. I’m white. I grew up comfortable and healthy, the doted-upon only child of academics. When I was falling in love with rap in the late 90s, I wondered how to read DMX’s lyrics. He stunned me into silence, so consuming was his effect. Nas, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot—DMX’s contemporaries were easier to parse for me then. I could go over lines and hear the network of metaphors and inflections and themes. DMX affixed me to my chair with grief and then made we want to transform into a werewolf.
My mother, a therapist, started her career in a VA hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. An important, bold line stands between therapists and their home life. “Mom, how was work,” summons a professionally vague answer. Only later, in middle school, about the time that I was listening to DMX, did I understand what my mother did, exactly. I then understood that the beginning of her career was different, that she was in place filled with people, almost all men, who had paid a cost. They had been soldiers. They had fired rifles into other boys in the middle of the jungle. They watched boys their own age die in horrible circumstances, little of their old life but maybe their name stitched onto the uniform. Maybe. My mother is well acquainted with the night.
My father is an epidemiologist who has worked to prevent the some of the poorest people on earth from dying from extremely treatable parasites. I’ve understood my whole conscious life that every single second of every single day infants die from maladies that might be resolved by a pill or fifteen-minute clinic visit.
The woman who helped raised me—somewhere between a baby sitter and a full-time nanny—married into the mob. Her name was Terry. The only time she was ever late to work was when the FBI raided her saltbox house in Pawtucket. Unbeknownst to her, her stepson had hidden two bricks of cocaine under her couch. Her husband, a bagman for someone on Federal Hill (if you know, you know!), was one of the kindest men I’ve met. When Hurricane Bob knocked out all the ATMs in Rhode Island, he leant my father money for an emergency and joked, “Don’t worry, I know where you live.”
Once, a little bit older, maybe eight, I snooped around their house while Terry smoked a Benson & Hedges outside. Their closet had more cashmere than I had ever seen in my life. And in the back, on a little shelf behind all the sweaters, sat a worn pair of brass knuckles.
Like other energetic, curious white boys, I had fallen in love with rap. Of course there was level of voyeurism, a kind of race-craft that’s always run through white audiences and black music—to say otherwise feels like a lie. But with DMX it was even more complicated. I would want to be Nelly, would want to be Jay-Z. Who wouldn’t? I didn’t want to be DMX. Who would?
But DMX didn’t make documentaries. The gift of a persona—the mask that one can slip on to help make art—often gets dismissed by white audiences when a black artist wields it. It’s an everyday burden that white audiences put on black artists: it’s all facts, right? Give us your pure suffering. Give us your whole self.
The poet Phillip B. Williams recently wrote a set of essays about the poet Ai. Ai, a mixed-race woman who died in 2010, is best known for her the dramatic monologues. Her monologues pushed the form toward unrepeatable horizons. She wrote poems using the masks of the murdered, of corrupt police officers, of abused children, of survivors of genocide, of predators and of victims and of witnesses. Here’s Ai, in her poem “Motherhood, 1951,” in which the speaker, a girl trapped in a poor violent house on the prairie, kills a rattlesnake, deals with her mother’s anger, and reflects on the mystery of violence:
I saw a tiny bunch of eggs spill out of her
And realized she was an expectant mother too
And simply wanted a drink to soothe herself
One desert afternoon
When mothers must decide to save
Or execute their children.
Williams argues that it’s the elemental techniques in Ai’s poetry that anchor her poems, specifically anaphora, the repetition of the beginnings of sentences or clauses. Think of the Book of Ecclesiastes, think of a good political speech, or recall a rapper chanting, “All I know is pain / All I feel is rain.” Williams also emphasizes Ai’s “construction of a historical background against which the speaker giving the monologue may stand in relief. By historical, I mean everything within the lifespan of the speaker that may have affected the speaker’s personality.” Sound like anyone else?
Ai’s early reviews were extremely negative. Kirkus assessed her first volume Cruelty as, “a morbid, depressing book, whose anguish seems too artfully sustained to be entirely credible.” The same slights are not typically leveled against white poets who’ve made similar art. For much of the Phish-loving set around me in posh late ‘90s Rhode Island, that same Kirkus quote would likely have summarized their feelings toward X.
Ai won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1999, ten years before her death. Her legacy is secure. I put Ai and DMX next to each other not to tie rap to poetry in that reheated way that people who love both can do, but to make a case for the humanity of darkness, the humanity of surviving storms and then embodying the storms with artifice for audiences who haven’t made the journey. Maybe it’s the curse of artistic darkness that as potently as it hits in the moment, its power can fade quickly. Who wants to relive suffering, especially as each new day brings new registers of pain?
So maybe this remembrance of DMX’s music on the anniversary of when he was a meteor of energy and pain striking the core of American music doesn’t need anything more from me. I don’t need to tell you that in DMX’s unblinking approach to death, I hear the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “Let him go ahead /Ares is a democrat. / There are no privileged people / On a battlefield.” (tr. Guy Davenport). I don’t need to remind you that the Bible treats violence with as much linguistic refinement as it does grace, “He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet, and setteth me upon my high places. He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms. Thou hast also given me the shield of thy salvation: and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great,” (Psalm 18: 33-35).
Maybe the ‘sad rap’ era we’re in—the flat-affect Sound Cloud anesthesia rap made by tweens [cue 34-year-old man yelling at cloud] who confuse face tattoos with life experience—will crack open, and anger and grief and the will to survive might flow. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s only DMX who can do it.
What I can tell you is that when “What’s My Name” hits me in the right moment—when I think about those older kids who shoved my toddler on the playground last week; when I believe that if I do not lift this barbell at my feet I will revert to my scared, skeletal 12 year-old self—I’ll start to fill with electricity and shake like the Winter Soldier. The music is there, as performed and real and terrifying and revivifying as ever. Maybe I don’t need to say anymore. Maybe you can just listen to DMX, listen to all of it, and feel what’s made some of us lose our mind for twenty years. And maybe he can make you lose yours too, from far away, one time.