DMX performing in 2017 (Credit: John Lamparski/FilmMagic)
It’s 1997. I won’t be born until November 8th. The Clinton years, musically at least, have largely been defined by grunge and rap. I tend to favor the latter, but that’s just me. For most of its young life, hip-hop has been highly regionalized and coastally concentrated. If you lived West of the Mississippi, chances are you’ve spent most of your time listening to NWA, the solo careers that came from it, and their associated acts. East of the Mississippi, you’ve been able to enjoy much of what consists of the rap canon up to this point: Rakim, Tribe, Wu Tang. Then Biggie and Pac happen, MTV comes circling, and rap is national. They don’t live to see 26, but what they’ve done for the genre, barely 20 years old now, is unquantifiable.
It’s 1998. I don’t have a hippocampus. In a year that sees the release of It Was Written,The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Aquemini, and The Life and Times of Sean Carter: Vol. II, the 2Pac-and-Biggie sized hole is being filled by none of the artists who made those records. Instead, a labelmate of Jay-Z, who also didn’t breakout until his late 20s, is. This year, that artist has released two Number 1, platinum records. That artist is DMX, and in perhaps the greatest year in hip-hop history, he is the biggest star in the world. He is the first modern rap superstar, with national reach, crossover appeal, and multi-genre influence. This is evident in both of his ‘98 projects: It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Both records are overflowing with energy, largely consisting of chantable, call-and-response, borderline gospel lyrics and song structures, tailormade to be performed in stadiums. Not only is X rap’s first modern star; he is its first true superstar.
It’s 2003. I am in first grade. I don’t know much music; I am five-going-on-six, and my parents listen to a lot of NPR. That being said, I do know ‘Party Up,’ and ‘Where The Hood At’ by heart, the clean versions, at least. Considering The Black Album and Get Rich or Die Trying both came out this year and dominated radio, this is kind of a big deal. It is the end of DMX’s classic period, but he has made a tangible impression on three generations of rap fans.
DMX performing in 2016: (Photo by Kevin Winter)
For most of my life, DMX has been perceived culturally as something like hip-hop’s Amy Winehouse or Kurt Cobain: a prodigious talent with massive relevance and appeal, largely discussed in the context of addiction. Unlike WInehouse or Cobain, DMX is Black. He is a crackhead, not a sympathetic figure battling demons. Hip-hop music and culture is inextricably linked to the War on Drugs. It’s origins are rooted in rebuking the conservative culture of the Reagan and H. Dubya years, and to this point the story of rap has been that of inner cities ravaged by their policies. These storytellers have overwhelmingly represented one side of this narrative, that of the dope boy. Fiends have been framed by the Eazy-E’s, Jay-Z’s and Clipse’s of the game. Though his struggles with addiction are not a lyrical hallmark of DMX, they are an integral part of his character, his mythology. DMX is the first victim —in the traditional understanding of the term— of the War on Drugs to hold rap’s grand microphone. Some 20 years after his break through, addiction, pain and perseverance will become lyrical mainstays of rap’s current superstars: for as much as Future and Carti rap about serving base, they rap about the hold prescription drugs have on their personhood and artistry.
Our tendency to give our most treasured artists their flowers when they can’t smell them is troubling. That’s not to say I’m exempt; I wasn’t exactly inspired to write about DMX before his passing. But what our collective reflection in grieving has revealed to me is just how impactful and far reaching his career was, despite his relatively short artistic ‘peak.’ Critically revisiting his five classic-level records has been eye opening in a way that only the uninitiated can experience. The sound and style he cultivated is so readily apparent in my generation’s superstars: the a-regional sound, the hi-hat and bass patterns he favored, and the high energy showmanship and performance he brought to every track is what defines a great Young Thug or Kendrick Lamar song. All this being said, it would be disingenuous to even consider X of more import to my personal hip-hop experience than either Thug or Kendrick. But it’s instantly noticeable how embedded he is into the artistry I gravitate to, the artistry our culture has deemed most valuable today.
In the days following his passing and while researching for this piece, I’ve spent most of my time coming back to Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. My favorite thing about being 23 and fancying myself a hip-hop historian is listening to music from before I was born or barely sentient and being blown away by how new or timeless it sounds. The cool thing about rap, part of what makes it the greatest American music genre, is how frequently this happens. Few albums have clicked the way FOMFBOMB did for me.
The first time I heard Low End Theory,The Chronic, and the aforementioned Aquemini are the only experiences that really come close to it. In listening to this album for real for the first time, I hear much of what I bump and love today. The punky song structures on ‘My Niggas,’ ‘Ain’t No Way,’ and so many of X’s anthems –’Party Up’ and ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’ were both mainstays of my high school basketball layup-line playlists, admittedly not the one’s I curated— are what have made DS2, Rodeo and Die Lit contemporary classics, the music I’ma play for my nephew the same way my cousins put me on to All Eyez On Me.
Perhaps greater than any of his myriad sonic innovations is what X did for cultivating and perfecting the rapper persona. Rap is so dictated by character and portrayal; all great rappers are larger than life, so much so that you listen to them for performance more than anything. Though most of X’s omnipresent era came during the nadir of traditional media and the old music industry, the rawness he brought to both his music and his superstardom is so profoundly foundational to what we expect from our stars now. In a genre so concerned with authenticity–or the perception of it–DMX was perhaps the most authentic character we have ever had the pleasure of seeing. This was a man acutely aware of how hard life can be for poor, Black folks, of how painful and deep addiction and trauma can run, that he rapped every word as if it was his last. He led prayers before concerts and proudly sported a bible verse tattooed across his neck. He always told the truth, even if that truth was so ugly we preferred to pity it rather than appreciate how indebted his greatness was to that honesty.
In a year so defined by loss, the weight of writing eulogies has grown ever heavier. This isn’t the first time we’ve had to do it, this isn’t the last time we’ll have to do it: Niggas be dying. It’s difficult to eulogize DMX, not only because of his titanic status, but because he is so detached from the life I’ve lived. As a student of the genre, I am highly aware of what he means and who he is, but it’s just as much speculation and imagination as it is tangible, researched knowledge. This epistemology of X, of hip-hop and particularly of death, is burdensome. Still, I would not trade the experience of discovering X, discovering hip-hop before me, for the lifting of that burden.
In our current media climate, where honesty and transparency are more ideological than moral, there will almost certainly never be another DMX. I wish I could’ve understood how big this was when he was at his highest peak. I was too young. I cannot properly articulate how grateful I am that I can see it now. I am saddened that DMX is dead, for more reasons than what he means to hip-hop. I am so happy that I have had the opportunity to get it, no matter how ashamed I am that it took his passing to do so. I take solace in my faith that he feels no more pain, and my belief that he can feel our joy and appreciation. DMX deserved adulation. More than that, he deserved peace. I’m sure he has it now.
(Photo by Jonathan Mannion)