DMX crashed the platinum-coated party that was late-‘90s hip-hop and reminded fans that grit has always defined this genre and culture more than gloss. He represented realness inasmuch as any star with major label marketing behind him can represent the “real,” and he was a welcome counter to the Sting samples, multimillion-dollar videos and No Limit tanks that were defining the times. DMX’s debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, even 20 years later, is a grueling but compelling classic. And the pain and pathos behind the man who created it looks even more traumatic now than it did when he was the hottest new emcee in the game.
Everybody knows the basics: 1997 was the year of shiny-suit dominance via sparkly videos from Puffy and Ma$e; the rapper born Earl Simmons growled his way through the dancey-flossin’ anthems to reassert hardcore hip-hop in the mainstream.
Despite X’s legacy and how unique he seemed in 1998, hip-hop was only a couple of years removed from its darkest period. Mainstream rap of the 1990s was heavy on nihilism and fatalism—there was no shortage of “Ready to Die” or “Murder Was the Case”-style grimness.
An asthmatic, sickly childhood set young Earl back, as did the poverty his mother Arnett grappled with as she lived with her son in The Rover, a low-income apartment complex in Yonkers, New York. Earl and his mother’s relationship has been the subject of so much conversation surrounding X; she had him institutionalized as a kid, and there has always been strain between them. During an appearance on Iyanla Vanzant’s Fix My Life therapy show back in 2013, X talked about that pained history.
“I mean, everybody wants their mother to want them,” he explained. “In one breath, I’d be mama’s little man, a man of the house. In the next breath… ‘You ain’t gonna be shit.’ Who am I? Who am I, Mom?”
Who he was may not have been apparent to young Earl, but he would eventually find himself as a tough battle rapper around Yonkers. But that took time. He would be a child of the system, fueled by the rage he’d felt at his mother and at authority at the New York’s Children’s Village group home where he would spend so much of his youth. Ruff Ryders founder Joaquin “Waah” Dean discovered X in the late 1980s; he was featured in The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” column in 1991. But throughout all of that, X was living on the edge.
In his teens, X became a notorious stick-up kid and reveled in that notoriety. The I-don’t-give-a-fuck spirit throughout It’s Dark is forged in DMX’s bleak outlook as a young man. If he wanted it, he took it. The Dame Grease-produced “Stop Being Greedy,” a sweeping epic of an anthem that details X’s hunger for the come-up, sounds born of his days being devious on the block:
“When the sun is up, the gun is up on the shelf / And all the runners up are thankin’ me for their health / Hopin’ that they not around when it gets dark outside / When the sun’s goin’ down, you hear the bark outside…”
“I robbed niggas,” DMX recalled to Rolling Stone in 2000. “I’m not ashamed of that. That’s my shit. Robbery. I’m not a hustler. I’ve tried it. That’s not me. I’d rather do the stick-up shit. But what got me over was, I had a rep in Yonkers. Niggas knew DMX would get ya. And I’d be straight-up robbin’ niggas no mask or nothin’. Half of my weapon was my face. I’d just walk up to niggas and be like, ‘Yo, lemme get that.’ I wasn’t the biggest nigga in the world. I couldn’t beat everybody, but dawg, my rep superseded me.”
That’s not unlike how DMX’s music career took off. After stints in and out of prison, X reconnected with old friend Irv Gotti, then an A&R for Def Jam Records, who pushed the rapper to label head Lyor Cohen. X was signed after a legendary impromptu performance for Cohen that featured X rapping with his jaw wired shut. As the legend goes, X’s jaw had been broken in a brawl but he wound up rhyming so intensely in this performance, he popped the wires. Def Jam scooped him up and it set DMX on the fast track to major stardom. Even before It’s Dark hit shelves in May 1998, X had become the most notorious scene-stealer in the game. He’d appeared on LL Cool J’s “4,3,2,1,” Bad Boy superstar Ma$e’s “24 Hrs to Live” and “Money, Power, Respect” by the LOX. It all ramped up anticipation for the gruff rapper with the puppy fixation to drop his debut.
Sheek Louch of the LOX appeared on another smash from Dame Grease: X’s pumping “Get At Me Dog.” Released as a single in early 1998, it announced X as a standout star. The production sounded like Public Enemy-meets-mosh pit and the video featured grainy black-and-white footage of X in a cavernous warehouse performing for a crowd. No frills, no fluff—this was a new kind of mainstream star. And he wasn’t shiny. Follow-up singles like “Stop Being Greedy” and “Ruff Ryders Anthem” cemented X in the upper echelon and made him the biggest rapper of 1998. It would eventually sell 4 million copies, and while it didn’t exactly erase glossy rap from the airwaves, it assured that grimier sounds would have a place there, as well. There hadn’t been a popular hip-hop album this unflinchingly bleak since the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die four years earlier.
The narrative presented on It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is still harrowing and intense, 20 years later. X delved into the darkest corners of his psyche—echoing predecessors from Scarface to Biggie—and his emotional conflict became the defining characteristic of his music. Even with the chest-thumping machismo of hits like “Get At Me Dog” and the latter chart-topper “Party Up,” X was always at his most potent when he was at his most revealing. And he’s undeniably revelatory throughout his classic debut album.
The pain in DMX’s art also reveals a brutality. His rage and wounded spirit too often point at the most vulnerable in the fictional world he creates. A hateful tale of revenge, the story-rap “X Is Coming” infamously features the rapper cast as murderous deviant—hell-bent on destroying an enemy’s spirit, to the point of raping his teenage daughter. It’s macabre and unsettling, and another example of how vengeful men—even in fiction—run to the brutalization of women to assert power and dominance. Given X’s complex and troubled history, it’s not strange to assume his contempt for his mother was manifest in some of the album’s most misogynistic moments. Men can use their mothers or their first love or any number of stand-ins on which to project their contempt for womanhood, it doesn’t explain away the kind of consistent disdain that informs even this kind of engrossing art.
We’ve seen how DMX’s story has gone. It makes all of his greatest music feel more hopeless and bitter than it seemed back then. It was always disturbing, but there seemed to be a sense that X believed he could bulldoze through his hurt with sheer force and fury. His childhood damage (“My first sexual encounter was with a relative from down South. Not really a relative, but a relative's wife. I was twelve,” he told Rolling Stone in 2000) was palpable in the music, but now it lives as a ravenous beast that he’s never bested.