DMX – real name Earl Simmons – fronted one of hip-hop’s most prolific record labels, Ruff Ryders, on his road to enormous success. The Yonkers artist found fame in the ‘90s and ‘00s with his unmistakable, hoarse vocals – which have audibly inspired the current crop of rappers such as Denzel Curry and Ski Mask the Slump God – and Simmons’ sheer musical star power made him the hottest star at Def Jam in his era, surpassing even Jay-Z (who had a bubbling fanbase, but nothing like DMX’s).
After he gained five Number One albums in a row – from 1998’s classic ‘It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot’ to 2003’s superlative ‘Grand Champ’, a feat still still not achieved by another rapper to this day — and shaped hip-hop forever, the artist has tragically died at the age of 50. Here, we toast 10 of his best songs, which proved him an enduring and hugely influential all-time great.
‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’ (1998)
‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’ should be the first song you think of when you hear the name DMX. This adrenaline-fuelled ‘It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot’ track takes you back to the golden age of MTV, a time defined by highly produced, strobing ’00s music videos of the such as the one that accompanies this classic. Surprisingly, X originally didn’t rate the Swizz Beats-produced track, dismissing it as “rock’n’roll” and insisting “it’s not hood enough”. He came round in the end, though, and we’re all richer for it.
Most DMX lyric: The iconic “Stop, drop, shut ’em down, open up shop / Oh, no, that’s how Ruff Ryders roll”.
‘Party Up (Up In Here)’ (1999)
Moshpits and rap go in hand nowadays, and ‘Party Up’ was one of the original ‘pit anthems. This sound was also crafted by Beatz, one of hip hop’s most iconic Renaissance men, and the result will always go down as one of the best hip-hop party tracks ever. Its huge chorus will be familiar not only to those aren’t fans of DMX, but even those who don’t consider themselves hip-hop fans – this is a true crossover smash and a sign of Simmons’ enduring appeal.
Most DMX lyric: “Your old man say you stupid, you be like, ‘So? / I love my baby mother; I never let her go’”
‘X Gon’ Give it To Ya’ (2003)
This is such a pick-me-up when you need an energy boost. If ‘Party Up…’ is the perfect party track and ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’ is the perfect gangster track, then ‘X Gon’ Give It To You’ is the perfect in-between. The marching instrumental is slightly less dynamic than those of the aforementioned songs, but the blare of fanfare does course with the aggression inherent on almost any DMX track. Simmons’ punchy known flow will demand that jerk your head to this track. Ending his five-year reign at the top of the charts, ‘Grand Champ’ was the album that solidified DMX as the icon that he is today and will always be.
Most DMX lyric: “I face the world like it’s Earl in the bullpen / You’re against me, me against you”
‘Dogs For Life’ (1998)
An underrated ‘Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood’ track, ‘Dogs For Life’ is one we definitely don’t talk about enough. Relaying the same narrative as crime drama Belly (the movie that provided Simmons, also an accomplished actor, with his film debut), it’s quintessentially DMX. Addressing loyalty and alliance for safety on the streets, the track has that cruising feel of West Coast rap, while still retaining the greasiness that New York and fellow East Coasters are known for. DMX’s blunt and simple delivery shines bright through this brighter sound, and it’s a shame that not many know of this side of him.
Most DMX lyric: “Most n*ggas make movies, but n*ggas like us make it happen”
‘What’s My Name?’ (1999)
Murder Inc Records’ co-founder Irv Gotti, who co-produced this pounding track, plays a monotonous chord three times every four counts throughout its duration. When not done right, this can be a cheesy and repetitive device – but not in DMX’s hands. Perhaps through his sheer force of conviction, he drives the song home, chanting his moniker over and over again, insisting that take up and notice of a rap great in ascendence. Sure enough, ‘What’s My Name’ became the fifth Billboard Hot 100 entry of his career.
Most DMX lyric: “Runnin’ around yappin’ about they be holdin figgas as big as Jigga’s / That’s that bullshit”.
‘Boy Back Up’ (feat. Mobb Deep) (2010)
Before this tune, DMX had been cruising over greasy, heavy beats that instantly get you in that krumping mood straight. However, on ‘Boy Back Up’, DMX goes down more of a Dipset route. Reliant on menacing strings and eerie triangle chimes, the production is softer, DMX not delivering his signature gruff, almost onomatopoeic flow, but spitting more traditionally alongside Mobb Deep. An overlooked gem in DMX’s discography.
Most DMX lyric: “I ain’t a sucker – boy back up”.
‘What These Bitches Want’ (1999)
The current generation will know this track, assisted by thong lover Sisqó, from the TikTok challenge where you show yourself in different wigs, looks, or showing off your faves in your closet as if you were the “Brenda, LaTisha, Linda and Felicia” mentioned in its lyrics. A bop that has spanned generations, ‘What These Bitches Want’ is another example of Simmons’ great gift for party track. More melodic than most of his other stuff, due to Sisqo’s beautiful crooning, this is the tune to round off the dance that ‘Party Up’ started.
Most DMX lyric: “You thinkin’ life, I’m thinkin’ more like, ‘What’s up tonight?’ / Come on, ma – you know I got a wife”.
‘Blackout’ (feat. Jay-Z and The Lox) (1998)
It wouldn’t be right if Yonkers’ DMX didn’t do something with an artist or two from P.Diddy’s Bad Boy stable, one of the most notable New York labels ever. In comes The LOX, a group comprised of Yonkers’ Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sleek Louch, who were signed to Bad Boy before jumping ship Ruff Ryders in 2000. Just when you thought ‘Blackout’ couldn’t become more New York, the smooth-talking, Rocafella big shot Jay-Z – then in his prime – also lays a verse on this track. The sheer lyrical Olympics on this track – as the rappers battle it out to see who’s the hardest – is nothing short of breathtaking.
Most DMX lyric: “You want it with the dog? / Get a gun, let him shoot”
The LOX, ‘Money, Power, Respect’ (feat. Lil Kim and DMX) (1998)
No, it wasn’t released on one of DMX’s Number One albums, but ‘Money, Power, Respect’ is still an amazing addition to his catalogue. New York’s Queen bee Lil Kim and then-soon-to-be Ruff Ryders The LOX also lay verses on the track – and the subject matter, which is all about gaining power, suits him so well. DMX’s brand has always been about being top dog, so it’s thrilling to hear him bark alongside gangster rappers on what’s arguably his best collaborative verse.
Most DMX lyric: “This is a beat that I can freak to – just drop the reals.”
‘A Minute For Your Son’ (2001)
This 17-minute long track sees DMX enlist the roster of Ruff Ryders’ new combative freshmen, from Loose to Big Stan, as he reveals his more vulnerable side, sharing a prayer to God over a gorgeously atmospheric instrumental from – you guessed it – production juggernaut Swizz Beatz. Given that X was renowned for his hyped-up fight music, it’s always startling and moving to hear him open with a line that laid him as bare as “You got a minute for your son, Father?”
Most DMX lyric: “Uh I never knew a love like this before / Messin’ with the thug life – I missed it all”