DMX, 1970 – 2021: hip-hop giant who shone brightest in the darkness

The Ruff Ryders rapper, known for his high energy anthems and heartfelt sermons, has died in New York at 50. RIP

DMX, the Ruff Ryders rapper and hip-hop juggernaut, has died in New York at the age of 50. Known for his explosive anthems and deeply introspective raps, he spearheaded a hardcore rap resurgence in the late ‘90s, through records such as ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’ and ‘Get At Me Dog’, before going on to solidify himself as one of hip-hop’s true greats.

Born Earl Simmons in Mount Vernon, New York on December 18, 1970, he was the first and only child of Arnett Simmons and Joe Barker. He had a half-sister, Bonita, but after DMX was abandoned by his father as a baby, he and Arnett were forced to live in a home for single mothers, while Bonita was taken care of by his aunt.

Growing up, DMX’s home life wasn’t easy. His mother struggled to raise him, ill-equipped to handle a smart but mischievous child with chronic asthma who quickly became a problematic teen with a penchant for trouble. From there, X found himself in and out of group homes and juvenile detention centres, arrested for stealing and carjacking, all before the age of 18.

But as much as he found himself in darkness, beaten by his mother and downtrodden by a lack of opportunities and his distrust for the world around him, his passion for rapping gave him solace and a hope that he could weather the storm and escape the madness of his upbringing. It was at this point that he discovered a love of stray dogs, which provided a form of protection and strength for him. This lifelong companionship inspired his trademark dog barks in his raps.

DMX performs live in 2019. CREDIT: Credit: Adam Bielawski/

DMX (an acronym for Dark Man X) began his foray into music around the mid-‘80s, as a beatboxer and DJ. He later started writing his own raps and performing them at local youth clubs for younger kids. After a stint in prison in 1988, he began taking rap more seriously, spending most of his free time writing lyrics and battling other rappers on the streets. In 1991, he caught the attention of rap magazine The Source, which featured him in its Unsigned Hype column – the same column that has featured The Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, Common and Eminem.

Columbia Records subsidiary Ruffhouse signed DMX the following year and released his debut single, ‘Born Loser’. He put out another single in 1994, ‘Make a Move’, but was convicted of drug possession that same year, and wound up back in prison.

Upon his release, X began to rebuild his career. Having been released from Ruffhouse, he joined Ruff Ryders Entertainment, a management company and hip-hop clique – which also launched the careers of Eve, The LOX, Drag-On and Swizz Beatz. In 1997, he earned a second major label shot with hip-hop powerhouse Def Jam Records, which came after a fabled audition where X, who had suffered an injury following an altercation in the streets, rapped for label executive Lyor Cohen with his jaw wired shut.

“DMX gave me the inspiration to keep going at Def Jam when rap became soft and silly,” Cohen said in a statement following X’s death. Feeling the power and passion in his words and delivery, Cohen made X a top priority at Def Jam, kicking off one of the most famous runs in rap history.

Getting straight to work, he delivered an electrifying guest verse on LL Cool J’s ‘4, 3, 2, 1’. “Stay out the dark, ‘cause if I catch you when the sun is down / Run it clown, come up off that, or I’m gon’ gun it down”: his gruff, opening bars were chilling and signalled the emergence of a new type of artist – one who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, armed with an underground sound ready to take over the mainstream.

His arrival, which included a run of mind-blowing guest spots on tracks such as Ma$e’s ’24 Hours To Live’, The LOX’s ‘Money, Power & Respect’ and Onyx’s ‘Shut ‘Em Down’, led a resurgence for hardcore rap, which had taken a backseat to a more upbeat and almost pop-led sound (known as the ‘jiggy’ era), from Diddy’s disco samples to Master P’s diamond-encrusted rap.

He released his debut album in May 1998. ‘It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot’ exploded onto the scene like a fireball hitting the Earth; it was raw and haunting, the shot in the arm that rap needed, spawning the hits ‘Get At Me Dog’, ‘Stop Being Greedy’, and the classic, Swizz Beat-produced ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’. The album sold over four million copies in the US in just two years and topped the Billboard chart.

“X’s music triggered something in people, especially those in a dark place themselves”

Before the end of that same year, DMX released his second album, ‘Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood’, incentivised by a $1million bonus if he could get it recorded quickly. Def Jam pushed the record into stores in December in a bid to stop the label from going into bankruptcy – and it worked. The album, which features the powerful and self-motivational track ‘Slippin’’, followed its predecessor by debuting at Number One on Billboard, eventually going triple Platinum. It also marked the first time a rapper had released two Number One albums under the same name in less than a year.

It was evident that X’s music triggered something in people, especially those in a dark place themselves. Engulfed in pain and unbridled honesty – much like 2Pac’s music – it led a revolt, providing a cathartic relief for those who needed it. As he battled trials, tribulations and trauma, his faith in God never wavered, introducing his fans to his own belief system through street sermons and prayer. And they loved it.

The next decade would see DMX release a further five albums – three of which also debuted at Number One: ‘…And Then There Was X’ (1999), ‘The Great Depression’ (2001), and ‘Grand Champ’ (2003). He was also a talented actor, whose most notable roles came in 2000 action flick Romeo Must Die – in which he starred alongside Aaliyah and Jet Li – and the Hype Williams-directed, cult 1998 hip-hop film Belly.

Unfortunately, throughout all this success, X was never too far from controversy. He faced multiple arrests over the course of his career, with crimes ranging from resisting arrest, animal cruelty, tax evasion, reckless driving, unlicensed driving, drug possession and impersonating an FBI agent. He also fielded backlash for some of his controversial lyrics – none more so than on 2003’s ‘Where The Hood At?’, which features one of rap’s most blatant homophobic diatribes.

He also had a long history of battling substance abuse, which – as he revealed in his autobiography E.A.R.L. – began when he accidentally smoked a blunt laced with cocaine given to him by a friend at the age of 14. In the years following, he was in and out of prison for a variety of drug-related charges as he battled an addiction to cocaine.

In October, 2011, he claimed that he had finally conquered his drug addiction, saying he had “let the cocaine go” in order to help him be a better father to his children. “It was something that drew me in, and trapped me, and just had a hold on me for a long, long time,” X told Dr. Phil during an interview in 2013. DMX visited rehab several times. His last stint came in 2019, after cancelling a series of shows before checking himself in.

For every negative story about X, there was always a positive one. From buying pizza for all the local kids to meeting strangers on planes and inviting them to his shows, people have long spoken about the rapper’s kind heart and giving nature. He also loved being a father. For those closest to him, he was one of a kind who changed many lives. “You were one of the most special people I have ever met,” Eve wrote in a tribute post. “This world has lost a REAL ONE but the heavens have gained an ANGEL.”

Credit: Alamy

Going toe-to-toe with his demons right up until his last day, X continued to fight and was in the process of staging a victorious comeback. After being released from prison in January 2019, he embarked on a 20th anniversary tour for his debut album, and then put his focus into the proper follow-up to 2012’s ‘Undisputed’. Speaking on the Drink Champs podcast earlier this year, he confirmed the album would feature guest spots from the late Pop Smoke and some of the Griselda crew. He also revealed he had a collaboration with U2’s Bono called ‘Skyscrapers’.

DMX’s rags-to-riches story defined a generation while birthing a hip-hop superstar. He might have lived in the dark, but he once said that “to live is to suffer, but to survive, well, that’s to find the meaning in the suffering.” In that suffering he shone brightest.

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