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The DMX Syllabus

From ‘Belly’ to his early demos to his near-riot-inducing song intros, here’s a glimpse into what made Earl Simmons a singular talent

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DMX, the gravel-voiced MC who took over hip-hop in the late 1990s and early 2000s, died Friday at age 50. Our staff looks back at the songs, movie roles, and moments that made him such a special talent. To read our obituary and remembrance of his legacy, click here. For our Spotify playlist featuring the best of DMX, click here.


The Early Songs and Guest Verses

DMX’s earliest songs are stunning to listen to now. Not because they’re great—which they are—but because of how little they sound like the MC who would take over the world in the late ’90s.

In 1991, fresh out of prison, X would self-produce a demo that included songs like “Three Little Pigs” and “Unstoppable Force.” They feel fully formed—“Three Little Pigs” is especially fantastic, with a pounding beat and a cautionary tale about friends who betray each other over crime and money. But everything DMX would become known for—the barking, the aggression, the coarse voice—is absent. Rather, he sounds like someone who prayed at the altar of Rakim and LL Cool J. (To be fair, the same could be said of many rappers coming out of the late ’80s.)

The demo would land in The Source magazine’s legendary Unsigned Hype column a few months later, but it would take him seven more years to drop his solo debut. More songs would come and help him refine his style—1993’s “Born Loser” begins to build up his underdog story, while the next year’s “Make a Move” is the first time he truly sounds like the DMX of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. In 1995, he’d appear on Mic Geronimo’s “Time to Build” alongside Jay-Z and Ja Rule, both of whom were years away from blowing up themselves. (Tough break for Mic Geronimo, who was supposed to be the star of this song.)

By this point, X’s on-wax persona has mostly taken shape. Check out the lyrics:

I did too much dirt to turn back now
I’m the reason my lil’ sister smoking crack nowI’d feel guilty if I had a heart, but I don’t
Could live a carefree life if I stop killing, but I won’t
It’s in my blood to destroy mankind
With every murder, I lose a little more of my damn mind


The next time the world would hear DMX, he’d be signed to Def Jam and batting cleanup on classic posse cuts like “4, 3, 2, 1,” “Money, Power & Respect,” and “24 Hrs. to Live.” By that point, he truly was an unstoppable force. If you hadn’t been paying attention, you have thought he’d arrived fully formed, with a Ruff Ryders chain on his neck and a spiked bat in his hand. But the reality is much more gritty, as was typically the case with DMX. —Justin Sayles

The Damien Trilogy

“Ain’t a motherfucker you know can defeat me,” rapped DMX, as the Devil, to DMX, the mere mortal. Here was a one-man internal war to put every last piddling rap battle in history to shame. The three-round fight for DMX’s soul began nine tracks into his 1998 debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot: “Damien,” produced by Dame Grease and clearly inspired by the 1976 horror classic The Omen, is a lush horrorcore fable in which a spiritually lost X asks for a guardian angel and immediately encounters Damien, a mush-mouthed smooth-talker who promises X fame, fortune, and all it entails in exchange for … well, you’ll see. “Sounds good to me, fuck it, what I got to lose?” X reasons, and soon he’s reaping the benefits of killing at Damien’s command, only balking when he knows one of the victims. “Naw, that’s my man!” raps DMX the mere mortal; “I thought I was your man?” raps DMX as the Devil, his pitch-shifted voice already far more frightening than it was a few minutes earlier. And the clash of wills is on.

Part 2 hit immediately with late 1998’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood: “The Omen” subs in Swizz Beatz on production, brings in a groaning Marilyn Manson for the hook, slows the tempo to a doubly ominous grind, and ups the stakes: Let’s just say it begins with a shot X nearly dying in the hospital and ends with Damien blowing up a police station. Finally, on X’s fourth record, 2001’s The Great Depression, we get “Damien III”; the beat from P Killer Trackz is propulsive and seductive, Damien alternately aggrieved (“Didn’t get a shout-out on your last album / What, you hate me?”) and openly threatening (“Got a wife and kids?”) as DMX the mere mortal finally fully resists and vanquishes his enemy with a barked prayer: “LORD JESUS / PLEASE HELP ME / KEEP THE DEVIL / OUT OF MY LIFE.” All of which would be a little ridiculous if it didn’t sound so visceral, and unsettling, and sincere, and consequential. This trilogy of battles between DMX and his darkest natures was over, but not the war, never the war. —Rob Harvilla

“Sometimes,” i.e., It’s Mostly the Voice


What’s so startling about DMX? It’s not his stature. It’s not his demeanor. It’s not his songwriting. It’s not even the starkest headlines about him. It’s his voice. You’ll never unhear his wild barks and wounded groans. He rapped a lot of verses about robbing and killing people. But at his most fearsome, DMX lent his voice to prayers and confessions. He dared you to consider the profound disparity between the absolute power in his voice and the debilitating anxieties in his songwriting. He dominated the biggest beats of his generation. But his prayers and poetry preserve his voice a capella in this radical simplicity. There’s no hit-making to hide behind. Sometimes I wonder why I like to shout. There’s dread, but there’s power, and so there’s hope. It’s that simple. —Justin Charity

This Cypher From 1997 With Mos Def, Big Pun, Canibus, and More

For people who remember when cassette cases opened like cigarette packs, this is basically The Avengers. The full discussion this was pulled from offers some insight into the minds of rap icons at their creative apexes, but at least check out the cypher to see the reverence a table full of legends-in-the-making has for Big Pun, who tears through his “Dream Shatterer” verse and then goes on for what feels like a hundred more bars. (Side note: Remember John Forte?) —Sayles


The Intros

DMX never buries the lede. Of all the Yonkers rapper’s talents and standout moments—the voice as coarse as tree bark, the pitbull barking ad-libs, the motivational prayers, and the earthquake-inducing anthems—one of his most overlooked qualities is his ability to craft tension-building intros. The best songs in DMX’s discography are the equivalent of a human lawn mower revving up its engine.

The first sound listeners hear on the 2003 hit “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” is DMX contorting his voice into guttural dog barks and growls. From there, he yells at the world, “Yeah, don’t get it twisted / This rap shit is mine, motherfucker / It’s not a fuckin’ game.” For most rappers, that line would be one hyperbolic line of many, but from DMX, it feels like a proclamation etched in stone.

On 1999’s “What’s My Name,” DMX ponders to no one in particular, “You think it’s a game? / You think it’s a fuckin’ game?” If you haven’t yet noticed, DMX was always preoccupied with who did and didn’t view a myriad of things as “a game.” But X even makes an impression when he introduces himself uncharacteristically, like on the first song on his 1998 debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. Instead of barking, he whispers. Backed by apocalyptic Irv Gotti and Lil Rob production, DMX says:

Told y’all niggas
You just don’t listen
Why must you be hardheaded?
Tried to explain
But you didn’t hear me, though

Then immediately, he settles into the once-in-a-generation voice that would go on to dominate the world. Dark Man X had spent so long going unheard that he learned the art of making an unforgettable entrance. —Charles Holmes

Beef With K-Solo

Did you know DMX won spelling bees when he was younger? Did you know he also had beef with EPMD associate K-Solo over who first wrote a song that involved a lot of spelling? The full story of the feud can be found here, and it involves a friendly battle while both were incarcerated, but for now, let’s remember the early ’90s, when two guys could downright hate each other over a song called “Spellbound.” —Sayles


Prayer, Love, and “How’s It Goin’ Down”

Immediately after DMX’s death was announced on Friday, I scoured the internet for videos of him praying. Though I’m not necessarily a churchgoer, I was always captivated whenever the rapper would break out his own scripture. I had to hear the passion, the pain, the reverence, and more than anything, his self-reflection. After a few minutes, I found one of his appearances on Oh! Drama, an early-2000s BET show. In the nearly two-minute clip, X thanks God for the love he’s given the rapper, even when the rapper didn’t deserve it.

“First, I thank you for the life of everyone that’s here with me, then I thank you for the love you give me,” he says. “Why? I don’t know. I don’t deserve it and it hurts inside. Many a nights I cried and called your name out loud, but didn’t call you when I was doing good, too proud.”

The same could be said for X’s relationship with anyone close to him. He wanted to love—craved it even—but didn’t know how to keep it. His quest for it can be traced to his teenage years, when his mentor Ready Ron laced his marijuana blunt with crack, starting the drug addiction he dealt with for the rest of his days; the person he had the most reverence for derailed his life forever. His complications with love also manifested itself in his relationships with women. He had 15 kids by nine different women, most while being married to his long-term partner, Tashera Simmons. The two childhood friends married in 1999, but throughout their relationship they were prone to serious verbal altercations as a result of his cheating and drug use. Even with the cheating, arguing, and him cutting her off financially to the point she lived in poverty despite his lucrative talent, he frequently told her she was the one for him.

“He was like, ‘I can’t meet one woman that’s not threatened by you,’” Tashera said in a 2012 interview. “And then I was like, ‘And why do you think that is?’ He was like, ‘Because they know, I know. They know where my heart is.’”

X was always searching for elusive validation, and he even put the love chase on “How’s It Goin’ Down.” The single from his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, details a fictional relationship between the rapper and “Tenika,” a young lady from 25th Street who wears a Size 7 shoe and has two kids. She’s also in an abusive relationship. X courts her, and they eventually consummate a sexual relationship, which her boyfriend finds out about. X purports himself as someone with good intentions who can offer a better life. But the scenario brings questions like “Why pursue love with a woman in a relationship?” or “What’s the end game here?” X’s pursuit of love doesn’t ever seem to have an end game. He just wants it unconditionally, even if he doesn’t know what to do with it. By the end of the track, Tenika picks the abuser, leaving X to settle for “best of friends” status. Even in the fictional world he created, X can’t get the love he yearns for, which makes his prayer on Oh Drama! all the more palpable. —Logan Murdock

This Unreleased Song From Swizz Beatz’s 2017 Battle With Just Blaze

Swizz, I know you released a stripped-down take on this with X and Rick Ross in 2019, but I am pleading with you, please drop the full, original, CDQ version ASAP. —Sayles

The Top Five Cameo

We understood DMX, as far as we could, as a tragic antihero. A nomad, an attack dog, a known unknown. But beneath the pain and mystique he was also uncannily charming—we’ve all watched him have a small nervous breakdown while attempting to use Google for the first time, and no one else living or dead could’ve taken a boring standard like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and made it that hot using nothing but gruff charisma and a flat surface to drum on. But what I’ve been thinking most about these last few days is DMX’s cameo in Chris Rock’s Top Five: The famous stand-up comedian has become a famous corporate shill and is disconnected from himself, his craft, and most of the people who are important in his life. He finds DMX at his lowest point, in the drunk tank, and X gets Chris Rock’s life back on track through song.

It’s hilarious and heartwarming and now a little sad to hear DMX sing “Smile”—you’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just SMILLLEEEE, MOTHERFUCKERRRR—the way it can be when you see someone helping and healing when they seem to be in need of that themselves. Even if it is just a movie. —Micah Peters


Belly

Hype Williams has a reasonable case as the most influential music video director ever. By the late ’90s he was at his artistic peak, as his clips for Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, and Biggie dominated MTV’s and BET’s rotations and introduced millions to his trademark style of larger-than-life images, futuristic fever dreams, and fish-eye lenses. And Artisan Entertainment wanted to capitalize on his popularity: In 1998, the company gave him a $3 million budget for his debut feature film, Belly. It’s considered a cult (and hood) classic today. But at the time, it was ravaged by critics. It would be Williams’s only full-length movie.

Belly is visually beautiful, and often surreal. (Nas and Wee-Bey watch Gummo?!) But it had a litany of problems, ranging from financial (Williams blew much of his budget on the film’s stunning opening sequence) to plotting (its settings jump from Queens to Omaha to Jamaica to Africa, all of which require equally large jumps in logic). Much of the acting is particularly concerning—you almost gotta feel for Nas. But there was one extremely bright spot in the cast: DMX, who plays Tommy “Buns” Bundy—a spiritual successor to Goodfellas’ Tommy DeVito and Juice’s Bishop, if either were capable of salvation.

By the time Belly was released in November 1998, DMX would be a star, as his first album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot debuted at no. 1 the previous may and he prepped its hotly anticipated follow-up, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. But when the movie was cast, he was a virtual nobody—just another guy on Def Jam’s roster. (He may as well have been Jayo Felony in terms of stature.) It’s apparent the moment we see X on screen, however, as to why Williams took a chance on the upstart: He’s alternately charming and brooding, bringing the same good-vs.-evil pathos of his music to the role. (It also doesn’t hurt that he was willing to don a Rasta wig for the Jamaica scenes.)

DMX would land a handful of starring roles in movies like Exit Wounds and Romeo Must Die over the next few years, as he conquered the Billboard charts and pop culture at large. But he was at his cinematic best before that success, when a music video director who would never helm a film again found a way to channel his powder-keg energy into an unforgettable performance. —Sayles

“Prayer III”

For a 12-year-old white kid growing up in the suburbs of Western New York who loved the sing-along-ability of the hook of “Party Up” and the scene in Down to Earth when Chris Rock, in the body of an old white man, gets beat up for rapping “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” DMX was the most important MC alive in 2001. I got my mom to buy me … And Then There Was X the same way I got her to buy me all my rap albums—by hardly explaining who the artist was and assuring her that the parental advisory sticker was only there because of, like, one song.

Running through the album for the first time in bed, I replayed “Party Up” and “What’s My Name” a thousand times; I fell in love with X’s delivery and command, the barking confidence. But then, after 15 tracks, I heard “Prayer III” for the first time. “Let us pray,” X says, uttering a phrase that to that point I’d only heard uttered by old men in robes, or by my parents at the head of a table. “When it seems like the pressure gets to be too much / I take time out and pray, and ask that you be my crutch,” the rapper speaks. “Lord I am not perfect by a long shot, I confess to you daily / But I work harder everyday, and I hope that you hear me.”

I leapt out of my bed and ran to my mother’s room. “You have to listen to this,” I told her, waking her up at the same time I put the headphones on her ears. I’m not sure she remembers the moment to be so eye-opening, if she remembers it all, but DMX had just changed the way I saw hip-hop. He’d shown me his depths, his multifacetedness, his humanity, his struggle. He’d shown me his purpose: not merely to assert himself, but to offer his perspective and experiences, that they might reach another person—perhaps a 12-year-old white kid—and assure them that they’re not alone. —Andrew Gruttadaro