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DMX Leaves a Legacy of Passion, Unparalleled Success, and Pain

The gruff-voiced MC, who died Friday at age 50, helped changed the course of hip-hop in the late ’90s

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Onlookers remember the sound of metal breaking, but on a night in Yonkers, New York, in 1997, it was more the sound of decades of abuse, neglect, and struggle combusting.

It was the peak of rap’s shiny-suit era, when Puff Daddy and Bad Boy’s brand of glossy hip-hop ruled the charts. Rival labels sought to keep pace by pumping out smooth, transparently commercial crossover attempts that all failed to match Bad Boy’s success. At Def Jam, which had hit a down period by the mid-’90s, a young hotshot A&R named Irv Gotti was trying to convince his bosses, Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles, that they needed to move in the opposite direction. Gotti thought hip-hop needed to go back to the streets, and he had just the artist to take it there: DMX—short for “Dark Man X”—a rapper who had been through the industry wringer once already but was finding new life through mixtape freestyles. There was one problem with Gotti’s plan, however. X had just had his jaw broken in a fight, a consequence of his main means of making money at the time: stickups. With X’s jaw wired shut, Gotti wanted to wait a few weeks before showing off the rapper, but X said it didn’t matter—he’d trained himself to rap through the wires. The next day, Gotti brought the label heads to Powerhouse Studios.

In his 2002 autobiography, E.A.R.L., DMX likened his entrance into the studio that day to the parting of the Red Sea: All the neighborhood rappers and hangers-on who had assembled moved out of the way when he arrived. “They knew what was about to go down,” he said. With Cohen and Liles watching, X stepped into the booth and unleashed verse after verse with the ferocity that would come to define him. “I started sweating,” he recalled. “I could feel the wires in my mouth pulling, straining to keep my jaws together.” Ja Rule, who was in attendance, put it more succinctly in a 2014 interview with Vlad TV: “The shit about to pop and break.” But X kept rhyming; he said he could’ve gone forever had Cohen not jumped up and shouted, “That’s it! He’s the man! DMX is the man!” Gotti’s gambit had paid off. The next year, Def Jam would release DMX’s classic debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, and from then on, hip-hop would look and sound totally different.

The story is the stuff of music-industry legend. But it would be borderline unbelievable if it didn’t star DMX, who died Friday at age 50, nearly a week after reportedly suffering multiple heart attacks following an apparent drug overdose. “We are deeply saddened to announce today that our loved one, DMX, birth name of Earl Simmons, passed away at 50 years old at White Plains Hospital with his family by his side after being placed on life support for the past few days,” his family said in a statement to XXL. “Earl was a warrior who fought till the very end.”

Throughout his nearly three-decade career, DMX came to embody passion, rawness, and pure emotional honesty like few hip-hop artists ever have, barking his way through hits like “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and “Get at Me Dog” one moment, and repenting and philosophizing on tracks like “Slippin’” the next. His was a decidedly anti-commercial approach, but it worked, and it made him the genre’s first new superstar in the wake of the killings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. To this day, few have been able to reach the heights he did—he’s the only rapper to have his first five studio albums debut at no. 1, and he was the first living hip-hop artist to have two projects go platinum in the same year.

But amid the triumphs—which also included starring roles in movies like Belly and Romeo Must Die, a lucrative record company and lifestyle brand in Ruff Ryders, and more than 15 million albums sold in the U.S. alone—DMX wrestled with addiction and mental health. The latter half of his career was marked by false starts and aborted comeback bids as he became more known for his bankruptcy and arrests than his music or spirituality. Even in his more introspective moments, like a 2013 interview with life coach Iyanla Vanzant, the specter of addiction loomed large: “Just because you stop getting high doesn’t mean you don’t have the problem, because it’s a constant fight every day.” But as he told it, his struggles were about more than just drugs—they were rooted in the violence he endured at the hands of his mother, his betrayal by the person he considered a mentor, the isolation that led him to grow closer to dogs than he did most humans. And no matter how much he achieved, that darkness followed him.

Earl Simmons was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on December 18, 1970, the son of parents barely out of high school. His father, Joe Barker, didn’t want Earl’s mother, Arnett Simmons, to keep the pregnancy, and cut off almost all contact with the family after Earl’s birth. He was raised alongside his five sisters in Yonkers, a city directly north of the Bronx that maintained policies that segregated its public schools and housing well into the 1980s. As a young child, Earl suffered from severe asthma attacks that required frequent hospital stays, some as long as a week. He also said he was abused often as a child: He told GQ in 2019 that his mother beat him so badly that he lost teeth, and in the 2020 BET docuseries Ruff Ryders: Chronicles, he recalled one summer when he was only allowed to leave his room to use the bathroom. After Earl was kicked out of school in the fifth grade for behavioral issues, his mother took him to a boarding school for what he thought was a simple interview. He ended up staying there for 18 months.

“Right then and there, I learned to just put away, conceal, bury, whatever, whatever bothered me and store it,” he said in Chronicles. “I think another side of me was born right there.”

A few years later, back living at his mother’s house as a teenager, he began spending nights on the streets, where he felt safer. He slept in Salvation Army clothing-donation bins—“It was warm and I knew no one would find me,” he said—and befriended stray dogs. He found them more loyal than most people; they’d also prove more valuable than a handgun when he took up one of the two “Double Rs” that defined his life during this period: robbery. “Bullets go straight, but a dog will always stay on target,” he said in his autobiography. “A dog will look at you and say, ‘I’m gonna kill you,’ and if the master says so, will chase you around for hours.”

During this time, Earl also discovered another R: rapping. He began his music career as a beatboxer—before DMX was shorthand for “Dark Man X,” it was an homage to the Oberheim drum machine he played with during a stay in a group home—and became close with a popular local rapper named Ready Ron. Before long, he started writing his own songs, and while in correctional facilities during the second half of the 1980s, he honed his skills by obsessively scribbling down rhymes and battling other inmates, including EPMD associate K-Solo.

By 1991, X had been released and started producing his own demos. Some of them exist today on YouTube; the best of them is “Three Little Pigs,” in which he tells a story of young friends from the Marcy Projects who start selling drugs and eventually cross each other. It’s as good as anything from the era—the beat pounds, the flows are precise, the rhymes are witty. But what’s most striking is how little it sounds like the DMX who would blow up more than a half-decade later. There’s no bark and very little bite, and hardly any gruffness in his voice. If anything, he sounds like a more street-wary Rakim, or perhaps a sinister LL Cool J.

The demos would land him in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column, a launching pad for artists such as Biggie, Capone-N-Noreaga, and Eminem. But while those artists would make it big shortly after appearing in the magazine, DMX would have to wait a few years for his chance. After inking a management agreement with the Dean siblings—Joaquin “Waah,” Darin “Dee,” and Chivon—DMX landed a single deal with Columbia Records. The sole song it produced, “Born Loser,” failed to catch on, and he was soon dropped from the label. But while the single didn’t raise his profile, it did lay the bedrock for what he’d become as an artist. By this point, he wasn’t interested in telling parables like “Three Little Pigs.” He wanted to talk about his experience, pain and all:

The born loser, not because I choose to be
But because all the bad shit happens to me
I got kids, but their mothers don’t want them to know me
Sisters use to like me, but now they call me homie
Used to have a family now I’m out on my own
Had to scrap with the pit, ’cause I tried to take his bone

“Born Loser” also provided DMX and the Deans with the seed money to build Powerhouse Studios and their record label, which would become the next set of double Rs to define X’s life: Ruff Ryders. Over time, the roster would add talent including fellow Yonkers natives the L.O.X. and Philadelphia’s Eve, but DMX was always the focal point for Ruff Ryders. Working with upstart producers Irv Gotti, Dame Grease, and the Deans’ young nephew Swizz Beatz, X refined his style, developed his trademark snarl and barked ad-libs, and turned it into a package that would appeal to the likes of Cohen and Liles. After that fateful studio session in 1997, he signed a deal with Def Jam and immediately embarked on a tear of unforgettable guest appearances: He stole the show while rocking a ski mask on LL Cool J’s infamous “4,3,2,1” posse cut; on Mase’s “24 Hours to Live,” he rapped like someone whose time may actually be that short; when he appeared on the L.O.X.’s “Money, Power, Respect,” he made it clear that even if he didn’t have the first two, he deserved the latter.

DMX parlayed the hype that run generated into his debut album, May 1998’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, still one of the most fully realized introductions in all of hip-hop. Arriving 10 months after Puffy released his seven-times-platinum No Way Out, It’s Dark is alternately aggressive and contemplative, sometimes both at once. Its lead single, “Get at Me Dog,” is a declaration of war—in E.A.R.L., X said that MTV effectively banned its gritty, black-and-white video because the channel felt it would “incite a riot.” Meanwhile, “The Convo” finds him in a dialogue with his god, trying to make sense of his suffering. It’s Dark’s biggest moment, “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” harnesses both of those impulses: Early in the first verse, amid the hyped-up chants of what that punctuate each bar, X raps, “All I know is pain, all I feel is rain / How can I maintain with that shit on my brain?”

At the center the album sits “Damien,” essentially the inverse of “The Convo.” It’s a three-verse back-and-forth with the devil, with X playing both roles, as he’s lured deeper into the clutches of darkness. “Earl wrote that song,” he said in his autobiography. “Not D or X, but Earl. This was his battle with the devil, a battle that each and every day I tried so desperately to help him win. Earl was winning, I felt it, but I couldn’t ever stop fighting.” He would revisit the Damien character twice on future albums.

DMX, of course, was not the first rapper to juxtapose mental health struggles alongside scenes that felt better fit for a horror movie. But none before him had become so successful so quickly by placing these types of songs at the front and center of his persona. It’s Dark sold 251,000 in its first week and would eventually go platinum four times. Seven months later, with Def Jam looking to cash in on its new star’s hype, he released his follow-up, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. The album cover appeared to feature X covered in blood (it was just syrup, he said recently on DJ EFN and Noreaga’s Drink Champs podcast), while its songs doubled down on the themes of his debut. Flesh of My Flesh sold nearly 700,000 copies in its first week and cemented him as the biggest star in rap. It was a coup for his label: In E.A.R.L., the rapper recalled Cohen running through the Def Jam hallways shouting, “DMX is going to save the company!”

X’s debut two-album stretch in 1998 shifted the sonic landscape of hip-hop. Jay-Z, who had yet to conquer the genre by the time It’s Hot dropped, stopped relying on Puffy and his Hitmen production team and enlisted Swizz and Irv Gotti for what would be his biggest album, Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life. Rappers with a distinctly DMX-like swagger—most notably Ja Rule, the star of Gotti’s new Murder Inc. imprint, and No Limit’s Mystikal—became top-40 staples. Even the rises of New York crews Dipset and G-Unit around the turn of the century owe something to the success of Ruff Ryders, which proved street music could beat blatantly mainstream rap on the charts so long as it had a charismatic lead.

But X’s appeal went far beyond rap fans; you don’t sell more than 15 million copies in the U.S. alone by appealing to just hip-hop heads. He soon landed movie roles next to Jet Li and Steven Seagal, and the 1999 arena tour he coheadlined with Jay-Z—dubbed the Hard Knock Life Tour because Jay’s Roc-A-Fella Records had put up most of the money—is often credited for proving that large-scale hip-hop shows could be successful and take place without incident. But when asked on Drink Champs in February about the most special moment from his early run, X pointed to a single show: Woodstock ’99, when he performed for one of the largest music festival crowds in U.S. history.

The sight of such a sheer mass of bodies fixated on X in that moment remains stunning. And he’s in complete command even though, as he said on Drink Champs, it looked like “the people blended with the sky.” Donning only red overalls, untied Timberlands, and a chain, he fills the massive stage with his presence, his passion coming through every line. DMX famously never brought a hypeman with him on stage. When you watch him perform “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” at Woodstock ’99, you begin to understand why: Who needs backup when that many people know your every word?

One of the more instructive passages from E.A.R.L. comes in its epilogue, when coauthor Smokey Fontaine attempts to sum up the totality of DMX’s life to that point.

For someone that “just wanted to be heard,” he has gone way beyond his goal. But there is a psychic toll that is often charged to an artist when they achieve this level of super-success, the frustrating ironies of being adored by millions of people that you don’t know—and definitely don’t know you. And when you’ve chosen to take this time to ask yourself the most difficult questions, to look inside the deepest, darkest corners of your life, it’s not hard to imagine conflict, or nightmares.

The true conflict and nightmare would be a few years off: X’s third album, … And There Was X, would become his best-selling project, and several of the singles he produced between 1999 and 2003 have eclipsed his early hits in popularity. But soon, the headlines began to crowd out the music: marijuana and weapon possession charges, a variety of moving violations, an animal cruelty case for keeping more than a dozen pit bulls on his property. Early on, he chalked it up to being young and rich—“You know how famous rappers do,” he said in an April 2000 Rolling Stone interview.

Within a few years, however, his behavior seemed to become more erratic. He was arrested in 2004 for a carjacking attempt at JFK airport in which he impersonated an FBI agent; when police searched his vehicle, they found a variety of drugs and a handgun. There was an incident in 2008 in which he barricaded himself from police inside his Arizona home. In 2010, he filmed a pilot for a TV show about his recovery from substance use, but the project was abandoned when he was arrested three weeks later. X’s domestic life also turned into tabloid fodder: He fathered 15 children, several of whom were the result of affairs. He starred on VH1’s Couples Therapy with his longtime wife, Tashera Simmons, who would eventually divorce him. X declared bankruptcy in 2013 because of outstanding child support; in 2015, he was jailed for owing $400,000 in back payments.

Throughout this time, troubling reports of his substance use grew, culminating in a 2016 incident in which paramedics found him passed out in a Ramada Inn parking lot. (DMX maintained it was an asthma attack, though he was reportedly revived using opioid antidote Narcan.) His struggles were becoming more public, but they had existed for decades by that point. DMX said repeatedly that he first tried crack cocaine when he was 14, after Ready Ron passed him a laced blunt without telling him. “He introduced me to the best part of my life, which would be the rap,” X said during an emotional discussion on Talib Kweli’s People’s Party podcast late last year. But Ron also introduced DMX to what he described as his “curse.” “Why would he do that to a child? He knew I looked up to him.”

DMX served one last prison sentence across 2018 and 2019, this time for tax evasion. He emerged seemingly ready to chart a new course. He posed for GQ wearing Hermès and Christian Louboutin and spoke openly about his addiction. He also embraced his relationship with Christianity, leading Bible-study sessions on Instagram Live and delivering a spirited sermon during one of Kanye West’s Sunday Services. He got engaged again, poured himself into his relationship with his children, particularly his youngest son, Exodus, whose name X tattooed on his neck. (When asked by GQ the meaning of his son’s name, he offered a response that seemed to relate to both the father and son: “It’s new beginnings. Exodus speaks to beginnings. He was a new beginning.”) During his February Drink Champs appearance, the topic of the song “Damien” came up. X said that he was retiring the character—he no longer had a need to highlight him.

“I’m not saying I don’t go through anything, I’m not saying the devil ain’t still on my back,” he said. “But God is more present.”

It’s tempting to paint DMX as a person filled with contradictions. He spoke with God and the devil on separate songs on his first album. He loved his pit bulls, but he was arrested on animal cruelty charges on at least three occasions. He spoke for the forgotten, but his lyrics sometimes featured violent homophobia. He rapped like the toughest man in hip-hop, but he had no problem making viral videos that played on that image. The truth, however, is perhaps much simpler and best exemplified by a line from “Let Me Fly”: “There’s a difference between doin’ wrong and bein’ wrong.”

At the time of his death, DMX was working on a new album, which he told DJ EFN and Noreaga was two songs from completion. It would’ve been his first official album of new material since 2012, and would mark a homecoming of sorts: He had re-signed to Def Jam, this time without having to impress the suits by rapping through a wired jaw. He was excited not just because of the way the songs were coming together, but also because of the featured artists lining up to be a part of his comeback: Usher, Lil Wayne, Griselda, even Bono of U2. “I’m almost overwhelmed by how people are not only excited by this project, but wanting to be a part of it,” he said.

Noreaga stopped him. “Let me just speak for the world,” he said. “The world want to see you win, man.”

The Def Jam audition in 1997 took place in the days before cellphone cameras. It exists now only in legend and imagination. After decades of watching him rap his heart out, it’s easy to picture DMX in the booth, gritting his teeth and spitting his hardest, shedding metal wires and years of trauma in the process. Maybe it happened like that, or maybe it’s just a good story with a good lead character. But there’s another video from not long after that shows how DMX’s passion captivated everyone around him. Jay-Z and X are trading bars backstage at a stop on the Hard Knock Life Tour. Jay goes first and earns polite praise—then the Dark Man begins. “When my time is up, I’mma be out but I’mma try to live,” he roars, before referencing manic depression and robbery in the span of two bars. When he hits his last line—“A straight razor will put pinstripes across your windpipes”—the assembled crowd erupts. But X, having just breathed fire seconds ago, doesn’t seem overly pleased or even fazed. He simply takes a drag off of his cigarette and keeps his head down.