On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the latest installment of its HBO Music Box series, DMX: Don’t Try to Understand. Over the next few days, we’re chronicling the rapper’s rise and place in hip-hop history. Today, we’re looking at X’s first headlining tour, which came just as his popularity was exploding and helped change the way rap tours were perceived.
I come to you hungry and tired
You give me food and let me sleep ...
On July 18, 1998, DMX took the stage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The performance was technically the last date on the Survival of the Illest Tour, though the travelling portion had ended its run of shows a couple of weeks earlier. On the road, DMX performed with a pair of then-unknown teenagers—his hypeman, Drag-On, and his DJ, Swizz Beatz—but for his return to New York, the Apollo stage was filled with people, including record executive/producer Irv Gotti, the Lox, and other members of the Ruff Ryder crew.
Lord, why is it that I go through so much pain?
All I saw was black, all I felt was rain ...
Survival of the Illest was a showcase for artists on Def Jam Recordings. Each night featured sets from Onyx and the Def Squad—the trio of Redman, Keith Murray, and Erick Sermon (though the EPMD member didn’t travel to all the concerts). Though those acts included veterans who had sold millions of records, the undisputed headliner of the tour was DMX, hip-hop’s breakout star of the moment. The previous May, he released his debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, which landed atop the Billboard 200 chart. By the end of 2000, it would be certified four times platinum. Also by the end of December, he would release his second album of the year, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. It too would debut at no. 1 and would eventually be certified three times platinum.
Plenty of times you sent help my way, but I hid
And I remember once, you held me close, but I slid…
Though listeners had heard DMX’s growl on record, Survival of the Illest was the first time audiences outside of New York could really see him in person as he emptied out his soul. He rapped explosively and vulnerably about giving into his darkest impulses and the salvation that he hoped he’d find. “DMX was like a broken electric wire around water,” says Lyor Cohen, the president of Def Jam at the time. “It was explosive, and it was just in the infancy of his career.”
And I think I’ve seen it, ’cause I don’t feel the same
Matter of fact, I know I’ve seen it, I can feel the change...
At the Apollo show, as Beatz scratched over the instrumental outro to DMX’s breakout single, “Get at Me Dog,” the rapper told the DJ to cut the music, hollering, “Let me fuck with my peoples for a minute! Let me fuck with my peoples for a minute!” Even back then, DMX closed his shows with a prayer, a tradition he would continue until his death on April 9, 2021, at the age of 50 from a drug-induced heart attack. In the years to come, he would sometimes improvise the prayer in the moment, but on that night, he recited the same one he recorded for It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, accompanied only by the voices in the crowd shouting it along with him.
And I fear that what I’m sayin’ won’t be heard until I’m gone
But it’s all good, ’cause I really didn’t expect to live long
So, if it takes for me to suffer for my brother to see the light
Give me pain till I die, but, please, Lord, treat him right
Def Jam hired Rick Mordecon to direct a documentary of that night. He had only a couple weeks to prepare and a minuscule budget of about $10,000. Mordecon, a self-described “tattooed Jewish guy,” hadn’t really worked with hip-hop artists before and was skeptical going into the project because of rumors he’d heard about them carrying guns. But as the night came to a close, the audience at the Apollo held hands and wrapped their arms around each other, moved by the love that DMX showed them. “It was the most cohesive, beautiful, emotional experience,” says Mordecon, who befriended the rapper and kept working with him over the years. “I was crying by the end of that concert.”
By 1998, hip-hop was not only pushing itself further into the mainstream, it was doing so with fewer pop concessions, which had previously been necessary. More and more rap videos entered the daily rotation on MTV and BET, not just appearing on the specialty shows. Artists who made their reputation with street records were getting radio airplay. Still, the live-music industry was slow to embrace this shift. Promoters at the country’s biggest venues mostly stayed away from the genre, convinced that audience members up in the cheap seats would be bored watching a guy walk back and forth in front of a pair of turntables. Rappers had a reputation for flouting set times and showing up late, which meant overtime pay for union workers and large fines for breaking a city’s noise curfew. Or they were still spooked by tales of violence dating back to Run-DMC shows in the mid-1980s.
Ron Byrd, who started working in live music in late ’70s with Prince and in the early ’80s with Teena Marie and Rick James, became Def Jam’s de facto tour manager in the mid-’80s after working on Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys’ Together Forever run. He was the tour manager for the Survival of the Illest, Hard Knock Life, and Ruff Ryders/Cash Money tours, and has continued to work with artists from new generations, like Kendrick Lamar, Migos, and Lil Yachty. By the late ’90s he was used to the ways that rap music got shunned. “They used to do tricky stuff, like you couldn’t get insurance,” he says. “It’s not that it was banned, but nobody would insure the show. Some arenas, like the big basketball arenas, they wouldn’t take your booking or they would price you out—they can set whatever price they want for a building. It wasn’t economically viable for a promoter to do a hip-hop show, unless it was underground.”
Looking at Survival of the Illest’s itinerary now, the choice of venues can seem strange, as it jumped from Midwestern clubs with 2,000-person capacities, to buildings in the Northeast usually used by minor league hockey teams, to civic centers of Southern cities in secondary or tertiary markets. “It wasn’t by necessity, but I believe it was by design that [Def Jam] put the artists in those-level buildings,” says Byrd. “We knew we were building something.”
“They knew better than to try to put this in an arena setting or anything like that yet,” he continues. “I don’t care who I start out with—Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Young Thug, whatever—in touring, nobody ever goes straight to the arenas. The only person that probably went straight to the arenas in the last 20 years is Drake.”
When the Lollapalooza festival started travelling through outdoor amphitheaters at the start of 1990s, it always featured a couple of rap acts—ones like A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde—and split them between the main and side stages. In 1996, longtime hip-hop booking agent Cara Lewis teamed with House of Blues executive Kevin Morrow to create the Smokin’ Grooves Tour, which was conceived as a variation on Lollapalooza that focused on alternative Black music. With headliners like Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, it functioned as a way to make amphitheater bookers more comfortable with shows where the real audience draw were acts like Cypress Hill and the Fugees.
During the winter of 1997, Sean Combs put together the Puff Daddy & the Family tour. Though it mainly promoted his Bad Boy Records label, the 26-city arena tour also featured artists including Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, and Busta Rhymes. That experience helped motivate Jay and his Roc-a-Fella Records partner Dame Dash to create 1999’s Hard Knock Life Tour, a 50-plus-show journey that would be immortalized in the documentary Backstage. Jay-Z and DMX headlined, and they were opened by fellow Def Jam–signees Redman and Method Man. But Hard Knock Life wouldn’t have been possible without Survival of the Illest. “It was definitely a precursor,” says Andrea Duncan-Mao, a former MTV News producer and print journalist who covered both tours. “It was kind of the rehearsal, the dry run for them.”
Though Survival of the Illest was anchored by DMX, Onyx, and the Def Squad, some shows also featured appearances by other Def Jam artists, including Method Man, Foxy Brown, and Cormega. Lots of years (and lots of blunts) have passed since then, and the memories of the people who were there are no longer crystal clear. Some say each of the acts had their own tour bus. Others say they all rode together in one of those big charter buses with TV monitors in the back of the seats like old people take to the Grand Canyon. There are conflicting reports.
What the participants do agree upon is that there was a camaraderie between all the artists and their entourages on that tour, which wasn’t always the case. “Everybody was in the prime of they life—young, getting-money rap stars,” says Fredro Starr of Onyx. “There was friendly competition on every level: rapping, pushups, gambling. All types of shit was going on. Groupies. A couple of babies was made on that tour.”
And as expected for a trip featuring a bunch of 20-somethings running wild across the country, there were a few incidents that were terrifying in the moment but have since turned into favorite anecdotes. One night in (probably) New Jersey, Method Man joined Redman on stage. Redman says they were, as expected, “high as fuck.” When the two got together, they were known for pushing each other’s daredevil antics. After Meth leapt into the crowd, Red got on top of a huge speaker and the audience began goading him. “My dumbass goes and jumps to go hang on the lights above us, not knowing that the lights been on all night and them shits was hot,” Redman remembers. “I put my hands on them lights and nearly burned my fingerprints off my fingers.”
He let go instantly and fell, past the stage and all the way to the floor. “He lay there for a minute,” Byrd says. “We was all looking at him from the stage like, ‘Oh shit, do we need to call the paramedics?’”
Redman was still unresponsive when Method Man and Kevin Liles, Def Jam’s general manager of promotions at the time, came around him. “Meth was like, ‘You ain’t dead, n—, get up! Get up! You won’t die, n—! Real n— don’t die, n—! Get up!’” Redman says. “And I opened my eyes and I started jumping around and shit. I think that was one of the highlights of the tour.”
Then there was the time in Chicago when the artists were getting ready to check into their hotel before the show. “[The MTV News crew] all went to go say hi and they all came out of the bus,” Duncan-Mao says. “We’re standing there talking and the bus just starts rolling down the street, and we’re like, ‘Who’s driving the bus?’ There was no one driving the bus.”
It proceeded to crash into a street lamp and a brownstone’s stoop (luckily no one got hurt). “I always thought it was Keith Murray who actually knocked the bus out of gear, but since X died, people have told me it was him and they didn’t want to say it was him,” Duncan-Mao says.
DMX loved to drive, although most people didn’t want him behind the wheel because of the dangerous speeds he would go. “DMX was always trying to drive the bus,” says Sticky Fingaz of Onyx. One day the rapper somehow took control of the vehicle and managed to get them to the show. “I can’t drive no bus, I don’t even know how to get that shit out of park,” says Starr. “So he’s pretty good.”
Though artists now see touring as their main avenue for making money, in the late ’90s, physical music sales were still strong, so live shows for hip-hop acts were more of a promotional consideration. When fans couldn’t pull up artists’ videos or full discography on demand, or get constant updates through social media, going on the road was the way for acts to create awareness, or just remind people they still existed. “Back in the day, that was the key to selling units, being out,” Redman says. “You really had to be outside to sell units, not like these young people talk about, ‘I’m outside! I’m outside!’ You actually had to be outside, shaking people’s hands and getting to know people and making connections and putting out the energy of who we are.”
Despite some fears, there were no riots or major violent incidents at the shows, a trajectory that continued through the Hard Knock Life Tour. “The whole vibe of that tour was crazy,” says Starr. “Nobody got arrested, nobody caught a body. It was good.”
Def Jam liked to send their artists on package tours, not just because they could help grow each other’s fan base. By having them all together, it would give the impression of a larger movement that needed to be paid attention to. “When you have a bunch of acts, it feels like a full takeover,” says Julie Greenwald, Def Jam’s former senior vice president of marketing and the current chairwoman of Atlantic Records. “You can take over the whole night on a radio station. The in-stores are crazy. The press, when we do the interviews that day, it felt like a press conference.”
When MTV News came to Chicago to film Survival of the Illest, before the actual show they followed the groups to a cookout where Redman DJed at George’s Music Room, an institution that had been in the city since 1969. “That kind of stuff they were doing on the tour ultimately created some goodwill so that when Hard Knock Life came around, they had done their due diligence in terms of reaching out to the community,” Duncan-Mao says. “Even if [on] that particular tour the venues were not great.”
The Chicago show was held at the International Amphitheatre, a venue that opened in 1934 and hosted national political conventions during the 1950s and ’60s, but was long past its prime by the time Survival of the Illest showed up. It was demolished a year later. Though it held several thousand people, the show was sparsely attended, because it was in a rough neighborhood that was possibly in the middle of disputed gang territory. As was the case with many hip-hop shows back then, the sound was horrible, and DMX ended up slamming the microphone to the ground. MTV had to send a cameraperson to a later tour stop in Baltimore because the performance footage from that night was too depressing. “It was really sad for X, because he had been getting all this love everywhere,” Duncan-Mao says.
DMX was a revitalizing force for Def Jam Recordings and a pivotal figure as it became a part of the Universal Music Group in ’98. Though the label had some hits in the recent years before him with Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 and Foxy Brown’s Ill Na Na, they were losing the culture war to New York rival Bad Boy Records. Then DMX’s grim and grimy vision presented an alternative to the celebratory flash that was associated with Puff Daddy’s world. “People were tired of the Technicolor, happy-dappy bullshit that rap music started becoming,” says Lyor Cohen. “DMX represented the reality of what was happening. He checked the whole industry.”
Though DMX was considered a phenomenon, he was already deep into his 20s by the time he found national success. He’d been featured in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column back in 1991 and spent years battling MCs around the New York area, but it wasn’t until his 1998 single “Get at Me Dog” that the rest of the country started to catch on. When that moment arrived, he was ready for the stage. “From pretty early on, he was spectacular,” Greenwald says. “It was just raw, you could just feel it.”
He also had a history of serious trauma, rooted in emotional, physical, and substance abuse, as well as extreme poverty and incarceration. His personality could seem manic. Sometimes he couldn’t stop talking, other times he would be guarded and withdrawn. “There was an air of unpredictability around him, but that’s kind of what made him interesting, for better or for worse,” says Duncan-Mao, who interviewed him many times for MTV News over the years and wrote a XXL cover story about him in 2000. “X had demons that he fought all the time, and if you spent any time around him, you would see them.”
In the Backstage documentary, there’s a brief clip where DMX talks to Chuck D before a show. The Public Enemy frontman asks if he enjoys being on tour. “No,” DMX responds immediately. “The only part I like is the performance, that one hour when I’m on stage, that’s it. The rest is hell.” When Chuck D tries to assure him he’ll get used to it, he replies, “I’m used to it, I just don’t like it.”
If you ask people now whether DMX liked going on tour, the replies are mixed. Some will tell you he loved the validation he got from fans and the connection it allowed him to make with them. Others will say he hated the pressure that record labels put on him to promote his music, so that’s why he would sometimes disappear for days. “X wanted to be home with his family and his dogs,” says Byrd. “It’s not the same, living on a bus, eating catered food backstage every day. It can become monotonous and people do want to get home. I don’t think so much that he didn’t like the experience, I think he just didn’t like being away and not being with [his] loved ones.”
After the Survival of the Illest Tour, DMX stripped down his minimal live show even more. He would go on stage with just a DJ, but there was no longer a hypeman. If he needed any help with the words, he knew the crowd would be there to shout them along for him.
Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.