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In defense of DMX

DMX is the uncle no one talks to any more because he can't get clean and always bails on family reunions, but he was a true force in the '90s. 


Ramon Ramirez


Posted on Feb 7, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 6:57 pm CDT

Rapper DMX made headlines Wednesday when he announced a public stunt that involved boxing a man whose name does merit further public attention. For three rounds, in one of those predatory, put-gloves-on-desperate-celebrity matches brought to you by eager opportunist, Damon Feldmen, and DMX (real name Earl Simmons) has promised to “beat his [opponent’s] ass.” No contract terms for the bout have been finalized, according to DMX spokesman Domenick Nati, but that matters little. The train has left the station, and not even a White House petition could stop it.  

At least there’s a silver lining: We have an excuse to talk about DMX.

My wife fancies herself a huge music fan. She’s put me on to most of the cool things that I listen to. Unfortunately, she’s not big on Ghostface Killah. This has nothing to do with Supreme Clientele’s dense fiction (never heard it, actually). She just hates the way Ghost treats his girlfriend on VH1’s Couples Therapy.

Rappers from the ’90s—even the most charismatic and legendary—are first and foremost celebrities now. People don’t so much dislike Yeezus as much as they dislike Kim Kardashian. Jay Z is Mr. Beyoncé. LL Cool J and Ice T are street smart cops.

DMX is the uncle no one talks to any more because he can’t get clean and always bails on family reunions. He can’t use a computer, provides laugh at and not laugh with holiday cheer, and crashes weddings. How adorably viral!

The guy is also the modern face of crack, and he’s been a public mess for this entire century. His heart will give out in the next decade, and there will be 100 words written about it in People. But before he went off the rails, DMX was one of the most important working artists.

He once reportedly engaged in a four-hour rap battle with Jay Z on a pool table. His first three albums debuted at No. 1, and he combined his harrowing street narratives with a sharp directorial eye that looked beyond his native Yonkers. X was practically the Martin Scorsese of gangster rap—elevating the simple gangster narratives with quick cuts, expansive soundtracks, and elemental experimentation. On his debut album, there’s a whole song about his budding friendship with Damien, the demon in his head that makes him commit crime. A guy named Mickey knocks on his apartment door and X responds by blowing him away. He calls his girl and verbally abuses her with his unrelenting jealousy. “Stop Being Greedy” is the best I’ll-play-both-characters song in the history of rap—and that includes Biggie’s “Gimme The Loot.” By album two, X was posing in bathtubs of blood and collaborating with Marilyn Manson.  

At the peak of his chart-topping success—exemplified by the only song that people remember, 1999’s “Party Up”—X terrified Def Jam and threatened to move to Arizona to record an experimental album called The Ears. The project was scrapped and a series of straightforward, formulaic releases followed suit. That’s because DMX is a volatile genius, and you can only bottle expressionist fits for so long. Def Jam did the equivalent of locking Norman Rockwell in a studio and telling him to paint fucking burger joints indefinitely. The barks and growls, the persona oscillating-raps, the “X gonna give it to ya”-esque catchphrases have a defined shelf life.

Looking back, it’s a miracle that X struck a pop nerve to begin with.

Listen to this playlist and remember what it was it like when it was real. It’ll make you want to take a baseball bat to some mailboxes.  

Photo via alexindigo/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 7, 2014, 5:01 pm CST