The wires were breaking. In 1997, Irv Gotti, then a newly-hired A&R guy at Def Jam, took label boss Lyor Cohen to hear DMX rap in a studio session. Gotti was determined to sign DMX, to get this guy out into the world, where he belonged. According to Gotti, people in the Def Jam office were laughing at him, and he had to stop coming to work and threaten to quit to get Cohen to pay attention. DMX, for his part, was determined to get signed. He’d grown up in public housing, first in Baltimore and then in Yonkers. He’d been horribly abused, often abandoned by his mother, in and out of group homes. He’d resorted to armed robbery to stay alive. He’d started rapping, briefly signing to Columbia’s Ruffhouse imprint and releasing one forgettable single in 1992 before being sent on his way. He’d come up through the battle-rap circuit, barking threats in smoky pool halls throughout New York, rapping for money. He was hungry.
But when Cohen came to hear DMX rap, DMX couldn’t eat, literally. His jaw had been wired shut. According to some versions of the story, he’d robbed some kid, and the kid’s father had come looking for him, demanding a one-on-one fight. In this version of the story, DMX lost that fight, badly — cracked ribs, broken jaw. But when Cohen came to the studio, DMX was so full of passion, so fervent that he would have his voice heard, that he rapped through the broken jaw, threatening to pop the contraption on his mouth wide open. Maybe it’s apocryphal, maybe it’s pure legend, but Cohen has said that he heard the wires literally snapping in DMX’s mouth: “I could hear the breaking of the wires.” That night, Cohen signed DMX to Def Jam.
What came out of that evening was a total paradigm shift. Darkness and desperation and violence had always been enormous parts of rap music, but by the time DMX ascended, they’d been reduced to subtext. Puff Daddy and his Bad Boy crew had dominated 1997 to an absurd degree, totally owning not just the rap charts but the pop charts with their glittery, flossy, melody-happy take on New York rap. This version had connections to heavier, darker, older sounds, but if you were one of the millions of teenagers buying those albums, you might’ve missed those connections. Puff’s razzle-dazzle celebrations had emotional catharsis behind them; Puff was partying in the face of death, all while building musical monuments to the genius best friend who’d been gunned down in the street in March of 1997. But he was still making fun music, music for showing off. Puff had signed DMX’s Yonkers friends in the Lox, sanitizing their sound to the point that the Lox would soon start a loud and pointed campaign to be released from their Bad Boy contracts, but he’d declined to sign DMX. Too rough, Puff had said. Not marketable.
And when DMX did ascend, he represented a grand, furious rebuke to Puff, to the aesthetics of his whole wave. It’s funny; Puff Daddy liked DMX. One of DMX’s big early breaks came when he delivered the pulse-pounding, scene-stealing final verse of the Lox’s “Money, Power, Respect,” a fairly big single for Bad Boy. The Lox are all over It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, DMX’s world-annihilating debut album. Mase is on there, too, rapping about taking knots from out-of-state spots and leaving you to be found in vacant lots on “Niggaz Done Started Something.” And yet It’s Dark represents an antithesis to the whole image that Puff had crafted, a course correction for rap itself. DMX was raw, erratic, violent, depressed, angry. He turned subtext into text. Imagine if Nirvana had come from the Los Angeles Sunset Strip scene. Imagine if they’d been friendly with Poison, and imagine if they still came along to annihilate that whole sound. That’s what DMX was.
If you weren’t around then, I don’t think I can properly express what DMX meant when he arrived. The air around him seemed to crackle with electricity. He changed the chemical makeup of the pop charts the moment he showed up. For those who had come from the desperate, hardscrabble environs that were essential parts of DMX’s music, I can’t even imagine what the man represented. He must’ve been Bob Marley times Bruce Springsteen. He must’ve been a superhero. But even to suburban alt-rock kids like me, kids whose rap awareness was embarrassing in retrospect, DMX was a figure of enormous gravity. You could sense a shift when he came along. It was palpable. And whatever frustrations and depressions a kid like me might’ve been suffering at the moment — and I had plenty of issues of my own — I could hear those same sentiments reflected back at me in this man’s voice. It’s the Johnny Cash/Courtney Love thing — when you can hear the craggy, weathered, lost-in-it weariness in a singer’s voice, everything that voice says immediately becomes that much realer.
I’ve got a friend who tells a story that I never get sick of hearing. The night in 1999 when the Jay-Z/DMX/Method Man/Redman Hard Knock Life tour came to the Baltimore Arena, she was waiting tables at a café in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, one with outdoor tables. Dirtbike culture has always been a huge thing in Baltimore — which is DMX’s birthplace, if not his actual hometown. It’s huge in Philadelphia, too, and in a few other East Coast cities. I don’t know when it started, exactly, but it’s been part of the landscape for as long as I can remember. But when DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” video came out, full of hordes of people on dirtbikes and crotch rockets and four-wheelers, the whole thing kicked up a few notches. And that night, my friend saw nothing but dirtbikes going up Charles Street, to the Arena. Armies of them. She’s not even a big rap person, but it took her breath away. To hear her tell it, it was like something from The Warriors.
That is a powerful iconography, a sign of a man who absolutely owned his moment. But powerful iconography doesn’t necessarily make for a classic album. So in retrospect, it’s fucking remarkable how perfectly DMX and his collaborators managed to turn that persona into actual music on It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. You will almost never hear an A-list rap album as dark and unified and cohesive as It’s Dark, a swirling symphony of gunshot sounds and pitbull barks. But DMX and his producers never let that violence become oppressive. Instead, it’s immersive, magnetic. Dame Grease and PK, who produced almost the entire album, found exactly the right tone — slow, heavy, absorbing. They favored horror-movie pianos, minor-key melodies, suck-your-soul-out bass tones. And in their own way, they took the jagged, broken boom-bap of a group like Mobb Deep and blew it out to arena-rap levels. They made it scale.
And X’s voice is a marvel, a throaty growl that finds its own meter, its own groove. The DMX of It’s Dark doesn’t obey rap rules. He doesn’t stay in the pocket. Instead, his voice jumps around erratically, darting in and out of the beat, rampaging. He’s a force that can’t be contained. That voice explodes with passion; he clearly means every word he barks, even when that word represents a terrible thing. His words are drowned in darkness, in hopelessness: “All I know is pain, all I feel is rain / How can I maintain with this mad shit on my brain?” His answer to that question is obvious enough: “I resort to violence.”
Much of It’s Dark consists of loving descriptions of that violence (“I see the part of your head which used to be your face / Was replaced by nothing, for bluffing; what a waste”) or the conditions that produced that violence (“Got niggas I don’t know who wanna murder me just because they heard of me”). Sometimes, that violence goes beyond over-the-top, into the realm of the indefensible: “If you got a daughter older than 15, I’ma rape her / Take her on the living room floor right there in front of you.” (That moment, on “X-Is Coming,” is the part where the album always loses me. Twenty years later, it still feels like a cinderblock to the gut, and not in the good way.)
And yet It’s Dark isn’t entirely an album about evilness, or about the poverty and hunger that can lead to evilness. It’s an album about the struggle for redemption, about the need to find some form of grace amidst all the chaos and squalor. X spends one entire song (the near-masterpiece “Damien”) talking to the devil, and another (“The Convo”) talking to God. The album’s emotional climax is a short a cappella prayer: “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.” At live shows, even at arena shows, DMX would recite that prayer, and he would cry. People watching him would cry, too. Because It’s Dark isn’t just a wallow in bad things. It’s an image of the struggle for absolution, for self-acceptance, for light.
In the 20 years since the album came out, that struggle has been ongoing for DMX himself. As a star, he had an incredible run. Seven months after It’s Dark, he released Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood — two #1 albums in the same calendar year, a near-unprecedented feat. His first five albums all debuted at #1. For a few years in the early ’00s, he became an action-movie star. But he didn’t have the tools to deal with that success. He’s talked about how, even during his dominant run, doubt and guilt would wrack him, and he’s wonder how or why anyone could love him. Pretty quickly, he started struggling with crack addiction. He spent much of the last decade in and out of prison, arrested for increasingly bizarre offenses, including a 2004 incident where he allegedly posed as a federal agent while carjacking someone’s vehicle at an airport. Two years ago, he almost died of an overdose in a Ramada Inn parking lot in Yonkers; first responders revived him with Narcan. As I write this, he’s in prison for tax fraud.
But none of DMX’s struggles in the past 20 years can dispel the memory of what he was in that moment — of the excitement around him, of the devotion that people freely gave him. I haven’t seen anything like it since. I’ve seen flashes of it, distant glimpses. One night in 2007, I stood on a makeshift outdoor stage, in an Orlando parking lot, behind Lil Boosie, as hundreds of people rapped his “Wipe Me Down” verse right back at him, and I wondered if this was what it felt to be near DMX in 1998. At various points, I’ve wondered the same thing about 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Future, Kevin Gates. And yet none of them has really come close. DMX is still the yardstick by which we can measure that thing that goes beyond commercial success — that pure, unadulterated love that the right rapper, in the right moment, can inspire.