The Duality of Darkman X
April 10, 2021
Earl Simmons wasn’t just a rap star. He was/ is a rap god. Although he had been laboring in the music business (unsuccessfully) since the early 90’s. It was until 1998 that DMX (short for Darkman X) truly exploded onto the scene. But to truly understand his impact you have to understand the feeling at that time. This requires us to take a trip down hip hop memory lane.
DMX came out in 1998. A huge year commercial wise for hip hop. We will get to that in a moment. However, 1996 is where we really need to start in order to build up a proper context regarding the musical/cultural impact of DMX.
1996 remains the year of a truly artistic hip hop high point. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s check the facts.
1996 was the year when nine (9) hip hop classics all took center stage, here they are in no particular order:
I. De La Soul “Stakes Is High”, II. OutKast “ATLiens”, III. The Roots “Illadelph Half Life”, IV. Jay Z “Reasonable Doubt”, V. Nas “It Was Written”, VI. The Fugees “The Score”, VII. Lil Kim’s “Hard Core” VIII. UGK’s “Riding Dirty”
(Honorable mention to Redman’s “Muddy Water, E-40 “Hall of Game”, Bahamadia “Kollage”, Xzibits “At The Speed of Life, Busta Rhymes “The Coming”, & Ras Kass “Soul on Ice”)
Seriously…96 was an incredible lyrical year …but I digress…
But the album that stood out among everyone of those heavyweights…was…. (You notice I only named eight (8) classics above)….[Drum Roll]….
2Pacs “All Eyez On Me”
Now before you argue me down, and say that the previous eight (8) mentioned above were greater albums. You have to remember the environment at the time. “All Eyez On Me” was not only a great album with a multitude of standout tracks-maybe overly long, but still consequential. But the story and drama behind it made it a verifiable hip hop landmark. 2Pac’s beef with Biggie made this album, and his persona an entire coastal movement. Up until this point I had never experienced or seen anything like that. 2Pac became the face of an entire western coastline-do you know how crazy that sounds?!? This album served as a soundtrack for this coastal energy. Sadly enough, 2Pac would die tragically in Las Vegas of that year and ironically release another classic album posthumously in 1996 (2Pac’s “Makaveli”).
What made 2Pac such an incredible artist was that he had the ability to be vulnerable, arrogant, cocksure, insecure, intelligent , ignorant, emotional and hardcore, all simultaneously. He was an authentic black man, that was not yet fully formed-remember he was only 25 years old when passed away. Tupac was a growing masterpiece, cut short by violence. In other words, he was the guiding personification of black male youth.
With Tupac Shakur being murdered, only then to be followed by the murder of Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.), a year later (97′), the years of 1996 and 1997 would experience the highs and lows of rap superstardom. Both coastlines experienced a void with the departure of these two musical titans-an impact still being felt today. To say the culture had lost some air after the death of these two huge mega talents and personalities was an understatement. The void in rap was palatable, not to mention there were many trying to jostle themselves atop the proverbial rap mountain. All your faves (*cough* Jay Z) was angling for this title. But no one took the crown. Then emerged DMX.
To be fair, DMX really set himself apart in 1997, being featured in LL COOL J’s bar heavy rap clinic 4,3,2,1. On a record that featured Method Man, Redman, Cannibus, & DMX himself, he still amazingly carved out a notable presence. Only to be overshadowed by the emerging lyrical (unnecessary) beef between LL Cool J and Cannibus. The 4,3,2,1 single came out in December 1997. However, it was only two months later where DMX would cause a sonic boom in the industry. I remember this moment clear as day when I came home from school, watching Rap City (as I usually did), that was when his video ‘Get At Me Dog’ debuted (Ft. Sheek Louch). It was beyond anything out at that moment, it was gritty (a departure from the glitzy videos that Bad Boy was continually putting out at the time). Furthermore, his rap cadence was both unconventional and mesmerizing. It was soulful, painful, and deep. His voice had the ability to be both rigid and beautifully smooth simultaneously. His voice was, in my opinion, the epitome characteristic of a black man, meaning it was wonderfully complicated, and beautifully unstructured. DMX remarkably filled a hip-hop void created upon the death of 2Pac and Biggie. Even more staggering, he did it by galvanizing both coasts.
This energy was only intensified when he dropped the table shaking “Ruff Ryders Anthem”. I am willing to bet that he helped popularize street bike culture entirely off the strength of that record alone. It was obvious to anyone with two ears and two eyes, that DMX was the new king. Even Lord Hova had to acquiesce to DMX supremacy (You remember that now comical XXL cover of DMX, Ja Rule & Jay Z, and how they ‘formed’ the rap group Murder Inc.?!? It’s hilarious when you now think of it. )
Ironically enough, he had to be forced to make that “Ruff Ryders Anthem” record, because he thought it was too silly and too basic for his style. Now it is considered one of his signature songs. Life is funny that way.
Think about how incredible his feat was, when you consider DMX emerged as the top dog (pun intended) in a year when hip hop reached its commercial zenith. 1998 was an incredible year for commercial sales. Don’t remember? Cool, let me remind you of a just a few of the incredible successful albums that year, again no particular order:
I. Lauren Hills “The Miseducation of Lauren Hill” II. Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life” Vol. 2 III. OutKast “Aquemini” , IV. Mos Def & Talib Kweli “Black Star”, V. Goodie Mobs “Still Standing”, VI. Big Pun “Capital Punishment”, VII. Juvenile “400 Degrees”, VIII. Gang Starr “Moment Of Truth”, just to name a few…..
These albums alone would go on to sell collectively over 29 million domestically. And yet…none of them (with the notable exception of a Ms. Lauren Hills incredible album) could claim they shook the proverbial industry table like DMX.
The fact that he went on to drop another album in that same year, and it still went multi platinum (2 million sold), only cemented this fact. No one has ever done that before or since.
What followed was a whirlwind of film appearances where he would garner a prominent role. He starred in 4 films in 4 years (Belly, Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds & Cradle 2 The Grave). Unfortunately, as his star power grew, so did his legal troubles, as well as his substance abuse issues (It was later revealed how he was manipulated into smoking crack cocaine when he was just a child by an older male, a person whom DMX looked up to). If his rhymes and persona displayed a tortured soul, his non musical/artist endeavors, shown to prove this exact point. When you’re one of the most recognizable humans in the world, your access to many activities, previously deemed untouchable, are easily accessible. These activities would ultimately hurt his output of music and ultimately stalled his career. He still managed to churn out hits [five (5) consecutive number one (1) albums] but the lyrical output was slowly becoming noticeable-no doubt the remnants of super stardom and music industry life taking its toll.
But it was more than just his broadside, in your face, lyrical style that made him special. What set DMX apart from the rest of his contemporaries, was his soul. As easily as he could flip a rhyme about taking someone’s girl, or robbing someone for their money and jewelry, X (as we affectionately called him) could drop knowledge on the metaphysical with his references to scripture, faith, belief, humanity and God. In fact, some would say that as impressive as his musical gifts were, it was his deep soulful knowledge of faith and spirituality that made him special. DMX was a complete human with a complicated construct. He could be emotional, yet strong. He could speak eloquently on subjects that would baffle some religious scholars, or rough enough that could endear him to the hardest person on any city block. His ability to operate in two spaces in one frame—effortlessly- made him the defining epitome of a black man. He was a modern day warrior priest. That was his appeal, that was his super power, that was his beauty and ultimately this is what made him unique.
Which us brings to our present moment. At first, I was thrown off with the ailment of DMX during Holy Week, but honestly it made sense, because he was too big and too important to the culture to just be regulated to hip hop artist. For many people he was THEIR preacher, a holy man they could relate to. He was their gateway to spiritual and ultimately the Lord. So it only makes sense that a holy man, would begin his journey to see the Lord, during Holy Week. My friend told me yesterday that God needed DMX to come home- because his work was done. Sadly and selfishly I was hoping this person was wrong. If only we could hear his sermonizing one more time. Ironically, only he would properly be able to deliver a message of hope, faith and love surrounding his own death. But he has done enough, it is up to us to carry the message forward.
Rest Easy Earl Simmons, your work is done and your message has been delivered.