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DMX’s casket on a monster truck on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue outside the Barclays Center where a private memorial was held on April 24, 2021Jason Szenes/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
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A Prayer for DMX

Losing, and finding, oneself in the late rapper’s raw honesty

by
Jonathan Zalman
April 26, 2021
Jason Szenes/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
DMX’s casket on a monster truck on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue outside the Barclays Center where a private memorial was held on April 24, 2021Jason Szenes/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The first time I heard DMX pray was on track 17 of his debut big-label album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, a six-word title to take at face value. Released in May 1998, a month before my 16th birthday, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is a narrative of 16 songs, two skits, and one prayer that’s placed toward the end of the record like a spiritual coda. For 2 minutes and 32 seconds, DMX, born Earl Simmons, who died last week and was memorialized at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn by a huge throng of mourners, myself included, patiently works his way through a devotional to God about love, growth, and mercy, giving himself and listeners alike a short-lived respite from an album full of stories about violence, sex, and pain.

I come to you hungry and tired, you give me food and let me sleep
I come to you weak, you give me strength, and that’s deep.

Then, during the final two lines, what’s been spoken as a calm, clear lullaby (for DMX, at least) transforms into a crying, sacrificial plea:

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

Prayer was always with DMX—the language of redemption his lifelong guide. He prayed at concerts, always. He prayed to hundreds of thousands of people at Woodstock. “Maybe 65% of the time that I get offstage, I’m so emotionally overwhelmed, I just break down,” he once said.

He prayed at interviews. He prayed at Kanye’s Sunday Service in California, and then the Sunday Service Choir, in hoodies and shrouded in red light, sang for him during his private livestreamed memorial service on Saturday. “There are no words more powerful than the book,” DMX said before his death on April 9 at the age of 50.

There is a clip of DMX reciting this prayer drunk and live at the Apollo Theater during 1998’s Survival of the Illest Tour with fellow New Yorkers Onyx and Def Squad (Eric Sermon, Redman, and Keith Murray), and featuring Foxy Brown (my childhood crush), Cormega, and Method Man. Notably, on the official tour album, it’s credited as “Poem.”

There are a few remarkable things to point out about the prayer track on his first album, and each of them centers on the theme of range—not exactly the word I imagine casual DMX fans would use to characterize his music. First, consider the placement of the track itself on the record. Leading up to the prayer is “Stop Being Greedy,” perhaps my favorite DMX song, in which the West Vernon- or Baltimore-born rapper delivers a common lyrical theme (the struggle of balance) over driving, pumping, hungry organs.

This track is followed by “ATF,” a song about a hypothetical dealing with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which begins and ends with the same triplet yell: Boom, boom, boom, open the door, ATF. These bookends, according to one genius Genius commenter, “show[s] that the story was a dream but that dream is about to turn into reality.”

Then, following a song about loyalty (“For My Dogs”), DMX drops “I Can Feel It,” a slick, meaningful reinterpretation of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” that doesn’t make you wait nearly 4 minutes to hear the beat drop; DMX gives it to you in 20 seconds.

Elsewhere on the album, which contains zero duds, is “Intro,” a record-leading warning shot to whoever has beef with him (Put their brains on the wall, when I brawl (Uh)/Too late for that 911 call (Come on)); “How’s It Goin’ Down,” a track about infidelity, and perhaps the most classical record on the album with its sweet, R&B hook; “Fuckin’ Wit’ D,” in which DMX tells listeners he’s Listed as a manic depressive, with extreme paranoia—and would later say that he was bipolar; and “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” the album’s most popular track (Stop, drop, shut ‘em down, open up shop/Oh, no, that’s how Ruff Ryders roll) and a reference to the record label behind the production.

During Saturday’s police-escorted memorial procession in Brooklyn, the Ruff Ryders emblem was ubiquitous. It was emblazoned on the backs of leather biker jackets, on COVID masks, and on bumper stickers that were stamped onto nearly every moving thing—motorcycles, cars, trucks, SUVs, four-wheelers, and a bunch of those three-wheel mini Batmobile rides. Inbound traffic from Westchester to Kings County was practically shut down as thousands of vehicles trailed a monster truck carrying DMX in a lipstick-red coffin with silver trim in its bed.

To live, is to suffer
And to survive?
Well, that’s to find meaning in the suffering.
DMX, “Slippin’” (from Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, 1998)

Outside Barclays Center I noticed Rick, a photographer, moving to “Damien,” a track from It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot in which DMX plays himself and the devil. During the lyric, “blood out,” Rick pushed his hands away from his heart then back toward it—“blood in.”

Rick, 59, grew up in Harlem and the Bronx “when it was Beirut. I went through a lot of the same shit DMX went through,” he said, mentioning that he played tag jumping roof to roof and caught his first bid, or stint in jail, when he was also quite young. In total, he said he’s spent 25 1/2 years incarcerated, “don’t forget the half.”

“Everybody’s got a cross to bear,” he said. “X is like Tupac—they bled out.” With DMX, he said, “What you heard is what you got. He was brave enough. He got to be himself and be loved. If he hadn’t had music, he would’ve died a lot sooner.” Over the course of our conversation he hugged me twice, once head-to-head, and shook my hand.

Born in 1970, the year of the dog, DMX lived a life tougher than most. His mother was just 19 when she gave birth to Earl; his father, who would be almost entirely absent from DMX’s life, was 18. As a child, DMX suffered from allergies and bronchial asthma, likely a contributing factor to his unique voice. He grew up in a Jehovah’s Witnesses household that neither celebrated his birthday nor told him that he was loved.

According to DMX, he was often abused by his own mother, who knocked his teeth out with a broom when he was just 6 years old. He was also physically abused by her mother’s boyfriends. He befriended stray dogs in Yonkers as a way to stay away from home, sometimes sleeping in Salvation Army clothing bins. At the age of 7 he stole a dog. He stabbed his classmates with pencils.

From the age of 7 to 14, DMX, whose name comes in part from a vintage drum machine, stayed in group homes, including Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry (he returned to visit in 1999). It was his mother who dropped him off there for 18 months, without warning, when he was 11. “I was hurt and I was angry. I wasn’t prepared at all. I didn’t bring a bag. I just had what I had on,” he said. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done … I had to protect myself.”

Before he was even a teenager he had been expelled from school, arrested as a juvenile, and spent 18 months at Yonkers’ Julia Dyckman Andrus Memorial children’s home. He was arrested for arson … the list goes on. At 14, Ready Ron, a local rapper whom DMX had befriended, handed him a laced blunt—a trick—and like that, “a monster was born.” DMX would struggle with substance abuse his entire life.

In high school DMX was a member of the track team, but school wasn’t a priority; crime was. From GQ:

School was just a way to rob the other kids. He developed a strict three stick-ups a day regime: before school, after school, and late night. Three different flavors of people to choose from. He claimed that the morning shift was the “pressure robbery,” following kids on their way to school or running up on teenagers with money at the corner store. In a revealing admission, he wrote that he was more comfortable robbing people in the flesh. Home invasions were anathema. Even at his cruelest lows, there was something innately human to him that craved the personal interaction, to see the whites of their eyes.
None of DMX’s story seems real, but it had to be. In 1986, the cops shot his dog Blacky dead. The next week, he showed up to Yonkers High with a sawed-off shotgun taped to his leg. The following year, he acquired a new hobby: stealing cars. On a joy ride in the Hamptons, the cops pulled him and a friend over, leading to a bid in the Suffolk County Correctional facility. It wasn’t his first jail stint, but it was his first encounter with the hole. For a week, he was trapped in a dingy 6 x 9 box, guarded by sadistic jailers, and forced to drink water from the sink. As always, X found meaning in the deprivation. Solitary led to his first artistic breakthrough.

DMX handed you a dull ax, pointed to a tree, and said, ‘Chop it down, dog. And when you’re done, we’ll pray.’

It was his grandmother that brought DMX a semblance of peace, her house playing “Amazing Grace” from the kitchen on Sundays. “Grandma loved me to death,” he recounted. “I could do no wrong in her eyes.” It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is dedicated to her, the first of a number of tributes.

By 1988, at the age of 18, DMX had written 200 songs about “stories, philosophies, and old fears.” Rapping had become an important outlet for him during a stint in jail for carjacking, and he eventually produced a mixtape, sold it on the streets, and signed with Ruffhouse/Columbia. His first major-label single, “Born Loser,” got airplay but otherwise flopped, and DMX was dropped by the label.

How Def Jam picked him up is the stuff of hip-hop legend— as well as the original story of a rapper spitting rhymes through a wire (sorry, Kanye). As the story goes, DMX had been beaten severely after he was accused of stealing an Avirex jacket from a local teenager. The father of that kid sought out DMX and during the ensuing fight, shattered the rapper’s jaw and broke a couple of his ribs.

At the time, Irv Gotti was hired by Def Jam to head up A&R. Right away, he threatened to quit if they didn’t let him sign DMX. He convinced Lyor Cohen to visit Powerhouse Studios in Yonkers, which DMX and his team had set up with the advance from Born Loser. Apparently, DMX left the hospital for the studio and began to rap with The Lox and Drag-On. From GQ’s oral history of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot:

Irv Gotti: Lyor kept a poker face when he was at the studio. He was trying not to look too excited, so they didn’t know how badly he wanted to sign them.
Darrin “Dee” Dean (co-founder, Ruff Ryders Records): He started spitting with his jaw wired, and Lyor was like, “Oh shit, this guy’s the real deal.” That’s how we got our deal with Def Jam. Lyor signed him on the spot.
Irv Gotti: Once we left the studio. Lyor was going crazy. He was like, “Yo. He is fucking incredible. We have the pick of the litter. He is going to kill it.” And we signed him.

It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot “filled a void in rap, which, in large part, had become defined by the get-money mindset of Bad Boy and the brass-knuckled bravado of Death Row”—this from an oral history of Flesh of My Flesh that appeared in The Fader. I personally recall that 1998 was a very solid year for rap, highlighted by records from Big Pun, Kurupt, Jay-Z, Outkast, Gang Starr, Black Star, Juvenile, Beastie Boys, Goodie Mob, and many more. But DMX was unlike all the rest and 1998 belonged to him. He became the first rapper since Tupac (All Eyez on Me and Don Killuminati, 1996) to have two albums debut No. 1 in the same year.

Seven months after It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, DMX released Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood—three days before Christmas. On the CD cover, he’s doused in blood, hands raised, palms facing in, as though in prayer or penitence or peace. “It was fucking freezing,” DMX said, recalling the LA blood pool he shot the cover in. “Freezing! With jeans on. I’m talking bone-chilling cold.”

DMX always seems to be in conversation with himself. These conversations feature DMX and an alter ego (sometimes his own self, sometimes another person, X, or a demonic presence). In “Stop Being Greedy,” for example, good (here: generous, moralistic) butts up against bad (here: greedy). This is what makes him so alluring and relatable as an artist.

Below is verse 1, in which the story unfolds through a conversation that switches every four lines—starting with yin. Here, DMX’s range can be seen through storytelling as well as his ability to personify emotion and character through his voice. (And what’s rap talent, if not that?)

I could flip that flow, I could stick that ho
I could get that dough, you know I’m with that, yo
Ain’t a thing about the shit I came through I haven’t seen
But when it gets dark, it’s like a nigga’s havin’ dreams
Or nightmares, the light dares to desert me (What?)
Got me like everybody wants to hurt me (What?)
Paranoid, so I strike out at whatever (Uh)
The closest thing to me is gonna get it, but never
Will I kill? I think death is wrong
So I’m a keep holdin’ on ‘til what’s left is gone
You could put that on my nigga Boom
These other rap cats will give a nigga room
But if it calls for me to force my way in the door
Headhuntin’ motherfuckas, stay on the floor
Four-four, that’s what I get sick with (Grr)
Four more, now all this is liquid (Grr)

DMX is music to drive to, windows down, on blast. It’s written in the Bible, look it up.

The Shabbat after DMX died, my wife and I broke bread at a friend’s place then played “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” repeatedly on the way home, windows down, on blast. At a red light, someone saw us losing our minds and smiled, which made us feel seen, as though we’d been validated in performing our public duty to mourn DMX through one of his most popular bangers.

But our mini memorial also felt a little cheap to me at the time. It’s not that the song isn’t good; “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” is a quintessential DMX-Swizz Beats track—tough, energetic, instructive, self-aware, and complete with syncopated growl-warnings to not push him over the edge: I’m a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And it’s not that our tribute wasn’t sincere. It’s just that it didn’t feel deep enough, painful enough, confrontational enough, spiritual enough, sharp enough, messy enough, real enough. That’s the journey and privilege of writing.

I’m tempted to deconstruct what it means to be a white Jewish middle-class kid from New England suburbia who grew up on rap and found a portion of his identity in it, in particular via DMX. I’m feeling paranoid, too, given the identity politics that have a stranglehold over public discourse, shredding nuance and experience to a pulp. That I need to preemptively defend myself against someone who might argue that I don’t understand what it was like to grow up as a Black man in America in the ‘80s and ‘90s—which I don’t.

That I’ve been warring with myself, constantly, is proof enough to me that I’m in the right place. DMX’s music took a hold of me when I was young, fucked up, and without certain resources to cope. I lost my mother early, battled an eating disorder throughout my adolescence, dealt with divorce and separation and isolation and addiction. In retrospect, I was a very depressed young man, but I didn’t have the language for it or the awareness that I do now. But I did have DMX.

When I was 11, a few months into a new family living situation, Kurt Cobain, a genius with the power cord, shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Eight years later to the day, Layne Staley, another Seattle legend I idolized growing up, died of a speedball overdose as I languished at college. I don’t recall whether the loss of Cobain or Staley truly shook me, and I think that’s because Cobain and Staley had been doing a lot of the heavy lifting for me every time I pressed play. In that sense, it was easy listening. Where Cobain and Staley gave you a shoulder to weep or zone out on, DMX handed you a dull ax, pointed to a tree, and said, “Chop it down, dog. And when you’re done, we’ll pray.”

Now, DMX is dead and I’m nearly 40. A part of me wonders where I’d be without him. When I was younger, I didn’t know DMX the father, the friend, the addict, the human being, the parent. I didn’t know he had 15 children and the name of his 15th, Exodus, tattooed across his neck. The DMX I knew was chaos incarnate, his music a salvo of emotion, a torrent of cussing and crying and calculating rhymes. He helped listeners work through their feelings through his own, which were laid bare for you to judge, accept, taunt, push aside, or let rock you to sleep. His music held me like a parent. And maybe that was the point.

DMX was a complicated man whose self-awareness built his image and whose image never usurped this self-awareness. This is what inspired his music, what brought him fame, what fueled a fire that stayed alive until it killed him.

And as his life went on, it felt at times that the world was sometimes laughing at DMX, Divine Master of the Unknown, and not in the innocuous Kat Williams kind of way. During Shabbat, a friend suggested we watch a YouTube clip of DMX having trouble using the internet during a 2012 visit to Power 105.1’s studios in New York. “What the fuck is a Google?” a clearly agitated DMX says as the camera laughs at him. In the comments section (a cesspool to which I imagine DMX would have paid no mind) people wonder what he was on at the time of the interview; they LMAO; they call him “street” and “ignant” and a boomer; they wish him well (“RIP”). You’ll hear stories about threats, animal abuse, sexual assault, tax evasion in the same breath that you do his frequency to cry, which he often did on camera, whether it was about his mother or about a tough moment from his childhood.

“He was in pain his whole life,” Jadakiss said at his memorial. “He was the happiest he ever was the last couple years.”

It took him a long time to get there, and now he is gone. I am grateful for everything he gave me to and to hundreds of thousands of other listeners who benefited from his honesty, his love, and his art. I am praying for him now.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.

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