A letter from hip hop to DMX

While hip hop remains alive and well, a large piece of it will be missing now that you’re gone.

  /  04.12.2021

Damn, DMX, where do we begin? Well, a good place to start would be to send our condolences and well wishes to your family and close friends, who allowed us to experience so much of you through their own sacrifice. The day you left was a reminder that time is fleeting and we never know how much of it we have left on the clock. So, the fact that you chose to spend a chunk of it with your fans makes us forever indebted.

Death is inevitable, but it hits home particularly hard when you feel its arrival is sudden, as if you never conceived a life without the deceased in question. Yet, that’s how it is when legends die. You never feel you’ve had enough time to spend, enough flowers to give, enough memories to make. However, once you get past that initial shock and reality settles in, you realize that even though that person’s gone in the physical, their contributions and energy remains far after they’ve faded into the sun. Which is why we, the hip hop community, are finding the power to celebrate your life and legacy, even in the midst of mourning.

And that legacy runs deep, way before we truly got acquainted. It starts on the streets of Yonkers, New York where you had to grapple and fight for yours on a daily basis. With an upbringing that was less than storybook, stints in juvenile detention homes, and later, prisons and other facilities were where you first made your name, displaying the heart, grit, and determination that would open so many doors for you down the road. However, while your reputation as a hard rock preceded you, it was your skills as a beatboxer that opened you up to a whole new world — for better and worse. Linking with your first mentor, Ready Ron, in the mid ‘80s, his influence had a negative impact and served as a gateway to drug abuse, but more importantly, helped spark your love of the culture, which you would hold onto until your last dying breath. 

Transitioning from beatboxing to rapping, you hit the pavement with a fervor, battling against other rappers in Westchester’s underground rap scene for the duration of the decade, a period during which you established yourself as a force to be reckoned with. The energy surrounding you beckoned uptown hustlers-turned-aspiring rap moguls Joaquin “Waah” Dean and Darin “Dee” Dean toward it, who vowed to “walk these dogs together” and take you to the top of the food chain, a promise that was ultimately kept.

However, time waits for no man, particularly those stuck in prison, as you were for various stints during this period. But, in between the occasional bid, your life was filled with enough highlights. The first was in 1991, when you were profiled in The Source magazine’s ‘Unsigned Hype’ column, which was the equivalent of landing a coveted spot on Rap Caviar at the time Known as the unofficial bible of hip hop, If The Source cosigned an artist, it instantly lends you credibility, as it did just that for you and Ruff Ryders, who landed a deal with Ruffhouse/Columbia shortly after.

The first single from that deal, “Born Loser,” was moderately successful, but not enough to cause a major dent or secure your spot on the Ruffhouse roster, resulting in you being dropped from the label. But honestly, it may have been for the best, as your style was still developing and being refined, as is the case with many artists that have traveled along the road to notoriety and success. However, by 1994, the pieces began to come together for you, creatively. This was evidenced by “Make A Move,” your ruggedly jazzy drop, which holds close to the monstrous material you would captivate us with just years later. Yet, the death of your beloved grandmother knocked you off course yet again, placing you on a crash course toward the grave or prison. But, in the midst of the turmoil, things were looking up. The LOX, a young crew of spitters that you and Ruff Ryders had taken under your wings, secured a record deal with Bad Boy Records, putting you in close proximity with your longtime goal of establishing yourself on the biggest stage

The issue was, given your history as a stickup kid and robber, along with your unpolished appearance, shopping your music — which was raw, unfiltered and devoid of catchy disco and soul samples — was a hard sell at the peak of Bad Boy’s Shiny Suit era. Labels poked and prodded, but never got in bed with Dark Man X, citing a perceived lack of upside on their investment. But unlike them, we know very well the pick of the litter is not always recognizable on first glance. So, you continued on. Things happen in threes, and the third time tragedy reared its head was a byproduct of your reputation, as you were assaulted after being mistaken for someone else, suffering a broken jaw that had to be wired shut during a crucial time in your career. You see, Irv Gotti, your longtime friend and associate, had been urging Def Jam exec Lyor Cohen to sign you to a record deal, and finally convinced him to make the trek up to Yonkers to meet and hear you in person.

But like a true dog, you showed the same heart, grit and determination you had as a youth when faced with the moment of truth, literally spitting “through the wire” and walking away with the high praises of one of the most powerful men in hip hop and a record deal. What came next was a blur for us both. First, it was the guest appearances: Mase’s “24 Hrs. to Live” and “Take What’s Yours,” The LOX’s single “Money, Power & Respect,” and LL Cool J’s “4, 3, 2, 1.” Body-bag after body-bag. The industry was on notice for what the streets already knew: X was coming and prisoners would not be left behind. Then, it was the release of “Get At Me Dog,” your debut single with Def Jam, which dropped in February 1998 and was the calm before the storm that was the main event: It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. Crash-landing on May 19 of that same year, the album made us inseparable, as we hung onto every word with bated breath. 

Debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and selling upwards of five million copies, it was the equivalent of a Mike Tyson knockout, signaling that a new champion — one for the streets — was in town. Out with the shimmering designer suits, in with the Timberland boots and tank-tops. Out with dance-friendly radio singles, in with a bit more of that hardcore. The levees had broken, the people had spoken, and you had rightfully claimed your place as the top dog. Then again, as always, there was the dissenting opinion that there may be one other piece on the board keeping you from rightfully claiming king status, which was none other than your label-mate JAY-Z. First engaging one another in a near-mythical pool-hall battle, you and JAY were considered the cream of the crop and Def Jam’s two prized recruits who helped saved them from their corporate demise. Appearing on each others’ records and even plotting to form a supergroup alongside Ja Rule, named Murder Inc., an odd pair you two were with you polarizing personalities. 

However, while Hov had the admiration of the streets and the respect of the boardroom, you shunned the latter while holding the heart of the streets in your hand, pumping out music at a breakneck pace to keep them fed. Doing the unthinkable and releasing another studio album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, a mere six months following the release of your debut, you made history by becoming the first artist in history to score two No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 within the same calendar year. And that was a flex you didn’t even care to brag about, instead, opting to hit the road in full force — first as part of the “Hard Knock Life Tour” alongside co-headliner JAY-Z, then with Cash Money and the rest of his Ruff Ryders fam the following year because while metrics are cool, they’re not the only or truest indicators of greatness. It’s the heart, a sentiment you embodied that spoke to your base and informed your music.

However, when it comes to the pure numbers, you’re also historic, as you originally set the bar for those following in your footsteps to aspire to. The most impressive of them all was you becoming the first artist in the history of music to have your first five studio albums debut atop the Billboard 200, a feat your accomplished with your fifth effort, Grand Champ, in 2003. That album would be your last to top the pop charts, as your follow-up effort, 2006’s Year of the Dog… Again, would miss the top slot on the Billboard 200 by hundreds of copies sold. In the subsequent years, you were plagued by various legal troubles and industry red tape, causing you to only release two more studio albums, 2012’s Undisputed, and 2015’s Redemption of the Beast. However, throughout all of your personal issues and hiatuses, the hip hop world stuck behind you, never shunning you and leaving you for stray — kind of like those dogs you befriended back in your early years.

And with a standout guest appearance alongside The LOX on the 2020 single, “Bout Shit,” and news that you linked back up with Swizz Beatz, and were working on a comeback album, your public profile was as large as it’s been in over a decade, with many fans eager to see you to get back in the swing of things. Add in your Verzuz matchup against fellow canine enthusiast Snoop Dogg, and it was a reminder that you had plenty of creativity left in the tank. This makes your death even more tragic, as it leaves us to think what it might’ve been like to grow old beside you.

The only way hip hop is going to survive is to find meaning in suffering, and while the culture remains alive and well, a large piece of it will be missing now that you’re gone. Nevertheless, thank you for everything you’ve contributed to the game. Hip hop wouldn’t be the same without you, and we’ll never forget that.

Rest in power, DMX.



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