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Cheat Sheet: DMX

Who: Even before the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., DMX laid a decent claim to being the hardest MC in the game. Granted, when Biggy died in 1997, DMX had yet to make his major label debut, but he had already displayed the raw lyrical talent and familiarity with physical violence that would later come to define his career.

Born Earl Simmons, DMX took his imprimatur while still a kid kicking around the New York suburb of Yonkers, beat boxing on street corners during his spare time. Just what “DMX” means seems to change with each passing moon. Originally a reference to the Oberheim DMX synthesizer, the acronym has come to stand for Dog Man X, Dark Man X and Divine Master of the Universe. Of course, as his career would prove, having a talent like DMX’s means you can pretty much call yourself whatever you want.

After gaining the attention of the major labels as early as 1991 (he was 20 at the time), DMX’s career languished in a series of blown release dates and botched promotional campaigns. Originally signed to Ruffhouse records, DMX eventually left the label amid frustrations over its marketing efforts and began building his reputation by appearing on a number of underground mixtapes, most notably a series put out by DJ Clue in 1997. Those performances landed him a berth on Def Jam records, which released the first of his multi-platinum selling albums—It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. Subsequent platinum releases included 1998’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood and 1999’s …And Then There Was X.

Despite DMX’s growing fame, or perhaps because of it, the MC found himself in nearly constant trouble with the law. His multiple arrests since 1998 have been carried out on such charges as drug possession, attempted murder, animal cruelty, reckless driving and identity theft. Recounting the full history of DMX’s various trials, jail stints and acquittals would require a blog post in and of itself, but safe to say the man has spent a few nights behind bars, and, if he knows what’s good for him, keeps a talented criminal defense lawyer on retainer.

In 2009, DMX announced his semi-retirement, opting to split his time between producing music and preaching in Jersey City. While mum’s the word on his efforts behind the pulpit, Undisputed, DMX’s first album in six years, is due for a June 26 release. Rumor has it the release date has been delayed, but only time will tell.


The Sound: If gangster rappers build monuments out of their machismo, DMX’s outsized sense of his own importance must form an edifice no less imposing than the pyramid of Giza. A tattooed, body-building convicted felon, DMX built his reputation by barking out rhymes that sounded like something you’d hear while having the shit beaten out of you for trying to steal somebody’s car.

Pausing occasionally for sung-spoken choruses, DMX shouts a throaty mixture of boasts and unnervingly convincing threats. Though his biggest hits (“Party Up (Up In Here)”, “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem”) can tend toward thuggish posturing at the expense of depth, DMX’s lyrical talent occasionally betrays his conflicted feelings toward violence and the lifestyle that accompanies it. His later tendency toward Christian themes has paradoxically reduced this talent, though his lyrical style remains one of the most distinctive ever to have reached the Olympian heights of mainstream hip-hop.


Essential listening:

The single with which DMX will forever be associated is “Party Up (Up In Here)” from 1999’s …And Then There Was X. When paired with “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem”, “Party Up (Up In Here)” guarantees DMX’s place in the annals of pop hip-hop lore.


“X Gon’ Give It To Ya” once again showcases DMX’s talent for hooks, this time couching them between some of his finest examples of booming braggadocio.


The first single from DMX’s forthcoming Undisputed, “I Don’t Dance” lacks some of the head-pounding energy that defined DMX’s early singles, though it still offers a formidable reminder that DMX is a) still alive and b) out of jail, thank God.

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About the Author


Shane Danaher's affection for pop music has peppered his adult life with a variety of aesthetically rewarding and financially disastrous decisions. After moving to Portland, Oregon for college (because that's where he heard Modest Mouse was from) Shane has wound up participating in the music world in roles ranging from 'drummer' to 'promoter' to 'bathroom floor scrubber.' He has toured without money, written about almost every band ever to have come out of the Pacific Northwest, and one time traveled all the way to Los Angeles just to see a catch hip-hop show. He currently resides in Portland, where he writes about hip-hop, pop and rock music for a variety of publications. He still plays drums. He wants to meet Kanye West.

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