From The Vault: Earl Simmons, 1970-2021
It’s been a little over a year since we lost DMX, but his voice hasn't stopped resonating.
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I wrote the below reminiscence the day DMX passed away in April 2021, a couple months before I launched this newsletter via Substack. Today I’d like to finally share it with the full Zogblog audience.
My first and only interview with Earl Simmons lasted no more than five minutes. And—like his all-too-short life—what it lacked in length, it made up for with intensity. Indeed, for about 18 months in the late 1990s, DMX burned as bright as any star in the history of hip-hop. Even by the time I got him on the phone a decade later, he still had the ability to set ears on fire, especially those belonging to folks who’d come of age listening to him.
Barely a year out of college, I found myself working on a profile of longtime DMX collaborator Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean for the second annual Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Kings package. I was told the only way to reach the “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” rapper was through a handler with a nickname I don’t remember. I diligently dialed the number and got through to someone in a noisy car who asked me to hang on a second. Then I heard that voice, as unmistakable as Bob Dylan, simultaneously rough and melodic, the gravel in a church driveway: “Heh-lo?”
I nervously introduced myself, explained the story I was writing and fumbled through my first question about his friendship with Swizz. “We dogs for life, yo,” DMX exhorted. Skeptical my editor would accept the quote, I rephrased my question, but got the exact same response. I frowned, then dug a little more specifically into the musical aspect of their relationship. There was a long pause. “When it’s bouncing,” DMX finally said, “You know it’s Swizzy.”
That was DMX in a nutshell. A bundle of contradictions, he could sometimes turn into a parody of himself—and often, he was in on the joke, like in this scene from Chris Rock’s Top Five—or just as easily do something like convey completely and viscerally, in only seven words, the sonic impact of an all-time great producer.
Most impressively, DMX had this uncanny knack for expressing raw emotion in a way that could be relatable to someone who grew up with his hardscrabble roots, or to an angsty Irish-Jewish teenager like I was when I first unavoidably discovered his work. If his oeuvre was the sun, its geographical molten core was the 30-mile stretch of New York from Tribeca to Tarrytown, centered on the city of Yonkers. I went to high school the next town up along the Hudson River, and DMX provided the soundtrack, courtesy of an endless stream of rolled-down Honda Civic windows.
Though DMX’s music never had Jay-Z’s intricate wordplay or Biggie’s humor, it had an urgency rivaled only by the likes of Tupac or N.W.A. More than systemic societal ills, he told the story of the battle for his own soul with the fire-and-brimstone ethos of a Puritan preacher (“The devil’s got a hold on me, but he won’t let go—I can feel the Lord pulling, but he’s movin’ dead slow!”) You were right there with DMX, rooting for him to emerge victorious over those demons, internal even more than external.
Backed by Swizzy’s bouncing beats, DMX managed to put out three No. 1 multiplatinum albums in a year-and-a-half span at the turn of the millennium; he became the first rapper to begin his career with five chart-topping albums. Though he earned millions and spent them almost as quickly, it's clear he made far more money for other people than he ever did for himself. Part of the impetus for his epic album run: driving up the value of Def Jam ahead of its sale.
As I reported in my book 3 Kings, Def Jam founder Russell Simmons agreed in 1998 to sell his label to PolyGram, with the final price contingent upon recent revenues. So he and lieutenant Lyor Cohen pushed DMX and Jay-Z, the label's other top act back then, to each release two albums before the end of the year, an unheard-of turnaround time. Final sale price: $135 million, about $100 million more than PolyGram had offered a year earlier. “We sold it definitely because of those guys,” Simmons told me.
DMX and Jay-Z’s careers diverged after that. Despite being born one year and about 40 miles apart from one another, the two couldn’t have been more different in personality or career outcome. DMX never reached the top of the mountain again, while Jay-Z kept climbing all the way to billionaire status and beyond. But wealth never really seemed to matter that much to DMX. He always appeared more interested in being in the studio, or on the big screen—or, most of all, on the stage.
“Performing in front of people is beyond a high,” he once said. “It’s beyond a high that any drug could duplicate.”
The last time I saw him, he was performing at the now-defunct House Of Blues in Times Square. It wasn’t Madison Square Garden, but he didn’t seem to mind. The energy and joy that poured out of him onstage indicated something greater: he felt he was winning that long battle for his own soul, at least for the moment.
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