In this series, we’ll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in “greatest of all-time” discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, and Big Boi. Today, we’re going to bat for DMX.
There are so many rappers that brag about their gangster lifestyles. They spin an intricate tale of murder, drug-fueled wars, and prison yards. How much of it is real though? For DMX, born Earl Simmons, every word was true. X is top five, dead or alive. There is no rapper more gangster, and there never will be. Not only was he an authentic thug, he was also a mainstream monster. His first five albums debuted at #1, something no other rapper had accomplished at the time. X’s ride-or-die persona was so absolute that the characters he played in movies also embodied his aggression. He wasn’t making kids movies or family comedies (Sorry Cube) and he still smashed the box office. X has starred in multiple #1 movies, including Cradle 2 the Grave and Exit Wounds. He never sacrificed his gangster, and he was a man torn between heaven and hell. Both the devil’s advocate and the angel’s muse, Earl Simmons is the east-coast’s Tupac.
Although DMX may have evolved to mean “Dark Man X,” Earl originally got his name from the Oberheim DMX digital drum machine. The beat maker was Earl’s first taste of hip-hop, but his producing and DJing aspirations were soon eclipsed by his capabilities on the mic. In the early 90s, X signed a record deal with Ruffhouse Records. At the time, Ruffhouse was home to The Fugees and Cypress Hill, who consumed a majority of the labels resources. Feeling under-appreciated and overlooked, X left Ruffhouse and signed to Def Jam. In 1997, he destroyed “4,3,2,1,” an LL Cool J track that also featured Redman and Method Man. That verse would launch him into the limelight, and pave the way for his debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. X’s first album went multi-platinum, and he released his second album that same year. Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood featured production from the same masterminds that crafted his first album: Swizz Beats, P. Killer, Irv Gotti, and Dame Grease. Flesh went triple platinum, which made X the only rapper alive to have two muli-platinum albums drop in the same year. GOAT.
X rapped like a man deranged on his first two projects. In the blink of an eye, he could go from preaching about the dangers of greed and malice, to robbing neighborhood drug dealers and spitting at people to get rid of them. This polarizing personality, mixed with a gruff and greasy vocal range, combined to create Def Jam’s biggest artist in the late 90s. Not even Jay-Z was as hot as DMX at the time. In 1998, X would make his big screen debut alongside Nas in Belly. Although both critics and fans can agree that the acting may have been weak at times, Belly is still considered one of the best hip-hop movies of all time. X went on to star alongside Jet Li and Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die, and then returned for a much more prominent role in Cradle 2 The Grave. Being an actor suited X well, but he never let Hollywood distract him from his music. The strength of DMX’s solo career built the foundation for the success of Ruff Ryders, a hip-hop collective the featured X, The LOX, Eve, Swizz Beats, and others.
By the time DMX dropped his third album, …and Then There Was X, he was a rap god. His third effort went 5x platinum, making it the best commercial performance of his career. …and Then There Was X featured the rap classic “Party Up (In Here),” which is also X’s most successful single to date. His follow up albums, The Great Depression and Grand Champ debuted at #1 in the US, giving X his fourth and fifth #1 albums. It seemed as if the only person that could stop X was himself, and ultimately, that’s what happened. Although his sixth album Year of the Dog… Again did peak at #2 on the US charts, it failed to sell in the new internet age and soon X’s criminal tendencies finally caught up with him. In 2008, X went to jail for animal cruelty, drug possession, and theft. After he was released on probation, X was sent back to jail for reckless driving. It was also during this time that he was arrested for impersonating a police officer, and then again for failure to pay child support. The uncaring and brash rap persona he imprinted on his records seemed to be affecting his real life. X proves why you can’t be both a gangster and a rapper, because when the two worlds collide, both crumble. The constant run in’s with the law would ultimately derail X’s success, and leave him in a tough financial and mental situation.
Despite his fall from commercial success, everyone knows who DMX is. He is one of the most famous New York rappers to ever grace the mic, and is certainly one of the most successful. His raucous bark and unsettling growl will forever be etched into the heart and soul of hip-hop history. In a post Biggie and ‘Pac rap scene, he was able to win the title of most gangster rapper. Not unlike ‘Pac, he was a man torn between thug life and personal growth. A man tormented by the sins of his past, but enlighten by the knowledge gained from living at the bottom. He’s sold more records than the new school heavy hitters like Drake and Kendrick Lamar while also smashing the box office with number #1 movies. That is why DMX is top five, dead or alive.