Year of the Dog, Again: How DMX Became One of the Greatest Rappers of Our Time
Note: This article was originally published on July 22nd, 2020 and has been updated for clarity.
The year is 2020 — there’s a Ruff Ryders docu-series on the way and a head-to-head battle of the dogs between East Coast and West Coast legends. Even in the midst of so much pandemonium, we can still find joy in the world of music as it brings the culture together to bask in this glorious Hip-Hop moment. Though the East Coast/ West Coast rivalry ruled the late 1990s, years later it resurfaces in the form of a friendly competition between Hip-Hop icons Snoop Dogg and DMX — kings of their craft and self-proclaimed dogs in the game.
Verzuz, the breakout live-streamed series created by super-producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, has hand-selected some of the best battles over the last few months that’s given rise to a new platform built on nostalgia and mass music consumption. The announcement of the upcoming face-off from the platform came as a pleasant surprise for many, but stirred a spirit of excitement for fans and Hip-Hop lovers alike as a series of mini debates arose on social media about who would come out of the battle top dog.
While many were quick to side with Snoop Dogg’s catalog, others defended DMX’s equally stacked discography that’s solid enough to compete with the best of them. Snoop’s massive party tracks paired against DMX’s plethora of hardcore anthems makes for an even match up that could go either way, but DMX’s iconic arsonal of records is not to be taken for granted.
Many Hip-Hop heads’ top 5 dead or alive lists consist of legends like Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, Tupac, and others unsurprisingly, but oftentimes DMX’s name is left out of the conversation. Contrary to popular belief, DMX is arguably one of the greatest rappers to ever touch a mic with both the bark and the bite to back up his lyrics. His once heavily felt presence in Hip-Hop filled an empty void at a time where the get-money mindset of Bad Boy Records and brash demeanor of Death Row Records were the defining polar opposites of rap. Hip-Hop in the late 1990s was entering a rebirth era following the murders of its biggest leaders at the time. The once unfiltered genre was becoming too glitzy and flashy to recognize, and properly earned the title, the “Shiny Suit Era” because of artists like Diddy who broke through Hip-Hop’s violence and drug culture. Then DMX stepped in the ring and gave us a necessary cultural reset to restore Hip-Hop to its gritty roots. His contribution to the game as a solo artist lit a fire up under everyone in the industry, and his legendary crew Ruff Ryders paved the way for successful Hip-Hop artists like The Lox, Eve, Swizz Beatz, and Jadakiss to be game changers in their own right.
When DMX first arrived on the scene, he was burning through the ranks of Hip-Hop heating up his path with every single and every track he was featured on up until his formal debut in 1998. His unprecedented style crashed the platinum-coated party of rap with his compelling debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, coupled with signature songs like “Get at Me Dog” and “How’s It Goin’ Down.” That epic, yet brooding album — which was a culmination of nearly a decade-long journey — is credited for positioning X as a standout star and the next king of New York. The Yonkers native had a gruff manner that was a sharp contrast from what Hip-Hop looked like at the time, but his potent, passionate lyrics would come to resonate with his loyal following of listeners later down the line.
The greatest rappers known to the game had to get their start somewhere, but to think about how we personally discovered our most beloved rappers is a cherished memory in itself. As early as I can recall, DMX was one of the few rappers I remember listening to as a kid and strangely enough my introduction to him came in the form of comedy — Chris Rock to be specific. At a very young age, I was exposed to a lot of things four-year-olds shouldn’t be watching, but in true Friday tradition, my mother and I spent an evening renting a Blockbuster DVD and watching Down to Earth (2001).
If anyone is familiar with the movie, there’s a particular scene when Chris Rock’s character Lance Barton — a Black comedian who’s killed and reincarnated into Charles Wellington III, a wealthy white millionaire — enters a crowded carry-out spot in the hood and hears DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” blasting loudly from outside. Barton, still adjusting to being a Black man seen in a white body, then proceeds to rap along to the song saying “Oh, no, that’s how Ruff Ryders roll.” It’s an understandably weird scene to watch this white man rap so passionately to DMX’s song, but things take a sharp left when he goes on to rap “N*ggas wanna try, n*ggas wanna lie, Then n*ggas wonder why n*ggas wanna die” — you can predict what happened from there. Though meant to have a comedic impact, the scene did more than just evoke a few laughs from me. Even as a kid, I was genuinely intrigued with the belligerent sounds of X and I wanted to hear more. From then on that song always stuck with me, and so did DMX’s lasting impression.
Much like that trademark scene, DMX’s musical influence in Hip-Hop manifested into distinct traits that left his imprint on a future generation of artists through his hauntingly grim content and intense delivery. From his rugged, hoarse vocals to his aggressive, sharp tone, DMX embodied everything I’d come to love about Hip-Hop. Similar to the origins of the genre, DMX was raw, in your face, and never afraid to tell the authentic truths about his life. It wasn’t until I entered my teenage years that I realized how much of a staple DMX was during his prime years. Originating from Baltimore and raised in the streets of New York, DMX was known to be a credible battle rapper selling mixtapes outside of his apartment building and performing at local talent shows before getting his shot at a deal with Def Jam Records. Described as “the voice for the voiceless” by then A&R and esteemed producer Irv Goti, DMX spoke for all the street dudes with nothing to show, but all the heart in the world. He was uncut in his approach to rap, and it proved to be successful when the world was feening for something real.
When the album came out, he had a legendary show at the Apollo. He tore that shit down, and he ended with “Prayer,” and started crying. And when he closes with the lines, “So if it takes for me to suffer, for my brother to see the light, give me pain ’til I die, but please, Lord, treat him right,” and threw up the X with his arms, there was hood n — — — and bitches in there crying. Every motherfucker in the Apollo had the X up with him and they were crying. He was like, “I love y’all n — — . I love my n — — -.” He’s telling everyone in the audience “I love y’all.” I was on stage behind him, and I was like, god man. That’s DMX, man. Artists don’t have a connection like that. He’s in your heart. He’s in your fucking heart. — Irv Gotti, GQ (2018)
Seven months following the release of his debut album, DMX dropped his second studio album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, making him the only living rapper to debut on the Billboard album chart twice at №1 in the same year. That was an astounding feat to accomplish for any artist, but for a new artist it was unheard of. Now evolving into a mainstream monster, DMX’s run in Hip-Hop was exceeding all expectations as he grew into a larger than life figure. X went on to release three more consecutive №1 albums and some of the greatest Hip-Hop singles of all time, including “Who We Be,” “What These B*tches Want,” and most notably “Party Up (Up In Here).”
At a certain point, the pressures of the industry got to the now turned “Dark Man X” and drugs and addiction started to take over. Though he had his stumbling moments throughout his career, DMX always put that pain and sorrow of his troubled ways back into his music. With songs like “Slippin ‘’’ and “A Minute For Your Son,” X’s unique ability to turn his untreated struggles into art is what set him apart from many of his peers and partially what drew us to his music in the first place. He wasn’t a perfect being, but he made sure his music changed the game in some form or fashion. Nonetheless, DMX was still defying the odds and soaring to unparalleled heights in Hip-Hop.
Solely off the strength of his solo career, DMX was able to build the foundation for success by way of a new era in Hip-Hop — one that deserves much more praise. If there was ever a doubt in DMX’s abilities as a rapper and trailblazer in Hip-Hop, a quick glance at his lengthy career should change a few opinions. DMX is everything mainstream music didn’t want Hip-Hop to be, but the world loved him for it, even down to the unforgettable sound of his harsh voice. Even up against the most notable names in music, DMX has the merit to compete and surely has the track record to prove it. The battle of the dogs may be upon us, but never forget that DMX’s catalog remains a cornerstone in Hip-Hop at the turn of the century. As a later-mentioned pioneer in the game, X is recognized as part of the monumental history responsible for the rebirth of Hip-Hop. His name still rings bells to this day, so his accomplishments are justified in being in conversation amongst the greats.