From Then Til Now, Don’t Ask Me How

It’s 11:35pm on a cool Thursday night in April, 2015. Hustle Bankroll, the opening act for the night has just completed his second set, having been asked to fill time. The headliner, nearly three hours late, is Earl Simmons, the now late DMX. The Vogue theater on the north side neighborhood of Broad Ripple is packed full of people. Near the sound booth is a contingent from a sorority, a pack of AKA women dressed in their unmistakable pink and green. By the bar, a group of twenty-something men in tieless dress shirts and jackets. On stage, a man in an oversized Pelle Pelle jacket starts to make an announcement and is stopped by a tall man in a long Ruff Ryders t-shirt. “What?!” He exclaims, pulling the mic away. He’s shocked. Both men rush off stage. Despite reassurance from promoters that he’s coming, DMX is nowhere to be seen. A man two rows from the stage says to his friend, “how much you wanna bet his ass got arrested?”

July 23, 1999. Rome, New York. It’s the site of Woodstock ‘99, and DMX is one of the featured acts. The prior year, he had his first (May’s Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood) and second (December’s It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot) albums debut at number one on the Billboard 200. He was a certified superstar, now performing his ultra-aggressive, hardcore rap for a few hundred thousand people. It is an unforgettable performance, one of the most famous and greatest in rap history.

His voice is clear and precise, and his words are crude and perverse. He’s rapping about all seven of the deadly sins as if they’re a list of tasks for him to do today. Everyone as far as the eye can see has his attention and most know the words. He runs through his hits, songs off of his two albums and his upcoming third …And Then There Was X.

It’s an exhausting performance, but X just keeps going, never losing steam despite the heat. He’s more a force of nature than rapper, combining addictive hooks with verses that unite the grime of his literary imagery with rhyme couplets as simple as lullabies.

By this time, X has already starred in 1998’s Belly and, though he clearly had been done with the film already, principal photography had just concluded on Romeo Must Die. Basically, on any given day DMX could be recording, filming, or performing. It was a staggering lifestyle, one very clearly fueled by hunger, passion, and sadly, drugs.

I do not intend to explore the drug addiction side of his life here. It’s well known and well documented and surely played a role in his death. Addiction is a mental health problem and one that carries a disgusting stigma that I believe holds many people back from recovery. That said, Simmons clearly had many mental problems nurtured by trauma throughout his life.

The dichotomy of DMX lies in the balance of his drug use, criminal behavior, grotesque/visceral imagery and a profound mind who was constantly in search of truth within himself. In one moment he’s stealing a cop car, another he’s volunteering at a homeless shelter. The latter was rarely what was given whenever stories of X were reported. In turn, a life that was nothing short of living, breathing nuance in experience was repeatedly boiled down to “crackhead DMX is at it again.”

By the end of 2003, DMX would have five albums it number one on the 200. If you’re of a certain age, you probably know a large portion of these songs verbatim. Lyrics that would get attention for one reason or another if you recited them. Take for instance this infamous opening couplet:

I got blood on my hands and there’s no remorse
I got blood on my dick ‘coz I fucked a corpse
I’m a nasty n***a

– from “Bring Your Whole Crew”

Later on that same album.

Wasn’t long before I hit rock bottom
Like damn look how that rock got him
Open like a window no more Indo look at a video
Sayin’ to myself that could’ve been yo n***a on the TV
Believe me it could be done somethin’s got to give
It’s got to change ‘coz I’ve got a son
I’ve got to do the right thing for shorty
And that means no more getting high drinking forties

– from “Slippin'”

It wasn’t just a song, but a moment of self realization for Simmons. Even back in 1998 he recognized that his life was unsustainable. He acknowledged he had a problem and wanted to reconcile it for the sake of his family. Again and again he ran through this vicious cycle.

There was always a feeling of inevitability surrounding DMX. Like he was a ticking clock that somehow just kept getting reset or an hourglass that always flipped 5 minutes from draining. Still, he used all of the problems within and beyond his mind to create music that was impossible to avoid.

Five years post-Flesh Of My Flesh…, he was still on top, releasing his fifth number one album in that span, 2003’s Grand Champ. He had singles charting nearly every month for six years, an incomprehensible feat in the pre-streaming era. “X Gon Give It To Ya” was a platinum single featured on the Cradle 2 Tha Grave OST, a film in which Simmons also starred opposite Jet Li. Later that year, “Where The Hood At?” dropped. It felt like wherever you turned, a new, fantastic DMX song was waiting around the corner. His albums rarely held wasted space, either. They were blistering 40+ minute journeys of a man unhinged, peppered with introspective talks with God and inward contemplation.

The streak of five straight albums to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 ended in 2006 when Year of the Dog… Again started out at number two. Often seen as a creative decline, the album also featured the single “Lord, Give Me A Sign”, a song featuring no curse words due to X’s desire to use it as a sermon. It’s in the vein of his previous ‘talks with God’ songs, but there’s a little more to this one. He’s calling out to his God, asking for help in the trials and tribulations he has been going through, something likely quite literal. It remains his last single to chart, peaking at number 70 on the US R&B list.

In 2013, he sat down for an interview with Dr. Phil and discussed his lyrics. While there are moments to the interview that are funny, the resonance of DMX’s message is on full display as Dr. Phil goes through the lyrics to a few songs.

I’ve watched this clip a dozen or so times over the years, and I find it fascinating. What appears to be a gotcha moment turns into a moment of clarity and lucidity where Simmons is able to convey his true self- a man living in constant conflict between his ears but always in search of the light.

He’s over ten years removed from the height of his career, and a year past Undisputed, his first LP release since 2006. He has embraced the role of a hip-hop legend, not shying away from performing songs he wrote and recorded 15 years earlier. He’s grateful, and I know this because of what I saw that April night in 2015.

About two minutes have passed since the DJ and promoter ran off stage. From where I’m standing, I can see slightly into the tunnel to the backstage area. There’s a lot of commotion, and people start to understand that the time has finally come. “D-M-X. D-M-X.” The suits, the sorority girls, everyone is chanting it.

Then he emerges like a goddamn phoenix to the opening beat of “We Right Here” and instantly the party is fuckin’ ON.

This begins a string of his hits that seem to come at a clip that would make an AK-47 sound lazy. Banger after banger after banger, only segueing into monologues and conversational streams of consciousness to seemingly give the vibrating walls of The Vogue a break. He’s there to entertain and he doesn’t miss. This is a man who can command the stage no matter if its 400 or 400,000. The thing is, everyone is feeding off of his energy and vice versa. There’s all of the beauty of growing up here- the nostalgia, the vicarious celebration, the transcendent experience of live music. It’s like somehow we’ve all been transported back ten years but still in our current bodies. When a genius performer is on, there’s nothing like it.

I’m there with my best friend Alex, who has made this his first ever concert at the tender age of 27. We’ve known each other since X’s incredible 1998. Two white church kids who grew up sneaking views of Mtv and BET behind our parents’ backs now finally witnessing a legend of our youth. I don’t like to take up a whole show taking pics and videos, and I made sure he knew not to waste too much time doing that because he probably wouldn’t go back and watch the clips anyway. I was wrong. The one video he took is something I watch a few times every year.

You can feel the energy. It didn’t matter he was “past his prime” or if some people, clearly nowhere near us, had bought tickets ironically. Those of us who loved and grew up on his music were having a moment.

His setlist could have been recorded, packaged, and sold as a greatest hits. He knew what we wanted to hear and he delivered. Then in one moment between songs, he broke it down.

It didn’t matter that he performed over a track, or sometimes whiffed on a lyric or two. Live music isn’t about perfection. It’s about the experience, and that’s what he gave us.

I’ve been to dozens of concerts in my life, and there are not many that I remember where I left happier than that night. It was a party through and through.

I was reminded of that night when, six years to the day later, word broke that X was on life support. Of course, within a week he was gone, and we’re all left with the memories of a performer who was unique beyond compare.

Earl Simmons had troubles, to say the least. In equal yoke, he was also a meteoric force of entertainment that made millions of people happy. Therein lies the dichotomy of life. Fifty is young, but when you make people happy and give them something to feel good about, you’ll always die too young. Live your life to the contrary, and you’ll always die too old.

For those of us who grew up lip synching “Stop Being Greedy” in our bedrooms, feeling like we could fight an army ourselves, thank you, X. Thank you, and godspeed.

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