Assessing the complicated legacy of Earl ‘DMX’ Simmons
It’s a sad hallmark of fading innocence when one comes to realize that those they idolize are as flawed and human as the rest of us.
From such a moment on, their genius or good works are impossible to consider without also weighing the implications of their less flattering behaviors. The context shifts to something much more complicated but relatable, a downsizing of myth to mortality. Most of us, within reason, deserve better than being defined by our worst mistakes, but it does a disservice to audience and artist both to outright ignore such choices, no matter the intent in doing so. To respect an artist, we must respect and investigate all aspects of who the artist was, the face behind the brilliant work itself.
On April 9th, hip-hop legend DMX (born Earl Simmons) passed away at the cruel, abbreviated age of 50, mercifully exiting the overdose-induced coma he’d fallen into a few days earlier. For a man raised in as bleak of circumstances as X, and whose recent adult life situations had declined in parallel to the waning of his once-electric stardom, the passing wasn’t surprising, but deeply saddening.
No less a figurehead of the game than Chuck D. has called 50 a sort of ‘finish line’ for young black men to reach, a milestone of an age that symbolizes the surviving of much hardship and pain to reach it. X only barely reached this checkpoint, and the hip-hop game lost one of its most unique and innovative voices, a rapper unflinching in his depiction of urban grime and the unceasing hellscape of growing up an impaired person of color in America. With and without his Ruff Ryders clique, his rasping inflection matched with a unique stuttering-staccato delivery that has swept through ensuing generations of rappers and scenes like a shockwave, he was instantly impossible to ignore. A phrase alone could paint an evocative, detailed view of circumstance and struggle.
AUDIO: Ja Rule feat. DMX and Jay-Z “It’s Murda”
For me, when I think of DMX’s work, it’s his first line guesting beside Jay-Z on Ja Rule’s “It’s Murda” that lingers in memory: ‘They got my back against the building’. It’s spat out in a panicked, shortened breath, desperate and harrowing, and it put across much more heft and weight in its paranoia and bitter hopelessness than most rappers manage in a hundred bars of trying. His wordplay symbiotically benefitted from his delivery, in an era where most rappers were content to lean on one or the other. He was gifted beyond measure, an innovator while remaining true to the game’s spirit, an envelope-pusher respecting tradition. In the midst of the ‘shiny suit’ era, X was willing to take rap to increasingly-darker places, insisting in one of his biggest hits that he had ‘no friends’. Hip-hop seemed an almost-cursed fate, rather than a blessed escape hatch celebrated with shrimp and Henny on a balmy Caribbean island, an era already declining itself.
But such darkness does not arise from well-adjusted, untroubled souls, in any genre of music, in any art form. Time has proven X to have been a deeply- conflicted man outside of hip-hop, the adversity and struggle only increasing following his star’s slow fall. And tragically, as is the case with so many, the roots of abuse and neglect planted in childhood eventually grew tall enough to strangle him.
Abandoned by his watercolorist father at a young age, Simmons youth in Yonkers public housing was ground out under the crushing weight of his mother’s strict Jehovah’s Witness faith, as well as her frequent beatings. He also suffered from a severe case of asthma, regularly requiring hospitalization. Having spent time in group homes following several alarming bouts of school-related violence and even attempted arson, he slipped at once into the clutches of the streets, moving from muggings to carjackings in his high school years. Though proving himself a talented track-and-field athlete, it was hip-hop that eventually offered hope of a stable future.
By 2001, he’d reaped millions in sales and a choice acting gig alongside Nas in Hype Williams’ underrated feature debut Belly. By 2003, though, the game was already in flux, and his sales began to slip as X pursued a number of other ventures, including preaching and Biblical scholarship. Instead, this is where his story’s dark turn really began.
Over the years and through numerous infidelities, X had fathered 15 children, and following his peak years in the business he was accused of repeatedly missing child support payments. In the remaining years of his life he’d declare bankruptcy three times. Criminal charges would eventually become de rigeur, for drug possession, for parole violation, for tax evasion, for weapons possession, but repeatedly and most upsetting at all, for animal neglect and cruelty.
Behind the menacing image, Simmons was a lifelong crack addict who suffered from bipolar disorder, which can badly affect the regulation of impulse control, the moderation of emotions. In hindsight, it seems as if X knew this would be his end result, a life of torment and setbacks, success met with eventual ruin. His most-compelling lyrics are preoccupied with themes of hell and evil, fate and reckoning and recompense. And while much of the game was celebrating in yachts and Bentleys, surrounding by scantily-dressed models and overjoyed entourages, X was moving like a ghost through the bullet-haunted streets, narrating his passage like a hip-hop Virgil descending through the underworld. Many of his lyrics have aged so poorly it would be in bad taste to reprint them here (those concerning women and sexuality, while accurate reflections of the attitudes of much of street-level hip hop at the time, are sickeningly offensive and borderline-criminal through the eyes of 2021), the man held no stark, distressing detail back in his reportage.
VIDEO: DMX at Woodstock ’99
X knew what he offered: unflinching honesty. There was no catharsis there, just reality. Hip-hop has seen countless embedded journalists broadcasting from the streets, but only X felt like he never really left them, no matter how successful he became. Perhaps he mistrusted such success, as if he knew eventually that there was no outrunning his past, that the streets would claim him someday no matter how many millions of dollars he netted or records he sold. This makes his story singularly heartbreaking. We wince at his poor choices and self-destructive end because it’s so unnecessary, but also so deeply unsurprising and commonplace. It seems some folks were never given a fair chance.
There’s a strange compulsion in Western society to forgive the dead of all their sins for a certain mandated period of time immediately following their death. But to do this not only robs the public of a fuller, more complex impression of their icons, it does a disservice to the deceased by refusing to take into account the very real struggle out of the spotlight that led to, and often deepened, the genius and relevance of their work. There is no way to appreciate the brilliance of DMX, unquestionably one of the greatest rappers of all-time, without considering his shortcomings as a person, nor the conditions that made him both the flawed man he was and the incredible artist he became. One raises specters of his legal and childhood struggles not to indict, but to pay respect and provide a thorough picture. DMX was many things, but he was never anything less than forthright, for better or worse a product of his upbringing and his inability to escape it, his cruel and victimizing choices existing alongside his artistic revelations.
It may have come at considerable cost, but he drew upon those failings and that background to shade in some of the most colorfully real evocations of urban hell in the modern United States. Simmons paved the way for such bluntness and truthfulness in resultant generations, and the game is richer for his presence, the doors his inimitable approach opened. As fan from a young age, I sincerely appreciate X for what he shared, and sincerely wish it hadn’t cost him so much in the end.
Beyond self-righteous judgment and naive veneration both, I hope he’s finally found some sort of peace. RIP, Dog.