DMX: Hear 10 essential songs
By Christopher R. Weingarten
Earl Simmons, the gruff, evocative rapper from Yonkers, New York, better known as DMX, died Friday at 50. He spent his final days on life support at White Plains Hospital in Westchester County after suffering a heart attack April 2.
DMX was one of the most recognizable emcees in the late 1990s and early 2000s, years when hardcore New York rap could still stake a claim as hip-hop’s central concern.
Signed to Def Jam Recordings, his first five albums all debuted at No. 1, a feat no rapper has matched before or since. DMX cut a unique figure for a superstar rapper: He’d battle his inner demons using the horror-centric imagery beloved by heavy metal bands, but his albums reliably offered heartfelt, often a cappella, prayers to God. He made giant pop crossover hits, but they bubbled with wildly vivid threats better suited for a grindhouse theater. His shout-rap energy made him a favorite in the outwardly angsty era of Woodstock ’99 and the nü-metal band Korn’s Family Values Tour, but he was also a shirtless sex symbol moonlighting as an actor.
Here’s a small sampling of an artist with a range that encompassed the shocking, the sincere and the simply incredible.
‘Born Loser’ (1993)
After years spent as a ruthless battle rapper, mixtape hustler and early beneficiary of The Source magazine’s Unsigned Hype column, DMX and the nascent Ruff Ryders label released the rarely heard “Born Loser” on a handful of 12-inch records. Soon after, “Born Loser” became the lone song released as part of DMX’s false start with Columbia Records. Both DMX and rapper K-Solo had claimed a rhyme style where individual words in bars are spelled out. For example, on his 1990 hit “Spellbound,” K-Solo raps “I s-p-e-l-l very w-e-l-l / I only spell so all can t-e-l-l.” After the success of “Spellbound,” DMX wrote this track while fuming in a Westchester prison cell. “Born Loser” was not a hit, but as a punchline rap where DMX makes himself the punchline, it would foreshadow the self-eviscerating rhymes of rappers like Eminem and Fatlip: “They kicked me out the shelter because they said I smelled a / Little like the living dead and looked like Helter Skelter.”
LL Cool J featuring Redman, Method Man, Canibus and DMX, ‘4, 3, 2, 1’ (1997)
This single would be epochal for multiple reasons. It sparked the lyrical war between LL Cool J and Canibus, perhaps the last consequential wax battle held on actual vinyl — soon such things were fought in the fields of mixtapes and MP3s. And “4, 3, 2, 1” was the breakout single for DMX, then a new Def Jam signee, who holds his own against members of an elite tier of emcees. Here, he raps death threats with a filmmaker’s eye for detail: “Believe what I say when I tell you / Don’t make me put you somewhere where nobody can smell you.”
DMX featuring Sheek Louch, ‘Get at Me Dog’ (1998)
DMX recorded his debut Def Jam solo single amid the era of ’80s pop samples, big-budget videos and a general sentiment of getting “jiggy.” “I wasn’t down with all that pretty, happy-go-lucky (expletive),” DMX said in “E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX.” He added that Sean “Puffy” Combs “had the radio on lock, the clubs on fire, had people thinking that hip-hop was all about bright lights and shiny suits and smiled all the way to the bank — X, on the other hand, still lived in the dark.” “Get at Me Dog” is pure, unfiltered rhyming over a loop of the disco-funk band B.T. Express. If it sounds like a mixtape rap, that’s how it started: The beat and hook were part of a freestyle for DJ Clue. The song not only introduced DMX the solo artist, but introduced his trademark barking and growling, sounds inspired by his beloved pitbulls. The video — a black-and-white affair directed by Hype Williams — was filmed at New York’s hip-hop meeting ground the Tunnel, where Funkmaster Flex held court on Sunday nights. The song became one of the most beloved “Tunnel bangers.”
‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ (1998)
The third single from DMX’s debut album, “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” gleamed a little brighter than its predecessors. His rhymes were no less uncompromising and violent — “Had it, shoulda shot it / Now you’re dearly departed,” he raps. But the song heralded the blipping, pixelated debut of producer Swizz Beatz, whose sound would ultimately define the next few years of the Ruff Ryders orbit: DMX, Eve, the Lox, Drag-On and Swizz Beatz’s own solo work.
Swizz Beatz told Vibe it took a week to convince DMX to do the song: “He was like, ‘I don’t want those white-boy beats.’” Swizz would go on to produce Top 10 singles for Beyoncé, Lil Wayne, T.I. and Busta Rhymes, and to co-found the popular quarantine-era streaming battle Verzuz.
The rapper’s most famous storytelling rhyme involves him having a conversation with the devil — a play about fighting his own temptations. “At the time, X was in a really dark place as he was in and out of jail,” producer Dame Grease told Okayplayer. “He told me he thought he was in hell, mentally, and could hear the devil speaking to him. He wanted to find a way to recreate that feeling.” Two sequels followed, including “The Omen (Damien II),” also in 1998, which featured a guest appearance from shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, who would go on to have a notable impact on hip-hop, influencing modern goth-tinged artists like Travis Scott and Lil Uzi Vert, among others. The second sequel is “Damien III” (2001).
On this bloodletting, emotionally raw track, DMX confronts his troubled upbringing, his time in various institutions and his addictions with a sober eye. It was a personal and vulnerable look at his life and his struggles in the vein of diarist rappers like Tupac Shakur and Scarface. “X was writing ‘Slippin’’ for a while — six months, a year,” Ruff Ryders founder Joaquin “Waah” Dean told The Fader. “He wanted this song to be impacting people’s lives.”
‘Party Up (Up in Here)’ (2000)
Perhaps the most indelible DMX song, “Party Up (Up in Here)” has a chantable, giddy chorus that belies the nimble, severe trash talk in the verses. (“Listen, your ass is about to be missin’ / You know who gon’ find you? Some old man fishin’.”) “It’s called ‘Party Up,’ but it’s very disrespectful,” DMX told GQ, adding, “The beat is for the club, I just spit some real (expletive) to it.” The durable track has had a long life thanks to its use in movies like “Gone in 60 Seconds” and TV shows like “The Mindy Project.” Earl Simmons even has a writing credit in the era-defining musical “Hamilton” because of an interpolation used in “Meet Me Inside,” a song that details a conversation between Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.
Aaliyah featuring DMX, ‘Come Back in One Piece’ (2000)
The 2000 film “Romeo Must Die” was the first film for R&B superstar Aaliyah and the second for DMX. Though they do not play love interests in the movie, they did team up for this song from the soundtrack, a tune in the mold of hip-hop-soul duets like Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.” However, it is almost like DMX refuses to meet R&B halfway: He rhymes an unapologetic full-throated street narrative while Aaliyah plays a beleaguered partner who just wants him to be safe.
‘Who We Be’ (2001)
“Who We Be” is a plain-spoken list of ills both political and personal, delivered with the thudding fire of an AC/DC song. It was the third and final DMX song to be nominated for a Grammy, but he never ended up taking one home.
‘X Gon’ Give It to Ya’ (2003)
Though it was a moderate hit when released as a single from the “Cradle 2 the Grave” soundtrack in 2003, “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” has ultimately emerged as the most popular DMX song of the streaming era thanks to its use in the “Deadpool” films and on television’s “Rick and Morty.” DMX intended it for his fifth album, “Grand Champ,” but, seeing its potential, “Cradle 2 the Grave” producer Joel Silver intervened. It was certified platinum in 2017, nearly 15 years after its release.