Def Jam / Ruff Ryders, 1998
It is a legendary artist that we have lost. The story of Earl Simmons’ life is hardly believable and like his discography, it has always alternated between light and shade. But a common thread has always structured it: a fury for life, the perception that every second lived was a bonus, a miracle in itself. It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, the first project of 1998 is probably the best to summarize the indelible mark he will leave, the image of a man in the middle of the desert, wounded, bruised, torn, who screams of pain and who screams of joy. For he knows that redemption exists, in this world or in the next.
It all comes down to the fight. DMX is a fighting dog, his energy is a fight, but so is his introspection, the battle against the abyss of the soul, red ochre like this cover from Dante’s underworld. Ravaged by crack from a young age, by a childhood worthy of Les Misérables in dark Yonkers, by the street, from there comes the assimilation to the dog: during his life of homelessness, the stray dogs were his only company, nomadic beings forgotten by society, whose eyes were his only mirrors. They taught him that the survival instinct is the only baggage that never leaves us.
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot must therefore be a musical and visual shock, the barking, the red brick filth, the raised motorcycles, the sweat, the naked torsos. Stormy, choked, jerky horror violins, acidic live strings and repetitive pianos: Dame Grease and PK offer DMX the harsh atmosphere he needs to unleash his hunger, that of a flabbergasted rage. The story of a perpetual inner tearing between lucidity and madness, devotion and crime, God and darkness.
The corrosive effects of the street have led to this permanent schizophrenic split and open up the theaters of his psyche to us, where the border between dialogue and monologue blurs, sinful thoughts and desperate pleas intermingle. The fury of a Get At Me Dog (for which DMX chews dog bones before recording) or the oppressive rhyme of Freddie Krueger in X Is Coming rub shoulders with a confessional masterpiece like The Convo.
Because it is necessary to demystify an unfair trial: DMX is not a monotonous and unchained yeller with no background as some want to summarize it. Let these ignorant people come and tell us what they think of How’s Is Goin’, a G-Funk as surprising as it is successful, or of I Can Feel It, a bewitching cover of Phill Collins (approved by the latter). How can we deny the painful depth of the flashback Lookin Thru My Eyes or the beauty of this accapella dialogue-prayer in a gangsta-horror rap album?
And of course, there is Ruff Ryders Anthem, the explosive gem concocted by the promising Swizz Beatz. A piece that Earl didn’t even want to do (too simplistic for his taste), it will be the first of a long series of international bangers that demonstrate once again the rare versatility of this man capable of describing like nobody else the depths of his nightmares and at the same time to lift and make whole crowds jump.
The heart of the album is somewhere else. The dialogue with the character of Damien is central. Dame Grease says that DMX recorded all the voices in one take to transcribe his conversations with the demon. The interpretation of his music and his identity are really one and the same thing. Metaphor of the industry, personification of the street, Satan disguised as a guardian angel, Damien is all of these things at once. He is the dishonorable compromise, killing and denying his loyalties for the sake of glory. DMX didn’t invent the concept, but he is surely the first to give it such a central place: the alter ego. Damien (who takes his name from the film The Omen, Damien being the antichrist) allows for the doubling of interpretation and becomes the predecessor of Eminem’s Slim Shady and Kendrick’s Lucy (the very title of Good Kid Mad City resembles the approach of IDHIH).
DMX, DamienWhy is it every move I make turns out to be a bad one?
Where’s my guardian angel? Need one, wish I had one
I’m right here, shorty, and I’ma hold you down
You trying to fuck all these bitches? I’ma show you how
But who-? (Name’s D, like you, but my friends call me Damien)
And I’ma put you hip to something (uh-huh) about this game we in
You and me could take it there, and you’ll be
The hottest nigga ever living (that’s a given?) You’ll see
Hmm, that’s what I’ve been wanting all my life
Thinkin’ about my little man, so I call my wife
Well, your dada is about to make it happen
(What you mean, my nigga?) I’m about to make it rapping
Today I met this cat, he said his name was Damien
He thinks that we’re a lot alike and wants to be my friend
(You mean like Chuckie?) Ha ha, yeah, just like Chuckie
(Dada, looks like we both lucky) Yeah
These are just a few examples of the influence this album, originally intended to be a hardcore project, will have. A Jay-Z saw it as a series of barks. Five turntables later, let’s draw the conclusions of its impact.
IDHIH comes at the end of a reign for New York rap, Biggie and Pac are dead, Puff Diddy has finished ‘glittering’ the image of HH. The street demands blood, the street demands sweat. Irv Gotti, when he signed DMX, understood this thirst (and to think he almost went to Death Row).
DMX, after 27 years of abuse, received and given, of going back and forth between prisons and hospitals and of poverty, is going to wear the crown of NY and of world rap. And he did it by rapping for the destitute, for the forgotten, for those who have only the afterlife as hope. That’s why he struck millions of people, but why critics never really accepted him and some still snub him today. He’s going to turn the HH table upside down by returning to the energetic rap tradition of KRS One and Public Ennemy while offering a new sound, synthetic and electrifying. Two questions I ask here: is he the first to capture the white American audience, before Eminem and is he not the one who will announce the takeover of hip hop in the world by entering the clubs, which Dre will complete the following year with 2001.
But let’s say it again, DMX is also something else. Endowed with one of the most charismatic voice of the history, derailed, cavernous but muffled, it will allow him to offer us the most beautiful injections of gospel in the rap. Who will be able to pay him a tribute as powerful as the same DMX delivered with A Yo Kyto?
DMX is physical and mystical. Genuine, in one piece, he feels more than he thinks what he lives. This is obviously not a quality in everyday life, but it is the very heart of art: to make people feel rather than understand. He who has lived through everything, won everything and lost a lot, seems, with this death, to have abdicated his fight against his own underworld. But DMX never betrayed his unshakeable faith in God. In another album he will ask Lord Give Me a Sign. I am sure that during that week of coma he received that sign. The intro of the album starts with hellish bells and all this must end with heavenly bells. It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, today from where he is, Earl tells us ‘Heaven is love and light’. Ruff Ryders Forever ! RIDE AND NEVER DIE !