DMX obituary

Rap star and actor who embodied the edgy and lawless life depicted in his work

The first rapper to have his first five albums go straight to the top of the US chart, DMX, who has died aged 50 following a heart attack, established himself as the premier exponent of hardcore rap in the aftermath of the violent deaths of the Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur. He announced himself with his multi-platinum-selling debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot (1998), a stormy survey of greed, violence, crime and betrayal, which also displayed his gift for blending light and heavy textures behind an intense, menacing presence at the microphone.

Before the end of that year DMX had released his second blockbuster, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, another huge seller. He was suddenly the new king of Planet Rap, yet when the 1999 Grammy award nominations came around he was nowhere to be seen. This omission prompted the rap superstar Jay-Z (who would win the best rap album Grammy that year) to boycott the awards ceremony “because too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked”, as he put it. “Rappers deserve more attention from the Grammy committee and from the whole world.”

Grammy recognition never came DMX’s way, probably because he embodied the edgy and lawless life depicted in his work, even if he did protest that he was a Bible-reading Christian. The son of a broken home who lived on the streets for much of his youth, DMX spent so much time in jails and courtrooms, because of innumerable arrests for drugs, firearms, robberies, tax evasion and more, that it is remarkable he was able to find the time to make records and appear in films and TV. “I’m not going to make [my music] for the mainstream,” he told GQ in 2019. “I’d rather make music for people that I come in contact with, people that I can count on. That’s what I make my music for. People in the hood.”

DMX with his award for male entertainer of the year at the Soul Train Music awards, 2000. The previous year, Jay-Z boycotted the Grammy awards ceremony when DMX failed to win any nominations.
DMX with his award for male entertainer of the year at the Soul Train Music awards, 2000. The previous year, Jay-Z boycotted the Grammy awards ceremony when DMX failed to win any nominations. Photograph: Reuters

He was born Earl Simmons in a housing project in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, Joe Barker, wanted nothing to do with Earl, and his mother, Arnett Simmons, moved Earl and his older sister, Bonita, to the School Streets projects in Yonkers, New York. Earl suffered abuse from his mother and her boyfriends, his mother once knocking some of his teeth out with a broom handle. After being ejected from school, he spent 18 months in the Julia Dyckman Andrus home for vulnerable children. Subsequently he occupied much of his time wandering the streets, drifting into robbery and petty crime. He developed a fondness for adopting stray dogs, and dogs would become a regular motif in his work (“Where my dogs at?” became a familiar DMX catchphrase, and he was sometimes known as Dog Man X).

He spent periods in juvenile detention and youth group homes, but in between found a refuge in hip-hop and rap. He worked as a DJ and human beatbox, then began to develop his own rapping style. He took the name DMX from the Oberheim DMX digital drum machine, though it was sometimes considered an abbreviation of Dark Man X. His early mentor was a rapper called Ready Ron. However, as DMX said in an interview in 2020: “Everything in my life is blessed with a curse.” Though Ready Ron gave him a leg up into music, he also introduced him to hard drugs when he gave him a blunt (a joint made with tobacco leaves) laced with crack cocaine. “Why would you do that to a child?” asked DMX, who claimed he had never touched any drug before that. “A monster was born.” He developed a cocaine addiction that he claimed to have beaten in 2011, although he subsequently made several stays in rehab facilities.

He began to get noticed in the media, for instance in the Source magazine’s Unsigned Hype column. He was signed to the Ruffhouse label and released Born Loser (1993) as his debut single, but the label was unable to promote it adequately and released him from his contract. His progress was thwarted by a conviction for drug possession in 1994, but after appearing on a number of underground mixtapes he won a deal with Def Jam in 1997. After reputation-building guest appearances on tracks by LL Cool J, Mase and the Lox, DMX’s first single for Def Jam was the aptly named Get at Me Dog, a hit on the rap and dance charts which set him up for the release of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. This sold more than 5m copies after its dramatic No 1 debut.

In the same year, he had a starring role in Hype Williams’s movie Belly, which gained cult status among rap aficionados. Then, that December, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood (with a cover photo of the artist in a bath full of blood) also went straight to the top of the chart, making him the second rapper in history (after Tupac) to release two albums in the same year that both debuted at No 1.

Despite his burgeoning success, trouble kept following the artist around. In 1998 he was cleared of charges of rape, stabbing and assault. A later police raid on his home brought charges of drug and weapons possession and animal cruelty, though plea bargains kept him out of jail.

His musical profile gained a further boost from his appearance on the compilation album Ryde Or Die, Vol 1 (by the Ruff Ryders posse). His third album, … And Then There Was X, appeared at the end of 1999, another multimillion-seller that debuted atop the chart. It gave him a Top 10 hit on the R&B charts (and a Top 30 on the mainstream chart) with Party Up (Up in Here).

DMX, left, and Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds, 2001, a box-office smash that earned the rapper a multi-picture deal with Warner Bros.
DMX, left, and Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds, 2001, a box-office smash that earned the rapper a multi-picture deal with Warner Bros. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

He continued to veer between the dark and the light. In March 2000, he was arrested for driving without a licence and possessing marijuana, and that June he was indicted on weapons and drugs charges. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail, then received an assault charge for attacking prison officers. In the same year, he appeared with Jet Li in the hit action movie Romeo Must Die, and in 2001 starred in Exit Wounds alongside Steven Seagal, a box-office smash that earned the rapper a multi-picture deal with Warner Bros. Further films included Cradle 2 the Grave (2003, with Li), on which DMX also contributed significantly to the soundtrack album, Never Die Alone (2004), Lords of the Street (2008, with Kris Kristofferson), Pimp (2018) and Beyond the Law (2019). He also made a number of TV appearances, and in 2006 appeared in the reality show DMX: Soul of a Man.

He published EARL: The Autobiography of DMX in 2002. His streak of straight-to-No 1 albums continued with The Great Depression (2001) and Grand Champ (2003), though his sales figures were now on a downward trend. Year of the Dog … Again (2006) stalled at 2 on the US chart and failed to reach platinum status. Undisputed (2012) reached 19, while the undistinguished Redemption of the Beast (2015) triggered a lawsuit from the DMX camp against Seven Arts Entertainment for supposedly releasing it without the artist’s consent.

The rapper’s legal tussles continued apace, with jail sentences in 2008 and 2010. In 2018 he was sentenced to a year in jail owing $1.7m (£1.2m) in unpaid taxes and penalties. “In many ways he is, to give the cliche, his own worst enemy,” the judge commented.

DMX had 15 children, including two with the model Yadira Borrego, four from his marriage to Tashera Simmons, from whom he was divorced in 2014 (they appeared together in the TV series Couples Therapy in 2012), and one with his fiancee, Desiree Lindstrom. “I got a few in New York; I got a few in Cali,” DMX remarked of his other offspring.

He is survived by Lindstrom and his children, and his mother.

• DMX (Earl Simmons), rapper and actor, born 18 December 1970; died 9 April 2021

• This article was corrected on 11 April 2021. The surname of DMX’s fiancee is Lindstrom, not Landstrom.

Contributor

Adam Sweeting

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