What DMX’s Poetry of Death Did for Hip-Hop 1

If you’ve ever attended a DMX concert, it’s more than likely that you’ve seen him cry. As the adrenaline of the night would cool, the rapper born as Earl Simmons would pray, acting as the intercessor for the holy spirit on behalf of the audience, through a sheet of sweat and tears.

Long before he died on Friday at the age of 50, Simmons lived like a man who knew his death was around the corner. Death was a constant — in his lyrics, on his tattooed skin, in his high-risk lifestyle. And it was there in his Christian faith, and in the conversations with God that he invited the world to witness. DMX was obsessed with his own demise, perhaps because, like many Black people in this country, he was haunted by the reality that he would most likely die prematurely.

After the heart attack that put him in a coma on April 2, fellow artists and fans shared stories of their interactions with Simmons. Sofiya Ballin shared a video of him telling a group of homeless men in Philadelphia that he saw himself in them. BET livestreamed Rap City episodes in which Simmons appeared, including one where he was asked about a good deed: buying the building that a church that once sheltered him was being evicted from, to return it to the pastor. And many recalled the Verzuz battle in which he and Snoop Dogg danced, sang and prayed together. These videos, recollections and interactions are an archive of a man who was at his best outside the celebrity culture that had often dismissed him as a kind of punchline.

The first tattoo DMX ever had etched into his skin was of a grim reaper clutching the leash of a pitbull. The reaper and the canine were constant presences in his music and his world. Years later, reflecting on their meaning, the rapper suggested that the tattoo, on his left tricep, cast a prophetic pall over his life. “What I didn’t realize is that … when you put something on your body, you kinda bind yourself to it,” he explained to the hip-hop and R&B website The Boombox in a 2012 interview. “In a way I think that’s one reason why I’ve had a lot of the problems I’ve had throughout my career.”

In 1998, when DMX released two multi-platinum classics — “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” and “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” — the hip-hop world was mourning two other artists whose words portended their deaths, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. The bling era of rap had begun. The narrative for the genre had moved away from the street and onto the yacht, and the foremost artists of the time, including Jay Z and P Diddy, told triumphant rags-to-riches stories.

Simmons, meanwhile, took on the role of hip-hop’s reaper, most explicitly when playing the devil himself in his “Damien” trilogy. “Burning in hell, but don’t deserve to be,” he spits on “Look Thru My Eyes,” from “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.” “Just because they’ve heard of me / And they know that the Dark is for real.” DMX forced his audience to listen and contend with a life marked by suffering as much as success. He was the spiritual heir to Tupac: a sensitive, tearful gangsta figure — tragic, yet supernaturally charismatic.

In the tradition of Biggie and Tupac, Simmons sutured together Christian spirituality, street morality, and personal trauma in his music. His artistry was never considered high art outside of hip-hop circles — perhaps because of his rugged delivery and, yes, the barking — but it bridged the gap between those rap savants and artists like Kendrick Lamar and 21 Savage. Some of his lyrics will not age well, though nobody who grew up in the era where “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” boomed from every car stereo would deny that he delivered some timeless classics.

Celebrity wasn’t always kind to DMX: Comedians mocked him; he was GIF-ed and turned into a meme. As recently as last year, another artist called him a crackhead. But if the jokes and the ugly language surrounding addiction bothered him, they didn’t stop DMX from sometimes being in on the joke (as in his cameo in the film “Top Five,” in which Chris Rock’s character encounters him in jail).

DMX’s addiction, criminalization and death resonate deeply for many Black people; it’s a familiar story and one we’re witnessing once again during the murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in which the victim, George Floyd, has often appeared to be the one on trial.

DMX lived to tell his own story. He knew there were so many ways to die: in control, suddenly, slowly. But ultimately, DMX earned what he had always sought: a poet’s death.

Tirhakah Love (@tirhakahlove) is a culture writer from Houston who has been a columnist at MTV News and a staff writer at Level. His work on music, pop culture, and politics has been published in Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly.

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