a rap love affair: DMX’s eternal freedom

Either let me fly/or give me death

Let my soul rest/take my breath

If I don’t fly/I’m a die anyway

Im a live on, but I’ll be gone any day”

Let Me Fly, “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot”, 1998

May 30, 1998. I was a junior in high school, flying down Farmers Boulevard in a grey Quest with one of my closest male friends. (The details of the flying down a residential street, albeit a main one, is irrelevant to the story.) This song started playing, a smooth track, reminding me of a play on an 80’s track, (the original sample came from a famous Mexican singer, an 80’s track) a gritty, gravelly voice, vibrating with equal parts pain and bravado.

That was my first true introduction to Dark Man X, the Mount Vernon born, Yonkers raised, fellow Sagittarius bredren. Sure, I’d heard him before this, on the now infamous “4, 3, 2, 1 track with Can-i-bus, Method Man, and, of course, LL Cool J. “Stay out the dark/’cause if I catch you when the sun is down/run it clown” were the sharp lyrics that stood out then, the growl and the grit as heavy as the black and white visuals of the video. At that time, though, folks were a lot more focused on the brewing beef between the hip hop royalty that was LL, and the young (and ironically, also Sagittarius) upstart Can-i-bus. So when I heard the song playing in the van, I remember sitting heavily with the words. They took up space in my head, rent free.

“I sold my soul to the devil/and the price was cheap

Ey yo, it’s cold on this level/cause it’s twice as deep

But you don’t hear me/ignorance is bliss/and so on

Sometimes it’s better/to be thought dumb/shall I go on?”

A Brooklyn girl, despite my current residence, I grew up heavily on the likes of Black Moon and reggae in heavy duty speaker systems. The Notorious BIG had just left us the year prior, and I still vividly remember meeting him in a small Spanish restaurant with my cousin and her best friend. I was still steadily bumping “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “Friend or Foe” from fellow Sagittarius and Brooklyn’s own Jay-Z, to the dismay of my new friends from Queens hoods. I used to placate them by also bumping “The World is Yoursby Queensbridge’s own, but I also proudly had a signed Da Bush Babees sticker and poster on my door. I was a rap head. Sure, I had my R&B favorites, but I was into lyrics. So listening to this gravelly voice, this voice clearly in pain, spitting such profound lyrics — it was a shock to my system.

Who was this? Was this the same man talking about “Where we at/Do you value your life as much as your possessions/Don’t be a stupid ni??a, learn a lesson”?

I sat in that van, refusing to move, letting my friend go in the house and do whatever he had gone home to do, completely forgetting the reason that I’d rode with him in the first place. By the time I’d gotten to him talking to “Damien”, pleading with him [“nah, that’s my man/I thought I was your man/but yo, that’s my nigga/hey, who’s your biggest fan?”], I knew this was gonna be an album that I was going to have to buy. I began to mentally play through my CD book in my head, already filled to the brim with burned mixed CDs from Brooklyn, poppy R&B, Jay-Z, BIG, and (though I’d never tell anyone) the Red Hot Chili Peppers, trying to figure out who was going to get bumped from the rotation to fit this new DMX CD in.

The Chili Peppers got the boot. Sorry =(

This started my love affair with Earl Simmons. From that point, until when I graduated from high school and beyond, I became a Ruff Ryders and DMX stan. I’d blast everything he was in (there may or may not have been an incident of driving/speeding down a quiet suburban beach street with friends at 2 in the morning, screaming “my dogs gon stop/your dogs gon’ drop/and then we gon shut em down/open up shop”). I remember going to see him in Belly in the movie theaters, one of the first movies I was able to get into without needing an adult present (or without having to sneak in), and watching through one eye all the way through the shower scene. (I may have moved my hand at some point.) I admired “Damien”’s follow up, Omen with Marilyn Manson. I may still have the XXL magazine somewhere, when Jay, Ja, and X decided to be the supergroup of the century for 2.5 seconds. (Damn Sagittarius egos.) I watched one of my closest friends’ mom go off, talking about some “y’all gon make me lose my mind/up in here/up in here”, a few days before she passed away. She loved X too — his music took her through some heavy last days.

“But you can’t blame me/for not wantin’ to be held
Locked down in a cell/where a soul can’t dwell
This is hell/go get the Devil and give me the key
But it can’t be worse than the curse/that was given to me”

The thing that held me close when it came to DMX was his unapologetic humanity. Sure, Big was one of the greatest rap storytellers of all time, without question. Both him and Jay expressed remorse about the life they “left behind” in varying ways. With Nas, his weaving of knowledge was always profound. But with X, he was unabashed in his pain. He let you know that he teetered, chronically, between the light — and the dark, in a way that most rappers in his heyday did not. In fact, in a way that most black men did not. He also managed to do it in such a way that he could never ever be considered “soft”.

But what’s wrong with soft?

It’s no small fact that men, particularly black men, expressing their innermost emotions, even in 2021, is still a struggle; though the surge in the promotion of mental health, coming on the heels of the still ongoing pandemic, has helped this movement tremendously. DMX was unapologetic about his struggles. He let you know, openly, from album to prayer, from trial to tribulation, that he needed help, and that he was seeking it, however he could. This quality was extraordinarily rare to me, growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. A first generation Caribbean American child, I was used to being around people who valued work over tears, who saw the application of said work as the salve and balm to anything that was bothering them. DMX challenged that entire paradigm, from 1998, until his dying day.

It breaks my heart that the wisdom in his music, in his words, the prayerful essence that he gave us regularly, the lyrics he crafted, the peek into his pain over the past 23 years, was not enough. He gave us so much, without apology, fearful and yet he still gave — and we weren’t ever able to help him with the one thing he craved so desperately — peace.

So, aside from amazing music, pain and struggle — what other lessons do we get from Mr. Earl Simmons, our Dark Man X?

There is a DMX in your circle, right now. Maybe he (or she) doesn’t cry out the same way that he did. Maybe they don’t put their struggles, their addictions on front street. But they’re there, and they’re struggling, and their pain is real. Maybe they’re not in your immediate circle. Maybe they’re just outside it, in the circle’s peripheral. Grant them the same grace to make mistakes that we did X. Give them the hug you wished you could’ve given X, the one I know I wish I could’ve given him. Be gentle when they fall. Be proud when they rise. Most of all — set your boundaries, of course…but be present for them, when you can. We may not have been able to help DMX in this life. But there are others, just like him…that can be helped. That want to be helped.

Yo/on the real/what the deal?/It’s a mystery
How is it I can live/ and make history?
If you don’t see it/then it wasn’t meant for you to see
If you wasn’t born with it/it wasn’t meant for you to be

You lived, X. You made history. Rest, beloved. Rest.