What follows is extraneous: outtakes and stray threads from my DMX feature in the new GQ. The dictates of celebrity profiles—establishing scene, nut graph, restatement of well-known details—often forbid space for loose factoids, minor characters, and critical rambling. You know, the fun stuff. I wondered what it’d read like, shorn of all support.
Earl Simmons spent much of his youth behind bars or in institutions; his adult prison record in New York shows seven arrests, most notably a four-month stint in 1990 awaiting trial on charges of robbery and petty larceny, for chain-snatching. DMX: “Beat the charge, too. Legal Aid. And I did it.” I meet his “godbrother” Forrest, who says that growing up they’d bet $20 they could rob the first person they saw. Forrest hasn’t seen X in five years. No, he wasn’t in jail—he was living and working in Cambodia. After stardom hit, DMX was accused of rape. “It was a guy that went around taking pussy, saying it was me because at that point not too many people had seen me. I was mad that she didn’t know whose dick was up in her. C’mon girlfriend, what do you ask, one person?”
DMX’s prowess as a street rapper hooked him up in the late ’80s with Dee and Waah Dean, who ran a music company called Ruff Ryders. A single distributed by Columbia failed, so the Deans would take X around, building his name. “When we left that circle, he was the man,” Dee recalls. “Nine times out of 10 in the street you ain’t gonna have no music. So you got to create your own melody, within yourself and in your head and still make it sound like a song.” DMX says, “It’s that rhythm in the voice. Knowing you can’t rhyme like you think there’s a beat in your head. You gotta rhyme like you’re just talking that shit, and make people understand it. It’s better to rhyme calm than rhyme like you got a beat in the head.”
Lacking a label, DMX relied on mix tapes to broadcast his talents. “Niggaz Done Started Something,” which featured Mase and the Lox, ended with a foaming DMX solo; “That mix tape is what had niggas like, yo, that nigga’s crazy,” Dean remembers. Mix-tape king DJ Clue taunted X, saying he was only good in the closing rapper spot. So X wrote another rampaging rhyme, which began, “Put me on the front line ’cause you doubt mine” and ended, “Get at me dog/Arf! Arf!” The rest was chart history. “When I did that shit on Clue’s tape,” DMX says, “niggas was like make a song with the same beat and just say ‘get at me’ in the hook. And do the barking thing. And that’s the shit that changed it all. I wrote that just for Clue because he was talking shit.”
Irv Gotti is one of DMX’s producers, signed him to Def Jam, and has an appreciation for hip-hop excess worthy of Ego Trip. “This picture explains it,” he says of the rapper’s appeal. “It’s X, in Yonkers, literally surrounded by the people, and he’s holding a big two-by four, and he’s smiling. He’s a cult figure. He cries on stage. One minute he’s gonna split your head and the next minute he’s gonna be ‘God, why have you done this?’ ” DMX was kicked off MTV’s Video Music Awards for skipping rehearsal, yet still made Chris Rock’s monologue: “I like Kid Rock, but . . . that’s like the Nutrasweet black man. You want the real thing, you better get with DMX.” “Classic X to miss the Awards,” says Gotti. ” ‘Fuck MTV, I don’t need them, fuck ’em. I’m not a slave. The people that I want to hear this music is hearing it.’ Make sure you put the fact that I really love that dude. To see where he came from—the first time I came to his projects, the doors was ripped off the hinges, all the windows in the projects was broke, and here this guy comes out of that. It’s crazy, from where I seen him to where he’s at now.”
Driving with DMX: “I get the worst cases of road rage ever. For real. I think it’s like a mental condition, and has to be dealt with as such. I threw a bottle at somebody one time. It was a plastic bottle, though. [Stereo is now playing his “Stop Being Greedy.”] One of those Hawaiian punch joints? Matter of fact my wife did it. We were driving and the bitch she was slowing down in front of me all crazy, throwing me the finger. Drew up on the side, throw the bottle, she was like, ‘Huh?’ ” Raps chorus of song, turning it up insanely loud. Pulls up short. “Damn girl! Look at that motherfucking ass! Whatup baby! You see that ass on her? Talk about stopping traffic.” Fixes a new blunt.
DMX’s manager Ray Copeland is 33, given more to Hawaiian shirts than hip-hop gear; Earl Simmons was one of his 30 nephews and nieces. They got to know each other better when Copeland, the first in the family to go to college, returned as a schoolteacher and as a counselor in youth programs at Westchester Correctional and Riker’s Island, both places where X had been incarcerated. “David Styles of the Lox, he had an excellent GPA when I was teaching him. I said, ‘Yeah it’s cool you want to be a rapper, but go to college. Go to college.’ ” Copeland has a framed poster in his office, taken from a Puff Daddy album that includes the Lox, who’ve now switched to Ruff Ryders. Styles inscribed it: “Thanks for the support. Told you I’d make it.” Ray Copeland is no longer teaching school, either.
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, DMX’s 1998 debut, is too lurid and trashy to be considered a classic by most. But it lodged deeply, the appeal persisting through two imitative successors now—the new . . . And Then There Were Was X is notable mainly for the novelty “Good Girls, Bad Guys.” Maybe we’d better broaden our definition of classic to include archetypes so necessary that no one cares if the originality dries up. As a performer, DMX is magnificent: His voice wheedles and bellows, takes on animal qualities and even a Howdy Doody squeak (for the devil). The words aren’t especially graceful, but, drawing on all those battle rhymes, they’re preached, hectoring, discursive. The music of the Ruff Ryders crew of producers (notably Swizz Beatz, a nephew of the Deans) matches his energy: driving, loud, with a bounce and a recoil. “It’s some simple shit,” says Gotti. “But that simple shit really wins, man.”