DMX’s First Cover: “A Dog’s Life”
“A DOG’S LIFE”
The Source, January 1999
This story doesn’t begin in a housing project or a wild recording studio. It doesn’t begin on a tour bus or in the back seat of a limousine. And it doesn’t begin in a beat-up diner outside of JFK airport whose manager refused to provide a receipt for a $40 order of hamburger and fries. (That tale comes later). This story begins at home. The quiet, two-family home of DMX and his wife of less than a year, Tashera Simmons, who had been trying to enjoy a rare evening alone when a journalist showed up at the front door ready to do an interview. It seems that the rapper was never told the journalist was coming to their home that evening, and since he was leaving for California the next morning to finish work on his new album Flesh Of My Flesh , Blood Of My Blood, this multi-platinum thug-nigga was already half-asleep. “I’m not coming down,” he barked down the stairs. And who’s to blame him? “He just needs to be in a certain frame of mind to do the interview,” his wife would whispered to me before I left, walking past a red, toy 4X4 truck sitting on the front lawn, “because I think he has a lot to say.”
“I spent a lot of time by myself when I was a kid,” DMX begins, trying to get comfortable in a first-class plane seat. “I have five sisters but I was never really close to any of them. They may call me to ask for tickets to a show or something every once in a while, but that’s about it. I like it better that way.” DMX describes himself as the kid who other kids used to get in trouble for playing with, and he actually did spend most of his childhood wandering the streets by himself by the School Street Projects in Yonkers, NY. That was when he started rescuing the stray dogs in the neighborhood, forming the not-to-be-underestimated bonds he holds with the animals to this day. The “One Love Boomer” tattoo on his back is a dedication to his most beloved pit bull that was killed in a car accident, and he’s rarely seen anywhere without them (they even come to the studio), but there’s more to DMX and his phenomenal success than a bunch of barking.
DMX burst onto the hip hop scene a year ago with an aggression and manic intensity unmatched in the game. There was the raw ruggedness of “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” balanced with the laid-back sex tales of “How’s It Goin’ Down,” the spit-fire passion of “Fuckin’ Wit’ D” or “Stop Being Greedy” coupled with the more introspective brooding of “Look Thru My Eyes” and “The Convo.” Heads everywhere recognized the lyrics of fury, and thanks in part to a Survival of the Illest tour that highlighted X’s frenzy-inducing stage presence, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, his debut album, was pushing close to 50,000 units a week eight months after it was released. See, DMX is on a self-professed mission to save the souls of the people, and if this is a dog-eat-dog world, then the Dark Man X wants to save us all.
“I want Flesh Of My Flesh to be like my connection to the community. I want to say what’s on their minds, soak up all their pain. I’ve learned that when I take it all in I can make one person’s pain be understood by the world.” Is that why you’re dropping a new album so soon? “Yeah, but it’s more because I made a deal with the devil.”
Ah, Satan. Mr. Beezelbub. The figure most likely to appear on a pre-millenium rap record, but not someone DMX takes likely. There is more than one incarnation of the devil in DMX’s music and for good reason: he uses the antichrist to set off the good vs. bad morality tales that are at the core of his inspiration and the heart of his influence.
“I made the deal, so I have to put this record out. And I just feel lucky enough to have the talent to be able to do it. But there is always that battle, always those contradictions. That’s why I think of myself as the dark star. A dark star is always contradictory.”
And who’s winning life’s battle?
“God is winning. God is definitely winning. There was just something I had to see that he wanted me to see, so I could be what he wanted me to be. But before I didn’t even know what a star was because I didn’t know any other stars. Once I found out, I realized I always was one.”
And what is a star?
“A bright light. Something you’re drawn to, something you’re attracted to. But Flesh Of My Flesh is not trying to make my star brighter, it’s trying to light up a bunch of other stars. They’re there, they just don’t know who they are. But light reflects light, and I’m saying: I am you, and you are me.”
The close-down-at-6pm style of Burbank, California is not the first place you would imagine the Ruff Ryders crew to be holding fort in the middle of the night. These are the same cats who travel forty motorcycles deep and do wheelies on their front tires. But X says that Cali helps him focus, lets “me be me” (“I don’t get as much attention here as I do everywhere else. All anyone ever says to me is: ‘Hi, I make videos.’ ”), and most of Flesh Of My Flesh has been recorded here.
On the night we arrive, producer Swizz manages the MPC, manager Ray Copeland sits at the board, and Irv Gotti tries to convince whoever’s listening that X should add another sixteen bars to a heated call-and-response track tentatively titled “My Niggas.”
When DMX rolls in with PK, the brotha who laced the beat for six songs on Hell Is Hot including “Stop Being Greedy” and “Fuckin’ Wit’ D,” Swizz immediately jumps up to play him the tape of a new Marilyn Manson record X has been asked to lay the lyrics for. While the clashing aggro-rock sound prevents me from hearing a beat anybody could rhyme over, X stands to the side and nods his head in confidence. “I could fuck with that,” he says.
“I can adjust to different shit now,” he tells me earlier, “that’s partly how I’ve grown as an MC. I may not have to hear everything for my ear. Like when we did the “Anthem,” I didn’t want to do it when I first heard the beat. It sounded all fucking rock-and-rollish. But Dee [Executive Producer of Hell Is Hot ] was like, ‘Could you please just do this verse for me,’ and that was the first song radio started playing on their own! Now I feel the pressure to be the best, to write shit I know niggas want to hear. I have no problem anymore writing sixteen bars, but I have to scrutinize them more because they came quick like that. You can’t ask a nigga is your shit bangin’, you just have to watch the response. Put it on and watch. If you don’t get the response, then don’t get it twisted, your shit is not hittin’!” Do you like the way heads react to you? “I’m good. I like the response. But I knew I was hot since I first started rhyming. Now I can just prove it to everyone else. I can take a rhyme I wrote four years ago and put it on. You know that verse on “Money, Power, Respect?” That I wrote around ‘92 when Mic Geronimo’s peoples, the Cash Money Click, were out! That’s how I know I’m a little ahead of everyone.”
The title track of Flesh Of My Flesh is an uptempo Swizz concoction that promises to bring the Dark Man back to the forefront of the club scene his “Get At Me Dog” single took over from Puff Daddy early in ‘98. Swizz, of “Banned From TV” and “Money, Cash, Hoes” fame, only did “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” on the last album, but has become the point man for the production on the new project. “We’re definitely trying to keep the energy level way up on Flesh,” he says, after laying out one of the engineers who unplugged his sampler.
“I get my confidence from other rappers,” DMX continues. “But not from listening to them, from seeing them, because I don’t really listen to shit. I just look at someone and then know I’m better.”
Is that why besides The Lox, and maybe some Ruff Ryder youngsters like Drag-on, you don’t find many guest MC’s on your records?
“I don’t like too many artists, really. I might dig them as a person, but I wouldn’t want to fuck with them on some rap shit.”
What would you need them to bring to the table?
“Just as much as I’m bringing! The energy, the realness, the raw; the correct count – don’t one and three bar my shit, do my shit two bars, one verse like I do! I mean this is not just a bunch of fucking words, it means something, it stands for something. Not too many niggas write like that, and mad niggas break the rules. The sad thing is, most fans don’t catch it. They just want a knockin’ beat, something they can repeat, and then after they get past all that, then they’ll listen to what you are saying.”
Is that frustrating?
“In a way. I just want to get people on one level. For a while they weren’t getting it on any level until I made my shit a lot simpler. I mean the same thing and say the same thing, I just fuck with different words and have it bounce more, put in a style. It’s hard to be misunderstood all the time when you know you’re spitting the hottest shit!”
For now, DMX is clearly understood, worshipped by legions of urban youth who relate to the agression and passion he never tries to hide, and the pain he seems so willing to share. The Survival of the Illest Tour created a mob scene at almost every venue, and DMX has a huge gash on his left wrist where a crazed female fan tried to tear the watch off his hand.
“Life is so much more hectic now because there are less cracks in the wall. There are less hiding places, places where I can just be me and see what I used to see. Now I get spotted seeing what I try to see and I no longer see it because it’s not there anymore. I used to pick up my shit just in conversations with regular niggas.”
And where are you going to find that now?
“Don’t know, but I’ll look for it. It hurts in a way because I can’t be as close to my people anymore as I’d like to be. I want to just walk around the way, stand on the corner but it can’t happen like that. It’s fucked up.”
There’s a cruel irony in becoming a star. The more people feel you, the brighter you shine, but the brighter your shine becomes, the less you’re able to keep the common touch. In hip hop, where “realness” is of the highest value, this conflict becomes increasingly difficult. If you can’t go out on the street, how can you be of the street?
“You don’t get further and further away. Not here anyway,” DMX motions to his heart. “And that’s where it counts. You should see my shows, because at the end I just talk to ‘em. No matter how many motherfuckers are in that stadium or club, I just say: ‘Can I fuck wit’ you for a minute? Can I get a minute?’ And that’s when I hit them with the prayer. No beat, no nothing. It damn near brings me to tears every night because I get nothing but love. I’m there and they feel me. Shit is crazy, but it’s like I’m taking them to Church. Then I see people making X’s everywhere with their arms and I just look.” DMX’s voice, normally characterized by rough, guttural bursts has slowed to an even whisper.
“I feel my peoples, yo. I just love ’em to death, I can’t even explain it. Just seeing them look at me the way they do, I can’t help but to love them, yo. And I’m not going to take them to the wrong place. I’d be a fucking devil to do that.”
If you listen to Hell Is Hot, you will feel this emotion, and you’ll hear the desires of an artist who wants to ease the pain of a generation he calls his own. “To live is to suffer, but to survive is to find meaning in the suffering,” he quoted. “And I’m gonna survive.” DMX is reaching for that place, that rarefied place where one’s art transcends the boundaries of its medium and becomes a force of change. Hip hop was born out of this principle, out of the push to speak to ourselves in our own way and on our own terms in an attempt to repair the suffering of our communities. There have only been a few to utilize this to its full potential: Bambaataa was the first, KRS-One, Rakim, Chuck D. In our era, a case could be made for Lauryn Hill or the Dungeon Family of Outkast and the Goodie Mob, but the latter’s influence is not as deep or widespread outside of the South as it could be. But there was no limit to Biggie’s influence, or, of course, to Tupac’s.
When you look at DMX and the late THUG LIFE hero, the similarities are there: both passionate and very emotional artists; both instantly recognizable visually and in their music; both movie stars; and both stuck with the unfortunate burden of having their life imitate their art. (Unlike Tupac, X’s rhymes are free of much of the sexual negativity common in the music, but the rapper still caught a case of sexual assault last year. Cleared of all charges in September, X maintains he still doesn’t know where the woman came from. And when a drama unfolded in an airport diner over an exorbitant bill while we were waiting to go to California, three plainclothes policemen stood guard by the restaurant’s door visibly worried about the conflict they thought was going to erupt. The manager refused to tell DMX how his two plates of fast food amounted to $40, but the multi-platinum artist simply walked out without paying. Cries of: “If you don’t have money, we don’t want your kind in here!” followed him outside.)
When I asked DMX about ‘Pac, he asked me to define the word “martyr.” “Someone who sacrifices his life for something,” I replied. “I would do that, I wouldn’t mind. I mean it’s bad enough that we’re all going to die. I’d rather die for a cause. As a matter of fact, I’d love to die for my people. It’s an honor.”
Is there a worthy cause?
“Hell yeah, ten-fold. People are always being done wrong and I’m not going to see those wrongs done to a certain extent. Like in every show I’ve done, there was a fight. But the fight stopped because I didn’t stop rhyming. I thought I’m not going to make a spectacle of y’all niggas fighting in the crowd. I’m still flowin’. Niggas would fight for like three minutes and then get back to watching the show, and that I love. They realize that shit is not called for here, and in fact, you’re in the way.”
But doesn’t your music provoke that kind of passion?
“Yeah, but it’s all in the way you channel it.”
The story of DMX ends where it started – with Earl Simmons. 4am in a hotel room he will have to make his own, the lonely kid from Yonkers tries to show himself again.
“He was a smart kid, a bright kid, but he did a lot of mischevous things. He watched a lot of television, liked cars and toys. But now you’re fuckin’ wit’ D, and X is in the dark.”
Do you miss Earl?
“Sometimes I do. I see him once in a while, but not like I used to. Certain actions put him away for a while.”
And is Earl proud of the dark star?
He pauses. “A little bit. He’s happy for him, he likes him. It’s just crazy because I think that’s how I can write a lot because sometimes a different person will write a different song. Earl wrote ‘The Convo.’ ” A dialogue with a higher power about the meaning of redemption, “The Convo” is Hell Is Hot’s final tale. I tried to do good, but good not too good to me / Misunderstood, why you chose the hood for me? / I’m aiight, I just had to work hard at it…
“See, Tupac’s death was a senseless death. Heads will take something from it, but it would have been a lot more effective if it was for a cause. I’m here to look for the purpose of the suffering. And it may not be to sell records, but I’ve made a deal with the devil.”