Photo Credit: Jonathan Mannion

For Black Rockers, DMX Was A Gateway Into Heavy Music

As Black Rockers, many of us grew up without the traditional Rock stars being played in our households. For many of us, particularly millennials, we grew up in households that consisted of the three R’s–Rap, R&B, and Reggae.

by Kim Gill (4/25/21)

We eventually explored our tastes and interests and found our way consuming more dark, heavy, and extreme music and for most of us, our gateways were rappers like DMX who incorporated the darkness he experienced in life into his art. As music fans across the world mourn the loss of DMX, Black Rockers celebrate how he spoke to a generation through his aggression, authenticity, and vulnerability.

When DMX broke into the scene in 1998 with his debut album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, his raw, gritty, and in-your-face persona resonated with many who harbored a lot of pent up aggression, yet yearned to be heard. He boasted the confidence of many–young men especially–who lacked the confidence to be tough.

DMX, short for “Dark Man X”, was not afraid to bring the reality of the streets to the mainstream and humanize the stories of its people who fought to survive in them. His art and persona drew heavily from his childhood trauma growing up in an abusive household, which also resulted in him experiencing many years of homelessness where his only companions were stray dogs. He would eventually turn to a life of crime just to feed and clothe his body.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Mannion

This eventually landed him in prison, where he used his sentence to be productive by cultivating his talent for rhyming and cyphering. His art in a way was a response to this trauma, but moreover, how he was able to escape it as well as how he was able to cope with it.

1998 was a definitive year for Hip-Hop. It followed the East Coast/West Coast beef, which claimed the lives of Tupac in 1996 and Biggie Smalls in 1997. The loss of the two iconic rappers, the beef between them, and criticism of the culture shifted the aesthetic of the genre. Hip-Hop’s aesthetic soon transitioned from the street to the club. It then turned into party music with the current aesthetic glamorizing wealth and luxury.

Rappers like Lil’ Kim and P. Diddy were showing the audience the finer side of life. While rappers like Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes began incorporating Afro-Futurism in their music videos. 1998 was indeed a golden era of Hip-Hop, but when DMX came into the scene, he disrupted the order in ways no one could imagine.

X’s rebellious, hardcore aesthetic and aggressive rhymes brought Hip-Hop back to the streets. His debut album, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot charted to number 1 on the Billboard charts and sold over 5 million copies worldwide. He then rode the success of his debut album and followed up with his second album that same year with Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. It was this album that formed the link between the streets and the macabre.

The album cover alone made people uncomfortable. It was extremely controversial, yet praised for its shock value. Seeing an artist covered in blood was not something that Hip-Hop fans were accustomed to; some even regarded it as demonic. DMX was also one of the few artists who had the ability to use sinister instrumentals to compliment his dark lyrics and make it palpable for the mainstream.

He was not afraid to explore and experiment with sound. He even took the opportunity to collaborate with Marilyn Manson, who at the time was one of the most controversial artists in music and the mainstream media’s “boogeyman” for The Omen: Damien Pt. 2.

It was DMX’s ability to tap into the extreme that drew many to his madness. That album would go on to also chart to number 1 on the Billboard charts and sell over 3 million copies worldwide going 3 times platinum. DMX wrote music for the broken and downtrodden.

His music represented the coming of age for many who lived in the hood and lived by the unwritten rules of the streets, but it also spoke to the misfits and outcasts. Being a Black Rocker is definitely the recipe for being all of the above and for many of us, DMX’s music was a window into our realities and how we had to fight and accept ourselves for being different.

Photo Credit: Rovi

He was controversial, edgy, and unfiltered; he was authentically himself. For many Black Rockers, it was the first time we listened to something dark and heavy. DMX, for us, was a stepping stone from the world we were familiar with to the world we never chartered. He was the living manifestation of the realities extreme music often fantasize. He connected the streets to the mosh pits and bridged that gap.

Even the journey of his faith spoke to the skeptics within the Black Rocker community. Using shocking religious themes and being upfront about temptation and questioning his faith at times resonated with those who explored other sections of religion and spirituality. Most of all, his struggles with addiction resonated with many of those who got caught up in the “Rock & Roll lifestyle.”

It was his willingness to survive, persevere, and his vulnerability that served as the source of inspiration to also survive and overcome. DMX himself even expanded his own audience and embraced any setting where extreme music was accepted. He would perform at Ghetto Metal Nights in NYC, which was a showcase that supported Hip-Hop, Rock, and Metal performers.

This showcase was also sponsored by the legendary Source Magazine. He was no stranger to heavy music and was not opposed to incorporating it into his music. For one of his final works, he recently worked with Bootsy Collins, Steve Howe, and Deep Purple’s Ian Paice for his song “X Moves” which was released earlier this month. It’s a testament to how open-minded he was with his art and even more of a testament of how he was one of us.

As the world says goodbye to Earl “DMX” Simmons, we will continue to celebrate his legacy and the impact he left on music. Although he rarely got to experience the beauty of life, his vulnerability allowed him to appreciate all that life had to offer. He spent his life seeking peace and salvation while wishing the same for every person he encountered.

Letting us into his world humanized the people of the world he came from. We were valued and validated through his art. His music was the art of grit and survival. He once said “I’m the living example of darkness before dawn.”

But to Black Rockers, he is living proof that heavy and extreme music knows no boundaries.

Photo Credit: Kevin Winter, Getty Images