Illustration by HelloVon for LEVEL

The LEVEL Man at 50

DMX Is Finally Happy

We always rooted for Earl Simmons — but seeing his joy as he turns 50 has helped us find our own


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Tonia Colon-Seals wasn’t sure what to expect when a guy named Earl showed up at her door in Lithonia, Georgia, in the winter of 1997 wearing a red flight jacket, jeans, and a pair of Timbs. All she knew was that he was a rapper, and her friends Joaquin and Darrin Dean (Waah and Dee), brothers who ran a management company in New York, had sent him down south to stay out of trouble while he finished his debut album.

The album, of course, would be a multiplatinum behemoth; It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot snatched hip-hop out of the awkward limbo that had followed the killings of Tupac and Biggie, launching DMX into the stratosphere as one of rap’s most marketable names ever and turning the Deans’ Ruff Ryders into a juggernaut record label. Nobody in Earl Simmons’ circle knew this would happen, of course. All they knew was that X was, by his own accord, a dog off the leash, and if he kept up at his current pace, he wouldn’t live long enough to see his album’s release date. That’s where Tonia Colon-Seals came in.

The Colon-Seals home had become a halfway house of sorts where rappers would go to finish their projects away from distractions and any chances of running afoul of the law. DMX would turn out to be the biggest star to come out of the residency — but at the time, he was the one who worried everyone the most. Tonia heard the warnings and concern, but she knew she could reach the troubled MC through tough love, scripture, and modeling what a family structure could look like.

“Everybody always looks at him as reckless,” says Colon-Seals on a Zoom call while looking for a signed It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot plaque DMX gave her for her 50th birthday some years ago. “No, he’s not reckless. He was looking for direction.”

While X was hesitant at first, he would eventually open up to the woman who reminded him so much of his grandmother. And Tonia would come to know a DMX that the rest of us just are getting to meet for the first time: One who’s happy…



David Dennis, Jr.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us