I Witnessed DMX’s Heart and Humor Firsthand

Reflections on the late rapper’s historic career, one-of-a-kind talent, and hilarious ‘Top Five’ cameo

Photo: Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

When I first heard “Get at Me Dog” in 1998, I thought, Def Jam is back.

The Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons-founded label, then home base to LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys, ran in the hip-hop wars. Yet it had been outpaced, first by West Coast gangsta rap, then by the luxurious lifestyle rhymes of Diddy’s Bad Boy and the rise of Southern juggernauts like No Limit. Akin to Cold Chillin’, Uptown, and Tommy Boy, Def Jam seemed ready to be another once-important New York rap music enterprise slated for irrelevance.

DMX’s aforementioned debut single sounded like a Def Jam record — loud and aggressive, both in sound and vocals. But the Yonkers emcee was both more street and, ultimately, more spiritual than any act previously signed to the label. Sponsored by the Ruff Ryders’ family label and signed by then-rising A&R guru Irv Gotti, DMX introduced himself as a force. He gave Def Jam a shot of artistic credibility that ushered in a new era of music stars (Ja Rule, Ludacris) and a second wind that redefined both the label and hip-hop.

Whether produced by Dame Grease or Swizz Beatz, DMX’s anthems were the hip-hop equivalent of arena rock — huge, chant-like choruses with rough and rugged lead vocals and easy-to-understand yet distinctive verses. And that voice! So instantly identifiable; all you needed to hear was his growl and you knew it was Dark Man X. As a performer, he was on par with the greatest to step on a stage. His charisma, commitment, and ability to connect with an audience were unique. Watch his performance at Woodstock ’99 before 200,000 people and see a solo emcee rock as hard as any heavy metal band.

During a break in filming, DMX and one of his young daughters walked into one of the jail cells… He said to her, “Sometimes when Daddy’s away, I’m in a place like this.”

While on a boat circling Manhattan in the early 2000s, I ended up at a table filled with Black culture icons. Jay-Z sat at the head; not surprisingly, he dominated the conversation. 50 Cent — with whom Jay had recently toured — was hot at the time. Someone asked Jay how hard it was to follow him on stage. Jay said something along the lines of “I toured with DMX.” He talked about hearing X in the stadium’s hallway before he went on, barking like a dog into a microphone, hyping the crowd before attacking the stage with a slew of high-energy hits. Then DMX ended his set with a prayerful reflection, a trademark of his career. “And then I had to come onstage with ‘Hard Knock Life,’” Jay-Z continued. In no way was it an admission of defeat by the Brooklyn emcee; Jay-Z made it clear that he more than held his own. But it was an acknowledgment of what a force DMX had been in the game.

In 2013, I served as an associate producer on the Chris Rock-directed comedy Top Five. In every version of the script, Rock had a scene with DMX. I worried that the rapper-actor, who once had a promising career in film, couldn’t be relied on to appear on set. Rock persisted anyway. On the day of his cameo, DMX showed up along with children, relatives, and friends. Rock’s dream was to have DMX perform Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” inside a jail cell. Rock showed DMX the lyrics on a cell phone — X was already a bit familiar with them. He nailed the scene in a couple of takes, bringing his drama and humor. It’s a classic moment in a hilarious movie. But the moment I’ll never forget didn’t make the film.

We shot at an actual jail in Queens. During a break in filming, DMX and one of his young daughters walked into one of the cells. She was a small, fair-skinned girl who held her father’s hand. He said to her, “Sometimes when Daddy’s away, I’m in a place like this.” The bittersweet moment revealed a father trying to explain his life to his child and the reality of the detours that marked his way.

Dying at age 50 is way too young for anyone, much less a father of 15 who was such an incredible life force. Songs like “Party Up (Up in Here),” “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” and “Stop Being Greedy,” and performances in Belly and the under-seen gem Never Die Alone give a glimpse of a profound talent lost much too soon.

Author and filmmaker. Current books: a novel, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic); music collection The Nelson George Mixtape (Pacific) www.pacificpacific.pub.

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