It’s 1998 and for the first time, hip hop is in a state of stability. Fresh out of the PMRC battleground and long removed from the underground, real label money, booking, and media attention were being given to rappers, producers, and moguls. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie put rap music on the 7 o’clock news and the genre now existed within the top margin of the billboard. And then there was X… unabashed, tireless, and above all incredibly emotional. On paper he sounded like the second coming of Pac, but on record he sounded like nothing anybody had ever heard before, raw, distinct, and invested.
It is easy to be misled by DMX's aggression. On "X-Is Coming," the most menacing track on his genre shifting debut, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, X threatens horrifying violence to anyone who intends to cross him. At first glance, it could be mistaken for bravado; violent storytelling is a well known hip hop trope in intimidation and braggadocio. But X's gruff delivery and brutal lyricism make it clear that he has no intention of being admired. It's vulnerability veiled as machismo, the defense he's had to put up as a survival tactic his entire life.
Since X’s untimely death last week, his early life in poverty is becoming important lore. Born to teenage parents, the accounts of X’s birthplace vary. He suffered bronchial asthma throughout his childhood and a life shattering experience after being hit by a drunk driver. Though given the opportunity to sue for $10,000, the Simmons were raised Jehovah’s Witnesses, believing in self sufficiency and neglecting to press charges. With little choice, he sold drugs and did drugs before finding rap. It was not a Cinderella story, with X entering in and out of jail constantly. It is under this new context that gives DMX’s gritty work and raw honesty a new perspective.
...Hell Is Hot is not a pleasant listen, but it is a sincere depiction of a man's struggle to survive as a Black man in American poverty. Through reevaluating the trauma that X recounts on this record, it can contextualize how we lost him. DMX was no stranger to violence. Rapping may have been what kept him going spiritually while making it out of Yonkers, but artistic passion isn't enough to help you survive in poverty. Through his poignant pen, DMX reminded us that sometimes you have to resort to crime to keep yourself afloat and; as he describes on "Crime Story," X chose robbery. "Put the harness on the dog, load up the weapons / murder's on my mind, no half stepping" proclaims X, infamous for threatening to sic his dog on anyone who wouldn't give up the loot. This is reprehensible behaviour, but X isn't romanticizing it; he's trying to make us uncomfortable perhaps to show us that deep down that’s how he feels about the whole thing. He's trying to make us understand the life he is living and the mask he has to wear. X isn’t asking us to like him on ...Hell Is Hot, he didn’t goofball bar mitzvah dance like Puffy, or pop expensive champagne like Jay-Z...no, DMX used his bars to demand we understand him. Once you're pushed to a life of violence, you can never let your guard down (unless the glass dick says otherwise).
Experts such as Johann Hari and Gabor Maté have stated that substance use is not nearly as reliant on chemical dependence as we have been conditioned to believe. Addiction stems from trauma and failure to deal with trauma is what continues to feed it. X’s mother ended up sending him to a group home as a young child-- it’s very own kind of prison. In the docuseries Ruff Ryder Chronicles, the memory of this abandonment brings X to tears. He quickly holds them back to maintain an image of strength, but the pain is evident. As the beginning of the crack epidemic rolled around, X took to the streets to sell drugs and hold stickups.
Malcolm X (no relation to DM) describes his own life of crime in Harlem as a system of unwritten code. In impoverished American neighborhoods, the victims of a capitalist society are based on "winners" and "losers." Everyone is on their own and everyone is expendable. Malcolm writes in his biography that once you are involved in crime, all you have is your reputation. The moment you lose your reputation, your life is on the line. X raps that people "test you when your gun goes warm / so I keep 'em scattering like roaches when the light comes on." This is not the persona of a cold-blooded sociopath; these are the words of a man with deep seeded trauma who has been taught that the only way to survive is to stand your ground.
X paints a portrait of Yonkers laden with bloodshed where murder, drugs, robbery, and turf war are a way daily life and "Food" is a four letter word. Horror films are constantly referenced from the reworking of the iconic Freddy Kruger nursery rhyme on "X-is Coming" to making a deal with The Omen on "Damien," a track that's influential character work can be felt in the music of Kendrick Lamar and Eminem. One Daveed Diggs clearly borrowed X's gangster and horrorcore template on his recent albums with clipping. X's parallels of horror cinema with real life to show that reality can be much more nightmarish. On tracks like "Look Thru My Eyes" and "Get At Me Dawg," X tells the listener he lives this life not because he wants to but because he has to. Both Malcolm and Assata Shakur have discussed in their respective biographies that in prison, an institution predominantly populated by people of colour, you are forced to do things you're not proud of in order to survive. They go on to discuss that living in an impoverished neighborhood isn't very different to being in prison. Both are heavily policed, both have low qualities of life, and both subject their residents to violence of circumstance.
So in 1998, in the midst of Bad Boy, Aftermath, and his Def Jam labelmates like Method Man & Redman and Foxy Brown, DMX dropped one of the most thoughtfully and emotionally sophisticated albums in hip hop. But until his career took a left turn to indictments and convictions, few viewed DMX the MC as a tormented man who turned his suffering into poetry even though this was such an integral part of his subject matter. The album that skyrocketed him to success now serves as a lamenting of the pain he lost himself in. Though a trend in 90’s hip hop it’s eerily cold to hear X wrestle with suicidal ideation on "Let Me Fly." Rapping melancholic lyrics like, "if you wasn't born with it, it wasn't meant for you to be / but you can't blame me for not wantin' to be held / locked down in a cell where the soul can't dwell," It may very well be the album’s thesis. X uses three verses to muse on heaven and hell and compare it to the upper and lower class levels of society, begging a higher power for an escape via success or death. On ......Hell Is Hot, all these two pillars are one in the same.