In 1998, I was a freshman in college. College was the best and worst thing I’d ever seen. It was loud, and bright, and daring, and dangerous. It was my dream come true and worst fears wrapped into one. It was… the beginning of adulthood. Even though I was still very much a child. And in that new world, there’s not a lot to hold onto, to anchor you. Friends are new, roommates are strangers, and family is far away. But I did have one thing: hip-hop. Being born right after hip-hop was born gave me a front row seat to its growth and development. It matched my own. It was awkward and precarious, but beautiful and honest. Music saved me that year, hip-hop especially, and I was always looking for more of it to keep the loneliness away. Because it didn’t just soothe me, it connected me to other people. Games, pep rallies, parties, and spades tournaments — music as the backdrop made it all less scary, and less lonely.
Enter DMX. In 1998, he dropped his first album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, and my whole life changed. DMX growled when he spit, and barked after his bars, and spoke so eloquently about robbing you of everything you had, even your life, if you forced his hand. It was… crazy and raw. It reminded me of South Philly, where I’d been born and raised, and where I liked to think everything was just a little bit grimier than in the rest of the world. His first single, “Get At Me Dog,” was a monster that me and my new friends quickly learned all the lyrics to. DMX was angry and mean, and in 1998 it stood out — for everyone. It was the height of the bling era and everybody was rich and acting like it. Most radio hits were about what you could buy. “Get At Me Dog,” was about what could be taken from you. By force. By people with nothing on their minds but not starving. And it starts with the question DMX would keep asking for the rest of his life and career — “What must I go through, to show you, that shit is real?”
DMX was born Earl Simmons in Mount Vernon, New York, a mere ten years before me. But his first album was the scribe of a man who’d lived a lifetime at 27, who had already spent half his life at that point, battling addiction. DMX was a man in pain. And hip-hop helped him channel it. The second single from that album, “Stop Being Greedy,” was a head nodding, banger describing the yearning for success, a yearning so powerful you’ll use violence to achieve it, the yearning to escape your demons and the inevitability of knowing they’ll follow you — to the grave. It wasn’t my life, but it did resonate. Yearning, I knew. The desperation of wanting to be different, the fear that no matter how hard you try you’ll remain the same. I knew that too. But the album didn’t stop there. It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot took you further, deeper. DMX spit pain in such a powerful way. He was fluent in pain. And his expertise on the subject gave him a lane all his own. He talked about his violent life, his battles in the streets and at home, and even the Devil on his shoulder. But then he did something even more amazing. He prayed. He spoke to God about how hard he was trying to walk the path, and how much he thanked Him for lighting the way. He talked about how much he trusted the ultimate plan, even when it was hard to believe in it. And then he asked God to take care of his people. To ease not his own suffering, but theirs.
I was a true fan after that. Through all his struggles and pains, his music and most importantly… his faith. I loved to hear him pray on his albums. Or quote scripture when he spoke to people. He was his own kind of pastor. He communicated the message of God’s grace better than anyone I’d ever seen. Because he was living it. I loved that he always seemed to be speaking in rhythm. His cadence became a familiar friend. I was in awe of DMX. As a budding writer back then, I was still learning to be honest with myself. And about myself. It’s the key to good writing. And he knew that. What must he go through, to show you, that shit is real? DMX went through everything. And he wasn’t afraid to tell you about it. To warn you about it. And as the daughter of an addict, it was easy to see the moments when the drugs were winning the battle, and when he was fighting back. But he never gave up. Never gave in. I loved that about him. His art imitated his life. And he wasn’t ashamed of it. DMX wasn’t trying to impress you; he wasn’t even trying to teach you. He was just trying to show you who he was. And show you that there’s light sometimes. Even when it’s dark and hell is hot.
Losing DMX today was a heavy weight, a pounding on my head and heart. We’ve all lost so much. And it’s heartbreaking to lose someone with so much will to fight. But even legends get tired, I guess. The world’s light got a little dimmer today, but I’ll never forget that first album, and how it changed me. How it taught me something. How his life taught me something. Rest in peace, Earl Simmons. I just know that wherever you are, it’s not dark anymore.