Earl Simmons has passed away at the age of 50.
The man known as the rapper DMX has left this world far too soon, but he leaves behind a legacy that resonates and reaches beyond just his popularity and stardom. As an artist, he helped set a standard for rap greatness at the dawn of the new millennium; proving that commercial success and authenticity don't have to sit in opposition; and reminding everyone just how real Hip-Hop can be when it's done right. As a man, he illustrated our human struggle to find the light in the midst of darkness. It was a fight that defined Earl Simmons, and we should all be grateful he allowed us in, to join in his journey.
It may be hard to understand just how game-shattering DMX seemed in 1997. Months before he would release his multiplatinum debut album, Dark Man X made his first major guest appearance on "4, 3, 2, 1" by LL COOL J, alongside fellow Def Jam stars Method Man and Redman; and dropped in on hits by Bad Boy stars like Ma$e and The LOX, as well as "Shut 'Em Down" by Onyx. With the rap audience still reeling from the murders of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G.; and with so much of the mainstream awash in shiny suit-ism, this aggressive guy from Yonkers was a revelation.
Young Earl spent much of his childhood in and out of institutions. His parents were Joe Barker and Arnett Simmons, and X would state that he never believed there was love in his home. “He never called me on my birthday or helped raise me at all,” Simmons would write of his father (in DMX's autobiography E.A.R.L.)
And X felt his mother just never knew how to love him.
“Children don’t come with a fucking instruction manual,” DMX told GQ in 2019. “Four sisters; I’m the only boy. Maybe she didn’t know what to do with me."
DMX wrote about his mother's abuse, recounting how she knocked his teeth out with a broom when he was six years old. He'd wander the streets, befriending stray dogs as a lonely kid looking to avoid the pain of a troubled home. It was his mother who sent Earl to a group home as a teen, and it was there that he honed his love of music, earning his nickname initially after showing proficiency on the famed "DMX" drum machine.
“I think a lot of people struggle with forgiving their parents," X said in 2019. "In fact, I personally struggle with forgiving my parents. But until you learn how to forgive others, you can’t forgive yourself. You can’t forgive yourself if you don’t know how to forgive.”
He become known as a battle rapper around Yonkers and Harlem, winding up in The Source's "Unsigned Hype" column in 1991. As an artist, he had charisma to spare, and an intensity that made it seem like he could come through the speaker and fight you himself. When A&R Irv Gotti passed Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen the demo tape of this uber-hungry rapper from Yonkers, Lyor had to see X in person. X's jaw was broken after a brawl, but it didn't stop his show; he rapped for the music executive with his jaw wired shut.
Def Jam signed DMX and his career suddenly took off with that string of high profile guest spots. When he guested on a track, he gripped it like a pitbull on a chain. His verse on "Money, Power, Respect" by The LOX was like a declaration of who DMX was going to be:
"This is a beat that I can freak to, just drop the reels
Bless a nigga with the ill, y'all niggas know my skills
X in their grills, hit 'em up, split 'em up
Wet 'em up and watch 'em come get 'em up
Set em' up, when you do dirt, you get dirt
Bitch, I'll make your shit hurt, step back like, 'I did work'
This ain't no fuckin' game, what, you think I'm playin'?
'Til you layin' somewhere in the junkyard decayin...'"
His early single "Get At Me Dog" only furthered the frenzy for DMX's debut. In spring 1998, Def Jam's newest star dropped It's Dark And Hell is Hot, a grim classic that made it obvious that there was so much pathos underneath and flowing throughout DMX's anger and bravado. His stints in juvenile halls and prisons, the lack of love he'd gotten from his mother and father; it all fueled his art. The toughest rapper in the game was also it's most vulnerable. He put everything out there for the world to see.
“I didn’t have much of a childhood,” he would tell Rolling Stone in 2000. “It was always dark in our house, and depressing. That’s what I remember.”
With It's Dark... still reverberating across the airwaves, DMX's sophomore album Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood followed in late 1998. Both albums would go to No. 1 on Billboard's Albums charts that year, a testament to how ravenous fans were for DMX.
"The consumers were starving," former Def Jam President Kevin Liles said in 2016. "X fed that hunger — that hunger for realness, that hunger for the street. And what better way to serve it up than to give two full entrees in the same year?"
That takeover of 1998 set the stage for DMX's dominance into the early 00s. More hit albums like ...And Then There Was X and The Great Depression followed; as did major movie roles in hits like Romeo Must Die with Aaliyah and Jet Li, Belly alongside Nas, and Never Die Alone.
DMX's poetry was infused with so much passion, so much grit, so much heart and soul; that it was impossible to hear his music and see him perform and not get swept up in the cathartic wave of outpouring emotion from the rapper. When X fell to his knees in prayer during his intense stage shows, you knew that it wasn't just performance. His pain was real. So was his faith.
"You give me the word, and only ask I interpret
And give me the eyes, that I can recognize the serpent
You know I ain't perfect, but you'd like me to try
Unlike the devil who just wants me to lie, till I die..."
- DMX "Prayer"
X seemed like an anomaly at a time when everyone wanted you to know how successful they were, with Rolexes in the sky and Cristal poppin' all the rage. But that wasn't DMX. In a 2019 interview with GQ, DMX reflected on a moment early in his success when he felt material things were going to his head.
"I referred to someone I didn't care for as a 'bum-ass nigga,'" X shared. "The minute the words came out my mouth, it was like shit was coming out of my mouth. I was like, 'Wow, I never called someone a bum.' That was a reference to how much money they had and how successful they were. If I don't like you, fuck you. If it's 'fuck you,' it's fuck you. It is what it is, you know what I'm saying? But why would I make a reference to how successful or how much money you had? That was just ugly."
The pain of his formative years was never far away. Neither were his addictions and emotional struggles. X battled crack cocaine addiction for years, sharing in an emotional 2020 interview with Talib Kweli that he was tricked into smoking the drug as a youth. “Why would you do that to a child?” DMX emotionally asked as he recounted the incident. “He know how I looked up to him. Why would you do that to somebody who looks up to you?”
At the height of his fame, he became notorious for run-ins with the law and his marriage to his then-wife Tashera Simmons eventually crumbled. DMX's fight made for national headlines, but even throughout his harshest moments, fans and friends could see a man pushing; forever working to get back to his best self.
In recent years, DMX expressed an interest in the ministry. It was a natural progression for a man who'd endured so much and for whom love of God and the struggle for righteousness were of paramount importance.
"When I do become a pastor, I don't think I'm going to lose fans," he told The Breakfast Club in 2016. "I think I'm going to gain more."
DMX's death feels tragic and heartbreaking because the world watched him struggle with the darkness so publicly. But in being so public about his pain, DMX provided a light for all of us who wrestle with mortal failings. For those ensnared by addiction, for those who grapple with emotional problems or who have mental health issues, DMX was a symbol of perseverance. The moments where he may have fallen down never defined him. They still don't today, even as we mourn his loss.
“If I was to drop dead right now, my last thought would be: ‘I’ve had a good life.’”
DMX made that statement during his appearance on NORE's Drink Champs podcast last year. He was working on new music. He seemed to be in a happier space. He and his mother seemed to have reconciled their toxic past. His appearance on Verzuz with Snoop Dogg was one of the highlights of the popular Instagram "battle" series. He found love and got engaged. For DMX, the light never came easy, but he never stopped walking in it. The darkness constantly crept in, and Earl Simmons wouldn't let it win his soul. During an appearance on Instagram Live, X offered a prayer and lead his viewers through Bible study. Don't let anyone make you believe this man's spirit wasn't intact. DMX was a light. As he said himself:
"I love who I am. I'm God's child."