For Christmas of 1998, my parents gifted me a DJ-set in a box. I don’t know if they still produce these, but it was literally what it sounds like- two turntables and a mixer in a big box. Like most things “in a box,” the quality wasn’t very good. The tables were belt-driven and not meant for the hip hop DJ aesthetic. The mixer’s crossfader was as slow as they come. They were meant as an easy entry point for novices like me who wanted to learn to DJ but didn’t have the capacity to drop a G or more on a legit setup. I was absolutely floored to see that big ass box under the Christmas Tree in the living room. I can’t remember ever wanting anything more than I wanted DJ equipment for Christmas that year. Despite my desire, I never actually asked for it. It a fairly expensive gift and I never wanted to be a burden or cause my parents any stress. Nevertheless, my parents magically made it happen as they always did.
I never fully took to DJing, but the equipment exists in pieces in my parents’ house. One of the tables sits in their living room holding a copy of Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, likely the last record my dad played before he died less than two years ago. More than the equipment, the accompanying records I received continue amaze me almost 23 years later. My dad, somehow, had pretty keen insight into what I was listening to at the time. That batch of records had cuts from Kurupt, Souls of Mischief, and Def Squad. But it also included three tracks featuring the biggest star of that moment, DMX: Jay-Z’s “Money Cash H*es,” Jayo Felony’s “Whatcha Got Do With It” and Def Jam’s Survival of the Illest compilation which featured a couple of DMX solo cuts.
DMX was the first hip hop star of my era. He arrived on the scene as I was entering high school in the late 1990s and his music provided the soundtrack for my coming of age. I was absolutely obsessed with hip hop back then. I would save my all of my lunch money to fund my weekly trips to Sound Waves on South Main, my favorite record store to this day. I religiously watched BET’s Rap City every day after school. I read The Source magazine cover to cover each month. I vividly remember being swept up in the wave of X’s 1997 run of classic guest appearances, most notably The Lox’s “Money, Power and Respect,” LL Cool J’s “4321” and Ma$e’s “24 Hours to Live.” You couldn’t help but be captivated by his gruff voice, barked adlibs, and lyrics that stealthily moved from threatening to witty to solemn all in the same verse.
DMX was hip hop without the pretense. The video for “Get at Me Dog,” the first single from It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, is a good example of this. Absent were the yachts, foreign lands and bikini-clad women common to that area’s rap video aesthetic. It was just a black and white scene of X rocking the stage. For me, the song cemented his mythology- a brooding, dark yet spiritual figure who felt more akin with canines than his own species. DMX was a dynamic counterpoint to the grandiose materialism of his peers.
“Who We Be” is by far my favorite DMX track. On the song, X uses a staccato flow to offer a 4 minute lyrical diatribe on systemic oppression from both a personal and communal standpoint. He has tracks that are more lyrically rich and ones with more complex themes. However, “Who We Be” both demonstrates his artistic acumen and reveals the vulnerability that endeared him to so many hip-hop fans.
A few months ago, DMX detailed the origins of his drug addiction in an interview with Talib Kweli. He detailed how a mentor, someone he idolized, tricked him into a smoking a joint lacked with crack when he was 14 time years old. Drug addiction, along with trauma from childhood abuse and bipolar disorder would cause suffering throughout his life, even at his highest moments. Last year’s Verzuz battle offered hope that he was, at the very least, on the road to recovery and ready to live the unaching life that he deserved. I was so hurt to hear that he was in the hospital and devasted to learn of his death.
DMX wore his imperfections on his sleeve. His personal traumas, internal battles, and insecurities made him uniquely relatable in the bravado-centered late 90s/early 2000s hip hop landscape. He has a Grand Champ for those in the struggle and his warrior spirit offered affirmation and hope. X left an indelible mark on our culture and he will truly be missed.