Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
DMX ’s debut is a landmark hip-hop album, but it’s also a pop album (as in, popular), which is utterly hilarious. It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, released on May 19, 1998, went straight to No. 1 its opening week, and it went 4x Platinum in just over two years. That’s despite the fact that it was a sociopathic, off-putting collection of shouted rhymes about righteous vengeance and nihilistic violence paired with grimy, foreboding beats. So how did such a carnival of misery and carnage become such a mainstream hit?
Teenage boys, mainly. DMX’s debut may have been the product of a grizzled 27-year-old street hustler, but it was an album for kids half his age. Pubescent males know not about subtlety, and the album had a mindlessly overt potency. When my friends and I were 14, the album’s energy matched ours (the motherfucker was barking!), and the CD’s fury broke through our relentless clatter of imbecility.
But the album had appeal beyond the mallrats because DMX (real name Earl Simmons) and primary producer Dame Grease created a suffocatingly dark stomp that was a whisker shy of being a concept album, with hooks that were just as badass as the MC. And that’s how it became the bleakest of pop beasts.
X wastes no time unleashing pure menace, first as the hyper-aggressive street raconteur on the crackling “Intro,” followed by “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” his invitation for listeners to join (or at least chant along to) the movement. Next up was the ferocious “Fuckin’ Wit D,” closing out one of the strongest opening salvos in hip-hop history.
But it’s not until “Look Thru My Eyes” that you realize just how committed and/or unhinged Simmons is. He was barking and growling before, but here he whimpers like a stray mutt. It’s beautifully absurd, but also secretly brilliant because he seems dead fucking serious.
Also absurd and deadly serious (and grotesque) is the murderous “X-Is Coming,” which finds our gracious MC threatening, “If you got a daughter older than 15, I’mma rape her.” I mean, Jesus Christ. I remember first hearing this on my Aiwa and wondering if he was actually allowed to say that. And I remember later listening to only that song to get fired up before high school football games. If art is at its best when it draws out emotions, then this track was a (troubling) masterpiece. Sure, there was repugnant stuff like this in rap before and after DMX — from the proto-horrorcore of Geto Boys to Odd Future‘s outrage-baiting — but other MCs were always in on the joke or using alter egos for plausible deniability. DMX’s Damien/Devil persona was MORE REASONABLE than plain old X.
But this album wasn’t all shock factor. Whether DMX was basking in his street sweeping skills (“Crime Story”) or his inner moral conflicts (“The Convo”), there was lyrical prowess and narrative depth behind the lunacy. “ATF,” for instance, was a heist film condensed into a two-minute Ouroboros. X’s herky-jerk, stop-start cadence was similar to how New York City cabbies drive — always unpredictable and getting as close as possible to disaster…but you sort of find yourself in awe of their ability to harness the recklessness. Case in point: “Get at Me Dog,” wherein X hollers, feigns a horror movie scream and imitates the “protected by Viper” car alarm in a matter of seconds.
“Stop Being Greedy” is another master class in controlled chaos: over a high-octane beat that sounds like it came straight out of Transylvania, DMX alternates between restrained pleas and guttural rage, the refrain another rap-along call to arms. And just for good measure, the last thing he leaves us with is a marathon verse on “Niggaz Done Started Something,” closing the loop on the record’s mad-dash opener.
Seven months later, DMX would release the equally macabre Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, whose cover was literally a bloodbath. The production was a little flashier this time, but the result was the same: number one. With that, DMX became the first rapper since 2Pac to have two albums at the top of the charts in the same year.
By then, the dog had earned the right to start being greedy, so 1999′s …And Then There Was X was the cash grab, with dancefloor magnet “Party Up” and Sisqo (LOL) feature “What These Bitches Want” helping it become X’s best-selling LP and Ruff Ryders’ pinnacle. But the success coincided with an uptick in legal troubles. [Cue Behind The Music music] The rapper soon pinballed between short stints behind bars while releasing a few non-event albums in the aughts, never regaining his hip-hop stranglehold.
Now, DMX is old and goofy. Just like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and every other gangsta rapper lucky enough to outgrow gangsta rap. An old dog who doesn’t growl anymore when the mailman comes around and you weirdly miss the days when he was just a mangy, mean bastard.
But DMX’s debut album holds up 15 years later, and perhaps is even more remarkable considering it emerged when the toothless, gold-toothed rap of Master P was running things and rap-metal was the hotness. It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot was a perfectly executed, perfectly timed, frightening (and frighteningly enjoyable) blast of bloodlust in ’98. Today, it’s an anomalous masterpiece of menace, completely out of place in the self-consciously artsy modern rap world.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t help shape the current landscape, though. For one thing, X and Dame Grease pretty much put Swizz Beatz on the map. And notably, Kendrick Lamar said the LP inspired him to be a rapper. Still, few current MCs can (or even care to) match DMX’s visceral aggression on one track, let alone over an entire album. But that just strengthens the alpha dog myth behind It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.