“Too much. Too many people. Too much.” —Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
In the two weeks since DMX’s passing on April 9, 2021, hip-hop has been rocked by two more tragic losses. Black Rob (June 8, 1968 – April 17, 2021) Rest in Peace. Shock G (August 25, 1963 – April 22, 2021) Rest in Peace. Three world-famous rap artists have died while still in their 50s, robbed of their old age.
At a time when these cultural icons should be enjoying their families, savoring their career accomplishments, and dispensing wisdom to future generations, their loved ones are making funeral arrangements. (BET is set to televise and stream “BET Remembers DMX,” which will be X’s homegoing celebration on Sunday, April 25 at 2:30 p.m. EST on BET and BET’s YouTube channel, while a GoFundMe to help Black Rob has yet to reach its goal.)
Set against the relentless drumbeat of death as young people of color continue to be killed by police officers across America—13-year-old Adam Toldeo, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, 20-year-old Daunte Wright—April 2021 has been the cruelest month in memory, filled with so much suffering it’s almost too much to bear.
“See, to live is to suffer,” DMX stated at the top of “Slippin’,” the poignant lead single off his chart-topping triple-platinum 1998 album Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. “But to survive—well, that's to find meaning in the suffering.”
One place DMX found meaning was on stage, doing what he did best. Nobody who witnessed his performance at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival on a sweltering July evening in 2017 will ever forget the experience. “I love this shit right here man,” he exclaimed, dressed unpretentiously in a DMX T-shirt and his trademark stainless steel dog chain. “This shit right HERE? ...Let’s go!”
“Where my dogs at?” X screamed, the energy surging through his body and bursting forth in guttural roars. X’s lyrical delivery was even more passionate that day as he’d been arrested just a few days earlier on charges of tax evasion—for which he would later plead guilty and serve 10 months behind bars. “While raking in millions from his songs, including his 2003 hit ‘X Gon’ Give it to Ya,’ DMX didn’t give any of it to the IRS,” stated the U.S. Attorney at the time, who gleefully dunked on a Black celebrity whose struggles with addiction had clearly left his life in such disarray that he hadn’t filed taxes between 2010 and 2015.
Is letting your life spin out of control the same thing as committing tax fraud? While considering this question it’s impossible to overlook the glaring double standard by which Donald Trump was able to avoid paying federal taxes during those same years—and longer. We now know that Trump paid zero federal taxes in 10 out of 15 years between 2000 and 2015. Thanks to his high-powered attorneys and accountants, nobody dared to dunk on Trump. Instead, somehow, he was elected president.
“There is a blessing in every curse,” X exclaimed from the stage that night in Brooklyn. “You just gotta get past the self-pity and look for it.” Bringing his 10-month-old son Exodus on stage, X forgot his troubles, smothering the boy with kisses and pointing out into the crowd with a big smile on his face. But later, after running through “Party Up,” X’s emotions got the better of him.
“I praise God for every obstacle and hurdle I gotta get over and through,” he said, his powerful voice cracking here and there. “Cause it is through these things that I see what God could be.” Blinking his eyes at the intensity of the moment, X went on: “You know what? It’s all right, baby. It’s all right. It’s all right. In the name of Jesus, it’s all right! I’m a walking, breathing, living testament to what God can do in somebody’s life.”
The crowd cheered him on. “That’s right, X!” someone yelled. “We love you X!”
“From the outside looking in, it might look like, Damn, he’s goin’ through some shit!” X continued, speaking his unfiltered truth with all the brutal candor his fans had grown to expect. “But all I’m doing is getting rescued by God every time. All I do is get picked up by God every time. Every time! I don’t create these situations—but God damn sure rescues me from these situations.”
Escaping The Pain
Earl Simmons faced hard-core situations his entire life. Back in 1998, DMX released his first two major label albums—both of which debuted at the top of the pop charts—and starred in his first motion picture. Music journalist Karen R. Good asked him for a VIBE cover story if he was happy. “He shakes his head no,” she wrote. “He says he feels categorized. Because he is a bald-headed, Black man who curses, all folks see is ‘a ni**a—who raps.’ He’d rather we focus on the root at which Earl Simmons and Dark Man X converge, and the cause of the split. A battle of extremes consume him, between vision and blindness, between advancing into the light and retreating into anonymity and shady night moves.”
DMX never tried to conceal the demons that tortured him. “I’m so sorry for what I done, Father, it ain’t my fault,” he confessed on “A Minute for your Son” off his chart-topping 2001 album The Great Depression. “The Devil’s been on my back lately. He’s like a hawk. You never give us more than we can handle, but it’s gettin’ hard. And I’m a strong individual, but I need you, God.”
“Shadows of neglect hover over Earl Simmons’s childhood,” Good wrote in VIBE back in 1998. “Born December 8, 1970, he grew up in the School Street Projects in Yonkers with ‘five sisters, a mother, and no father.’ Earl was that child who you knew had a good heart (all children do) despite his bad deeds. An admitted truant, he grew up in an abusive home, began robbing frequently, and once stuck up a schoolmate with a sawed-off shotgun.”
Comparisons to Tupac followed DMX, who filled the vacuum in hip-hop after Big and Pac’s murders, demolishing the “shiny suit” era and returning rap to the gritty street energy from which it was born.
“My brother was a different type of brother,” DMX’s day-one producer Swizz Beatz declared in an emotional Instagram tribute one day after the Simmons family made the painful decision to take him off life support. “Different type of artist, different type of creative, different type of spirit, different type of zone, different type of soul.”
Noting that X was a loyal individual who never cared for fancy cars, expensive jewelry, and the material trappings of success, Swizz said he cried 50 times before he was able to record his message. “Never seen a human like him. Closest I ever seen to a prophet. They comparin’ him to other people but there’s only one DMX. That man suffered every day. That man suffered from the day that I know him. When y’all heard his first song he was sufferin’. You know why he was sufferin’? Because he took everybody’s pain and made it his. His humanitarian work should be celebrated. He was in so much pain that he would go to jail to have his freedom. Sorry dog, I gotta tell ’em the truth. He would go to jail to escape his pain. That’s how much pain my brother had every day.”
Watching DMX grapple with that pain was part of what bound his fans to him so tightly. “Everything in my life is blessed with a curse,” he told Talib Kweli in a searing 2020 episode of “People Party With Talib Kweli” for UPROXX in which he detailed the first time he was tricked into using crack at age 14 by a friend he considered to be his mentor. “A monster was born,” X said, dark glasses hiding the tears in his eyes. “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy... Especially with somebody that you supposedly love. Why would you do that?”
Kweli told DMX to take his time and praised him for having the courage to face his demons and talk openly about his journey towards healing. “You showed us who you were,” he said. “You were unapologetic about telling your story. And the difference between you and a lot of these celebrities… is that you’re a true artist. You live and breathe this art. It’s not separate. The rhyming is not separate from who you are as a person. It’s really life or death because it comes from a life or death experience. We appreciate you being so strong and weathering these storms so that you could come and tell us these stories, brother.”
X insisted that his real problem was not addiction, but the pain that fueled the addiction. “Drugs were a symptom of a bigger problem,” he said. “There was things I went through in my childhood where I just blocked it out, blocked it out, blocked it out. But there’s only so much you can block out before you run out of space. And then you never know when the things you stored away are just gonna come out and just fall all over the place.”
The Bravest Thing You Can Do
At some point Earl Simmons realized that he was going to have to deal with the issues that hurt him in the past if he was to have any type of future. That work was ongoing at the time of his reported overdose on April 2, 2021.
“Let me open this door and start dealing with this shit now,” he told Kweli five months before his death, “before I just have a meltdown and I’ll be no more good to anybody. So that’s what’s helped with addiction and sobriety and just knowing that you have to let some of the stuff out. I didn’t really have anybody to talk to about it. Because you know in the hood it’s like—brothers say ‘Aight, that’s what it is.’ Nobody wants to hear that. Nobody wants to even help with talking. Cause often talking about your problems is looked at as a sign of weakness when it’s actually one of the bravest things you can do.”
The same week that DMX was admitted to White Plains Hospital and placed on life support, Hunter Biden—the last surviving son of President Joe Biden—rolled out his memoir Beautiful Things, which details his own struggles with addiction. Biden was born the same year as Simmons, and his home in Wilmington was just over two hours south of Yonkers on I-95. But Hunter and DMX grew up worlds apart. While X first smoked crack as an aspiring rapper who eked out his survival as a stickup kid, Biden was a successful attorney and consultant who also smoked crack but in the exclusive Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont. Having lost his mother and younger sister to a car crash at an early age, Biden had experienced incredible tragedy, but he was fortunate enough to have a support system that would pick him up over and over again when he was slippin’.
Bottom line, he is alive to write his memoir and face another day.
America’s X Factor
Besides producing countless hits with DMX, Swizz Beatz made sure X received his flowers when he arranged the Verzuz “battle” with Snoop Dogg in July 2020. Millions of fans tuned in to watch two of hip-hop’s big dogs run through their legendary hits. The highlight came after the “competition” was over and Snoop asked the DJ to run the “Brick House” beat for a little freestyle.
X summoned his strength and spit a few bars about his love for the ladies— “Short ones, tall ones, big ones, small ones, winter spring summer and fall ones.
I love ’em all...” But the real love expressed in that moment was what Snoop showed for X—one of the sweetest memories his fans can hold onto during painful times like these.
Looking back upon the life and times of Earl Simmons, there is much to celebrate. He overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to become one of the most successful rappers of all time—only the second hip-hop artist in history with five No. 1 albums on the Billboard charts. He became a father, a movie star, and gave generously to others without rapping about it or talking about it incessantly. Still, it’s impossible to overlook the glaring double standards that shaped his journey on Earth.
Call it America’s X factor.
All Is Forgiven
In April 2020, one year before his earthly transition, Earl Simmons went on Instagram Live to save some souls. Surrounded by leafy green trees, he sat with a large red Bible open on the table in front of him. He wore his dog chain around his neck.
“The most important thing we can hope for or pray for or ask for is that our desires coincide with God’s will,” DMX said with unmistakable conviction. “Cause at the end of the day—at the beginning of the day—it’s gonna be God’s will. It’s always gonna be God’s will. You try to understand what his… you know, why he does what he does and you’re just gonna end up with a headache. Just do the right thing. Do the right thing, you know what I’m sayin...?”
X picked up the Bible and read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter three.
“There is a season for everything, and a time for every matter under the heavens.
A time for giving birth, and a time for dying. A time for planting, and a time for uprooting what was planted. A time for killing, and a time for healing. A time for tearing down, and a time for building up. A time for crying, and a time for laughing. A time for mourning, and a time for dancing. A time for throwing stones, and a time for gathering stones. A time for embracing, and a time for avoiding embraces…”
Something about this line resonated so strongly with him that it stopped him in his tracks. “Ohh! Ohh!” X cried out. “A time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces! What?! Come on! Come on! Come on!” He went on, reading with passion, searching for answers, for meaning, clasping and unclasping his hands.
“Whoever hasn’t given their heart to Jesus yet... whoever hasn’t surrendered all the way… Though there may be some of you who don’t know how, I’m gonna walk you through that right now. If you’re serious about it. You don’t gotta be serious. If you don’t wanna do it—hey. But if you’re serious about it, right now, giving your life to the Lord, say it with me. ‘Dear Lord Jesus, I realize I am a sinner. I repent for my sins. And right this moment I receive you as my Lord and Savior.” It’s that simple. That simple. But you gotta mean it. You gotta mean it. Gotta mean it.”
“Everything that’s happening is God’s will,” X said, with his eyes downcast. “Don’t try to understand it. Just just just just just... get that relationship with him. Get that relationship with him. Get that relationship with him and even the things you don’t understand won’t be as hard as they would be if you tried to understand.”
X said that he’d awakened that morning with chills. God put it on his heart to speak. He was never a big social media guy. He preferred shooting pool with his friends or playing with his radio-controlled cars to flossing in the club. But this time he was on the Gram for a bigger purpose. “You see me when you see me. It is what it is. And I ain’t gonna change.”
DMX wanted nothing more than to be forgiven. His internal fight with the Devil perpetuated a push and pull that lasted up until the end of his life. Perhaps now that he is at rest, he can finally, let go. His suffering, his struggles, the negativity that swirled throughout his life, they are all gone. Left is the peace that he so desperately wanted to attain. All is forgiven.
Rob Kenner is a founding editor of VIBE magazine and the author of The Marathon Don’t Stop: The Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle (Atria Books)
Photo courtesy of Sharif James (@jimmy_dean89 @sebastian_arture)