Thee man gifted to us as DMX has passed away due to heart failure. He was only 50 years old.
He was born Earl Simmons in Mount Vernon, New York on Dec. 18, 1970.
Simmons was raised in the infamous School Street projects and claimed the streets of Yonkers as his home. At an early age, he began wandering the streets of Yonkers to escape his mother’s abuse, and eventually began to take in stray dogs that walked the streets at night. As a child, his mother sent him away to another boys’ home, where he befriended other students over their shared love of hip-hop music.
A stint incarcerated with rapper K-Solo encouraged Simmons to take rap more seriously, and upon his release, he met a local rapper named Ready Ron and would flood the block with his self-produced mixtapes. His stage name was originally “Divine Master of the Unknown,” which then morphed into the name “DMX,” stemming from the Oberheim DMX drum machine he used at the boys’ home. Later on, when Simmons became an international superstar, many interpreted his moniker to also mean “Dark Man X”.
With local fans in Yonkers clamoring for DMX, The Source Magazine praised his ferocious rhymes in an “Unsigned Hype” column, and X went from robbing drug dealers to packing out arenas and stadiums in less than five years. In 1995, he made a guest appearance alongside Jay-Z, Ja Rule on Mic Geronimo’s classic underground cut, “Time To Build,” and additional guest spots on records with Ma$e (“24 Hrs. to Live,” “Take What’s Yours”) and The LOX (“Money, Power & Respect”) created a strong buzz for the then-unsigned rapper.
By 1998, the Jiggy Era had established hip-hop as a commercial powerhouse with million dollar budgets going to stars like Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy) and Dr. Dre. X, now signed to Def Jam Records, was determined to bring back the streets with a raw style and themes that endeared him to many that were ready for a change. His major label debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, which featured the singles “Get at Me Dog” and “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” were instant smashes and placed at number one on the Billboard 200 charts — eventually becoming certified platinum four times. He would release Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood later that year, and make history as the only living rapper to debut on the Billboard album chart twice at the number one spot in the same year. A feat he would later top when he became the only musical artist in history to release five consecutive albums (his entire album catalog at the time) that debuted at number one.
At the same time, while he was the undisputed top dog in hip-hop, Simmons added actor to his extensive resume, starring in such films as Belly, Exit Wounds, Cradle 2 the Grave, Last Hour, and Romeo Must Die. The latter with the late singer Aaliyah. The two shared a heartfelt closeness and gave us the duet “Back in One Piece” for the film. When Aaliyah passed, Simmons’ words of love and honor at the beginning of the tribute video “Miss You,” showcased just how powerful a connection he had with angels.
A transitional deacon in the Christian Church, Simmons’ relationship with God was explored on records such as “Lord Give Me a Sign,” “The Omen,” “Slippin’,” and most notably his “Prayer” series. To witness Simmons as DMX was akin to attending a revival, full of life and celebration. If you had any doubts — or weren’t born to get the full picture — on how X gave it to crowds, all you have to do is watch the classic video of him at Woodstock ‘99 performing in front of 220,000 fans. And much like the themes DMX explored in his records, the man Earl Simmons faced trials, tribulations, and the consequences therein as a result of the fight going on within. Since becoming a public figure, DMX had been engaged in feuds with Ja Rule and Jay-Z, became a father to fifteen children, and battled drug addiction and the law, with multiple arrests for offenses including: resisting arrest, animal cruelty, reckless driving, unlicensed driving, drug possession, and identity falsification.
Things came to a head in 2017 when Simmons was charged with 14 federal counts of tax fraud. He pleaded guilty to a single count in November of that year and was remanded to jail the following year after leaving a drug treatment program after relapsing with cocaine and Oxycodone. The court also ordered DMX to pay $2.29 million in restitution to the government, and he was subsequently released from prison on Jan. 25, 2019. The cornerstone of the Ruff Ryders label was on the mend and made his return to the stage later that year in December when he performed in Las Vegas, later engaging in a “Battle of the Dogs” with Snoop Dogg for a July 2020 Verzuz performance.
Earl Simmons is survived by his fifteen children and the hip-hop community who will forever champion his life and legacy.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.