The Immortality of DMX: A Nigerian Tribute

It has to have been in 1998 or 1999 I forged a relationship with a classmate based on the music of DMX. Two kids in a secondary school rapping lines from It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of my Blood. I have no idea where Luqman is today — but I hope that, like me, he remembered those class breaks filled with the music of DMX. Misery loves company, so I hope he felt some grief upon learning of the death of DMX.

At the time, I had just started becoming a rap head, listening to Biggie and Tupac, both of whom passed on before I got deep into their discography. Jay Z and Nas were on the rise. But the rapper that really filled the rap shelf in my head was DMX. (I recall how buzzed my classmates and I were the first school day after the video for ‘What these Bitches Want’ was released.)

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Something about his hyper-masculine vibe just appealed to boys — or to this boy. I was a small-town boy in Lokoja, the sleepy capital of Kogi state, no one’s idea of a hip city, and yet, DMX found me and my guys. We mimed lines lines it would take a decade to really grasp. This was, of course, because of a mixture of accent, naivete, and slang. I recall using “dog” wrongly in conversation referencing ‘For My Dog’ until a friend’s disapproval cued me in.

A lot of the songs I refer to here are from DMX’s first two albums (It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of my Blood) and can never really be made today and hope for mainstream acceptance. There is a line from ‘X is Coming 4 You’ that involve defiling the daughter of an enemy (insofar as she’s above 15). Although that is a line that I hardly knew existed at the time, I think it was even then that DMX’s music was hyper-violent, but it was part of the fun saying stuff I had no intention or means to copy. Where was I going to find the gun to do make sure I “left with a head full of lead”, as he rapped on ‘The Professional’ from ‘And then there was X’? My mother ran a small restaurant to care for her siblings and her kids, including this bookish child of hers; how was I going to afford a gun?

In fact, the song ‘The Professional’ is key to understanding DMX’s lyrics. The song was referencing the action film of the same name featuring the French actor Jean Reno and a young Natalie Portman. Those songs were in character: X had found a way to channel the violence of his youth into banging melodies through the invention of super-violent characters. Some of these characters were from films, like the aforementioned Jean Reno character. It’s the same thing with his multi-part devil-dialogue opera ‘The Omen’, ‘Damien’, and ‘Damien II’. (As I write this, I can hear Luqman rapping lines from ‘Damien’!”) The title of that iconic series was directly inspired by the 1976 film ‘Omen’ and its sequels. The story told by DMX, which involves a man’s bargain with the devil, is a narrative descendant of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.

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For all of the violence of his lyrics, DMX was a storyteller borrowing from western tradition whether from a playwright of the 16th century of a filmmaker of the 1970s. An intensely biographical artist, he was either telling stories directly from his life or capturing the mood of his hellish, violent surroundings. In the way, a brilliant director understands that he needs a cinematographer to intensify the experience he seeks to tell, DMX understand that he needed weird, funereal sound to go with his lines. Listen to the second song in the Damien trilogy and you might feel like something dark and underworldly might escape your speakers. Listen to ‘Stop Being Greedy’ and hear the foreboding. ‘The Professional’ sounds like a film score.

By And then there was X, DMX has cooled somewhat. While describing the many guises the narrator can take to get close enough to kill his target, he says he can be the bus driver of the target’s kids “except that I don’t like to involve women and children”. The song ends with the professional resigned to his job despite his feelings and his fear of hell — in what can be interpreted as a critique of capitalism. That is a sorta extension of his initial plan on getting into the rap game. At the time, it was a scene suffused with the glitter of Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records. X came in to provide the grit straight from the streets. He was fortunate that the mainstream embraced him as well as the streets did, buying enough of his records to send him to number 1 on the Billboard charts for two different albums in the same year.

I’m sure the CDs we bought in Lokoja contributed nothing to his success but the kid I was would have hoped that the love he and his friends had for DMX counted for something. It was a masculine love and even now I don’t know any woman that had the same fierce love for those harsh, barked lyrics. I get it. The line I referred to above from ‘X is Coming You’ has to have been off-putting. But even the nursery rhyme chorus was menacing:

1, 2, X is comin’ for you
3, 4, you better lock your door
5, 6, get your crucifix
7, 8, don’t stay up late

But, I don’t know really. Does anyone sell that many records by excluding a vast section of the music-buying audience? X had to have had quite a large number of female fans. At least, he seems to have had some success with women in real life. Apparently, he had 15 kids. And he did allude to that in songs like ‘Slipping’ and ‘How’s it Going Down’. The latter is one of my favourite songs from DMX. It tells a story about a guy meeting a lady he used to know but who now has a kid and a baby daddy. He flirts with her, as DMX relays the scene in a rhyme I used to chew-mouth along to as a kid:

Talking to shorty made me wanna do something nice
Looking at that ass made me wanna do something tonight
And I know right when I see right, shorty looking like she tight
She bite, better give a nigga the green light, we might

The girl accepts. But baby daddy finds out she’s sleeping with someone else and beats up the wrong guy. X’s narrator finds out and because he doesn’t want to harm his lady’s baby daddy, he calls off the affair. He, however, promises her: “We gon always be best of friends haha/Mad love boo to the end haha”. Back in the 1990s, I thought the lady in the video was incredibly pretty. I saw the video again yesterday and indeed she is pretty. I knew the song was related to something illicit but my sexual naivete meant I couldn’t tell what really was going down. Still, I liked the song.

When in the 2000s and 2010s, X became more in the news for arrests, it was still as the man he was across his first three albums I knew. His interviews after his heyday passed along the pain long after his songs should have. Somehow, he couldn’t quite get past the lingering effects of his early life. The interview with Talib Kweli where he talks about using crack after his mentor tricked him breaks my heart. While Luqman and I where rapping his lyrics, the man behind them was channeling his personal hell. He’s gone now.

But he knew he would never really go. 22 years ago, DMX alluded to his own immortality, confident that his art would survive. “I stand for what I believe in,” he said on ‘Fame’ from ‘And then there was X’, “Even if what I believe in stops me from breathin’/Relatives grievin’, but I ain’t went nowhere/Listen to the song (c’mon) I’m right there!”

He was right.

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