They say when you’re a child, everything and everyone is larger than life. Every person or character is viewed as a being of mythic proportion, a superhero if you will. When you’re a child your imagination is in it’s purest state of freedom. Life at the time is vibrant and kaleidoscope-like. Music, whichever genre you gravitate towards, is the soundtrack to those vibrant, kaleidoscopic visions. May 12th, 1998 offered a jarring contrast to what an 11-year-old boy originally understood about music, colors and though still in its infancy…life.
I was already an avid Hip-Hop fan by the time I was introduced to DMX’s music. We as a community were still reeling from the untimely deaths of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. so needless to say there was a power vacuum taking place in mainstream hip-hop. Who was going to grab the torch from BOTH of these instant legends? That question was lingering throughout all of Rap and seemingly out of nowhere I began hearing a gravelly voiced MC from Yonkers bellowing out to anyone that dared to crossed his path to “STAY OUT THE DARK!”
The song of note was LL Cool J’s “4,3,2,1” and I couldn’t get enough of it. I believe X’s verse at the time was probably the fastest I had ever knew a verse front to back, It had to be a matter of days. After that song was digested, another track was called “Pull It” featuring Cam’ron quickly filled the void for the contributions I craved. The music was dark, the feel was gritty and the tone was bleak. It seemed like even though the world was still grieving, X was not about to offer recompense. It was HIS time and he was taking it.
There was a different vibe in the air during the Spring of 1998. Before his first single dropped, we already had the a good sample size of what X had to offer and what he was bringing the table. Aside from “4,3,2,1” and “Pull It” we also had “Money, Power, Respect” and 24 Hours To Live”. These core four set the stage for what was soon to some with DMX’s Debut album “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot”. Armed with arguably one of the most street lead singles ever in Hip-Hop history, “Get At Me Dog” shot through the game like Super Dave being blasted out of a cannon.
I knew there was something different about the landscape at the time, I was not the only one captivated by his music and his energy. Imagine being in a middle school science class, when your teacher inexplicably leaves the room, then out of nowhere the entire class erupts in unison, chanting the chorus from “Ruff Ryders Anthem”. Or being at Boy Scout Camp and trying to play basketball with your much more athletic friends, so you go sit on the bench , become a mascot and press play on the radio. A team that was down 7 was magically up by 10, I guess that’s just how Ruff Ryders roll.
By the time Woodstock ’99 came around, there was only two other times in my young life where I had seen one person captivate a virtual sea of people with just their presence. The first one was a clip of Freddie Mercury absolutely destroying Live Aid, the volume seemed endless and overwhelming, but Freddie seemed unfazed and continued to dazzle the concert goers. The second was Michael Jackson’s ” Live In Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour” in 1992. Again the amount of people affected by MJ’s effortless moves were simply awe inspiring. After seeing those two Megastars achieve those feats, to see someone from the Hip-Hop realm do it as well was truly something that only few will be able to do. The “IT” factor was on full display with DMX.
“Its Dark and Hell is Hot” was such an impactful album, that many could not understand why it did not reach the pinnacle of success that it should have. It’s eventual Grammy snub was in fact the impetus for Jay-Z boycotting the ceremony for years. Jay-Z ladies and gentleman. HOV. Jiggaman. The God MC himself said that because of the committee’s refusal to acknowledge a true work of art, he would not partake in any festivities. This was 1998 Jay…not the 4:44 Jay…let that sink in.
Looking back on how well this album has aged in the 20 years that it has been here for consumption, I STILL find myself picking up new jewels and nuggets of wisdom within much of the content. As a kid I didn’t fully understand the hurt, the pain, the anguish that plagued him throughout much of his life. I was not aware of the mental health issues that he shared with us on many of the tracks. Paranoia, Manic Depression, Bi-Polar Disorder, and in some instances schizophrenia were all elements that were weaved throughout the project. What sounded like entertainment then is now viewed as a soul bearing plea for help in the present day.
It was the honesty, authenticity, and brass tacks lyricism that captivated a young 11/12 year old kid from Orange, New Jersey. It figuratively and literally changed the way I heard music from that point on. The rawness of it all, the dystopian outlook aged me in ways I wasn’t aware of until much later in my adult life. Hearing this album made realize that 1998 was more than just another watershed moment in Hip-Hop. It let me know that this genre was tailored specifically for me, something to cherish, uphold and protect. At a time in where much of what was given was saccharin sweet to say the least, The guttural bellows of the gravelly voiced MC from Yonkers let me know that there would forever be a place in music, in art,and in life for something real. Earl “DMX” Simmons…..Legend.