Worth The Wait
Written by Nina Griffin
The first CD I ever owned was It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, DMX’s debut album. It was 1999, and I was visiting a Sam Goody music store with my grandfather. Despite its menacing cover and explicit warning, he bought it for me, because he’s not of those regular granddads; he’s a cool granddad. I couldn’t wait to rip the plastic off, throw the disc into my boom box, and hear that familiar low grumble that had evoked chills in my 14-year-old body.
DMX (Earl Simmons) rapped in a way that I had never heard before. His cadence was completely original, and complimentary, to the gravel in his voice. He expressed his violently manic tendencies, and threatened his foes in such a raw way; but he also had a cunning sense of humor, a romantic side, and a deep love and compassion for dogs.
Since I run with the devil, I am one with the devil
And I stay doing dirt so I’m-a come with the shovel
Is you on a level of a madman whose mind’s twisted?
Mad n***s dreams caught the last train, mine’s missed it
Listed as a manic-depressive with extreme paranoia
And dog, I got something for ya
Even the interludes showed a balance between dark and light with their sketchy characters and relatable situations. The growl and bark that he added to his songs emphasized the “hype” factor of his lyrics and the beats that he blessed with them. It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot was a collection of hood anthem after hood anthem. And, for those of us who still had a hole in our musical hearts where Biggie and Tupac once lived–whether we lived in the hood or not–DMX was a beacon of hope.
Twenty years and at least 200 plays later, I got to see the legend perform on tour for the anniversary of the album’s release. Actually, it was out in 1998, but the artist was in prison on the official anniversary – serving a year sentence for federal tax evasion. New Orleans was tonight’s stop on the 32-date (and mostly sold out) tour. The venue is full of fans who are, mostly, in their 30s and older, and billows of weed smoke as one might expect. The latter makes me wonder about our main act for the night and his past struggles with substances. After all, his bail was revoked before he was given his sentence last year, for failing a drug test and traveling without a court-mandated drug counselor. X was released in late January, and began this tour in April.
Doors were at 8pm and, a little after nine, DJ Nonstop gets on the ones and twos. A member of the Heavy Hitter DJs, an exclusive cohort of record spinners, he’s been on the road with DMX for 15 years. The Chicago native also mixes on the Windy City’s 104.3 on Friday and Saturday nights. He proceeded to set the turntables ablaze with classic rap records from Bone Thugs, Mob Deep, Biggie, Tupac, etc. – a dream playlist for a true hip hop head. The audience is rapping along to every word, and the place gets more and more crowded by the minute. The mood is light, and the vibes are easy.
Towards the end of his set, Nonstop asks the crowd several times whether or not we’re ready for DMX. Responding emphatically in the positive, of course, people are anxious to see him but also starting to wonder what’s taking the star so long to begin; the DJ’s been up there for a little over an hour. At nearly 10:30, he leaves the stage and the anticipation builds. We are all expecting that that the next face we see on stage will be Dark Man X. Alas, it is not. A young rapper, whose name I didn’t catch, emerges from backstage and launches into a set of high energy pop/rap records. Based on the Saints fitted cap he wears on his freshly-barbered head, I assume he’s local talent. Several people in the audience begin to rap along, and it confirms my suspicions.
The second opener gives us about 3 tracks, and then he’s off. At this point, the stage goes dark. The crowd gives about a minute of half-hearted DMX chants, and, finally at 10:45, we hear the eerie drum-pounding and bell-ringing that accompanies “Intro”, the first track from “It’s Dark…”.
The energy in the room rises to meet that of the man of the hour. The moment he steps foot onstage, all is forgiven. It seems that everyone has forgotten that they’ve been pressed against the same sweaty, awkward strangers for nearly three hours. That we are in our 30s and fully expected to be in bed by this point (yes, on a Saturday night). The stress from the week dissipates like the puffs of smoke in the air.
For most of us, he influenced our adolescence. For me, personally, the album’s dark themes got me through some especially dark times, and reminded me to keep my “dogs” close, and the “cats” closer. It taught me to always be aware of the false intentions of the people around me, and to always be one step ahead of them. It gave me permission to be angry at the people I had already learned not to trust, at my young age.
To this day, I know every lyric, ad lib, and interlude by heart; and was happy to be congregated in a venue with others who knew them all as well. We rapped along without abandon, crossing our forearms in the air to bear the “X” in celebration.
DMX’s set was a medley of hits; not a full run-through of the album, which, I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by. But only because I didn’t get a performance of one of my favorites from the album– the creepy, first chapter of the “Damien” trilogy. I get it though. It would be hard to make a comeback without his most successful hit, “Party Up” from …And Then There Was X, and “Slippin”, the self-reflective lament from his sophomore album, Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood.
On the edge of the DJ booth is a stack of fresh, white towels, which Simmons makes full use of throughout the show, sweeping them one-by-one over his cleanly shaven head and tossing each to a carefully selected (female) audience member, to her delight. We all laugh when he briefly retrieves one for a quick wipe before passing it back to its rightful new owner.
DMX is in good spirits. He can feel the love in the room, and exclaims that being surrounded by that love is “better than the best p***y I ever got in my f***ing life”. The audience roars. He looks and sounds healthy, even climbing the tall speaker at stage right to bark the high energy “Ruff Ryders Anthem.” It was everything I wanted from a DMX show. His indefatigable passion and veracity are consistent, and something fans can rely on, as is evident by the ticket sales.
At the end of the show, X performs “Prayer”, a spirited talk with God that’s featured on the debut album. In it, he addresses his shortcomings, struggle with his inner demons, and lapses in faith; acknowledging that he can feel a change within himself but sometimes backslides.
Plenty of times you sent help my way, but I hid
And I remember once you held me close, but I slid
There was something that I just had to see
That you wanted me to see so I could be what you wanted me to be
And I think I’ve seen it but I don’t feel the same
Matter of fact I know I’ve seen it, I can feel the change
There’s truth in his delivery, and the crowd’s reverence is measurable. With that, his security guard covers his head with a towel. He shoots us the peace sign, and he’s out. Buzzing with lingering excitement, we all head out into the French Quarter, which is wet from a cleansing rain that occurred while we were in the venue. I too feel refreshed after the experience. With hip hop culture currently being inundated with artists who don’t have a lot to say, it’s good to see one of the greatest of all time giving it 100% and earning the steadfast loyalty of his fans. I no longer own that CD that my grandfather bought 20 years ago, but my feelings toward the album have not changed; and I’m proud to call it my first.