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All Eyes on DMX

Soren Baker writes about hip-hop for Calendar

Police officers are removing pit bulls from a woman’s property in Compton, and DMX is getting worked up about it.

“They’re taking her babies,” shouts the fiery rap star as he watches the TV news report about illegally housed dogs.

“Whoever’s dog that is, they’re going to be sick,” he says. “They took my dogs, those [expletive]. They took them for no reason. They did that the same way that they did mine, bringing ‘em out of my house all crazy.”

His agitation doesn’t come as a surprise. For DMX, dogs are more than pets, more than a hobby. They’re an integral element of his harsh brand of hip-hop.

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On several of his songs, DMX barks and growls. His first successful single was “Get at Me Dog,” and the tattoo on his back, reading “One Love Boomer,” memorializes a deceased dog.

Turning away from the television in the dressing room of the Hollywood studio where he’s performing on the UPN program “Motown Live,” the denim-clad DMX speaks of dogs as if they’re family.

“If people were like dogs, the world would be a much better place,” he says in his signature raspy voice. “Dogs only want to eat. They don’t want their food and their territory invaded. Other than that, they leave you alone. That’s life. Eat, sleep, do what you’ve got to do.

“Your dog will die for you. You can beat your dog and your dog will see you in a predicament where you’re about to lose your life and your dog will be right there for you. That’s how dogs get down, unconditional love. Humans are not really capable of unconditional love.”

There’s an obvious explanation for this affinity with the animals: Like the beleaguered pit bulls on TV, DMX often feels under the gun.

And it’s easy to see why. He’s an angry, muscular, expletive-hurling black man whose songs exude rage and paranoia. And he’s had his share of scrapes with the law.

He’s also the biggest-selling rapper of the past two years, and many people, including a number of industry insiders, compare DMX, 28, to the late Tupac Shakur, one of the most charismatic and anti-establishment hip-hop artists of the decade.

“People needed a rebel, and that’s what that dude is putting out there,” Cypress Hill’s B-Real says of DMX. “That’s what people look at him like. . . . People were looking for another Tupac, and [DMX] came along and he had that sort of energy and attitude about him. There was nobody else like that.”

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DMX’s third album, due Dec. 21, figures to be the biggest of the month’s flood of hip-hop releases, which also includes albums by Jay-Z, Cypress Hill and the late the Notorious B.I.G. His first two albums, both released in 1998, made him the first artist since Elton John in 1975 to debut at No. 1 on the pop chart twice in the same year. The albums have sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. combined.

But his sales and his artistry have been overshadowed to an extent by his legal problems. He was accused of being involved in a post-concert stabbing in Denver in April, and he’s been fined for his use of profanity onstage. The most notorious incident occurred in June 1998, when he was arrested on charges of rape in New York. Although the charges were later dismissed, the incident brought attention to a song lyric about raping a teenage girl. All of a sudden, DMX was the latest rap star to be demonized as a social threat.

“Other than that, I was just another rapper,” he says, lighting another in a chain of cigarettes. “I was no one to them until I got arrested and they found out that I was also a rapper and millions of people were listening to my music. That’s the point when they said, ‘Hold up. We can make something out of this.’

“It didn’t really bother me because I’ve always been one to not really give a [expletive] about what people think or say about me. . . . If anything, they helped me sell a few more records. It didn’t hurt me. As long as I know who I am, all that other stuff is irrelevant. I know I don’t get down like that.”

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DMX, born Earl Simmons, grew up in housing projects in Yonkers, N.Y., with his mother and five sisters. Without a father figure and with little money, he sought ways to ease his pain.

“I knew that nobody really wanted me here,” he says. “I played with people. I basically got people to respond to me how I wanted them to. I was called manipulative before I knew what the word meant. It wasn’t a bad thing with me. I just wanted people to respond to me a certain way. I learned early how to get that. I didn’t want extra praise or glorification. I just wanted to be liked.”

Like many other young men in similar situations, DMX turned to drug dealers for inspiration and guidance. He admired their stylish clothes and their disregard for authority. But he also noticed a problem.

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“I saw what they turned into,” he says. “This one’s been in jail. These two [were killed]. Keeping it real? I look now and I see one out of maybe 30 real brothers that’s still here and is all right. It was that being ‘cool’ thing.”

So DMX channeled his energy into music. He was eventually signed to Ruffhouse Records, home of the Fugees, but he was dropped before he could put out an album. After appearing on songs by a number of high-profile hip-hop artists, DMX became one of rap’s hottest up-and-coming figures. “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” his first album, was released in May 1998 and sold more than 250,000 units its first week.

Since then, he has remained in the spotlight, starring in the controversial film “Belly,” releasing his second album a mere seven months after his first, co-headlining with Jay-Z on one of the top-10-grossing tours of the first half of 1999 and guest-rapping on several albums and soundtracks.

Some artists prefer not to examine the reasons for their appeal, but DMX readily offers several possibilities for his.

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“The only way for people to really hear me is to sit down and listen to me, thoroughly,” he says. “It’s deep like that. I’ll make one sentence mean three different things with every line, with the help of the Lord. That way, everyone will get it. You’ll have the slow people getting it, average cats getting it and the super-intelligent ones getting it on a whole other level. They’ll each receive it differently, but it will all mean the same thing to them.”

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But it’s more than the multitiered meaning and rebel persona that make DMX stand out in the crowded hip-hop marketplace.

While most rap stars dwell on their material spoils, DMX presents himself as a man struggling to succeed both spiritually and personally. Like Shakur, he’s an isolated figure, someone seeking not just attention but also caring, and his quest sometimes leads him to sermonize in his work about God and the devil. It’s almost as if his music is his confessional.

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“That’s what people are going through,” he says. “To live is to suffer and to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.

“If they don’t know what’s going on in life, if they’re living a fairy tale, it’s not for them. They don’t want to hear it. They know nothing about it. People that are really living, that are suffering, that are really going through it, they want to hear it because that might stop them from popping you in the head, stealing your bag.

“Just the fact that someone feels their pain [is why they listen to me]. I share with them and I soak it up and spit right back. Here’s your problem magnified, and now you no longer feel alienated for having that problem. Your problem has become the world’s problem.”

In person DMX radiates energy, even though his level of excitement can vary dramatically. He peers into your eyes while he speaks, as if to gain a sense of your character.

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“People want to smoke that blunt, take that drink, have sex with that young lady,” he continues. “They want to say, '[expletive] you’ to the police and keep riding. They want to go up in there and rob that store. That’s why they do it. But what we must do is something different than what we want to do. It’s easy to do the wrong things.”

DMX interrupts his discourse to recite a lyric from “Ready to Meet Him,” a celestial-sounding track from his second album, “Flesh of My Flesh Blood of My Blood,” which was released a year ago and sold more than 670,000 units its first week.

“ ‘It’s easier to sin, but it hurts my heart/I’m really trying to win, so where do we start?/Thou shalt not steal, but what if he stole from me?/Thou shalt not kill, but what if he’s trying to kill me?’

“This is the voice of the people,” he says. “The Lord says to us, ‘Thou shalt not do this.’ But then you say to him, ‘What if he did it to me?’

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“These are honest questions. This is not trying to make a mockery of the Lord’s words. These are honest questions.”


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