Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Dec. 18, 1970, Earl Simmons was the first and only child of Arnett Simmons and Joe Barker. He grew up in Yonkers, a city just north of the Bronx that became a hotbed of racial tension in the 1980s.
His father was an itinerant artist whom he rarely saw, and his mother struggled to raise him and his half sister Bonita in a violent neighborhood. In his memoir, “E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX” (2002, with Smokey D. Fontaine), he wrote that there was often little food at home while he was growing up and that as a precocious, hot-tempered and disobedient child, he was often beaten by his mother and her lovers.
Mr. Simmons turned to street crime as he grew older, spending much of his childhood and teenage years in group homes or juvenile detention facilities, where, he wrote, he sometimes faced solitary confinement. He became an adept car thief and robber, he said, often using vicious dogs to intimidate victims.
Image credit: Mikael ‘Mika’ Väisänen via Wikimedia Commons
“I was straight stickup,” Mr. Simmons wrote. “I’d rob three times a day: before school, after school and on the late night.”
In the late 1980s he started performing as a beatboxer, creating beats using only his mouth, with a local rapper named Ready Ron. (He took the name DMX from the Oberheim DMX drum machine, a model popular in the 1980s.) He said he was 14 when Ready Ron introduced him to crack cocaine by passing him what Mr. Simmons thought was marijuana.
“I later found out that he laced the blunt with crack,” Mr. Simmons told the rapper Talib Kweli in an interview last year. “Why would you do that to a child?” He became addicted to it.
His long struggle with drugs, his bleak childhood and their impact on his life informed his music — he titled a 2001 album “The Great Depression” — and many of his most swaggering songs conveyed hints of lingering trauma.
“All I know is pain/All I feel is rain/How can I maintain?” he raps near the start of “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.”
In 1997 he was featured, along with Method Man, Redman, Master P and Canibus, on the LL Cool J song “4, 3, 2, 1.” He was also on Mase’s “24 Hrs. to Live” and, with Lil’ Kim, the Lox’s “Money, Power, Respect.” Those high-profile guest appearances led to a contract with Def Jam, Ruff Ryders’ parent company; his first two albums came out in 1998.
Before breaking through as a rap star, Mr. Simmons made a name for himself as a nasty battle rapper in the early 1990s.
Mr. Simmons’s music was often menacing and dark, with the occasional nod to Christian spirituality.
In later life, he was a devout Christian but he committed crimes, served time in different correctional institutions and battled addiction long before he released an album, and his troubled past informed the gritty content and inimitable delivery of his rhymes.
He barked over the chorus of “Get at Me Dog,” the breakout single from his 1998 debut album, “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.”
“His throat seems to hold a fuzzbox and a foghorn, and between songs he growled and barked,” Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote of a Simmons concert performance in 2000. “In his raps, the gangsta life is a living hell, a constant test of loyalty and resolve.”
He rapped with an explosive cadence on “Party Up (Up in Here),” the big hit from his 1999 album “ … And Then There Was X”; raw braggadocio on “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” a tribute to his record label on his 1998 debut album, “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot”; and a more introspective, brooding delivery on “Damien,” a story about making a murderous bargain with a demonic benefactor.
“Why is it every move I make turns out to be a bad one?” Mr. Simmons asks in “Damien.” “Where’s my guardian angel? Need one, wish I had one.”
Mr. Simmons, who sold millions of records and was nominated for three Grammy Awards, was the first musician whose first five albums reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart. He was the standout artist on the Ruff Ryders label, often rapping over tracks by the star D.J. and producer Swizz Beatz. Rappers like Eve, Drag-On and the Lox, a group made up of Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch, also recorded on the label.
Mr. Simmons was known for electrifying concert audiences. In 2000, the critic Elvis Mitchell wrote in The Times about his “remarkable and combative stage presence” in the concert documentary “Backstage,” which followed him and rappers like Jay-Z and Redman on the 1999 “Hard Knock Life” tour.
“Bombastic and hot-blooded, he holds court in a singular fashion, exercising sheer force of will to pull the spotlight down on himself and demanding the crowd’s attention,” Mr. Mitchell wrote.
Mr. Simmons starred with the rappers Nas and Method Man in Hype Williams’s 1998 gangster film, “Belly”; appeared in the 2000 action movie “Romeo Must Die” with Jet Li and the R&B singer Aaliyah; and starred with Steven Seagal in the 2001 action film “Exit Wounds.” The BET cable channel provided a closer look at his personal life with the 2006 reality series “DMX: Soul of a Man.”
The streetwise persona Mr. Simmons projected in his music was reinforced by repeated arrests on charges including fraud, assault, weapons possession, narcotics possession and driving under the influence.
He served jail time after pleading guilty in 2008 to animal cruelty, drug possession and theft; in 2018 he was sentenced to a year in prison for tax evasion.
He released several more albums over the years, including “Grand Champ” (2003) and “Undisputed” (2012). But with his frequent run-ins with the law, he never regained the success of his earlier days.
On April 2, 2021, DMX is reputed to have taken crack cocaine after a period of sobriety. He is said to have overdosed and suffered a heart attack. By the time he was found, it is said that his brain had been deprived of oxygen for a significant period of time. He was revived and placed on life support in hospital, where it was reported that he had little or no brain activity. DMX took his seat with the ancestors on April 9, 2021.
There were no DMX clones in his wake because there was no way to falsify the life that forged him. For DMX — who died Friday at 50 after suffering a heart attack on April 2 — hip-hop superstardom came on the heels of a devastating childhood marked by abuse, drug use, crime and other traumas. His successes felt more like catharsis than triumphalism. Even at his rowdiest and most celebrated, he was a vessel for profound pain.
Sources: The Guardian/NY Times