It’s never been about the drug references or the money spending in hip-hop that made me connect with it. Hip-hop is the genre of music I most relate to because of themes, imagery, and subtext in the words. There’s a power struggle between good and evil on most records I listen to, wanting to do right for themselves by any means necessary. The lack of anything, the need for positive affirmation, the loss of innocence. Hip-hop is the modern day musings of poets and playwrights, from the same cloth as Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe, interested in the introspective exploration of the realities they exist in and the darkness that exists in the uniqueness that is consciousness.
Very few artists exemplify this for me better than the Edgar Allan Poe of the streets, DMX. Tragedy befell him from an early age, and his music is packed with the juxtaposed worlds of trying to stay right with the Lord while still submerged in the darkness. Almost every song he’s written has a nod or inference to this theme of good vs. evil. His public struggles with mental health and drug addiction showed a troubled human desperate for understanding from a world he felt abandoned him. Dark, vicious, gritty. This was his reality, his worldview, expressed over Swizz Beatz production.
Save for the drug addiction, I relate to every one of those feelings X rapped about. I put on my headphones and let his lyrics fill my ears, immersing in a world that was so foreign to me but sharing the same misunderstood life at the same time.
There was a period of time where I shaved my head bald and wore all black, in some ways a tribute to DMX and his influence on me. I could feel it through my bones – I wasn’t alone in the world the way I thought I was. DMX found, through his fame and recordings, that he wasn’t alone either.
In my senior year of high school, I took a class called “Studies in Sexuality”. The class was geared around real-world situations, actual talk regarding sex, love, relationships. There was also a heavy emphasis on the discovery of self – the things that made us whole, and made us who we are. One of the later assignments was a short paper about a song that exemplified us as individuals. The choice was easy for me at the time – “Slippin'”, from DMX’s 1998 record “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood”.
I had never experienced life in the streets. I had never experienced time in juvenile detention, or jail, or any other situation that involved violence that X rapped about on this record. I did, however, know all about the feelings of inadequacy, anger, sadness, and existential crisis that were layered through the lyrics of his song. Another misunderstood youth, bonding through the notes of shared emotions. I wish I could remember exactly what I said in the class prior to playing the record, but I know it was something along the lines of that. I was really proud of that paper. It was one of the first times I allowed myself to be real about my emotional self, the entity, the “I”.
I put the record on, sat back in the chair, and let the music fill the room.
I sunk into my place that I usually went to when I felt dark and brooding. A place where I tried to understand all of the feelings, emotions, and anger I had inside me. I felt X’s desperation for truth and compassion as he yelled through the lyrical composition. I let the emotion come out and started to cry in front of the entire class.
As I composed myself when the song was over, I heard two voices from in front of me.
“Damn. That was deep, man. Real thug stuff, I know you know the streets,” the voice mockingly said to me.
“Yeah, that was heavy, you must really know the streets, huh?” his friend said, adding more to this already thrilling interpretation of my emotionally charged paper.
This exchange was typical for me throughout my life in Newtown, PA, and while I wanted for anything, everything, to be different, it never seemed to be. I sunk back into my desk, disillusioned and frustrated, silently screaming into the infinite sadness. No one could relate, it seemed. DMX related to me, and that was all that mattered.
There’s a set of bars that have stuck with me since I first heard them. From the album “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot”, X says on “I Can Feel It”:
“I see life through many shades of grays and blacks/ I could take that and hit 'em with the blazin' tracks/ When I make that, you fake cats have violent dreams/ It takes another dog to be able to hear my silent screams/ The Devil got a hold on me, and he won't let go/ I can feel the Lord pullin', but he movin' dead slow.”
X describes the colorless vision of his life, torn between the eternal fight of good and evil. It’s an invocation of the same feelings of isolation and alienation described by Poe in “Alone” or by Frost in “Acquainted with the Night.” It’s empty, void, apathetic, unreasonable. It’s a place that’s entirely too scary to step foot back in to, a place I’ve experienced only a handful of times in my life. It’s the place where joy is gone, and no amount of “keep your head up” platitudes will pull you from it. You just stay there, accept the journey, and move as quickly as you can through it.
It’s terrifying, and the fact that he lived his life there for so long is perhaps the saddest part of his story. It’s a guttural reaction to the early loss of innocence, a life without acceptance, a world of trauma. It’s tragedy in the truest sense of the word.
DMX passed this morning at age 50. After finally getting his life back on track after repeated trips through rehabilitation, he reportedly relapsed into an overdose, which caused full cardiac arrest. Based upon the reports that are released, X has suffered anoxic encephalopathy, which is a fancy medical term for the cessation of blood flow to the brain. When this occurs, most commonly with folks who overdose on drugs or experience cardiac arrest, oxygen is deprived from the brain tissue, causing damage to areas that control all executive operations, save for activities controlled by the brain stem, such as blinking and swallowing.
Permanent brain damage begins when the brain is without oxygen for more than four minutes. DMX stopped breathing for approximately thirty minutes. In this instance, based on past precedent, the damage that occurred to his brain was likely catastrophic, and the prognosis for his recovery was extremely slim. I’m familiar with this kind of medical diagnosis, as it killed my grandmother. She had a heart attack and was without oxygen for forty minutes, causing a near complete global loss of brain function, very similar to DMX’s diagnosis.
Like most folks struggling with demons, I always hope for the best for them. I’m perpetually optimistic that they’ll find their way out of their darkness. Some of us do, and can maintain the coping mechanisms we taught ourselves to stay out of those places, or to drag us back to those familiar vices that bring more trauma. I’d watched DMX’s Verzuz performance with Snoop Dogg in July, and seemed positive that he may have conquered at least some of his demons, and found those methods to help him.
It seems now that X’s tragic story is written in the stars – a sad, misunderstood child, who became a sad, misunderstood man, longing to find the love he needed and deserved. Like Frost and Poe before him, DMX’s lyricism and poetry will be analyzed and examined as the work of another lost soul, desperate for the explanation behind his dealt hand and the acceptance that's eluded him.
I often find myself returning to DMX's music for reference, guidance, and consolation in times of profound sadness. Today will certainly be one of those days.
Rest well, X.