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Still Dark, Still Hot: DMX’s Debut Album 25 Years Later

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Still Dark, Still Hot: DMX’s Debut Album 25 Years Later

When Iron Mike Tyson came out to fight Francois Botha, the commentator called his walk-out music “scary and imposing.” Those haunting, dark, bell drums were from the Intro song of DMX’s 1998 debut album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, which premiered on May 19. Tyson walked towards the ring wearing a black shirt with “BE REAL” in bold white type—a simple statement, but a theme the album expressed to extreme levels that represented the tragic underdog.

Earl “DMX” Simmons had a long road before his debut album dropped and robbed Hip Hop’s attention away from its glam era. Growing up in Yonkers, New York, a young Simmons lived a life of poverty, homelessness, childhood trauma, and drug abuse. Between robberies he committed to keep his ribs from touching, Simmons developed a reputation for his skills on the mic, from mixtapes to street corner battles. In 1991 the underground buzz landed him a feature in The Source Magazine’s “Unsigned Hype” column as DMX the Great.

He later signed with the Columbia/Ruffhouse Records label and released two tracks, “Born Loser” and “Make a Move.” When both songs failed to gain traction, DMX was dropped from the label and returned to the streets he knew best. However, in 1994 DMX caught underground attention again on Mic Geronimo’s “Time to Build,” which featured the original Murder Inc crew of Ja-Rule and Jay-Z. X’s opening line, “I’m peeling niggaz caps like oranges. / Hittin’ ‘em in the head with two-by-four inches” made him a standout. And in years to come his reputation continued to spark with features that outshined the host artist, records such as Ma$e’s “24 Hrs. to Live”, LL Cool J’s “4,3,2,1”, and The Lox’s “Money, Power, and Respect.”

With DMX’s quality verses now being featured on chart-topping songs, day-one fans feared that his premiere album would be a response to the mainstream attention. But all doubt was erased when his debut single dropped and changed Hip Hop from clean hard bottoms to rough-edged Timbs.

The second DMX screams, “LET’S TAKE IT BACK TO THE STREETS MUTHF****!!!!” on “Get at Me Dog,” it’s clear that the album, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, will make him the streets’ King. The gritty black & white music video was shot in New York City’s then-famous Tunnel Nightclub. X’s onstage presence commands the club and home audience simultaneously as he barks between bars and recites, “He makes up some sh*t; he wasn’t able to stand. / I got sh*t tha’’ll disable a man with the wave of a hand.” The hit debut single was a perfect introduction to the album’s for-the-streets theme. Hardcore Hip Hop fans who were anti-Puff Daddy’s shiny suit in 1997 had their prayers answered a year later with the robber’s anthem “Stop Being Greedy.” “See, I don’t have just one style; I have a lot of styles,” X once said, crediting his now famous stop-and-pause rhyme style that brought excitement to the album’s mostly dark sound.

The genius of DMX’s flow is its range of passion when he’s storytelling. The versatility of his voice shines on tracks such as the hood love story “How’s It Goin’ Down”, the adrenaline rush felt escaping the police on “ATF”, and the smoothness of a planned robbery on “Crime Story.” Then, of course, there’s the track “Damien” where X tells a story of temptation between him and the Devil’s son. The range and dexterity of DMX is on full display on this record, as he raps as two distinct personalities bargaining for the MC’s soul. There’s no denying the realness of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, but it was his signature “WHAT!” ad-libs on “Ruff Ryders Anthem” that gave DMX his signature stamp as an artist.

DMX’s debut album disrupted Hip Hop culture at a time when flossing, shiny-suit rap reigned supreme. X represented the blue-collar street hustler who broke the law out of desperation—not for glamour. Unlike Jay-Z’s Vol.2 Hard Knock Life which showcased a fantasy most street hustlers wanted to live, DMX’s debut reflected the reality a majority of the hood actually experienced. It’s Dark and Hell is Hot is an undisputed classic that made 1998 the year of Dark Man X and marked the beginning of his immortal legacy.

The post Still Dark, Still Hot: DMX’s Debut Album 25 Years Later appeared first on American Urban Radio Networks.

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