It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Earl “DMX” Simmons dropped his debut album titled “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot”. The fact that it’s been 20 years makes me feel old. Here are just a few facts about me with relation to DMX’s classic debut album.

  1. I was a young lad in St. Augustine’s College when this album dropped.
  2. While my brother’s copy of Biggie’s double-disc Life After Death was the first rap album I consumed in its entirety, DMX’s “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot” and Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life”  were the first two albums I purchased with my own (given to me by my mom) money.
  3. I bought those two albums in Miami in October of 1998 while traveling for mid term break.
  4. My brother and I drove around Miami in a blue convertible Mustang with those two discs in HEAVY ROTATION.

I don’t have to explain to you why that last point is funny, but here’s the best I can to do to put the potential problems of this activity in perspective:

Thankfully we didn’t get knocked out during that trip, but in retrospect, I’m not sure we would have cared either way, at least I know I probably wouldn’t have.  (This is well before 2017’s revelation that I am not white.)

Nonetheless, anniversaries like these just lend themselves to a walk down memory lane and a recap of what made the album (and each song) special and its place in both DMX’s catalog and in music lore in general.

Overview

I asked the 10YS crew to describe It’s Dark and Hell is Hot in one word, here are their responses (Please note I asked for it in one word, but these people don’t care):

Randy: I can’t. Too good.

Nal: Revolutionary. Raw. Grimey. Passionate.

Kari: Seminal.

Cardo: Essential.

Timmay: Brutal.

Taige: The defining sound of its time.

Andrew: Singular

Me: Loud.  Aggressive. Violent. Murderous. Introspective (in moments). Creatively Violent. Sinister.  Undeniably New York. Raw. Essential. (Yes, I used more than one word, but, my article, my rules)

This album was magnificent.  X’s approach to storytelling seemed like a blend of Tupac’s authenticity, and Biggie’s swagger. Basically, if you were a rapper in 1998, there was probably no way you were barking up that tree (pun fully intended).  X seemed capable of murdering your first born in the street one moment and then praying to God for forgiveness and guidance the next. Whereas Tupac’s duality seemed to be a blend of righteous anger and undeniable charm, X’s was more psychopathic violence and an almost pretentious self righteousness.  X was remarkable while also being remarkably (in most people’s eyes) insane. Where Jay-Z represented more of the slick talking New Yorker (and this was before Jay really went pop and turned into a billionaire), DMX represented the rawest of the streets of New York (evidenced by the sheer mass of humans willing to be in a DMX video).

To go a step further, where Jay-Z was Stringer Bell always looking for ways to run the game like a legit business, DMX was part Avon Barksdale’s non-flashy kingpin and part Marlo Stanfield’s narcissistic psychopath. (If you can’t see DMX screaming “my name is my name” on a New York street then I don’t know what else to tell you.)

Left, Stringer Bell, aka Jay-Z. Right, Avon Barksdale, aka DMX

Favorite Tracks

I also asked for their favorite track:

Randy: Damien

Nal: Stop Being Greedy

Kari: The Intro

Cardo: Let Me Fly (to avoid consensus because he also has Stop Being Greedy as his favorite, this was also before everyone chimed in)

Timmay: Ruff Ryder’s Anthem

Taige: Stop Being Greedy

Andrew: Stop Being Greedy

Me: Stop Being Greedy

Favorite It’s Dark and Hell is Hot Subplot

Look, I have a question – how old is Earl Simmons? Seriously, does anyone know?  I remember this was the confusing yet entertaining to my 14 year old self subplot of this album.  The Source had DMX in its Unsigned Hype column in 1991.  When you consider that X’s debut didn’t drop for another 7 years it’s easy to understand why some people were saying Earl was somewhere between 35 and 40 at the time.  I don’t know if I was more amused by the fact that a 35 year old might be out here parading as a 20-something or the fact that so many people seemed to care at the time. (According to Wiki, Earl Simmons is set to turn 48 this year – which would make him 27 at the time of his debut and 20 at the time of the unsigned hype column.) So no, X wasn’t some 40 year old rookie in a young man’s game but he was definitely “seasoned” by life by the time his first album dropped.

Best Lines

This next section contains what are in my opinion the best line/s from each song on the album. For brevity, skits will not be included.

Intro

“Yet and still you don’t know that I’ma rob ’em
That nigga DMX is a mothaf—-n’ problem
Aight?”

Nothing more need be said, Earl Simmons was indeed a problem.

Ruff Ryder’s Anthem

“Talk is cheap mothaf—a” (automatic weapon fire)

Two songs in and what have we learned so far? DMX knows how to end a song.  This last line followed by a burst of gunfire remains the second most entertaining part of this song next to collectively rapping along to “Stop, drop, shut ’em down open up shop…” So why is this my favorite line, because there was something intensely defiant about screaming that last line and then hearing the gunshots – again, my personal favorites. (Side note, I clearly remember a group of my fellow 9th grade SAC students rapping this song on a bus ride back from a field trip with the radio off. The entire song – edited version of course.)

F—-n’ Wit D

“Y’all know somebody has told you about f—-n’ with D”

Basically it was a bad idea.

Look Thru My Eyes

“And if you never met me, then you’ve no right to judge me
I’ve got a good heart but this heart can get ugly?”

Ahh, one of those lines that captures the dichotomy of who DMX was all around.

Get At Me Dog

“And it’s gon’ take all these niggas in the rap game
To barely move me ’cause when I blow shit up
I’ll have niggas fallin’ like white bitches in a scary movie
Ah, you know I don’t know how to act
Get too close to niggas, it’s like
“Protected by viper, stand back.”

First, that protected by viper line is straight fire.  Second, it had me real conflicted about the fact when my brother put a viper alarm system in his car two years later.

Let Me Fly

“There’s a difference between, doin’ wrong and being wrong”

Yes, DMX revisited this idea of being existentially a good guy who just kept doing wrong.

X is Coming

“I will borrow a gun, then run ’til I catch you
Let you slip up, just once, and I’ma wet you
Stretch you out like a limousine
‘Cause where I catch you is where I catch you
That’s what killin’ means”

I mean, what is there to say.

Damien

“(Ay yo remember that kid Sean, you used to be with in 89)
Nah, that’s my man
(I thought I was your man)
But yo, that’s my nigga
(Hey who’s your biggest fan, either do it or give me your right hand
That’s what you said)
I see now, ain’t nothin’ but trouble ahead”

Another concept DMX played around with was the idea of the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the next.  Damien (which could be argued as the best song on the album) plots this out to a tee.

How’s it Goin Down

“Who dick you sucking?”

Ok, I am cheating a little with this one because technically this line is from the intro to the song, but still.

Crime Story

“Knock of the door “Police! We’re looking for a man,
Who killed a couple of cops last night and the reward is ten grand”
I play like a bitch “Its just me here, and I’m not dressed
And that guy sounds kind of dangerous, I hope you make an arrest”

DMX is probably also the most pause-able rapper of all time.  Seriously, his lyrics just overflowed with lines that would make you go, “Earl, Imma need you to pause that fam.”

Stop Being Greedy

I am putting the entire song lyrics.
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate
I could flip that flow, I could stick that ho
I could get that dough, you know I’m with that yo
And the thing about the shit I came through, I haven’t seen
But when it gets dark, it’s like a nigga’s having dreams
All nightmares, the light dares to desert me
Got me like everybody wants to hurt me
Paranoid, so I strike out at whatever
The closest thing to me is gonna get it, but, never
Will I, can I think death is wrong
So I’ma keep holding, on ’til, what’s left is gone
You could put that on my nigga Boom
These other rap cats will give a nigga room
But if it calls for me to force my way in the door
Headhunting motherfuckas, stay on the floor
4-4, that’s what I get sick wit (Grr)
Fall off, now all this is liquid (Grr)
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate
I thank the Lord everyday that I’m blessed with the gift
I’m the best, so, unless you wanna rest with the stiff
Don’t touch that, uh-uh, leave it alone
When you walk pass the doghouse, leave it a bone
Dogs bite, dogs fight, dogs knife
Scratch, shake, and hold all night
So when you hear the arf arf, start running
‘Cause when you hear the arf arf, I’m coming
But I don’t like drama, so I stay to myself
Keep focus with this rap shit and pray for the wealth
I want the money and give me the honeys with big asses
The most expensive champagne you got in big glasses
I’m broke so I’ma bash his head wide open
Begging me to stop but at least he died hopin’
Didn’t get his wish, and now he’s a dish for the pack
Two glowing red eyes, everything else is black
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate
When the sun is up, the gun is up on the shelf
And all the runners up are thanking me for their help
Hoping that they not around when it gets dark outside
Sun’s going down you hear the bark outside
Locks off the cage, gauge, with the buck shots
Faggot, you’ve been lucky all day that’s when your luck stops
One drops, and another and another
Gun pops, going through you, hit your mother
When does it all end? I found a friend in a dog
‘Cause fucking with these cats will send a friend to the morgue
Many questions, no answers, stress
Try to hold my head and remember that I’m blessed
With the curse and it gets worse as time goes by
Can’t see straight cause I’m so high
Why ask why when you know?
Nigga, when its your time to go, you go
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate
Y’all been eatin’ long enough now stop being greedy
Just keep it real partner, give to the needy
Ribs is touchin’, so don’t make me wait
Fuck around and I’m gon’ bite you and snatch the plate

ATF

“Pedal to the floor, leave officers flyin’
Death is in the air, and I don’t know if it’s mine
But I know if it’s time, it’ll be what it is
And all I can think of is what about my kids”

The shortest song on the album, but it tells a pretty coherent story from start to finish.

For My Dogs

“My people show love (What!) and haven’t left me stranded yet
Though I have a death wish that ain’t been granted yet”

While X wasn’t always the sharpest lyricist, his passion and vibe resonated in a way that transcended the artfulness of the lyrics.

I Can Feel It

“Let ’em know that amidst all this confusion
Some of us may do the winnin’
But we all do the losin’ its just who does the choosin'”

As the album winds down, X once again revisits the melancholy and sometimes grim reality of the life and streets he grew up in.

The Convo

“But when the funds are low
The guns will blow
Lookin’ for that one that owe,
Make ’em run that dough”

One thing about X, his lyrics may not have been the most profound, but his flow was always on point.

Niggaz Done Started Something

“How much darker must it get, how much harder must it hit
See if your hardest niggas flip, when I start a bunch of shit”

Dude was always out here challenging someone else and basically punking them from a distance.

Wrap It Up

All in all, DMX’s debut was earth shattering. In the aftermath of Biggie and Tupac’s murders there was a bit of a void that needed to be filled in hop hop. DMX came through and filled that void, and showed a new generation of rappers that gritty New York hop hop was not (yet) dead. Ja Rule, 50 Cent and a host of other guys that came up in the late 90s and early 2000s all owe some credit to X for re-clearing that path.  In many ways, one can argue that DMX never captured the blend of authenticity, grit, rawness and passion in any album over the rest of his career the way he did in his debut, but 20 years later, that might not matter.  I promise if you turn up your speakers, find Ruff Ryders’ Anthem and play that in a room full of 30 somethings, you will know exactly how impactful this album was – and that wasn’t even the best song on the album.

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