Dark Prince of Hip-Hop: DMX Reigns

His tales of hell on earth come from his own harrowing past

DMX performs on 'Saturday Night Live' on February 12th, 2000. Credit: Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

We're behind the wheel of a black Cadillac Escalade, cruising down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, where they drive like it's Sunday afternoon every day, all day. They move along at a careful pace, never cut each other off, come to a full stop for pedestrians, and — no matter what, even if someone does cut someone off — they never, ever honk. But the black Escalade of our story is being driven, no, commandeered, by Earl Simmons, 29, of Yonkers, New York, alias DMX. DMX doesn't drive like they do in Beverly Hills. DMX drives like he's mad. Hellbent. Fearless.

His left hand is tight on the wheel, knuckles turned toward him; his right is busy with a Newport and a plastic cup of Rémy Red; his feet are unaware of any shade of gray — he's hard on the gas, then hard on the brakes, mashing one pedal or the other, jerking the mammoth Caddy forward, sweeping into traffic, swiping in front of the smaller cars, bobbing and weaving past the palm trees, the Mondrian hotel, the Beverly Center, the U-Wash Doggie, the Cash Cow Café.

Late one Monday night, he screeched to a halt in the middle of an empty inter-section and thought out loud, "Where the hotel at?" A bodyguard said, "It's back there, behind us," and X sent the truck into a full-speed 180 that felt, for a long three seconds, like we were sliding over the road, not gripping it at all but hovering just a bit above it, on the precipice of being completely out of control as we leaned hard to the right and my stomach churned with fear and I was certain, as I was each time we pulled off, that this time, on this street, he was really going too fast and was now going to have the smashup I knew was imminent every single time we started moving.

"I wish I had my license," he said once the car straightened out and we were zooming toward the hotel. "Yeah," a bodyguard said. "I wish you had it, too." I sat silently wondering whether X meant, "I wish I had my license in my pocket" or "in my legal possession." (As it turned out, it was the latter. A few weeks later, DMX spent the night in jail after an arrest outside Buffalo, where he was on tour, for driving with a suspended license and possessing a small amount of marijuana.) Then, embracing and mocking the cliché that his life can sometimes resemble, he said, "You know how famous rappers do."

This roller coaster was made a touch more surreal by the sound of Stephanie Mills — "Tell me, whatcha gonna do with my lovin'?" — on the stereo full blast. "This is all I fuck with beside my shit," he said later, meaning disco-y R&B classics. In his black traveling CD case there are four hip-hop albums, three of them from him or his camp, along with Donna Summer's Greatest Hits, a few Earth, Wind and Fire collections, The Best of Candi Staton, Chic Live at the Budokan, Teena Marie, Sha-lamar, Chaka, Cameo, the best of Men at Work, Evelyn "Champagne" King and The Best of Regina Belle, signed by her: "To DMX, You are a most beautiful spirit. Stay positive and sweet. Love R." DMX grew up with this music in his childhood home. "When it was music playin', it was' cause people were over. It was usually durin' the holidays, and they were havin' a good time. I had to look out my room down the hall, but I could see people dancin' and hear the music. That's why I like these songs. It was, like, the only time I was happy as a kid."

DMX is among the hardest-working men in modern showbiz. Less than two years ago, he was known only to hardcore rap fans; today, MTV reports he has the highest Q rating of anyone on the network. He has released a remarkable three albums in that time: It's Dark and Hell Is Hot in 1998 (which sold 3.7 million copies), Flesh of My Flesh . . . Blood of My Blood (2.8 million) in December' 98 and . . . And Then There Was X (1.9 million so far), which came out the day after Christmas 1999 and debuted at Number One. He also made time to shoot a pair of films. He starred in the visually stunning though narratively chaotic Belly, and he plays a small part in the new action vehicle Romeo Must Die, co-starring Aaliyah, Jet Li, Delroy Lindo and Isaiah Washington.

His onscreen and on-mike personas are very similar — he gives you a man you know is tough at a glance, who's gritty and growling whether he's whipping your ass or philosophizing about the constant struggle that is life. He is sonic testosterone, a man's man who'd rather ride with his niggas than anything else. He is a direct descendant of Tupac, giving you the adrenaline-addled masculinity with occasional thought-provoking sentiments, though without the political framework or the public drama in his offstage life.

He raps in the roughest and grimiest voice in hip-hop, the sound of gravel hitting the grave. His records speak of death constantly, crime casually and moral consequences occasionally. His music — the best of it from producer Swizz Beatz — is skeletal, drawing on the brittle sounds of dance-hall reggae, the pulse of old-school hip-hop and ominous keyboard swells that resemble horror-movie scores. His success has turned his label, Ruff Ryders, into a brand name, spinning off a hit album from his posse (Ryde or Die Vol. 1, 2 million sold) and another from the self-described "pit bull in a skirt" Eve ($1.3 million sold). His oversize, invulnerable persona has made him a rock star to white teenagers, but he has become one without compromise and remains realer than real to the hip-hop faithful. He is someone you'd want to share a blunt with, someone you'd want on your side in a war, someone you'd feel comfortable having with you as you walked through hell.

But that's DMX, the famous rapper. His life is often little different than high school summer vacation with money. Wake up late, hang with friends, experiment with substances, go to the mall, stay up talking till all hours, play little pranks, do it again the next day. But instead of sleeping on someone's couch and driving Mom's Volvo station wagon, you're bling-bling.

On Tuesday around noon, DMX awoke in Beverly Hills' L'Ermitage hotel, in an $800-a-night room decorated in soothing browns and beiges, with a forty-inch television set, a DVD player and a stereo, and a box of nine exquisite chocolates on the living-room table. It was approaching seventy degrees and the balcony windows were open, floor-to-ceiling drapes billowing out toward the palm trees across the street as Luther Vandross boomed a cheery song about love — "I just don't wanna stop! Nevertoomuch, nevertoomuch, nevertoomuch, nevertoomuch!" On the table, beside the chocolates, sat a crispy, two-inch-high stack of hundreds held tight by a rubber band; a tiny Motorola cell phone ("Forty-seven calls missed," the screen said); a half-smoked, tightly rolled blunt; a thick Breitling watch with a blue face; a nearly empty jar of pickles next to a salt shaker and an empty container of sardines. X was on the couch, on the phone, slouching back, with half a hand in his pants like Al Bundy, rocking a sun-yellow long-sleeved Gap top, dark denim jeans and crisp, loose-laced Tims in that classic beige, with a diamond-flooded Ruff Ryder R dangling halfway down his chest on a platinum chain. His lashes are surprisingly long, his teeth blindingly white, his face softer and rounder than when "Get at Me Dog" ruled the streets. He really does look a lot like Seattle SuperSonics point guard Gary Payton.

"I just wanted to call you and say I love you, Boo-boo," he said, opening one of today's five or six conversations with his love of thirteen years, wife Tashera, whom he incessantly calls Boo-boo. They have two sons together, seven-year-old Xavier and eight-month-old Tacoma. "I miss your stankin' ass, too, Boo-boo." Unlike DMX, Earl Simmons, regular person, is an extremely nice guy.

Slowly the crew assembled in X's room, a crew not unlike those orbiting so many rappers. There's the tough-minded, oft-annoyed road manager, Kenneth Butler, whom everyone calls by his last name or the first syllable of his last name. There's two large, bald, black bodyguards — Ben Manner and Mark Smith of Premier Guardian — both of them retired NYPD. They meander behind or bookend X whenever he's in public, or laugh and philosophize with him in private. "You can't just say, 'All right, hold me down and I'm payin' you,"' X said. "You gotta dig a nigga somewhat. They have to be able to put up with your bullshit, and you have to be able to put up with theirs. You gotta be compatible. 'Cause it's not just a job. It's an adventure."

And then there's Nockie. Every crew has a Nockie. Ostensibly he's a barber, but his true role is court jester. He'll tell you so. He's X's man from the old hood and a natural comedian — a Harlem-born hustler who keeps his baseball hat cocked at an offbeat angle, holds his pinkie up when drinking and is always spitting jokes. "I'm known for the happiness," Nockie said." 'Cause it gets rough, namean? And every day is a good day to me, as long as I'm breathing. So I'm the court jester. I keep a smile on everybody face."

Around 2 P.M., some of them jumped into X's Escalade and the rest into a silver Range Rover 4.6 HSE, which quickly lost sight of the Escalade. They ran into the Fox Hills Mall (X strolled into K-B Toys and phoned his son — "Dawg!" X said, "I'm in K-B Toys!" "You are?!" "You want somethin'?" Long pause. "I know I want something," his son said. "I just don't know what it is!") They zipped back to downtown L.A. and into a RiteAid. Suzzanne Douglas, the mom from The Parent Hood (that Robert Townsend show), was there, and X bought a camera to take a picture with her; they ended up exchanging numbers. Then it was on to a restaurant, Roscoe's, where they saw Tyra Ferrell, who played Morris Chestnut's mom in Boyz N the Hood, and ate big thin waffles, fried chicken wings, collard greens, smothered potatoes and a pitcher of sunrise (lemonade and OJ). X left the hot-sauce bottle nearly empty.

Through it all, he was unendingly friendly to strangers of all races. Unlike the rapper who barks, "I'm not a nice person!" on "What's My Name?" he was gregarious, speaking to doormen, waitresses, random passersby, yelling, "Wassup!" or "God loves you!" or "LAPD!" or whatever occurred to him, eager to speak to everyone and make them smile. "They think I'm a dawg," he said as we crossed La Ciene-ga Boulevard, "but I'm a gentle giant."

Late Tuesday night, on the way back from watching The Sixth Sense with friends and a stop at a karaoke bar on Sunset Boulevard, he was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard and saw a flock of twentyish white men and women in suits and classy dresses lounging on a corner, seeming to have nowhere to go. He stopped the Escalade in front of them, rolled down the passenger window and, in mock seriousness, yelled out, "Yo! Is this the heroin spot?"

They laughed, in on the joke, and a blond boy in a gray suit grinned drolly and said, "No."

"Damn!" X yelled, banging the wheel in mock frustration. He smiled and peeled off.

But the fun was undercut with a slice of apprehension. DMX's crew hadn't changed its itinerary since reading death threats from L.A. rapper Kurupt in the hip-hop magazine XXL — "now [DMX] got [his] Cali pass revoked. [He] can't come out to the West." The thought lingered in the crew's collective mind, like the sense in a horror flick that the killer might be in the vicinity. Kurupt, who came to fame with Snoop Dogg's Dogg Pound, was engaged to Foxy Brown until he came to believe that DMX had slept with Foxy (both deny it) and began threatening both their lives. A short time ago, the entire situation was ratcheted up a notch when one of Kurupt's security guards was shot and killed outside a Los Angeles recording studio. "Me and my partner are always peeled," bodyguard Ben Manner said. "We're very concerned. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 9.8. 'Cause if a nigga get his drink on, then he wanna prove that shit."

DMX refused to be afraid and refused to bad-mouth the artist. "I feel for Kurupt," he said heartfully. "I feel for him, knowin' how tight me and my peoples is. That's why I say I sympathize — no, I feel for Kurupt and his loss. I'm sorry for his loss, 'cause I know what that loss would feel like to me."

An hour later, it was just past ten and X was back at L'Ermitage, in his seventh-floor suite. The Best of Sade played in the background — he sang along with one of his favorites: "Jezebel wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth!" A friend did his nails, clipping, filing, digging into his cuticles and applying a clear polish meant for men, a twenty-minute process. And he talked. Like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, he's too complex for direct interviewing. His mind is too restless, the moats in his memory too wide. Questions often receive pat, clichéd answers. The only way to interview him is to turn on the mike and leave him free to talk, to let him tell his story his way, in his pace and time. I put the tape recorder down in front of him around 10:30 P.M. He finished just after two. Stories, rage, mock poetry, stream of consciousness, long silences. It became like therapy. He spoke about sex ("My first sexual encounter was with a relative from down South. Not really a relative, but a relative's wife. I was twelve") and doing dumb stuff ("I used to take my mother's mascara, the eyelash shit, and put it on my lip like I had a mustache") and his children ("Xavier has my personality, 100 percent. When I wake up, I'm not the nicest person, and I get mad to the point where I gotta break somethin'. He's like that.") And then, around midnight, he turned to his childhood.

DMX spent the years between fourteen and twenty-one as a thief, constantly in and out of jail. "I robbed niggas," he said. "I'm not ashamed of that. That's my shit. Robbery. I'm not a hustler. I've tried it. That's not me. I'd rather do the stick-up shit. But what got me over was, I had a rep in Yonkers. Niggas knew DMX would get ya. And I'd be straight-up robbin' niggas no mask or nothin'. Half of my weapon was my face. I'd just walk up to niggas and be like, 'Yo, lemme get that.' I wasn't the biggest nigga in the world. I couldn't beat everybody, but dawg, my rep superseded me.

Jail didn't scare him, because he had been constantly institutionalized from ages seven to fourteen in homes for troubled boys in upstate New York. The trouble had begun long before he turned seven. He lived in Yonkers, in the projects, with his mother and five sisters, where a series of humiliations and misreads by everyone around him turned him into a rage-filled recluse who exploded one day and launched his course through the various penal systems.

"I didn't have much of a childhood," he said grimly. "It was always dark in our house, and depressing. That's what I remember."

He said his childhood was miserable. He was often confined to his room for small misdeeds and punished more severely for larger transgressions. Sometimes, he says, he'd be woken up in the middle of the night and wasn't even sure what he was being punished for. "You know how scary that shit is, dawg?" His relationship with his mother did not survive his childhood. They haven't spoken in years, and she refuses to talk about him.

He went to kindergarten wearing hand-me-downs from other boys in the school and was shamed by them. "'Yo, you got on my old shit, man! You poor, man. Your mother on welfare.' And it's all true!" He became an anti-social little boy who would fight anyone who bothered him as if battling for his life. "I didn't fight right. Head-butt a nigga, grab a nigga nuts and pull 'em out — I'd fuckin' bite you, I'd dig in your nose all the way up. . . . I didn't give a fuck, yo. I was fightin' from real anger — fuck you, you nice-dressin' motherfucker. So what you keep a haircut!"

Though he was smart, he struggled to find his way in the classroom: "I'd finish my work fast and get bored. Or be frustrated with the shit she'd be askin'. And I wasn't afraid of teachers. I'd tell 'em to shut up. They called me Crazy Earl. I didn't give a fuck." This was first grade. One day during that long first-grade year, he traded words with a classmate. "So I jumped up, grabbed my Number Two pencil and stabbed him right in his fuckin' face." He turned gnarled and enraged as he told the story. "Then a teacher put her hands on me. In breakin' the fight up, she kinda threw me down. . . . Charged her . . . I'm wildin' now. . . . Throwin' desks aside . . . They cleared all the kids out, called the principal and the gym teacher, and they wrestled me to the ground and sat on me for, like, ten minutes, until I calmed down." The impression of him as a problem kid was cemented. "They thought I was a bad kid, pain in the ass. I was actually a very bright child who was easily bored and frustrated. They wanted to treat me like every other kid in the class. Can't do that to me. I wasn't every other kid in the class, man. I thought a lot more than every other kid in the class. . . . I wasn't no bad fuckin' kid, man." At the end of the school year he was shipped upstate, to his first institution. "Bitch [his mother] just dropped me off like I was a fuckin' piece a shit," he said, frothing with anger. As he said this, it seemed uncertain whether he would leap up and throw a chair across the room or burst into tears. "Fuckin' bitch. My sisters didn't get treated like that. But all of 'em have different fathers, so I think she just don't like niggas."

He paused. His eyes glazed over with hatred, and a hot rage seemed to bubble beneath his surface. "So many times, I thought about killin' that bitch. But I would always think of how I would feel if she was gone, and I knew I wouldn't like it. No matter what she did, I knew I still loved her. I love her, though. I love her, but I can't stand that bitch. That's a fucked-up kinda love."

At this point, hip-hop is like a minor league for Hollywood, a sort of off-Broadway for the film industry. MCs create a persona and introduce it to the subworld of the Hip-hop Nation, then refine that look and image in the mini-films that are videos. In time, the big leagues call and say, "Hey, Mister Snoop Dogg — or Busta, or Latifah, or Cube, or Tupac — let's make a movie!" DMX, one of the newer members of the club, got the call on a Wednesday evening, when Hollywood megaproducer Joel Silver sent a black, chauffeured Chevy Suburban to L'Ermitage.

Silver greeted X in his office, a bungalow on the lot of Warner Bros. that was decorated with framed posters from his nearly forty movies — 48 Hrs., Commando, Richie Rich, Conspiracy Theory, the first two Die Hards, all four of the Lethal Weapons and The Matrix — as well as a larger-than-life statue of the monster from Predator and a Joel Silver pinball machine with a caricature of the producer on it. Silver had a protruding belly, a thick beard and the dominant manner of a rich, powerful man.

But tonight, Silver was a bit supplicant, fawning over X. Silver produced Romeo Must Die, in which X plays a nightclub owner-gangster, and he is itching to do more with DMX. Within two minutes of X's sitting on Silver's gorgeous leather couch, Silver was playing him the Romeo trailer — first the international version and then the American. "In a world of vicious rivalries and violent betrayals, only one thing is certain," the announcer said dramatically. "Romeo must die." Then Silver was doing back flips to get X involved in the movie's marketing: "I'll get a jet, and I'll fly ya anywhere I have to. Your presence is so incredibly effective. I need your presence. You give the film so much credibility. Staggering credibility. With the hip-hop people we so desperately want. We screened it for kids, and I thought they were gonna kill us when you got killed. I just wish you were in the film even more!" He was doing a sort-of-forceful pleading, talking in a tone that melded begging and demanding. X was silent during the entire meeting — in part because Silver dominated the conversation, standing throughout, gesturing demonstratively — but it was completely unclear, if X had shown resistance, whether Silver would have begun to gruffly demand, banging his hands on the table, or gone down on his knees and begged.

"I wanna do another movie with you," Silver said. "Not a shitty movie, but something big. What do you think of this guy Steven Seagal? Would you wanna work with him? That could be a big urban hit. He'll be a cop who got fucked up somehow, and you're a guy in the street" — he was making it up as he went along — "and somehow you'll get together. This is called a 'blind commitment.' You guys agree to a picture, then we make up a script. I love having you in the movie. I think your stuff is so real, and you're just coming from the heart and everything." Though it was never said, it seemed that X's long and intense prison experience had much to do with delivering him here tonight, molding him into the urbanly grizzled, heroic and sympathetic figure he is. It plays on the American fascination with the Incarcerated Negro and puts X in a club with Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, Malcolm X and Tupac.

They stood and walked across the lot, to a music studio where they could touch up a few voice-overs. Silver walked beside X and then put an arm over his shoulder, like a brother. "We're gonna do a lot of things together," the multimillionaire movie producer told the famous rapper, the shadow of the Warner Bros. water tower draping over them. "I promise."

On Thursday it was eighty degrees. In X's L'Ermitage room, the curtains were blowing out the balcony window as if trying to escape, and Michael Jackson's Off the Wall was on loud. X was bent over a little table-clothed table, on which sat scrambled eggs, potatoes, juice and some fruit. His eyes were shut tight, and his lips moved quickly as he silently mouthed a half-minute prayer. It was yet another day in the life of a famous rapper, another high-school-summer-vacation-with-money sort of day. There would be a stop at the recording studio, maybe a photo shoot, maybe a meeting with Oliver Stone, probably a trip back to Roscoe's. But all that was later. There is a time, in a famous rapper's life, for work, and a time for summer vacation.

Right now, it's almost one o'clock. It's time for breakfast.