Nanny’s Unisex is a hip-hop hair salon if ever there was one. Just past midnight on “five-dollar wash-and-set Wednesday,” the spot on West 135th Street in Harlem is filled with DKNY’d girls in shower caps, B-boys getting baldies and a gaggle of cornrowed five-year-olds jitterbugging in and out, singing all the words to the Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z joints booming from the stereo. The chaotic salon is so hyperkinetic, so eye-poppingly color coordinated, it could be — should be — a blazing underground club.
In bounds DMX, juggling a Newport, a half-toked blunt and a plastic cup of Hennessy. With his sleek head, his taut, muscled physique and his gear — a silvery-gray muscle T-shirt, white and silver parachute pants and silver and white old-school Nike hoop sneaks — he looks like the black Silver Surfer. And, like the Cheers crowd greeting Norm, everyone at Nanny’s knows DMX.
Then again, right now everyone in New York knows DMX. On the strength of his rugged, growling voice, a stop-start staccato flow that recalls Allen Iverson’s dribbling, and a rock-solid street reputation, his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, sold 250,000 copies in its first week. The 27-year-old from Yonkers, New York, built his rep through years of battling (Styles, of the LOX, describes him as “a living legend underground”), a slew of recent guest rhymes (on Mase’s “24 Hours to Live,” L.L. Cool J’s “4, 3, 2, 1” and the LOX’s unforgettable “Money, Power, Respect,” among others) and, of course, his anthemic debut single, “Get at Me Dog.” Top club and radio DJ Funkmaster Flex says, “It’s a one o’clock record: At one o’clock, if I ain’t gettin’ niggas bouncin’ crazily, I’m gonna have to leave. That’s when you hear DMX.”
After politicking with the owners of Nanny’s and playfully growling for the kids, DMX bounces into the barber’s chair for a quick touch-up on his Caesar and beard from a man with a Tarheels cap and a million-dollar smile. The rage-filled MC of It’s Dark is warm and humble on the everyday. An ardent dog lover with three pit bulls, he’s a man’s man, or, as many call him, a nigga’s nigga. But just beneath the surface boils an angry cauldron.
Someone notices his silver and diamond-infested ring, bracelet and Rolex — easily worth a new entry-level Benz. “You didn’t have those the last time I saw you,” he says.
“Robbery,” DMX responds with neither braggadocio nor repentance.
The man is stunned silent.
“One person,” DMX says. “One very rich person.” He laughs. “I won’t buy it … but I will wear it!” The assembled crowd laughs just as a cabal of thieves would laugh with their leader. But then, in a tone that’s just too icy to laugh along with, he adds, “They’ve created a monster. And now they must deal with it.”
DMX begins his life story, saying, “I was a good kid. I just did bad things.” And in bits he retells a harrowing life, filled with a neglectful father (“He’s a dickhead”), an abusive mother and a world that left him to perfect his MC’ing in a slew of jails, where, clutching a radio for music, he’d go cell to cell, battling everyone. His is not unlike the stories of Malcolm X or George Jackson; but hell, it seems, is so commonplace to DMX that horrors slip from his mouth without drama, in the same ho-hum tone he might use to order a Whopper.
Even in Yonkers’ notorious School Street Projects, the young Earl Simmons stood out, he says, as “the problem nigga: The kid that other kids would get beatin’s for playin’ with.” That led to a string of group homes. “There’s a period in your childhood when you accept whatever you’re given as normal,” he says. After four 18-month stints in institutions, he started “robbing niggas like meals. On my way to school I’d rob somebody. After school I’d rob somebody. At night I’d rob somebody.” He was no sneak thief and never took from women: “I’d dig in niggas’ pockets while grittin’ my teeth to let them know I will knock the shit outta you.” At 14, he hid a sawed-off shotgun in his pants and robbed a schoolmate in the lunchroom, in front of everyone. He netted $13. Soon after, he began a series of jail stays. When on the outside, he says, he supported himself mostly through robbery. Asked about rumors that he long struggled with a drug problem, DMX says testily, “I had a life problem, dawg. A life problem. Focus on the problem. The symptoms are irrelevant. Follow me?” At that moment he seems the sort of troubled figure who, if not for hip-hop, might well be dead. Or maybe killing you.
If you’re waiting for that uplifting epiphany, it ain’t coming. DMX has found ballast in his dogs, especially Boomer, the pit bull who became his best friend. “I learned friendship from him,” DMX says. “It’s kinda fucked up that I couldn’t learn it from a person. But I learned it from a dog.” Boomer was killed by a passing van and now lives on in tattoos on DMX’s shoulder and back.
DMX’s future appears bright — in November, video director Hype Williams will release his first feature film, Belly, starring DMX alongside Nas and Method Man. But, friends say, recent success has proved only a mild palliative. “He’s suffering right now with a lot of demons from his past,” says Williams.
A tormented soul on the mic and an overtly masculine figure with more than a hint of vulnerability, DMX recalls hip-hop’s most epically tormented soul, Tupac Shakur. Williams, who directed Pac in some of his later videos, says, “I can easily see how alike the two are. It’s nothing to do with characteristics. It has something to do with spirit. They just have a similar aura about them. There’s a sadness there.”
In the blaze of It’s Dark’s talk of hell and pain and death wishes, DMX sounds most Pac-like in his album’s intense a cappella “Prayer,” which concludes, “And I fear that what I’m sayin’ won’t be heard till I’m gone/It’s all good cuz I didn’t really expect to live long/So if it takes for me to suffer for my brother to see the light, gimme pain till I die!/But please, Lord, treat him right.” It seems he takes tribulation in stride, believing it to be his lot. “I will suffer as much as I have to,” he says of “Prayer.” “I will do it proudly.”
So, even with a freshly shorn dome and his hit single booming throughout Nanny’s as autograph seekers buzz around him, DMX still expects little from life.
How long do you expect to live?
“Maybe three more years,” DMX says. “Somebody’s gonna give it to me. Other niggas got it. I done gave it to niggas. I expect to get it. I ain’t mad. I just hope niggas say, ‘He was a cool mafucka, yo. If you didn’t know him, you don’t know. He mighta did wrong, but he was aight.'”
This story was originally published in RS Issue 790/791, July 9th, 1998