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How DMX Met the Devil in God’s Country

In the late 2000s, the rapper went to the Arizona desert to make an album he hoped could save him. Then Sheriff Joe Arpaio — and his own demons — got in the way
Matthew Salacuse/Redux

I n 2001, DMX went to Arizona to record his fourth album. By then, he had already become an unlikely superstar, a barking battle rapper turned crossover sensation. He had channeled all the pain of his first three decades on Earth, all the rhymes that had been filling up the pages of his notebooks for years, into three multiplatinum albums. His single “Party Up (Up in Here)” was breaking down the door to a new demographic of fans. Just a few years before, Puff Daddy had said DMX was unmarketable. He used to be feared in his own neighborhood in Yonkers, New York — someone people would avoid when they saw him coming around the corner with his dog. Now the whole world wanted a piece of X.

After three years of nonstop movement, DMX found space to reflect in the desert. Along with his go-to producers, his road managers, and his close friends — all the people who made sure his early albums came together — he rented a few houses in a quiet neighborhood in Scottsdale. Even after late nights, he would wake up early and sit by the pool, reading the Bible. They would pack buckets of chicken, fill a cooler with beer, strap rifles to their four-wheelers, and ride out into the desert for hours until there was nothing around them but soil and sky. This was before Phoenix’s outer suburbs had been developed; his exit was the last one on a stretch of highway that was still being built. It wasn’t uncommon to pull up to a stoplight and see a pack of coyotes heading off toward the mountains. The environment was the opposite of where DMX had come from, far from the tall project buildings that kept one side of the street shaded.

Early one morning, on the way back from recording all night at Phoenix’s Chaton Studios, DMX pulled over on the highway. It was around 6 a.m. and the sun was starting to rise, the horizon in front of him transforming from deep purple to bright orange. Four cars lined up, hazard lights blinking, and DMX’s crew stood on the side of the road, watching a new day begin over the Sonoran Desert. “It was at that point that I fell in love with Arizona,” DMX would later say in an interview with a local news affiliate. “I said, ‘You know what? This has to be God’s country.’ ”

During that 2009 interview, the reporter asks him questions from across a table in the visitation room of a Maricopa County jail. DMX wears a black-and-white striped uniform with a pink undershirt, an infamous visual trademark from Joe Arpaio’s reign as the local sheriff. His hair and beard are grown out, the corners of his hairline receding into two deep V’s. He speaks candidly and clearly, only pausing and getting choked up when he talks about missing his kids. He seems to laugh at his own naive view of the desert back then, or maybe at how much his life had changed over those past eight years.

“Then I met the devil in God’s country.”

Earl Simmons often talked about his life as a battle between opposing forces. Light and dark, blessings and curses, God and the devil — these themes are a constant presence across his music. “Feel the pain, feel the joy/Of a man who was never a boy,” he rhymed at the end of “Look Thru My Eyes” from his multiplatinum 1998 debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, offering a succinct guide to the journey he would lead his fans on for the rest of his career.

DMX grew up in what were considered the roughest projects in a city that a federal judge would later rule had “illegally and intentionally” discriminated against Black residents in its public schools and housing. His 2002 autobiography is a vivid account of trauma, full of allegations of neglect and abuse and descriptions of the overwhelming despair of the group homes and juvenile facilities where X spent much of his first 18 years. Religion was a beacon of stability in his life, from the Jehovah’s Witness services he attended with his mother to his grandmother’s Baptist faith; many years later, he would say that he’d come to forgive his mother for the pain of his childhood. But when individuals and systems failed, DMX turned to the streets, committing robberies to feed himself and his addiction. The weight of his circumstances was supposed to crush him like countless others whose names the world never learned.

Instead, for a few brief years at the turn of the millennium, he reached a pinnacle of American celebrity. As a chart-topping rapper, DMX, who died at age 50 in April 2021, embodied the extremes and lingered in their contradictions. On his albums, he cast himself as a preaching sinner, always reaching for the redemption that was just beyond his grasp. His power as an artist lay in the balance he struck between aggression and vulnerability; he could rob you in one verse and pray for you in the next. The menacing stories and snarling anthems wouldn’t have been as effective if not for the conversations with God that always followed.

The drug addiction that plagued DMX for most of his life was inseparable from the music that had delivered him. In a 2020 interview, he returned to a story he first told years before, in his autobiography: When he was 14, he alleged, his mentor and first collaborator tricked him into smoking a blunt laced with crack. (DMX’s mentor disputed some details of this account after the rapper’s death.) “This guy introduced me to what would be the best part of my life, which would be the rap,” DMX said through tears, still grappling with the betrayal. “But the thing with my life, it’s blessed with a curse.”

As DMX fell further away from his peak years, his trauma threatened to overshadow his talent. While living in Arizona in the late 2000s — with his career at an impasse, his marriage falling apart, and his arrests dominating headlines — he set out to record a double album that would put the disparate parts of himself back on equal footing. He named the project Walk With Me Now and You’ll Fly With Me Later; the first side would be hip-hop and the second side would be a gospel album, featuring the profanity-free, spiritual rap songs that he had always reserved one slot for on albums past. “No songs about bitches, no songs about robbing, just straight ‘Give God the glory,’ ” he said at the time.

Though DMX completed the double album, it was never released as he intended. Some songs were put out against his stated wishes, and others have languished on hard drives for more than a decade. The project, and its gospel side in particular, became a forgotten part of his discography. Arizona, a place that had once been his refuge from the burden of being DMX, became another site of his self-destruction.

DMX always said a prayer before he performed. Onstage, he ended his sets with the prayers that appeared on his albums. After his shows — depleted and emotional — he would pray again.

Watching footage from a 1998 performance at the Apollo Theater is a visceral snapshot of the raw power and agonizing weight that he brought with him into the industry. The crowd that night in Harlem jumped, swayed, and shouted along to the rowdy singles “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and “Get at Me Dog.” He was dripping with sweat by the time he closed the show with the prayer from his first album, written years before in solitary confinement at a Westchester County prison. He began to cry and shake, his coarse voice rising and cracking, as he recited the prayer’s closing line: “So, if it takes for me to suffer for my brother to see the light/Give me pain till I die, but, please, Lord, treat him right.”

From the beginning, DMX saw himself as a vessel. Ray Copeland, an uncle on his mother’s side and his manager early on, remembers sitting with X and the rapper’s then-wife, Tashera Simmons, in the kitchen of the couple’s first house, in New Jersey, soon after X had signed with Def Jam. “I’m not just yours,” he told them. “You have to share me with the world.”

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DMX’s incendiary performance at Woodstock ‘99 came at a time when he was arguably rap’s biggest star. Kevin Mazur/WireImage

But as his career exploded, the pressure became overwhelming. His childhood had been largely devoid of love, yet suddenly, he was adored by crowds of people he’d never met. “He didn’t expect to get that much fame, even though he knew he was a great artist,” says Joaquin “Waah” Dean of Ruff Ryders, the label that helped launch DMX to stardom in the Nineties. “He didn’t know how to receive the love.”

On the road, DMX went out of his way to shirk the aura of celebrity. In every city, he sought out the most infamous neighborhoods. He spent hours hanging out in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, gambling in the back of a barbershop in New Orleans’ 3rd Ward, and eating Jamaican food in Brixton. He preferred home cooking to dining out, and was always meeting someone whose mom or grandmother was happy to cook for DMX. “We’d take them to the grocery store, get all the ingredients, and then go to strangers’ houses and take over their living room, front porch … and they’d cook breakfast for us,” says Ali Samii, his former road manager. “This happened hundreds of times.”

Though the passion in DMX’s performances never wavered, multiple former members of his road team say that their experience on tour was often defined by the rapper’s rebellious side. He frequently delayed going onstage to perform until the very last moment. At times, it seemed like X was testing those close to him, seeing if they would quit on him like so many people in his life had before. “That was hard for me,” Samii says. “He’s your friend, and you keep making him do shit he doesn’t wanna do in an industry where he’s telling you these people are vultures and bloodsuckers.”

Even as he sold millions of records, DMX saw himself as being at odds with the music industry. In 2003, he announced that his fifth album, Grand Champ, would be his last. “I’m going into the church,” he said, the first such proclamation in what would become an oft-repeated aspiration. In another interview soon after, he was more explicit about the reason he wanted to distance himself from the music business. “It’s robbery, and I can’t be a part of it anymore,” he said. “You do so much for the record label, you make so much money for them, and then, at the end of the day, you’re nothing but a number.”

Jenn Turner, DMX’s assistant around this time, remembers seeing the rapper crying during the tour for Grand Champ and asking him what was wrong. “They stole my love,” he told her. “He had the Number One album, he had a bunch of money,” Turner says. “He had all of the things that you would think would fulfill him, and he was miserable.”

In 2005, DMX returned to music, citing a conversation with Mase — who had left behind his own rap career to become a minister years before — as his inspiration. (“He was like, ‘As long as you have that talent, you don’t have the right to say whether or not you want to use it,’ ” DMX said, recounting their talk.) He turned his ire toward Jay-Z, who had recently been appointed as president of Def Jam. The two had battled in the early Nineties, before either one was famous, and later that decade they’d made hits and toured together. As artists, they had always represented different vantage points: Jay-Z, the suave hustler, and DMX, the rugged underdog speaking for the downtrodden. Over the years, their paths had diverged even further.

Darrin “Dee” Dean, Waah’s brother and Ruff Ryders co-founder, says that Jay-Z cleared millions of dollars in debt that DMX owed to Def Jam and let him walk away with his music. “I told Jay to release him because he’s not happy here,” Dee recalls. X went to Columbia for 2006’s Year of the Dog … Again, which became the first album of the rapper’s career not to debut atop the charts.

Tashera had been with DMX for more than a decade before his rise to fame, but by this time, his addiction and infidelity had begun to tear their marriage apart. She saw his drug use as a defensive reflex when the world’s demands became too much: “To block everyone out, normal people go on vacation, sit on the beach, stare at the ocean. I believe Earl resorted to what he had done in the past. He said it’s the only time that nobody wanted to mess with him, and he loved that.”

Arizona, with its wide-open expanses and lax gun laws, offered a different kind of escape from his traumatic past and strenuous present. After DMX’s first trip there in 2001, Tashera began looking for a house in the Phoenix area. They bought an adobe-style home in the northeastern suburb of Cave Creek in 2003. It sat on a few remote acres with horse stables and a pool that looked out toward the mountains.

Just a few years later, the dream was falling apart. “I felt like he was out of control,” Tashera says. “I thought we needed to take a break and separate, which Earl was not happy with.”

After their separation, DMX made the Arizona house his permanent residence. But as he spent more time in the desert, he started getting more unwanted attention. Police cars followed him home, pulling him over even when he wasn’t driving.

On Aug. 24, 2007, about a year after their separation, officers from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office raided DMX’s home in Cave Creek, acting on a tip that dogs were being kept in inhumane conditions. They seized 12 malnourished pit bulls and dug up the remains of three other dogs on the property.

Dogs had been DMX’s companions since childhood. They showed him how to love unconditionally, and they featured prominently in everything from his barking vocals to his album covers. But he had also pleaded guilty to animal cruelty in 2002, stemming from an earlier incident at his New Jersey home when he was charged with neglecting 13 dogs.

At the time of the Arizona raid, DMX was on tour and hadn’t been in the state for months, his lawyers said. “Earl had a caretaker, who obviously wasn’t taking care,” attorney Murray Richman said at the time. “Earl loves those dogs.”

Arpaio, in his fourth term as Maricopa County sheriff, was already gaining a national reputation for publicity stunts like the pink underwear in his jails and the time he hosted an “Inmate Idol” singing competition. He was also becoming a magnet for accusations of real cruelty: Critics charged that prisoners were killed and tortured during his 24-year regime, often while still awaiting trial. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office would later be hit with racial-profiling lawsuits from the ACLU and the Department of Justice related to its indiscriminate sweeps and raids on local Latinx communities, and Donald Trump would ultimately pardon Arpaio in 2017 after the sheriff refused to comply with a judge’s order to stop targeting people believed to be undocumented immigrants. In DMX, it seemed, Arpaio found a perfect target: a troubled Black celebrity whose struggles with mental health and addiction were tearing his life apart at the seams.

(In a lengthy statement to Rolling Stone, Arpaio calls DMX “a career criminal,” contests some allegations, and downplays others. “Out of all the officers working on the streets and in the jail system, I recall only a few of my officers being investigated over allegations of torturing and killing inmates awaiting trial,” he writes. “Payments paid out because of lawsuits totaled about $85 million in almost 24 years. How many large police departments, who don’t even run jails, have less than $85 million paid out because of lawsuits?” His statement goes on to decry the ACLU and federal government’s lawsuits over his immigration law enforcement as “strictly politically motivated.”)

When Pat Gallo first got to Arizona in the mid-2000s, he remembers meeting DMX outside a barbershop in Phoenix and being taken aback by the rapper’s appearance. “He wasn’t in the best state,” Gallo says. “He’s got the bald head with the sides of it all grown out, and his beard is all scruffy.”

Gallo, an aspiring producer who’d grown up in Westchester County, was part of a crew of associates who worked on DMX’s Arizona house. In between tiling the bathroom and hanging TVs, Gallo gave DMX a CD of his beats, one of which showed up on the rapper’s next LP.

In 2007, Gallo got a call from DMX out of the blue. The rapper had signed a new deal with Bodog Music, the newly formed label division of the online gambling company, and they had given him a budget for his album. “I was just a young kid, excited,” Gallo says. “I booked my own flight to get out there.”

Gallo, who’s white and close to a decade DMX’s junior, says all the two had in common at first was music. At one point, early in Gallo’s yearlong stay in Arizona, DMX asked him for relationship advice. “ ‘You gotta do what you need to do to make yourself happy,’ ” Gallo recalls telling him. “I think he realized the genuineness, and his eyes lit up. The guard went down.”

At the time, DMX was hesitant to trust anyone dealing with his business. When an entertainment lawyer who hoped to represent him flew in, the rapper put him through a trial by fire. “I need you to trust me and I need to trust you,” Gallo remembers X telling the lawyer. They were all standing in the kitchen of the rapper’s house, and DMX picked up a handgun. Pulling back the hammer, taking out the clip, and emptying the bullets, he handed over the gun and told the lawyer to point it at his own head: “You trust me, right?” The lawyer looked down at the gun for a moment and then, screaming, pointed it to his temple and pulled the trigger.

To avoid paying alimony and taxes, DMX didn’t have a bank account at this time, according to sources with knowledge of his career. Instead of wiring DMX the money from his advance, an A&R rep at Bodog would fly down from Canada every few weeks with $10,000 in cash, the maximum amount allowed across the border without being declared. DMX had also lost his license after multiple driving-related arrests by this point, though that didn’t stop him from getting behind the wheel.

“When he got out of the booth, he was in tears. He was crying out to the Lord.”

Saltmine Studio, where DMX recorded, was a little over an hour away from his home in Cave Creek. Gallo remembers the desert outside becoming a blur as the speedometer in DMX’s yellow 1966 Chevy Nova crossed 130 miles per hour. “It’s like he tried to beat his time every time he left his house,” Gallo says. “The thing shook as soon as you hit 60, but he just pushed it.”

Despite the upheaval in his life, DMX was determined to execute his vision for Walk With Me Now and You’ll Fly With Me Later. On the wall of one room at Saltmine, he wrote out the double album’s title in black marker. Industrial-metal pioneer Al Jourgensen was mixing a Ministry album in the studio next door, and studio owner Don Salter remembers the two musicians striking up a conversation about art and life in the hallway. DMX’s sessions would usually begin after midnight and end when the sun rose. “Then, very often, he would take us all to Denny’s,” Salter says.

The first song that Gallo, who produces under the name Divine Bars, made with DMX in Arizona was “Already,” a chest-thumping track that sounds like it could have appeared on a Madden NFL soundtrack. In the verses, DMX rails against the fakeness of popular rap when compared with his own authenticity. “There was an anger about him at that time,” Gallo says.

When DMX was moved to record his gospel songs, the sessions took on a different kind of emotional intensity. A singer named Janyce met DMX in 2005, when the rapper came into the Phoenix Nordstrom’s where she worked. Janyce and her sister had won a talent competition and signed a record deal a few years earlier, but it never went anywhere. When DMX came into the store, her co-workers encouraged her to sing for him. She sang, he took down her number, and later, she and Gallo spent long hours in the studio, working on hooks and bridges for X’s gospel album.

After laying down her part for a song called “Let Me Be Your Angel,” Janyce got out of the booth at Saltmine and found DMX waiting for her. She remembers him being so inspired by the song that he went in and recorded two verses on the spot. “I ask a lot of questions, ’cause I need a lot of answers/Sometimes I think I need to ask the questions faster,” he raps, an earnest account of the trials and tribulations that always led him back to God. “When he got out of the booth, he was in tears,” Janyce says. “He was crying out to the Lord.”

DMX and Gallo recorded the bulk of the songs intended for the gospel album in a single night in 2008. They were up against a deadline to finish the project, and Gallo remembers that it was difficult to get DMX to the studio that evening. He arrived in the early hours of morning and went up a spiral staircase to a loft, then went into an upstairs bathroom to smoke crack. When he came out, he told Gallo to put on a beat, rapidly wrote a song, recorded it top-to-bottom in one take, and then climbed the stairs back up to the loft to repeat the whole process. By the time the sun came up, DMX had written and recorded seven gospel songs.

Over time, Gallo began asking DMX questions about his addiction. At one point during their time living together, DMX asked Gallo to film him after he used to see how he looked when he was high. “I wasn’t comfortable doing that,” Gallo says. “I think he saw how I looked at him in that state. It wasn’t him anymore. It was this scared person.”

At times, DMX would disappear for days. Once, when Gallo found him, DMX was having trouble breathing. Gallo says he took him to the hospital, even though DMX begged him not to. “Sometimes I felt like I enabled him,” he says. “He knew I would always be there.”

Gallo says he and DMX lived under constant police surveillance. Knowing DMX didn’t have a license, he says, officers would wait for the rapper to pull out of his property, then pounce. “We couldn’t leave the house without getting pulled over,” says Gallo, who lost his own license after he was stopped while driving one of DMX’s unregistered cars to the store.

On the night of May 8, 2008, around eight months after the initial raid, DMX, a cousin from Yonkers, and San, a longtime member of his road team, were hosting a few friends at the rapper’s house. When it started getting late, their friends left, but a few minutes later, they called back to the house: On the way out, they had seen a truck parked nearby with two men sitting inside.

DMX’s home in Cave Creek was surrounded by desert on all sides. There were only a few other properties in the area. DMX, his cousin, and San grabbed guns and rode out on four-wheelers. “We don’t know if somebody’s trying to set us up or what’s going on,” San says. “We felt like we had to protect ourselves.” When they pulled up to the truck, the two men were standing outside. DMX asked them what they were doing, and one of the men said they were looking for a place to get high. “X had the gun in his hand, started flipping out, and was like, ‘Get the fuck out of here,’ ” San says.

The men drove off, but now DMX was spooked. They all stayed up into the early hours of the morning with their guns close by. Around 3 a.m., DMX went into his bedroom, and San nodded off on the couch. San woke up a few minutes later to a loud banging against the reinforced metal gate at the front of DMX’s property. He opened the front door and heard screaming: “Police Department! Drop the gun!”

Turning back toward the living room, he saw a black-clad SWAT team holding M16s. San dropped to the floor, tossing his own gun on the couch, when, he says, they started shooting rubber bullets through the glass. He felt an impact in his stomach but, looking down at his shirt, he didn’t see any blood. He crawled through the kitchen. Then he heard another loud bang.

“I start hearing X screaming, like not normal screaming, at the top of his lungs,” says San. “All you hear is glass breaking, walls breaking, and he’s screaming.”

The sheriff’s department had driven a tank through the side of the house, San says. Later, DMX would tell San and Gallo that he had been sitting on the toilet when the front of the tank came crashing through his bathroom wall. (“Several search warrants were issued on [DMX’s] property,” Arpaio writes. “SWAT teams were used on occasion due to the possible danger to my officers.” He adds: “We don’t have a tank for enforcement activities.”)

When they got back the next day, after DMX was released from jail on bond, “it was like a tornado went through the house,” says San. All the windows and doors had been smashed, and there were marks on the floor from where the SWAT team had thrown flash-bang grenades. DMX’s belongings were piled in the middle of the living room, broken and disheveled.

Reports at the time, quoting a statement from the sheriff’s department, said that DMX had “attempted to barricade himself in his bedroom when police arrived to detain him.” A few days after the raid, DMX put his own response on record, calling out Arpaio by name on a song called “Soldier,” which surfaced online in July 2008. The song is built around a familiar Isaac Hayes sample, previously used by Biz Markie and Mary J. Blige, interspersed with sound bites from news reports. “Move, bitch, get out the way/Boom, boom, boom, can little Joe come out to play?” DMX raps, before launching into a torrent of homophobic slurs. He also references the militarized raid on his home: “Niggas roll with an army, so you bring tanks/I’m from New York, put me in jail, I bring shanks.”

The raid, it became clear, was related to charges of animal cruelty and drug possession stemming from the previous raid in 2007. Over the next few months, DMX was arrested on a number of nonviolent charges, including identity theft (for providing a fake name at a hospital). When he failed to appear in court in December 2008, Arpaio reportedly offered a $5,000 reward for his arrest. A few days later, X was arrested by FBI agents in Miami at the home of producer Scott Storch. He ended up pleading guilty to animal cruelty and drug possession, which allowed the other charges to be dropped.

In the grand scheme of Arpaio’s reign as sheriff in Arizona, DMX is a blip — there were many people, much more vulnerable, who bore the brunt of Arpaio’s policies. But in DMX’s life, this episode proved to be devastating. Over the next several years in Arizona, he was arrested again and again, mostly for violating his probation and traffic incidents.

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Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio ordering some of the people he put behind bars to a separate area of Tent City in 2009. Ross D. Franklin/AP Images

In the jailhouse interview on local news in 2009, the reporter asks DMX if he thought he’d been targeted by Arpaio. “I don’t know,” the rapper said. “I do pray for that man, as I pray for everyone else.… Because we’re all God’s children, and we all deserve the same grace.”

One Sunday morning in 2009, Pastor Barbara King was delivering a sermon at Morning Star Baptist Church in Phoenix. She was preaching about Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem when she looked up and saw a man she didn’t recognize crying in the pews. “He came up to the altar, and he wanted prayer,” she says. “He was telling me that his life was tore up. He had lost everything. He wanted to accept God back into his life, and he wanted to repent for his sins and his wrongdoing.”

DMX had only been out of jail for a few days when he arrived at Morning Star. After they prayed together that day, King says DMX came back every Sunday, sometimes bringing half the club with him from the night before. In the afternoon, after services, he would head to her house and cook his specialties: spaghetti and crab legs. “He was like part of the family,” she says. “He would cook, and he would put on roller skates so it would be like Sonic. He would be roller-skating and serving everybody.”

In 2010, DMX and King planned a fundraiser concert for the church, to be held at a local high school. When that plan got shut down, King says, the church removed all its pews and DMX did his show there, treating the tiny house of worship like a major arena. He performed gospel songs from his past albums, as well as some songs from the still-unreleased gospel album. “He prayed so hard to the pastors that didn’t even think he was worthy to be in the church,” King says. “He had them crying.”

By the time he got out of jail in 2009, DMX’s plans to release Walk With Me Now and You’ll Fly With Me Later had been derailed. Bodog Music had shuttered after increased government scrutiny of their parent company’s online gambling operations, and a small Canadian label called Her Royal Majesty’s Records had ended up with the rights to DMX’s album.

“Record companies and executives were afraid of Earl,” says Nakia Walker, who managed DMX from 2009 until 2011. “We entertained a lot of opportunities, and people were afraid: ‘He’s gonna go to jail, he’ll be on drugs.’ If someone had given him the opportunity then, he would have had something to look forward to.”

Walker and DMX lived in the same condominium complex in Scottsdale after the rapper’s release from jail in 2009. She says DMX spent a lot of that time hiking, riding his four-wheelers, watching movies, and playing with his remote-control cars and helicopters. “I’ve seen him exercise and be clean and eat well,” she says. But sobriety was a daily battle. “You know how sometimes we can have all the answers for other people but not for ourselves?” Walker says. “He dealt with that a lot.”

After his release on the animal-cruelty and drug charges in 2009, DMX pleaded guilty to assaulting a prison guard during the time he had spent at Tent City, Arpaio’s outdoor jail in the Phoenix desert — the place the sheriff himself once referred to as a “concentration camp.” A few months later, in Los Angeles, DMX turned himself in for a reckless-driving charge from years earlier. A few days after his release on that charge, he was arrested for driving without a valid license. His longest stay behind bars came in 2010, after he tested positive for cocaine multiple times during his probation. He served almost a year at an Arizona state prison, part of which was spent in a mental-health unit.

Pastor King says she stayed close to DMX during his time in and out of jail. He had told her that he wanted to become a deacon. She waited to give him the title — “I said, ‘Earl, you can’t be on TV telling people you’re a deacon and then cuss people out when they make you mad’ ” — but after seeing his dedication to the church, she ordained him in 2012. “If we take a sin test in the church, nobody would be there,” says King.

Talent manager Jason Fowler flew to Phoenix around this time at Tashera Simmons’ request to try to help the rapper get his life in order. “I told him I would love to help, but I put some guidelines in place for me to work with him,” Fowler says. “One of those was for him to move out of Arizona.” To everyone’s surprise, DMX agreed. In 2011, he relocated to South Carolina, leaving behind the place that had given him so much freedom and persecution.

Most of the songs that DMX recorded for the gospel album leaked online in the early 2010s. They’ve existed as low-quality uploads on YouTube for the past decade, mostly flying under the radar for everyone except the most die-hard fans. On “It’ll Be Alright,” one of the strongest songs from the album, he sings about his obedience to God with a lilting, gravelly cadence that’s familiar from his early career. Over forlorn guitar and piano, he raps forcefully: “Some of us do wrong with no remorse/Some of us do wrong, see the light, and change course.”

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DMX in Arizona in 2008 © Jonathan Mannion

The rights to the album ended up getting sold to Seven Arts Entertainment, a company mostly known for producing films, which released an uneven DMX album called Undisputed in 2012. Three years later, in 2015, Seven Arts released a project called Redemption of the Beast, cobbling together many unfinished songs, mostly from the rapper’s time in Arizona. At the time, multiple people close to DMX said that the album was an unauthorized release; through a representative, DMX said it was “all stolen music.” That same year, multiple Seven Arts executives were convicted of tax fraud. At this point, Canadian businessman Howard Mann says, he won the company’s catalog of DMX’s music at auction.

Mann tells Rolling Stone that he intended at first to use the songs for “EDM remix contests” for aspiring producers. After receiving a hard drive in the purchase, he noticed about nine songs filed separately from the others. “When I started to go through all the paperwork, I noticed that Seven Arts owned all of X’s music, except for this one area that they identified as gospel tracks,” he says.

He reached out to DMX in 2015 to discuss purchasing the rights to the gospel songs, but says he didn’t hear anything until months later, when he got a call from a representative for the rapper saying that DMX would be in Los Angeles in a few days, and asking if Mann was willing to do the deal in cash. According to Mann, DMX showed up in person to collect the money and sign over the rights to his gospel album.

During the final years of DMX’s life, Mann says he was unable to get in touch with the rapper: “There was never a time where it seemed like we could get to work on the project.” Since DMX’s death last year, Mann has been reaching out to engineers and producers who worked with him, talking with labels and distributors, and trying to plan for the gospel album’s release.

Mann has a checkered past with intellectual property; in 2012, he was sued by the Michael Jackson estate in a copyright-infringement suit resulting from a collection of Jackson memorabilia he bought after the singer’s death, and he ultimately was ordered to pay $2.5 million in a settlement. Mann says he’s committed to working with DMX’s estate: “Our goal is to make sure the benefactors are fully compensated.”

DMX’s estate has been complicated by the fact that the rapper didn’t leave behind a will when he died. The rapper may have as many as 14 children, and another woman has recently come forward claiming to be his daughter. Still, the formation of the estate has been moving ahead: In October, DMX and Tashera Simmons’ three oldest sons — Xavier, Sean, and Tacoma — were named temporary co-administrators of the late rapper’s estate. (In the final few years of his life, DMX and Tashera reconciled and maintained a close friendship, which Tashera credits to her time in therapy as well as her faith. “The more I got closer to God, the more I started to understand Earl,” she says.)

Ron Sweeney, an entertainment lawyer who represented DMX during the early years of his career and who’s now representing his three sons, says the estate is “absolutely not” aligned with Mann on his plan to release the gospel album.

“Howard Mann has no authority that we’re aware of and hasn’t shown us anything to reflect that he owns any music that DMX recorded,” Sweeney says. “He has absolutely nothing to do with the estate and, to the extent that he has DMX’s music, the estate has not authorized the use of DMX’s name and likeness.”

Pat Gallo was “extremely surprised” to learn that anyone other than DMX or himself had any ownership claim to the gospel album. After a number of years without seeing each other following their time in Arizona, Gallo reconnected with DMX in 2015, when the rapper moved back to New York. He began to more formally manage DMX a few years later, and he oversaw the 2019 tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the rapper’s debut. In those years, Gallo and DMX regularly listened to and talked about the gospel songs they’d made together.

DMX wanted to perform the gospel album on a tour of megachurches across the South. His ultimate goal, according to Gallo, was to establish his own church called House of the Afflicted, where he would minister to the homeless, those dealing with addiction, and anyone else that society had neglected. But DMX was waiting until he felt ready to release the album. “He thought he would get a lot of scrutiny. He felt insecure about that,” Gallo says. “He didn’t want to put it out until he got his life together.”

Year after year, even in the midst of his most difficult periods, fans came to see DMX perform. They came for his anthems and his energy, but they also came to hear him pray.

Unlike the other prayers he wrote and recited on his albums, the prayer that DMX recorded for You’ll Fly With Me Later comes directly from the Bible. Over guitar strumming and soft percussion, he reads from Ephesians 6:10, a passage in which Paul the Apostle provides instructions on how to prepare for spiritual warfare.

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you might be able to withstand against the wiles of the Devil,” DMX reads, quickly and decisively, in the authoritative tone of someone delivering holy words. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age.”

DMX wrestled with all of the above. At points in his life, the battles he fought were also his main product. Anyone who listened to DMX was invested in his pain, in his comebacks, and in his chaotic falls from grace. For decades, he laid his soul bare in his songs, hoping that by revealing his own wounds he could heal and be healed in turn.

“Above all, taking the shield of faith,” he reads finally, his voice fading into the music behind it.

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