The Fierce Vulnerability of DMX

The rapper, who has died at age 50, used his gruff voice to project strength—even as he spoke honestly about human weakness.

Earl Simmons, a.k.a. DMX, standing in a spotlight
Noam Galai / Getty

At its best, hip-hop reveals the complexity of the human voice, and few artists show that better than DMX did. The sound that came out of Earl Simmons’s mouth was often called a growl or rasp, but those terms seem insufficient upon the occasion of his death, today, at age 50. You heard breath and bone in that voice. Its dissonance and musicality were kind of like an electric guitar. It started parties by jolting fight-or-flight reflexes. Most important, in pure tone and delivery, he conveyed the same thing his lyrics said on “What’s My Name?”: “I’m not a nice person.” The listener can’t help but sit up and wonder: What makes someone sound like this?

Part of the answer to that question was that Simmons had bronchial asthma. Speaking with Talib Kweli and Jasmin Leigh on the People’s Party podcast last year, Simmons recalled childhood memories of waking up struggling to breathe, gripping the corners of his bed, and gasping so much that his tongue went numb. “That’s scary, as a child,” he said. Firefighters would often have to climb 11 floors to treat him in his apartment, and their kindness made him want to grow up to be a firefighter himself. Asthma prevented that, but, Simmons said, he nevertheless sought a career that would allow him to help people.

The image of a young Simmons immobilized and fearing for his life might seem incompatible with the popular image of DMX. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, most Americans could have voted him the toughest-seeming man alive. Rapping with explosive energy over beats that evoked army bugles, Simmons specialized in vivid threats, funny taunts, and bursts of hate speech. He’d smack the shit twice out of you and then start cursing; he’d make you go missing until some old man finds you while fishing. When Drake, that merchant of softness and sensitivity, became the hottest thing in hip-hop in the early 2010s, DMX memorably had this appraisal: “I don’t like his voice, I don’t like what he talks about, I don’t like his face, I don’t like the way he walks, I don’t like his haircut.”

Simmons scored his breakout hits in the late ’90s, when the flinty rap styles embodied by Biggie and Tupac—whose deaths were fresh in public memory—had begun to take on a bouncier quality. More listeners than ever before were primed to enjoy the blend of aggression and irreverence that he delivered. DMX’s first five albums (released over just five years) each hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200—a feat no artist had ever achieved before. He landed roles in the action films Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave. Today, you still hear smashes such as “Party Up (Up in Here)” and “X Gon’ Give It to Ya,” many of them produced or co-written by Swizz Beatz, booming from car windows and DJ rigs.

Any listeners who investigated beyond the radio hits quickly learned that there was more to DMX than his snarl. His albums brimmed with introspection, survival tales, and conversations with both God and the devil. Interviews and a 2003 autobiography elaborated on the difficult backstory that his lyrics had sketched. Growing up in a housing project in Yonkers, Simmons had suffered physical abuse from his mother and her boyfriends. But sometimes what seemed to bother him more, whenever he relayed his life story, was how adults misjudged his young personality. “They thought I was a bad kid, pain in the ass,” he told Touré for a 2000 Rolling Stone feature. “I was actually a very bright child who was easily bored and frustrated.”

In elementary school, he was sent to a home for at-risk children, and he’d be in and out of institutions—including prisons and rehab—for the rest of his life. As a teenager, he began robbing people. “Half of my weapon was my face … I couldn’t beat everybody, but dawg, my rep superseded me,” he said in the Rolling Stone piece. His introduction to rapping came around this time, via an older friend who beatboxed. While encouraging Simmons’s rapping, that same friend handed him a blunt—and 14-year-old Simmons didn’t realize it was also laced with crack cocaine. On Kweli’s podcast, Simmons began crying while recalling that moment. “Why would you do that to a child?” he asked. It was the first step toward drug addiction, which he would struggle with until his death.

In the decades after his early-2000s career peak, those struggles—as well as a number of run-ins with law enforcement—would become very public. At the same time, on talk shows and during radio interviews, he became a compelling voice for compassion, self-love, and Christian faith. Shortly after breaking into tears on Kweli’s podcast, he thanked the hosts for letting him speak. “So often talking about your problems is viewed as a sign of weakness, when it’s actually one of the bravest things you can do,” he said. That sentiment has been articulated many times before, but it sounded different coming from him, just like everything did.