DMX: Will the Ruff Ryder rise again?
Looking at rapper DMX's life is like watching someone punch himself in the face repeatedly. One can easily picture a cherubic angel sitting atop one of the big guy's shoulders, telling him not to snort that line of coke or skip that appointment with his probation officer. But on the other shoulder, he's got a horned red devil prodding him with a pitchfork, urging him to just go ahead and do it.
For DMX, choosing between right and wrong is an extreme struggle—and it's never sounded fiercer than on his unreleased double album, Walk with Me Now and Fly with Me Later. His gruff, deep voice bursts out of him on these tracks—almost like he's barking, truly the sound of a man who calls himself "the dog." The good, bad, and ugly are all there, the words of an everyday man falling down and trying to get back up.
Lyrically, DMX's new songs paint a striking picture of his duality. On one hand, he makes liberal use of the words "nigga" and "faggot" and raps about "breaking shanks" in jail and feeding people to javelinas. On the other hand, he's rapping about repentance and praying to God.
Musically, the tracks run from the gamut, from the jazz horn samples, funk beats, and rhythmic record scratching on "It Ain't My Fault" to the screaming '70s classic-rock guitar that drives "The Way It's Gonna Be."
And it sounds phenomenal. Whether they're about shooting people on the streets or praising God, DMX's lyrics are raw and heartfelt, filled with tight rhymes wrapped around beats that make heads bob. Even if you can't specifically relate to shooting someone or being in a jail cell, you can relate to being conflicted, and the struggle of trying to do the right thing when everything's going wrong.
DMX is the only hip-hop artist in history to have five straight albums debut at number one on the Billboard charts, and twice in one year. He's sold more than 21 million albums worldwide. His fans have dwindled as his legal problems have mounted. But he could be like troubled NFL quarterback Michael Vick, staging a triumphant comeback and silencing the haters with an MVP-type performance. Because now, for the first time since 2006, there are two albums' worth of great new DMX music ready for release.
And for now, anyway, no one can buy it.
YOU CAN HEAR a few of DMX's new songs exclusively on our website, but don't expect the album anytime soon. The new DMX record was originally scheduled for release this March, but it's been repeatedly delayed while the rapper (real name: Earl Simmons) tries to get himself out of trouble—again. He's currently incarcerated at the Alhambra prison complex in Phoenix—and, in news surprising to his fans but perhaps not to those closest to him, DMX is now being held in the prison's mental health ward.
Simmons, 40, has been in group homes and jails, off and on, his whole life. His criminal record includes more than 20 arrests across the nation, for everything from rape in New York in 1998 and a stabbing in Denver in 1999 (he was acquitted of both) to animal cruelty in New Jersey in 2002 (he pleaded guilty) and numerous drug possession charges.
Simmons has done drugs for decades, mostly marijuana and cocaine. At times, he's also been a heavy drinker. When he got famous as a rapper, his manager says, people kept his missteps quiet and he tended to get off easy. But now he's in jail again for a probation violation stemming from failed drug tests, and since he's been away from the business for a while, all the media have to focus on are his repeated arrests.
But the fact that DMX is currently behind bars is only one reason his double album hasn't come out yet. There's also legal wrangling over music licenses, investors, and publishing royalties, all compounded by the fact that, after years of paying legal fees and being a free-spending rap star, DMX is virtually broke.
Over several weeks in late 2010, we were granted access to Earl Simmons, his management team, family members, and those who've worked with him on the new material. With the exception of two brief local television interviews, our access has been exclusive, right up until Simmons's most recent court date on charges of probation violation.
A lot of famous rappers from troubled backgrounds—including Lil' Wayne, T.I., and Too Short—have been jailed on various charges over the years. But DMX has sold more records in the U.S. than they have, and his rap sheet is the longest.
Many claim to find God in prison, and this guy's no exception. But DMX is different because he's clearly still straddling the fence. He's made a handful of gospel songs and says he wants to change. At the same time, he says he's "hungry and angry." And he hasn't changed. Remarkably, he doesn't seem to be faking either side.
Those close to Simmons say they're doing everything they can to help him get his life together, but he frequently ignores their advice and makes bad decisions. They all say he's had streaks of sobriety, but always backslides. They agree he has a potential hit record, but every time they get ready to release it, he gets arrested. But for some in Simmons's camp, like his manager Nakia Walker, there's more at stake than just his freedom and an amazing new album. "If we don't get Earl together," she says, "X is not gonna exist."
DMX was last released from jail last July and began to build buzz around one of his new songs, "Ya'll Don't Know." In the song, driven by dark synthesizer hooks and a slugging rhythm courtesy of renowned producer/artist Swizz Beatz, DMX raps: "The sky's the limit, so I'm reaching for the stars/I'm tired of being a nigga that they keep behind bars."
Riding radio interest, Walker started booking shows for DMX. His last public performance took place November 12, at the Venue of Scottsdale. He was on fire that night, bouncing around the stage like a man possessed, tearing through the tongue-twisters in his lyrics with intensity. To the hundreds of screaming people who watched him flawlessly perform his top-10 hits that night, it was clear that DMX was back.
Six days later, Simmons was for violating the terms of his probation (again) and sent to jail without bond (throwing a wrench into our plans to interview him at home). When Walker visits him the following week, he tells her, "I can't live like this anymore. This is crazy."
IT'S AROUND 5 on the evening of DMX's November 12 show, and he's getting ready to do a sound check inside Venue of Scottsdale. Dressed in a black shirt, long shorts, and hiking boots, he paces around the stage. Suddenly, he brings the microphone up to his mouth and hollers, "WHAT?!"
Walker, who's sitting in front of a speaker, covers her ear and winces. DMX chuckles and lowers his voice, imitating a smooth jazz radio DJ, his voice gliding through the speakers like James Earl Jones's.
"Hellooo, and welcome to a mellow evening with DMX," he says. "Tonight, we'll be playing all of your favorites, like this classic tune..."
The DJ cues the track for "Slippin'," from DMX's second album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Near the end of the song, he changes the last line of the chorus: "Hey yo I'm slippin', I'm fallin', I can't get up/Hey yo I'm slippin', I'm fallin', I gots to get up..." The music takes a sudden pause as he screams, "I want to make records but I'm fucking it up!"
According to Simmons and those closest to him, he and "X" are two different people. Simmons raises money for his church, loves his kids (all nine, from five mothers), and collects toy cars and trucks because he's still a kid inside. "X," on the other hand, frankly doesn't give a shit. He's the ruthless one, the character that steps up to smack people down when Simmons wants to hide.
Earl Simmons (no middle name) was born on December 18, 1970, in Mount Vernon, New York, the only child of Arnett Simmons and Joe Barker. His mother already had a two-year-old daughter by another man when she became pregnant with Earl. She was 19.
According to Simmons, his father, an artist, came around only when he was trying to sell paintings in New York City. In his 2002 autobiography, E.A.R.L., Simmons writes that his father "never called me on my birthday or helped raise me at all."
As a child, Simmons lived with his mother and sister in a one-bedroom apartment in Yonkers, New York. They were on welfare. He had no father figures, save for his mother's boyfriends, who rarely paid him attention.
We couldn't reach either of Simmons's parents. He reportedly hasn't spoken to his father in years, and he's estranged from his mother. "My mother beat me for every man that did her wrong, for every man that fucked her and left her," Simmons wrote in E.A.R.L.
Simmons discovered his talent for words in the third grade. One day, he ran home and proudly proclaimed, "I can spell 'Empire State Building'!" But he says his mother just glanced up and told him to run along.
So Simmons started doing other things to get attention, like fighting and throwing chairs at teachers. He was first incarcerated at age 10, when the courts sent him to a children's home for 18 months.
After Simmons returned home to his mother, he ran away often. Many nights, he slept inside the clothing bins outside a Salvation Army. By his teens, he was using drugs, stealing, and mugging people on the streets of Yonkers. Growing up poor, he never had new shoes or nice leather jackets, so when he saw a kid wearing them on the streets, he took them.
And he started taking in stray dogs. He'd look all over the neighborhood for strays, the mangier the better, sometimes following them for hours, trying to coax them to his side. The dogs became his only companions, and since dogs weren't allowed inside his apartment building, he slept with them on the roof. He would lay up there, looking up at the stars, and think how he trusted dogs more than people because dogs loved him back and would never betray him.
One day, a neighbor kid contacted animal control about Simmons's dog, Blacky, and the officers shot Blacky right in front of him. A week later, a pissed-off Simmons went to school with a sawed-off shotgun taped to his leg. He was sent to a juvenile detention facility, the first of many where he would have an extended stay.
Simmons decided he wanted to be an MC while in a juvenile institution. He was beat boxing and calling himself Beat Box Enforcer, but when he noticed the rappers getting more attention, he began writing rhymes. He called himself DMX the Great, taking his moniker from the Oberheim DMX drum machine, which he used to make his beats. He also linked the initials with the name "Darkman X"—also known as just "X"—for his shadowy side.
He battled other MCs on the streets, performed at community centers, and continued to steal and sell drugs. In 1991, he was featured in a column called "Unsigned Hype" in hip-hop magazine The Source, and in 1992, he was signed to Ruffhouse Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. But DMX's first single, "Born Loser," didn't take off, and he was released from his contract.
Around this time, Simmons was reintroduced to a woman named Tashera. Tashera and Simmons both attended Yonkers High School, but she remembers first meeting him when he was 11. "I was coming down the block, and he was taking an old lady's purse," she recalls with a chuckle.
The two were married in 1999, and had four children. Tashera says Simmons's drug use "was always a big fight," and worsened with fame and fortune. She says she noticed Simmons's "different mood swings" early in their relationship. "I started to think he had multiple personalities," she says. "There was Earl, that really, really loved me and was the person I fell in love with, and then there was this dark one, 'X,' who didn't care for me and didn't want to follow the rules."
The first time Simmons heard one of his songs on the radio, he was in jail in Valhalla, New York, on assault and battery charges. His track "Spellbound" was getting airplay on local station WBLS. After he was released, Simmons hooked up with Joaquin "Waah" Dean and his brother, Darrin Dean. Together, they formed a company called Ruff Ryders.
Ruff Ryders arranged a record deal for DMX with Def Jam Recordings. His first album, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, was released in May 1998. It debuted at number one on the Billboard chart, thanks largely to hit singles like the "Ruff Ryders Anthem."
Simmons's career flourished over the next eight years. His second album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, was released in December 1998, and also debuted at number one. He was the second rapper to have two albums debut in the top spot that year; the other was Tupac Shakur.
DMX released three more albums over the next five years: ...And Then There Was X (1999), The Great Depression (2001), and Grand Champ (2003). All debuted at number one. His last studio album, Year of the Dog...Again, was released by Columbia Records in 2006. It fell short of debuting at the number-one spot by about a hundred copies.
In between albums, Simmons starred in several movies, including Last Hour, Exit Wounds, and Romeo Must Die.
But despite his commercial success, Simmons's personal problems continued. His rap sheet, like his music, would become epic.
IN JUNE 2004, DMX made headlines when he was arrested at JFK International airport in New York. He'd reportedly tried to steal a car by the telling the driver he was an FBI agent, then crashed his SUV—containing a billy club and a bag of crack—through an airport parking-lot gate. Simmons was charged with impersonating a federal agent, possession of cocaine, possession of a weapon, criminal mischief, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and attempted carjacking. He pleaded guilty, paid several fines, and served a seven-day sentence.
He started racking up arrests in Arizona three years ago. His November arrest marked his sixth in Maricopa County. He stayed in Arizona between arrests, despite his previous vows to never return. "At one point, I think I said I'd rather fly around the state than over it," Simmons says outside Venue of Scottsdale, between puffs on a Newport cigarette. "To tell you the truth, I haven't left yet. I think I'm gonna stay. I've been in jail out here, so I guess it's home now."
Simmons had recorded his third album in Phoenix in 1999. He says he fell in love with the desert and "all the openness," and bought a house in Cave Creek. "I like to go out in the desert and ride quads. It's just me and God out there," he says.
In 2005, he permanently relocated to the outskirts of metropolitan Phoenix. Arizona was supposed to be a new beginning. He had a half-million-dollar, adobe-style home near 11 miles of open trails for riding his ATVs. He had his family, several dogs, and a brief reality show on BET called DMX: Soul of a Man. He was clean for a while, by all accounts, but at some point everything went astray again.
In August 2007, Maricopa County sheriff's deputies raided Simmons's Cave Creek home. According to court documents, they found several firearms (which Simmons was prohibited from possessing), a bag containing baggies "with a yellow rock substance," as well as three dead pit bull dogs and a dozen others in bad condition. Simmons wasn't home, and wasn't charged with anything until almost nine months later, when he was slammed with seven misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and four felony counts of drug possession.
Simmons was in New York in the weeks leading up to the raid, and says he'd hired a caretaker to look after his dogs. He says he wasn't aware until after the raid that the dogs were being checked on only once a day. The caretaker, Brad Blackwell, told sheriff's deputies he'd agreed to watch the dogs "for just a couple of days" while Simmons found another caretaker, and that he didn't want to look after them anymore.
The MCSO search log details the conditions of the dogs found on Simmons's property: Three canines had fecal matter on their legs, and four had various scars. Simmons raised many of the dogs from puppies, and reportedly even threw birthday parties for them. He says he was upset when he learned of their conditions.
Simmons skipped out on his court date in Maricopa County and went to Florida, where he was promptly arrested for driving on a suspended license. Four days later, he was arrested again in Miami, for attempting to purchase drugs from an undercover cop. Meanwhile, back in Arizona, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio told local media that as soon as Simmons stepped foot back in the state, he was going "straight to jail."
Simmons flew to Phoenix on July 2, 2008, and was immediately arrested at Sky Harbor airport. Seventeen days after posting bond, Simmons was arrested again, for allegedly providing false information to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale to avoid paying medical bills.
He pleaded guilty to four of the charges stemming from the raid on his home, and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 18 months of supervised probation. During his time in jail, he was placed in solitary confinement for allegedly throwing a food tray at a guard.
Simmons was released on probation in late April 2009. Everything seemed fine until 11 months later, when he was arrested after a drug test came back positive for cocaine. He pleaded guilty to violating his probation and got six months in jail. "It was a pretty good stretch," Simmons says. "At least I was in the AC."
He was released early for good behavior in July, after serving four months. A couple of weeks later, Tashera Simmons announced that the couple was separating after 11 years of marriage. She cited Simmons's years of drug use and legal battles, along with the fact that he fathered children by other women outside their marriage. But she tells us that the two are still on good terms.
Now separated from his wife, Simmons says he's trying to focus on himself and do positive things. Before he got arrested in November, he'd planned to participate in a December charity event to raise $500 each for 20 Phoenix families in need.
He's also trying to strengthen his relationship with God. "I read the entire Bible in lockdown," he says. Asked what he got out of that, he says simply, "Peace."
Simmons has lyrics, dating back to the beginning of his career, that describe an intense love-hate relationship with God.
On his 1998 album Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood there's a song called "Ready to Meet Him," where DMX talks directly to God: "I thought that I was special—that's what you told me/Hold me! Stop acting like you don't know me/What'd I do so bad that it sent you away from me?"
When Simmons started attending Morning Star Sanctified Church in Phoenix last year, Pastor Barbara King had no idea he was "the famous rapper DMX." He was just "Brother Earl," who helped fix things around the church and asked for prayer. She says in all the time she's known him, he's only used a cuss word around her once—and then apologized profusely. He even performed a gospel concert fundraiser at the church last April, where he alternated between rapping and preaching.
"If you listen to his prayers and the hurt inside him, he is crying out for help," King says. "He's a great person, someone you can depend on...he does know the word of God. He just needs deliverance."
As part of trying to get his life together, Simmons turned himself in to authorities in Los Angeles last July, for a reckless driving charge he received in 2002. He served 18 days of a 90-day sentence.
MANY OF THE new DMX songs were written and recorded on the first take, right after he heard the beats for the first time.
"He is truly one of the world's greatest rappers and a genuine poet," says Don Salter, owner of Salt Mine Recordings in Mesa, where DMX recorded Walk with Me Now and Fly with Me Later. "He has a spontaneous ability to rhyme, reason, and record masterpieces on the fly."
Many of the new songs reflect on DMX's chaotic life in Arizona. Perhaps most haunting is the track "Soldier," which begins with a collage of sound bites from news stations about his various arrests, laid down over a melancholy piano hook and marching beat. In the first verse, DMX raps: "Ran through the streets, made it out of NY/Come to AZ, cowboys trying to end my/Man, you can't be serious homie/Besides mountains, ain't a fucking thing you can show me."
Other new songs address his relationship with God. Fly with Me Later consists entirely of gospel hip-hop songs. In one of them, "Have You Eva," he raps about struggles we all face over R&B music and soulful female backing vocals: "Have you ever seen something that you wanted so bad?/Then you got it and wished it was something you never had? Don't beat yourself up like 'Where did I go wrong?'/Just get back up, pray on it, and go on."
Many of the tracks feature beats contributed by Swizz Beatz, the nephew of Waah and Darrin Dean of Ruff Ryders. Beatz sold his first beat to DMX when he was 17. He's gone on to produce music for Beyoncé and Busta Rhymes, and now runs his own label, Full Surface Records.
When Beatz initially sent the music, DMX had been out of jail for a while. "He was very diligent at being clean and maintaining his sobriety. He was very clear-headed," Salter says. "I think he really did buy into the idea that he was going to get his life together and get his career back."
But by 2010, Simmons's career had fallen apart. He'd left the Def Jam label in 2003. For years, Simmons claimed he left because the new president of Def Jam, Jay-Z, wasn't promoting his albums. Others in Simmons's camp, like his manager Nakia Walker, say Jay-Z let Simmons go so he could deal with his problems, and didn't demand the $2 million Simmons would have owed for not fulfilling his contract.
Simmons signed to Bodog Music in 2007 to record and release Walk with Me Now and Fly with Me Later. After Bodog Music shut down in 2008, International Arts Management and Her Royal Majesty's Records retained the rights to the songs. According to IAM CEO Peter Karroll, the plan is still to release the record.
"I've always felt the guy was a creative genius and deserved another shot," Karroll says. "This is a big record. I think this album has the potential to take him back to number one."
Karoll says he's received several investor offers, but negotiations collapse every time DMX lands in jail. Ideally, Simmons could buy his licenses back, but he doesn't have the money. Somebody who's sold millions of albums could conceivably live off publishing royalties, but Simmons admits he never looked at his finances during the first 10 years of his career.
When Walker came on board and looked at Simmons's business papers last year, she says she discovered someone has been stealing his royalties for more than a decade.
On April 26, 2010, Simmons filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court against Rich Kid Entertainment, a company he'd hired in 1999 to collect his royalties. The lawsuit alleges that instead of taking the 10 percent cut its contract dictated, Rich Kid pocketed 100 percent of Simmons's publishing profits.
The lawsuit is still pending. Walker says she's busy putting out plenty of other fires, including promoters threatening to sue over concerts DMX missed because he was incarcerated.
Walker says she's doing everything she can to keep Simmons focused on positive things. "We're reaching out to Swizz [Beatz]. Busta Rhymes is calling, he wants to help. Flavor Flav is calling, he wants to help,'" Walker says. "And I'm not lying to people. I'm telling them, 'He needs help. It's time we address it. It's time we come together and save his life. Or else he's going to die.'"
DURING HIS HIGH-ENERGY performance last November in Scottsdale, DMX took a break to talk to the crowd. What he said—and the fact that someone in the audience videotaped it—could be a major blow to his comeback aspirations.
"New York to AZ, niggas must be craz-y, I'm a dog—fuck Jay-Z! Ya hear? Ya hear?"
"I need a little feedback," he continues. "What do ya'll think is the state of the record industry right now? You know, I'm an artist, so I kind of have biased views, but I think most of those niggas suck. I think they not only suck, but they suck dick."
The video of DMX's outburst hit the internet that night. By the next afternoon, it had gone viral, and his "Fuck the Industry/Fuck Jay-Z" speech was the talk of countless hip-hop forums.
Ironically, Swizz Beatz had released DMX's new single, "Ya'll Don't Really Know," that day, and was getting positive feedback. He told Walker that Jay-Z had even approached him about maybe doing something with DMX before he heard about the video.
Beatz defended DMX in an interview with Vladtv.com. "There's no problem with DMX, with Jay," he said. "X is forever my brother...he's had this trouble in his life that nobody cared about when he wasn't successful."
Walker says DMX has "no problem" apologizing to Jay-Z. "They don't have any ill intentions toward one another," Walker says. "The reason Earl did that, and this is something that came out of his mouth, is because it rhymed with 'AZ,' and it got a roar out of the crowd."
Shortly after Simmons was sent to jail, he stopped granting us interviews. According to Walker, he wanted to wait until after his sentencing on the probation violation charges.
"I'M STILL THE project, huh?"
Earl Simmons is dressed in the black-and-white striped suit of a Maricopa County prison inmate, with the word "Unsentenced" in red on his back, talking to a photographer. It's just after 8 a.m. on a Thursday morning in December, and he's handcuffed in a downstairs courtroom of the jail.
This is Simmons's probation revocation hearing. Though he's often had bags under his eyes and stubble on his face lately, Simmons looks rested, thinner than he was a month ago.
When the proceedings start, Simmons pleads guilty to a felony probation violation. Judge Christine Mulleneaux, who presided over Simmons's previous probation violation case, accepts the plea.
But she adds, "His substance abuse issues are at the root of this problem. He's been on some type of substance since he was 14."
Simmons's probation violation report shows he admitted using cocaine on August 12, and again on October 20. Drug tests were positive for cocaine on October 12, 15, and 25. He failed to show up for his drug test on October 28. "You went on a downward spiral," Mullenueax tells Simmons. "Your criminal history goes back to 1988. It's going to continue if you don't take care of your mental health."
In the courtroom, Simmons's supporters are praying. Pastor Barbara King is here, along with a woman who's holding one hand on the Bible and the other up toward Simmons, whispering from the Book of Psalms.
The judge asks Simmons if he has anything to say. He bows his head. "I did make the effort that I could," he says. "And I appreciate any help you can give me."
Mulleneaux delivers the sentence: one year in jail, minus 113 days already served. Simmons casts a disappointed glance at his attorney, but raises his head high. Though he's received the maximum sentence for his offense, he got nearly four months shaved off right away. If he can be a model prisoner, he might get out early.
Four days after he was sentenced, Simmons was admitted to the Flamenco Mental Health ward at the Alhambra prison complex (where he remains) and denied visitors for 30 days. His mental health, particularly the long-circulated rumor that he has bipolar disorder, was not something Simmons would comment on during interviews for this story, saying only, "That's way too personal."
After the news that he'd been moved to the mental health ward, Nakia Walker issued this statement: "He is not crazy! Earl's stay inside of the Flamenco Prison Complex in Arizona, as weird as it may sound, will be beneficial. Does he deserve to be caged in a cell? No! That's why he's not! He sleeps in a dorm that is complemented with doctors, medical attention, and treatment."
Back at the sentencing, as he's being fingerprinted, Simmons turns to the handful of court spectators. He smiles at them. Walker is wiping tears from her eyes.
As he's led out the steel door, Simmons says, "Yo, I'll be out in two and a half, three months, all right?"
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