Rapper DMX’s ‘It’s Dark and Hell is Hot,’ a quarter century later
The debut album solidified DMX’s legacy
In January 1999, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson — less than two years removed from his infamous ear-biting debacle with Evander Holyfield — sauntered toward the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for a bout with Francois Botha. Tyson had always been known for his intimidating entrance music. This particular time, though, the announcer made note of the song, calling it, “scary, imposing music.”
Tyson’s choice that night was the intro to DMX‘s genre-shifting, landmark debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.
Listening to the album in 1998, and the years after, always felt like the beginning of a story. It was an origin tale — one 27 years in the making at the time. It made us wonder how a man named Earl Simmons survived abject poverty, deep-seated trust issues from childhood abuse and abandonment, the war on drugs, New York’s suffocating violence and overpolicing, and his street wars to transform into DMX, who, in his own words, did “not give a f—.”
Those close to him, like Ruff Ryders founders Chivon Dean and her brothers Joaquin “Waah” and Darrin “Dee” Dean, knew DMX possessed immense talent and vulnerability. The problem is they weren’t so sure he’d live to see the project’s release date because of his heavy involvement in the streets in New York and Baltimore. The solution was to send him to North Carolina to finish the album. It was for his own safety — and that of others.
Now, we know it was the beginning of DMX’s story. But we also know how the story ended. Which makes the album and the pain DMX exudes all the more harrowing, inspiring and heartbreaking. It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is a master class on the limits of what the human spirit and Black body can endure.
Much has been made about the nefarious energy DMX’s music brought to hip-hop. The wounds from the killings of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were still fresh when It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot was released on May 19, 1998. Back then, Jay-Z was the street-savvy, laid-back hustler whom DMX had battled in one of the most storied New York City freestyle cyphers. Jay-Z was becoming more and more of a household name, but not yet the international icon he would become. Meanwhile, Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records had crowned itself the emperor of upbeat, crossover success. DMX was the antithesis of that. He wasn’t rapping over flowery R&B samples. He wasn’t rocking designer clothes. Initially, labels were hesitant to sign DMX. He was too street. His music was melancholy and dark. According to Murder Inc. CEO Irv Gotti, Jay-Z was even initially unsure if DMX could ever resonate beyond the grimy street corners that birthed his music.
But it didn’t take long until DMX’s music spread like a wildfire. In part because it wasn’t just art. This was DMX’s life.
“What must I go through to show you s— is real?/ And I ain’t really gave a f— how n— feel,” DMX spewed with the intensity of a thousand suns on “Get At Me Dog.” “Rob and I steal, not ’cause I want to, ’cause I have to/ And don’t make me show you what the MAC do.”
While not all of his fans could relate to his life, that sense of desperation was spiritual.
Still, after debuting at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and selling more than 250,000 copies in its first week, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot would help DMX take over the industry and be played in all parts of the world. But make no mistake, the chaotic and often dangerous environments he navigated in New York City — and miraculously survived — is where the foundation of the album lies.
In the 1990s, the Tunnel, once dubbed by Complex as “the biggest club in hip-hop history,” was ground zero for anything that mattered in the city’s hip-hop universe. If you were an artist, your eagerness to perform had to match your willingness to fight, because at the Tunnel, the probability of both happening was extremely high. Like the city itself, the Manhattan club was divided. Brooklyn on one side. Queens on the other. Folks from Harlem and the Bronx crowded into their own corners. Somewhere lodged in between would be DMX and his Ruff Ryders squad. Reportedly, DMX rapped while his jaw was wired shut to secure his first record deal with Def Jam, so he didn’t mind fighting. It had been what his life had been about up to that point — and all those punches would have serious consequences the older he became. But as summer was starting to hit the city in 1998, DMX was the soundtrack to the toxic male energy that swirled through the Tunnel and beyond.
“I’ve never been in Rikers Island locked up, but I’ve had to go visit. [The Tunnel] felt like you was getting checked in [to jail] because they would make you clank your boots,” said VIBE editor-in-chief Datwon Thomas. When It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot dropped, he was an editor at XXL magazine. “To see that DMX ‘Get At Me Dog’ video like that with the lights strobing and everything, that was the Tunnel, man. It was just vicious as hell in there.”
Looking back now, DMX living to age 50 was shocking. To himself and to the legions of fans who understood him, the pain in his art wasn’t merely entertainment. In his later years, arrests and jail time for a litany of crimes came to overshadow a music career that had long since seen its apex. Nevertheless, on It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot DMX is preaching, but not about the afterlife. The album is his testimony about how he survived long enough to spread his own rage-fueled gospel to the world.
Hence why “X is Coming” or “Look Thru My Eyes” carry such potency. They’re mission records. “Walk in my shoes, hurt your feet,” he confessed on the latter. “Then know why I do dirt in the street.” These songs came with their own ski masks, as DMX vividly and explicitly described what it felt like to look death in the eyes and not blink. He was a self-proclaimed antagonist with a protagonist’s appeal. DMX’s ability to go bar for bar with Mase and The Lox on his song “N— Done Started Something” — much like he did on Mase’s “24 Hours To Live” and The Lox’s “Money, Power, Respect” — showed that DMX wasn’t just some novelty act whose energy carried him across the finish line. DMX could hold his own with anyone. And he even wrote love songs.
On “How’s It Goin’ Down,” he raps about sleeping with a woman who’s fed up with her partner and begins moving drugs for DMX. While DMX says her man suspects something is going on between them (and even mistakenly attacked another man, believing he was DMX), ultimately he tells the woman he won’t kill her partner because he respects her too much. And though he’s sad to see her go, he’s also at peace when the fling runs its course. It’s the morality of infidelity, told in a way that only DMX could.
Life was never really easy on DMX. A lot of times, it was of his own doing. But mostly, it’s just the way the cards were dealt. His childhood in Mount Vernon and Yonkers, New York, was defined by poverty and abuse, by his mother and others. Love was inconsistent. The search for self was always consistent. That journey came with escaping from juvenile correctional facilities, struggling with addiction, battling poverty, and far more. In full, DMX was said to have been jailed more than 30 times. Before the fame, he viewed incarceration as “a playground.”
This all had to be exorcised in some capacity. For a long time it came out in the streets. But where it was best used was in the music. “Listed as a manic-depressive with extreme paranoia/ Hey dog, I got something for ya,” he raps on “Fuckin’ Wit D.” “Hear my name, feel my pain/ N— wanna steal my fame/ But first, feel my reign.“ It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot wasn’t recorded in plush, top-of-the-line studios. If the Tunnel was DMX’s stage, then Vacant Lot in Harlem was the laboratory. There, an endless supply of weed, alcohol and several pitbulls running rampant helped birth what Pitchfork called “the Dante’s Inferno of rap.”
“It was like going into a musical crack house, you know what I’m saying?” Thomas, who sat in a few studio sessions with DMX around the time he was working on the album. “That aggression is all around him when he stepped out the booth, or in it. That’s what you’re getting with It’s Dark and Hell is Hot.”
“The Devil got a hold on me, and he won’t let go/ I can feel the Lord pullin’, but he movin’ dead slow,” DMX opined on the Phil Collins-sampled “I Can Feel It.” Let ’em know that amidst all this confusion/ Some of us may do the winnin’/ But we all do the losin’…”
To be a fan of DMX is to be overprotective of him. That doesn’t mean ignoring his flaws because it was his flaws that endeared him to millions. Most of his fans didn’t grow up like him. But the feeling of continuing to fight when all hope seems lost is relatable. That’s what DMX represented, and that’s the perspective he rapped from on It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.
Even as his musical output dimmed over the course of the 2000s. Even as DMX became known more for the negative headlines about his transgressions than hit records. And especially in the final months of his life, DMX gave fans hope that he’d finally found peace, that maybe the next half-century would be easier than his first 50 years.
“Over the years, his antics — his personal life, his spiral down into the drugs, and everything else, that hurt his musical career — never hurt how the people loved him,” said Thomas. “To understand X is to understand the way that Black people love you through your traumas.”
In the final year of his life, DMX was attempting to find the happiness that so obviously eluded him before and after It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot dropped. Despite all of his challenges, DMX seemed to find peace in his connection to a higher power. Throughout the album, DMX had conversations with “Damien” (Satan in no uncertain terms) and begged God for forgiveness for all the wrong he’d done in his life. On the final song on Exodus, DMX’s final album, which was released posthumously in May 2021, DMX also asked God to free him from whatever sins lay before him. It was this same vulnerability about his struggles with depression, addiction, and his spiritual conviction that made It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot such a complex album.
“The album brought a new aspect to this Black thug, whatever the hell you want to call it. It was like, ‘Oh, s—, they could be spiritual too?’ That means they have a soul,” said Thomas. “That means that they’re connected to something higher than them. This dude is talking about killing something, but then he is also talking about how God has to save them and save us.”
DMX never stopped searching for peace in life, but his struggles never left. Still, he never stopped trying to humanize himself. On April 9, 2021, DMX died from a cocaine-induced heart attack. Since then, the hole he left in rap hasn’t been filled.
Nevertheless, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot is an artifact for a reason. DMX’s music wasn’t just “scary” or “imposing” as that fight announcer claimed. Both of those labels were accurate. Yet, as hip-hop examines itself during the year of its 50th anniversary, the album represents an uncomfortable honesty that very few projects in the genre’s half-century of existence have ever matched.
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is a cry for help. It’s a cry for forgiveness. And it’s all based on the premise that DMX could fall back into the life he somehow got to rap about at a moment’s notice. The album changed DMX’s life for the better — but he never fully escaped the same demons that went into making his music.
How we talk about our pain, our anger and the experiences both create are conversations DMX didn’t start, but moved forward. They are also conversations, particularly in hip-hop, that just simply can’t be had without him either.