"...As superthugs go, DMX is the most interesting, because he doesn't glamorize the gangsta lifestyle. Produced by Ruff Ryders chief soundboy Swizz Beatz, "One More Road To Cross" has the accursed, burdened heft of Blacks Sabbath and Flag--a perfect fit for DMX's stoic description of a carefully planned liquor store heist that goes bloodily wrong. "The Professional" is a bleak glimpse into the mind of a hired assassin ("Shit ain't go too well/THAT'S MY LIFE/Know I'm going to hell/THAT'S MY LIFE") while the betrayal-and-retribution themed "Here We Go Again" starts with the insuperably fatigued murmur "Same old shit, dog/Just a different day". This vision of thug life as agony, repetition, and endurance is communicated as much through DMX's hoarse rasping timbre (pure Ozzy/Rollins) and his flow (alternating between pay-close-attention-this-is-hard-earned-knowledge-I'm-sharing slow to rapid-fire blurts like he's got too much pain to cram into the rhyme-scheme's stanzas.)"
[from a review of And Then There Was X alongside records by Jay-Z, The Lox, Juvenile)
WE ARE FAMILY: the Rise of the Rap Clans and the Hip Hop Dynasty
director's cut, New York Times,
When rapper DMX accepted a trophy
at the Billboard Music Awards last year, he took the stage flanked by a squad
of fellow artists from the Ruff Ryders label. It's hard to imagine anyone in
rock doing this---Trent Reznor, say, menacingly surrounded by the roster of his label Nothing. But in
hip hop, such shows of collective strength are growing more common, as rap labels increasingly style themselves as
families. Like the mafia families whose
The idea of the rap group as a blood-brotherhood was pioneered in the mid-Nineties by the Wu-Tang Clan, the ten-strong band of MCs centered around producer the RZA. While the lyrics and cover art self-mythologized the group as warrior priests wielding arcane knowledge and encrypted language as weapons against power, the Wu-Tang Clan simultaneously operated as a shrewd entertainment corporation, signing its members to solo deals with different record companies and diversifying into all manner of Wu-branded merchandizing offshoots: clothing, a comic book, a website, the video-game Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style. So iconic was the Clan's logo at the group's 1997 height of prestige and popularity that rap paper The Source could feel secure about using it as their cover image, rather than a recognizable celebrity face.
Wu-Tang's branding strategy was taken further still by Master P.'s label No Limit, whose assembly-line turnover of releases all have instantly recognisable cover art (garishly hyper-real "ghetto fabulous" tableaux created by design team Pen & Pixel) to match the identikit New Orleans gangsta sound of the records. Ironically, the Pen & Pixel look has been appropriated by countless second-division hardcore rap labels, hoping to get accidental sales from fans picking up unheard what they assume is a debut from the latest recruit to the "No Limit army". Master P. also goes in for diversification in a big way, building a business empire reputedly worth $361 million through No Limits toys, clothing, and a series of inexpensively made straight-to-video movies.
Influenced by Master P.'s acumen, Cash Money and Ruff Ryders have their own movies in production. And both labels have imitated No Limit's strategy of market saturation and hitting while you're hot. DMX has released three albums in barely more than eighteen months, and the first two months of 2000 has seen a flurry of Ruff Ryders debuts from The Lox and Drag-On, with a new Swizz Beatz compilation and Lox-man Jadakiss's own solo album soon to follow.
Lyrically, DMX avoids two of gangsta rap's staples---flaunting wealth and abusing women-- to focus almost exclusively on loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. His yearning for a surrogate family is expressed through an obsession with dogs strikingly different from the incorrigibly lecherous canine persona adopted by George Clinton circa "Atomic Dog". DMX's use of the term "dog" to refer to himself and his clique stems from admiration for the way wild dogs run in packs and domesticated dogs give their owner's unconditional love. In song after song, DMX insists "I will die for my dogs". He imagines this canine fraternity becoming a kind of pedigreed dynasty: "My dogs, the beginning of this bloodline of mine".
DMX's doom-and-gloomy imagery--album titles like It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, songs like "The Omen"-- has as much in common with angst-wracked industrial and heavy metal artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Korn as with other rappers. A crucial aspect of his Gothic imagery is what the philosopher Michel Foucault called "the Medieval symbolics of blood", as seen in the title of DMX's second album Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Thicker than water but easily spilled, "blood" is a highly charged word in DMX's vocabulary. Its ambivalence condenses gangsta rap's violently polarized emotions, the way it's forever oscillating between love and hate, loyalty and skullduggery, unity and dog-eat-dog struggle.
Gangsta rappers have found a
reflection of these hot-blooded passions in
The cinematic representation of
Mafia history in films like The Godfather and Goodfellas often involves an
ultimately fatal tension between family loyalty and business logic, as Medieval
values imported from
Still, for some at least, the thick-like-blood rhetoric is for real. DMX, in particular, regards loyalty as a transcendent value. In a hyper-capitalistic world where market forces tear asunder all forms of solidarity and everybody has their price , he claims: "They do it for the dough/Me I do it for the love". In a skit on his third chart-topping album ... And Then There Was X, an unidentified hanger-on declares he'll do anything to get the money he desperately needs. DMX issues a stern reprimand: "Dog, you got to think about loyalty first, know wha' I'm saying? You got loyalty, money will come. You got a lot to learn."