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The end of an era



For those that grew up in the 1990’s, the advent of modern rap and hip-hop genres in music meant the birth of a new school of thought in Black Consciousness. Up in your face, the genre did not refrain from the use of expletives to pass the message on to the lower middle class and poor classes in societies across the world. For the first time in decades the downtrodden could have a voice to speak against the economic oppression churned by the system at the expense of those that had been proven by the events in history as the perpetually disadvantaged of society. The system had conveniently shut out the voices of the poor by creating projects and systems in place for the sake of ensuring that the class structures of the slavery era went on operating despite the declarations of emancipation that had been made over the decades. With gold chains, gold dental caps, oversized parka jackets, baseball caps, basketball shirts, and baggy jeans, the hip-hop star of the 1990’s ushered in a new era not only in music but in the minds of those that listened to the violent staccato of verses covering the experiences of the poor and the downtrodden in American and other low-income countries and societies. This new culture would go on to spread and influence the youth in the various ghettoes scattered across the world. For the first time in history, the youth growing up in projects, townships, and shantytowns would grow up wanting to be like their hip-hop icons; living large with semi-nude ladies in entourage with rivers of the most expensive cognacs flowing and heaps of American dollars thrown around for the masses to drool over in the music videos. Timberland boots, Hennessey cognac, Benjamins (100 dollar) bills, semi-nude ladies and parties that lasted all weekend or all week became the new ambition for many of us living on the lower rungs of society. One remembers buying the same brands of baggy jeans the hip-hop artists wore, FUBU shirts, baseball caps, shades, the same brand perfumes sold in the name of these hip-hop artists, and even referring to each other as ‘nigger’ in line with the parlance used in the lyrics of the hip-hop tracks. From NWA to Master P to MC Hammer, Wu Tang Clan to Run DMC, Tupac Shakur to Biggie Smalls, Heavy D to Busta Rhymes, Methodman to Redman, hip-hop had just shouted itself into the fray and it was willing to leave no prisoners in its quest to conscientise the masses about the social realities of not only the poor but was willing to go the extra mile to challenge the layout and the hierarchies in the system. When Earl Simmons, born on the 18th of December, 1970 who recently passed on the 9th of April, 2021 and was popularly known by his stage name DMX (“Dark Man X”), burst on to the American rap scene as a prolific songwriter, and actor in the early 1990s and released his debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot in 1998, it was to both critical acclaim and commercial success, selling 251 000 copies within its first week of release. DMX would follow this debut album with the release of Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood which would in turn be followed by his third and best-selling album, And Then There Was X, in 1999, which included the hit single “Party Up (Up in Here)” that became an anthem for the youth of the world and would even gain the following of a largely white audience at the Woodstock festival. Success would follow in the 2003 singles “Where the Hood At?” and “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” were also commercially successful. His fourth album, The Great Depression was released on October the 23rd, 2001 and was his fourth album to debut at number one on the Billboard 200, featuring the singles “Who We Be”, “We Right Here”, and “Shorty Was The Bomb”. His fifth album, Grand Champ, released in September 2003, once again debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 charts, placing DMX as the only musical artist in history to release an album at No. 1 five times in a row on the Billboard 200 charts, selling over 74 million records worldwide overall. Not only talented in music DMX got acting roles in films such as Belly, Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, Cradle 2 the Grave, and Last Hour. In 2006, he starred in the reality television series DMX: Soul of a Man, which was primarily aired on the BET cable television network. In 2003, he published a book of his memoirs entitled, E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX. A biographical account states that Earl Simmons was born on December 18, 1970, with various accounts giving his birthplace as either Baltimore, Maryland or Mount Vernon, New York. He was the second child of 19-year-old Arnett Simmons and 18-year-old Joe Barker. His father was an artist who painted watercolor paintings of street scenes to sell at local fairs. Barker moved to Philadelphia and was largely absent from his life. As a child, Simmons suffered greatly from bronchial asthma resulting in his being taken to the emergency room almost nightly. DMX was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness but became disillusioned with the faith in his teens. An insurance representative went to his house to try and reach an agreement to prevent his family from suing the drunk driver, and Simmons claims he was told that his family could have been awarded a settlement of $10,000 and possibly even more for the injuries he sustained. His mother rejected the settlement. It is said that DMX spent a tough childhood that included being beaten by his mother and her various boyfriends so badly that he lost teeth and sustained numerous bruises and cuts on his face. It is said that, “Due to poverty, he slept on the floor with roaches and mice crawling over him in the night. When Simmons was five years old, his family settled into the School Street Projects in Yonkers, New York. When he was six years old, his mother knocked out two of his teeth with a broom after he innocently erased something in her notebook… In what he described as a defining moment of betrayal, his mother tricked him by telling him they were just visiting the home, then she enrolled him there. A few months later, he was arrested for arson in an attempt to burn the school down. He nearly killed his co-conspirator.” This quote sums the early years of DMX who at 14 began living on the streets of Yonkers to escape his mother’s abuse, often sleeping in Salvation Army clothing bins and befriending stray dogs, the memory and love of which is heard in his songs as a background to the lyrics. With his delinquent behaviour worsening, his mother sent him to a group home and during his stay there, Simmons bonded with other students from New York over their shared love of hip hop music. After performing for his friends, they encouraged Simmons to continue writing music and the behest of his teacher he penned his music. It was after his return home, that he met Ready Ron, a local rapper, who was impressed with his beat-boxing skills and asked him to become his partner. Simmons chose the name “DMX”, which came from an instrument he had used at the boys’ home, the Oberheim DMX drum machine that would later be interpreted as “Dark Man X” that was perhaps inspired by the Malik Alshbazz’s “Malcolm X” moniker. Biographical details state that as a freshman at Yonkers Middle High School, DMX was the second-fastest in the track and field varsity team. What however affected his sponsorship chances was that he had bad grades and a poor class attendance record. From here it was downhill as a biographical report states, “He turned to robbery as a way to get out of poverty: his first was a purse snatch theft in Yonkers that netted him $1,000, which he used to buy a new leather dog collar and dog harness for his dog, and a pair of Timbalands for himself. By the end of the year, he attended school just to rob people and was robbing 3 people per day. He then turned to carjacking.” It was in 1988, while in prison for carjacking that he began dedicating almost all of his free time to writing lyrics and also meeting and rapping with K-Solo. When DMX was released from jail that summer, he began producing and selling his own mix-tapes where he rapped over instrumentals from other songs (the now popularly known as ‘sampling’ technique adopted by other genres). He would then sell the tapes on street corners, which helped him build a local fan base all over New York. It is said that in 1991, The Source magazine praised DMX in its Unsigned Hype column that highlighted unsigned hip-hop artists and in 1992, Columbia Records signed DMX to its subsidiary label Ruffhouse Records, which released his debut single “Born Loser” that was followed by his second single, “Make a Move” in 1994. Always kind of deep due to the experiences in his early life, DMX ran on the belief that one should not believe everything they heard, that they should not believe everything they read and that one should only believe half of what they see. In a sense he was a role model of sorts, and despite the relapses he encountered the entire breadth of his brief life, he lived according to the simple philosophy that, “If you’re influencing people, I think you should consider life is too precious to have them chasing the wrong things. Don’t give them jewelry, give them jewels.” Humble to the core, DMX believed one should never at any point see themselves as a superstar, because in a sense: all of us are human at the most basic and therefore, we should see each other as equals. An article published on April 12 by Preezy Brown states, “Damn, DMX, where do we begin? Well, a good place to start would be to send our condolences and well wishes to your family and close friends, who allowed us to experience so much of you through their own sacrifice. The day you left was a reminder that time is fleeting and we never know how much of it we have left on the clock. So, the fact that you chose to spend a chunk of it with your fans makes us forever indebted.” It is true that death is inevitable, and it hits one particularly hard when its arrival is sudden; it as if we never conceive the idea of life as an experience that has death walking by one’s side at all times. It is particularly hard to conceive the simple reality that legends too die like we do at some point in time; grown immortal they have in our minds that the whole idea they will pass like we do seems an impossibility in our psyche. However, there is that moment when the initial shock and reality of a legend’s passing settles in and acceptance of death is the only comfort left. This is the point where one realises that the person is gone in the physical, and that only their contributions and energy are all that remains in the world of the living. The legacy DMX left runs deep in the minds of those that got to listen to the lyrics he sang in his verses, even though they never really got to make the acquaintance in person. The life of the boy that grew up on the streets of Yonkers, New York where he grappled and fought on a daily basis is reflected in the lives of those that have to go through a similar struggle on dusty streets of shantytowns and villages of the Third World. His upbringing may have been less than storybook, what with the stints in juvenile detention homes, and later, prisons and other facilities where he began to understand himself, however displays the heart, grit, and determination we the poor children need to open doors down the usually unfriendly road of life the poor of the world have to travel. His reputation as a hard rock precedes his early suffering, and his skills as a beatboxer opened up to a whole new world for many of the youth that got to really listen: that they too would make it, for better and for worse. DMX helped spark the love of the hip-hop culture and the culture continues to grow even after his last dying breath. He was in short the best of the best, the cream of the crop whose reputation as the only artist to have five consecutive albums debuting at No. 1 can never be surpassed. Growl all the way home dog. You were the best pick of the litter hound. Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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