DMX was a non-stop growling and barking hit factory back in the nineties and into the new millennium. The fifth best-selling rapper of all time? Five back to back #1 albums on Billboard? When local promoters Amaza Show brought him to the Marriott in Coralville to head up a bill, I was excited.
Memories stirred of riding around in my friend’s Toyota minivan, affectionately called the Toaster, bumping the Rough Ryder king’s first few albums on the tapedeck. The ultimate accolade for a rapper, in my opinion, is frequent use of the rewind button, and DMX got that out of us (…did he just say he fucked a corpse?) X was known for dynamic, raw rhymes over beats from the hottest producers out there. His wild invocations of street corner violence and the promise of eternal damnation that flowed out of it were fresh, and his delivery was unparalleled. He wailed, growled and gnashed his teeth all over a track—nobody sounded quite like him, and he didn’t need to try and sound like anybody else. It’s notable that the one rapper who had a sort-of similar flow, Ja Rule, got singled out and harassed into entertainment industry nonexistence by 50 Cent – 50 knew better than to try and take on X himself.
After years of legal, chemical, spiritual and label trouble, I was curious how DMX, who turns 39 on December 18th, would perform. He’s not the hungry youngster who was crowned Unsigned Hype by The Source in 1991, back when The Source was a publication that mattered. There shouldn’t have been even a shadow of a doubt in my mind – X came out swinging, on time, and in prime form. He ravaged a set of his classic cuts, and fans were screaming the lyrics along with him. His delivery was as good as it had ever been, and his presence was so dynamic that he didn’t need a hype man to fill in for him.
Between songs like “Party Up in Here” and “How’s it Going Down” he would repeat his mantra, FLESH OF MY FLESH, BLOOD OF MY BLOOD or just growl. He took liberal sips from a fifth of Hennessy and dumped about half of it out on the stage for his dead homies. It was a tour de force performance. While the crowd itself was sparse – location being the reason, most likely – X gave his all, and they responded with screaming and throwing up the cross-armed X back to the stage.
The show was organized by local promoter Tanki Nyane and his partner Sid the Kid, who scored a coup this fall with their knockout show featuring Yung Joc at the Industry (r.i.p!). Excitement was high for this performance, and once again their professionalism showed with able, professional security and screening, and quick, constant moves from opener to dj to opener to dj to headliner.
X himself didn’t disappoint either, but the people surrounding him, managers, handlers and various industry types, did their best to dampen spirits. After many promises (over the course of several days) of interviews and availabilities, they gave the press about five minutes with DMX the night of the show. Then they had a nerdy kid from KCRG ask the questions. The guy was nice enough, having admitted to me before the press briefing that he had for years “hated music” and had been shown the light by Aerosmith; however, after he asked if DMX is a Hawkeye fan, you could hear the sound of eyes rolling around the room in unison.
Actual Iowa City hip-hop press got maybe three questions in to the man himself before his handlers hustled him out of the room. The same handlers had a goon squad of sub-5-foot tall oompa loompas who went around during the show stopping fans from recording any video with their phones, and harassing the local photographers (including one from Little Village, there on official invite) into leaving. All this was allegedly because lawyers for DMX advised as much.
Apparently superstar legal advice consists of “don’t let footage of your incredible performance leak out.” This is not how you reinvigorate a previously multi-platinum career, folks. This is how you leave a man stranded in Arizona (where DMX lives now) struggling to find a label to release his next album. You don’t let your management company put up unknown and completely generic opening acts like Lucky Lansky on the bill—his performance was lackluster, and his stage presence and rhymes utterly forgettable.
DMX obviously still has the talent and energy of a star, and if he can get himself free from the quicksand of people that surround him, he might be on top of the heap again soon.