by Andrew Matson & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ith all this talk about the ownership of New York's hip-hop crown, it's tough to choose between Nas, Jay-Z and Ghostface. Tougher still is remembering a time when it seemed rational to suggest DMX for the throne. But think back and recall that DMX, our favorite weightlifting, cigarette-smoking, gravel-voiced preacher, was once a contender.
& r & The Dark Man growled his way onto the scene near the end of the millennium with a frighteningly masculine charisma and iconic bark, but won our hearts with his a cappella sermonizing and brilliant kinship with dangerous dogs. At a time when Nas and Jay-Z were making some of the simplest, most materialistic, and worst songs of their career, DMX was down in the dirt with the masses, and his gritty passion was a real alternative to mainstream rap's trend du jour: glassy-eyed overindulgence. It was kind of like the BET version of the old Nirvana/Hair Metal dichotomy.
& r & Ironic then that DMX's most convincing bid for royalty came shortly after his co-starring role (along with Nas) in Hype Williams' magnum opus, Belly. A major visual usher for rap's most materialistic era, Williams' directing style can be described as flashiness in HD. The man who immortalized Puffy's shiny suits and Jigga's yacht parties went all out on Belly, drenching the thing in color and dazzle. Shot like a grandiose music video, the film's performances came mostly from hip-hop artists (including T-Boz and Method Man). It's still worth viewing for visual spectacle alone, if not to remember a time when Nas' "f--k crime, let's go to Africa" idea was intended to seem deep. In many ways, Belly perfectly defines the decadent era of rap that birthed DMX's career, and it will survive into the future as a memory of hip-hop's tumultuous past.
& r & Surrounding the release of Belly with a string of hit singles and a few platinum plaques, DMX became a multimedia star. His Ruff Ryders record label took Eve from an uncredited Roots guest spot all the way to film glory. DMX was a mover and shaker, a magnate capable of making big rap deals, even stealing the Lox away from Puffy and Bad Boy Records. You'll hear a lot of people downplay DMX's mark on rap, but he changed the game enough to even have platinum imitators (Ja Rule). That's star power for real.
& r & Long famous for his unapologetic intensity, DMX mellowed not a bit after his meteoric rise, and through his partying, yelling, sermonizing, bleeding, drinking, fighting, smoking and feeling the pain of the world, he began to lose his way. For all his bravado, DMX has always been a tortured man -- a man of granite convictions and grim seriousness, sure -- but a man constantly battling his past, his place in the rap game, and his place in the world. His gruff willingness to share matters of his heart remains his most endearing quality, musically and personally.
& r & Recently, DMX has been getting arrested a lot. Among several drug/alcohol/violence charges landed a buzzworthy instance in which DMX stole a car while claiming to be in the FBI. The desperate hopelessness of his cocaine-fueled car chase worried his fans. With his once-dominant Ruff Ryders in shambles, DMX's recent public appearances have been cause for concern, his nonstop talking sounding less like Muhammad Ali enjoying the sound of his own voice and more like the neighborhood dope addict trying to convince you he used to be good at basketball.
& r & BET's recent miniseries Soul of a Man pounces on the "save me from myself" stage of DMX's life with as much class as their previous effort in the rap tragedy = miniseries opportunity genre: a few shows about Lil' Kim going to jail. While Lil' Kim's televised life-crisis came from her own stupidity (or heroism, depending on how you feel about ratting out your friends to the cops), DMX's has a tinge of real sadness.
& r & After all, we know this guy. He made his name as a champion of scarily intense love. He's a good man. His new album, The Year of the Dog, again failed to reassure anyone that he's back on track. If anything, Dog makes clear that DMX must start improving his psyche before he'll be able to regain his ferocious rhyme-flow. He's a living legend. Pray for him.
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DMX with Bone Thugs 'n Harmony, Tech N9ne and Rebel Music Crew at the Arena on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $30-$40. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.