It's Dark and Hell Is Hot: DMX's haunting magnum opus turns 20
The year was 1998
Bad Boy Records ran everything: the airwaves, the charts and any award show willing to recognise Hip Hop music as a credible art form.
If it wasn’t Ma$e’s Harlem World album banging out of speakers in cars passing by then it was Puff Daddy’s No Way Out or The Lox’s Money, Power & Respect.
Following the deaths of 2Pac and Biggie hardcore Hip Hop had taken a backseat to what later became known as the 'shiny suit' era. And it wasn’t just New York that was shining. In the south Master P’s No Limit Records and Baby and Slim’s Cash Money Records were cleaning up with their brand of diamond-encrusted rap.
But this was all about to change.
Blowing the doors off of Hip Hop, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot blindsided the industry. Sneaking up on it like DMX did his prey during his days as a stick up kid doing everything he could to survive in the streets, it’s Hip Hop’s greatest debut album of all-time.
“What about Illmatic?” I hear you say. “What about Snoop’s Doggystyle?” Yes, I know these are both superior albums, as is Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Biggie’s Ready To Die, but for me DMX takes first place.
I can remember the day I first got It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot because it was the same time I first got a Sony Discman. I was 15-years-old and I had to order it into my local record store because DMX hadn't yet blown up so was considered a niche artist. The reason I even ordered it was because I saw it advertised in the magazine The Source, it was the first time I had seen his name since hearing him on LL Cool J’s “4,3,2,1” alongside Method Man, Redman and Canibus (and Master P if you picked up the video version) and Ma$e’s “24 Hours To Live”.
I distinctly remember it was a Saturday and after purchasing it I walked home unaware of what was about to happen. Casually strolling up the stairs to my bedroom, I slipped the disc into my boombox and I was instantly transported to a dark place, somewhere my country bumpkin ass had never been before.
Listening to it that first time left me speechless. I was in awe of what was coming out of the speakers. It was raw, unfiltered, and the storytelling scared the shit out of me. The lyrics on “X-Is Coming” in particular had me shook because I felt like I was listening to a Hip Hop horror movie, which was done on purpose of course, hence lifting its hook from Nightmare on Elm Street.
“And if you got a daughter older than 15 I’ma rape her/ Take her on the living room floor right there in front of you/ Then ask you seriously: ‘What you wanna do?’”
I mean, who says that!? While of course it’s fictional, and a part of the song’s frightening narrative, that doesn’t make it any less horrifying. There’s a thin line between art and real life and I don’t think any other artist would have dared attempt what X did back then, and they for damn sure wouldn’t do it now in the age of social media.
It was animalistic in ways I had never experienced before, not only because of X’s constant dog barking - a trademark of his which stemmed from his time as a homeless youth befriending stray dogs on the cold hard streets - but because it didn’t feel human. Here was a man who grew up in the gutter moving from detention centre to foster home and back again, he was a castaway and treated as such and it had a profound effect on the way in which he created his music.
It was physical. The production on tracks like “Fuckin’ wit’ D” punched you in face, it was something you could actually feel. And that was all down to the genius of Dame Grease’s dirty beats that could have never worked for anyone else. The violence, the wrath, the greed, the religious polarity contained within the lyrics were complimented with the perfect backdrops. He and DMX formed a brotherhood of beats, rhymes and life.
The album was led by the trunk-rattling “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”, a track that introduced the world to the production talents of Swizz Beatz. What started off as a battle cry for the thugs, street dudes, and anyone wanting to flex their muscles for the right situation, went on to become one of Hip Hop’s most treasured anthems and genre-defining moments that crossed over commercially to the point that it’s probably being played at a bar mitzvah right now. Hell, when I was a kid I even named one of our five-a-side football teams after it, we were: 'The Ruff Ryders'.
Some have described It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot as the Dante’s Inferno of Hip Hop, and while I agree I also think it’s more than just a journey through hell and its different pockets. At the core of it - to me at least - it’s about the human experience, just maybe not the human experience you’ve come across.
Listen to what X is saying on “Look Thru My Eyes”:
“Look through my eyes, see what I see/ Do as I do, be what I be/ Walk in my shoes, hurt your feet/ Then know why I do dirt in the street.”
Those outside of Hip Hop culture used to bash and berate the music by making the sweeping claim that it was all about promoting violence and criminal activity. The thing is, in actual fact the music was a news source, an education if you will, it was a way to report on what was going on in the ghettos of America and shine a light on what CNN didn’t want you to see.
While criminal activity of any kind is not acceptable there is a reason why the disenfranchised often fall victim to it, because of their living conditions, because of the lack of jobs, because of the vicious cycle that lands a high percentage of repeat offenders, especially in the black community, back in prison. DMX, with a Stephen King-type penmanship, was explaining this back in 1998 when the rest of the world wasn’t as openly ‘woke’ as they are now because of the awareness channeled through artists like Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and Chance The Rapper.
Like someone stuck in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle, X’s moral compass might have been on constant rotation throughout It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot but his heart was in the right place. His spirit was in constant fight or flight mode. While the battle between good and evil couldn’t have been easy for him it damn sure resulted in some incredible music, painful music, transcendent music.
On “Let Me Fly” X raps, “I sold my soul to the devil, and the price was cheap,” but it isn’t until two tracks later where the consequences of such an act are realised where on “Damien” a conflicted X succumbs to the temptation of the devil on his shoulder and soon realises it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
A likely correlation to his own life and personal struggles, the deal with the devil is balanced out by X’s constant praising of the Lord. It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot plays host to the first of many “Prayer” skits that went on to feature heavily in DMX’s musical catalogue.
If I’m being honest, if it wasn’t for It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot I might not have known about Phil Collins until much later in life - remember, I was 15 at the time this album was released.
“In the Air Tonight” is sampled on the song “I Can Feel It”, and boy did it do something to me. Hearing DMX speak his truth over the crying strings of the then not-so-familiar Phil Collins song, he broke down his torment, his struggle and ultimately his routine to keep the devil at bay and it really spoke to me. It made me realise that you can’t stand still when you’re going through it, you’ve got to keep on moving.
“How’s It Going Down” is like one of those slight of hand magic tricks. One minute it's one thing and the next it's something else, it’s all about the dressing of it.
Musically it’s the perfect mood setter and wouldn’t sound out of place on any slow jams playlist, but as with much of the album's content there's always a dark side to it. Once you analyse the lyrical content you soon realise it’s a tale of infidelity and giving into your sexual desires, but truth be told you gloss over that fact because it's such a good song, it's so good in fact that Drake even used the same lyrics on his "U With Me?" track taken from his album Views.
Then there's “Stop Being Greedy”.
Those fucking organs are insane! The way in which PK and Dame Grease laid the record out for DMX to get his lyrical guns off was like something I’d never heard before, it was neck snapping. In fact I can feel myself getting hyped right now.
Ultimately It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot set the stage for Hip Hop's hardcore resurgence that was on the verge of exploding in New York at the time. If this album hadn’t been a success (it had sold 4 million copies by 2000) there might never have been a Dipset movement led by Cam’ron, or better yet, no 50 Cent and G-Unit. It also acted as a springboard for the Ruff Ryders - think Eve, Jin, Cassidy, Swizz Beatz - to make their mark on popular culture.
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot was DMX’s coming out party. It's confrontational, unapologetic, complex, twisted, animated, and most of all, as the title suggests, it's dark, so dark in fact that you can’t even make out the colour black.
DMX might have gone on to have more than his fair share of personal problems but in my eyes he'll always be remembered for this incredible body of work.
Thank you X.
Released through Def Jam Records/Ruff Ryders, listen to It's Dark and Hell Is Hot below: