DMX Took Us All to the Basement of Our Emotions

On his irresistible Fresh Off the Boat cameo and the man who unexpectedly nurtured a generation.

DMX on Fresh Off the Boat. Photo: ABC
DMX on Fresh Off the Boat. Photo: ABC

I was introduced to DMX in the Summer of ’98 by a Dominican dude from Yonkers on a flight from Orlando to Charlotte on my way to summer camp. I had headphones and a fitted on, so he asked me point blank before I even put on my seatbelt: “Is you fuckin’ wit D?”

I’d heard the rapper on “4, 3, 2, 1” and “24 Hours to Live” as well as the single, “Get At Me Dog,” but hadn’t copped his debut album yet, so the guy passed me his headphones and put on “Let Me Fly,” then “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and “Damien.” The music immediately sent me to the basement of my emotions. At the time, this wasn’t a place that popular culture went, besides Kids or Requiem for a Dream. It was a place I didn’t talk about and wasn’t supposed to be. When I left my house and went to school, it was a place I pretended didn’t exist. It wasn’t a place people sang about because you couldn’t dance to it, but DMX’s genius was in putting the basement on blast. He single-handedly made standing behind a fence barking at your darkest shadows 1998’s answer to the electric slide.

The DMX fan is a particular one.

My brother, Emery, was the biggest. He wore carpenter shants and brown leather Timbs with wireframe oval glasses to dim sum at Chan’s because of it. Around the time DMX came out, his Rottweiler, Godiva, got choked by the outdoor pulley system in our backyard playing with my dog, Nick. Emery went outside and found his dog hanging by her leash, stiff and dead, blowing in the wind. I was across the street at my friend Warren’s house when I got the call from my mom so I ran home, but she didn’t let me see it. It was already too much that Emery had to live with the image and she sent me upstairs. It wasn’t something we ever talked about and I couldn’t access the basement of Emery’s mind. Where I couldn’t go, DMX did.

Emery’s not the only one. Every crew had the DMX fan and they were ride or die, dark to the core, but loyal, transcendent, and dare I say too good for this world. Like Sean Maguire said about Will Hunting’s friends in Good Will Hunting, “And listen, Gerry, why does he hang out with those ‘retarded gorillas,’ as you call them? Because any one of those kids would come in here and take a fucking bat to your head if he asked them to. That’s called loyalty!” When I got jumped by kids in my driveway, my friends stood by and watched it happen. It was Emery that came running out of the garage with a pickax chasing them away. That’s the DMX fan. That’s the Ruff Ryder. That’s the kid in every crew that would take a bat to anyone’s head if a friend asked them too. Why? Because that’s my dog.

For the uninitiated and an entire generation of people born in the new millennium, DMX is an angry uncle known for club tracks like “Party Up” littered with whistles and barking. It’s strong work everyone can wind to, complete with fantasies of smacking Superman with his “dick and the mic,” but it’s not the basement. If you want to know about how Earl Simmons had his teeth knocked out by his mother and her boyfriends or why X turned to stray dogs as his only friends when he was 14, you gotta listen to It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. For an entire generation of kids that fell through the cracks with no one to turn to, they had Dog.

I always loved how X just reeled names off in “What They Really Want” and thought, Who are the fictional DMX fans? Travis Bickle, Mabel Longhetti, Oscar Wao, O-Dog, Dae-su Oh, Sean Maguire, and of course Fresh Off the Boats Eddie Huang. I won’t rehash my distaste for the show — well-documented in this magazine — but DMX’s appearance on it was irresistible. One of the best cameos in sitcom history, DMX plays a role model dishing out relationship advice much like one of my own fictional role models, the aforementioned Sean Maguire. In the season-two episode, “We Done Son,” the young Eddie, who takes up a part-time job working for X, feels insufficient and grapples with buying an expensive necklace for his love interest. DMX responds with a timeless piece of advice I wish someone gave me before I went to the Piercing Pagoda as a teenager:

“When I first started growing orchids, I thought they needed the most expensive soil and lights to blossom. And they died. That’s when I realized that all they really needed was time and attention. You don’t need to get your girl a gift. You need to give her your time.”

In one of Dark Man X’s final acts, he reminded us with love and warmth what he’d been telling us his entire career: Heaven isn’t far from the basement.

DMX Took Us All to the Basement of Our Emotions