The Way We Were/Try to Remember
Welcome back to “Scenes I Can’t Stop Thinking About,” a series discussing—you guessed it—scenes I can't stop thinking about. Today’s edition: DMX in repose.
I grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts, also known as the “Irish Riviera.” (I assume it’s because the Irish—having worn out their welcome with their oafish ways and penchant for drink— were cast out to sea, where they floated aimlessly before eventually washing up on the fine rocky shores south of Boston.) And as you might imagine, a place called the “Irish Riviera” isn’t much of a multicultural melting pot. In a town of 25,000 people, I think there were 7 families total—certainly no more than 10—with at least one black parent.
The town where we lived is geographically hinky: it’s only about 31 square miles, but it feels more like a loosely-connected mishmash of different neighborhoods and sections than it does a single cohesive place. As a result, there were four or five elementary schools, which meant that depending on where you lived and how much there was to do in your neighborhood, you could go from pre-K all the way to 5th grade without ever meeting most of the other kids with whom you shared a town. Once you hit 6th grade, you and everybody else were at the same school.
Up through 5th grade, I’d never really given much thought to my race. I knew most of the kids in my town didn’t have black dads, but that was about as much thought as I gave it. I never really even had to answer questions about my race, like “Why’s your dad black but you look white?” They knew my dad as long as they’d known me, so by the time it might have occurred to them to start asking those questions, my dad’s blackness (and my own) weren’t really that noteworthy or interesting to them.
That all changed when I got to 6th grade. I was meeting kids who didn’t know me or my dad, and we were all at that age when we start looking for all the differences between ourselves and others. I started getting a lot of questions about race and my dad that I hadn’t answered before—hadn’t even considered before, really. I didn’t really know what it meant to be capital-B Black: my dad hadn’t thought to teach us that, because it’s not normally something you have to teach a kid. So I had to try to explain my racial identity to other kids while I was still figuring it out for myself, and that often meant fielding questions I wasn’t sure how to answer. (And also getting called “nigger” every once in a while because, y’know…Irish Riviera.)
My dad couldn’t help me explain blackness to my classmates; he’s never had to explain it, and certainly not to a bunch of pasty white kids in pewter Celtic cross necklaces and four pounds of hair gel. Even if he could, it wouldn’t have mattered because his experience as a black man isn’t the same as mine. And besides, you can’t define someone else’s blackness for them; they have to define it for themselves. So I set out trying to define it. And that’s when I discovered DMX.
I owned a couple of rap CDs before DMX, but my dad hated rap, so the only albums they let me buy were family-friendly artists like MC Hammer and Fresh Prince (and, later, Will Smith). DMX’s music was the first time I forged a connection with black culture entirely on my own. I didn’t see him while I was watching BET with my dad one day; my cousins didn’t put me on to him. I found him, all by myself. I listened to JAM’N 94.5 on my little boombox in my room and recorded the song on a tape so I could listen to it later. I lied to my grandmother and said I was allowed to buy CDs with the Parental Advisory sticker so I could pick up It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. DMX was my first step towards defining my blackness for myself, and he became the soundtrack to my adolescence.
So when DMX died last year, it was one of the few times in my life that I was genuinely shocked and saddened by someone dying, and probably the only time I’ve ever felt that way about a famous person. At first, I was able to take some solace in the idea that his death meant he was finally at peace, and I felt better when I saw his funeral procession, which was what we’d come to expect from any event involving DMX. It was a spectacle in the best way: a thousand-strong parade of motorcycles, dirtbikes and ATVs escorting DMX’s coffin—blood-red and resting in the bed of a monster truck—through the streets of New York City.
It was a fittingly bombastic send-off for DMX, and it made me feel good to know that there were so many people out there that held him in the same reverence as I did. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this celebration was more about DMX than about the man behind the persona. This is typically the case when celebrities die, and most of the time it makes sense; the public can’t mourn someone they never really knew, after all. But we did know Earl Simmons—not to the extent that his family and loved ones knew him, of course, but certainly more than we know the average celebrity of his stature. That lack of space between his public and private selves is what made him so beloved in the first place. It’s rare for a public figure to let us in like that, and rarer still for someone in DMX’s particular line of work; the only other hip-hop artist I can think of who was as comfortable with expressing and exploring his vulnerability to such an intense degree is Tupac. I was happy to see such an outpouring of love and respect for DMX, even though a part of me wished that Earl Simmons had played a more prominent role in the proceedings. But, like I said, at least he was finally at peace.
After the shock of his death wore off, though, I found myself feeling less comforted by the notion that Earl Simmons found peace before he died. I couldn’t help but think how hollow and self-serving that kind of sentiment is. We know he felt torment his entire life, and maybe his death brought a reprieve from that torment. But that’s not peace; that’s just…nothing, and by that point it would be of no use to him anyway. The surge of chemicals released by his brain at the moment of his death might have made him feel calm, but being calm and being at peace are two very different states. You can be calm without thinking, but peace requires recognition. Part of being at peace is being able to luxuriate in it for a moment, to take a deep breath and think to yourself You know what? Things are good for me. If Earl Simmons’ peace only came when—or because—his conscious self ceased to exist, then he never actually got to experience it. Telling ourselves that he’s “at peace” is more about making ourselves feel better, trying to impose order upon that which is beyond our control.
Earl Simmons’ life was filled with more than its fair share of glories and indignities. He was a man of extremes; every peak in his life had a corresponding valley, and he divided his time equally between the top and the bottom. Whatever quality it was that allowed him to emerge time and again from those crushing depths—I guess you could call it “drive,” which feels a bit reductive but for lack of a better word it’ll have to do—was almost certainly the same quality that allowed him to reach such dizzying heights in the first place. Age and success have a way of blunting these kinds of attributes, though, and as time passed the peaks stopped reaching as high as they used to. Yet the valleys remained as deep as ever, and maybe it was inevitable that the day would come when he’d sink into one and not have enough left to pull himself back out again.
Watching him over the years, it certainly felt inevitable. DMX was a consistently reliable source of inspiration and pity; his cycle of slips, falls, and recoveries played out so many times in the public eye that you could practically set your watch to it. And we paid attention to all of it because celebrity culture is mostly uninterested in equilibrium—entertainment lives at the extremes, so that’s where we want our entertainers to live. And DMX was more than happy to oblige, which made him entertaining as hell. His whole existence seemed to take place at the extremes: he was always in motion, perpetually careening from one thing to the next as if fundamentally incapable of stillness. Other guests would visit Power 105 and sit in a chair and shoot the breeze, but not DMX: he’d stand for the whole hour-plus interview. His speech had a briskness to it, like the words were forming a bottleneck in his mouth and he was in a rush to get them out. He had the fidgety, bouncing-on-his-toes energy of someone who gets pulled into a conversation just as they’re heading out the door. His unpredictability and energy was a big part of his appeal as a celebrity, so when DMX: Don’t Try to Understand premiered on HBO last year, I assumed it would be much of the same stuff we’d already seen before: DMX and his extremes, neatly arranged for our entertainment. But I was wrong.
Most of the documentary isn’t about DMX; DMX is always present, of course, but the film is really about Earl Simmons. DMX was unrelenting, pure energy. He elevated street hip-hop from the corner stories and drug boasts to tales of violence and darkness that bordered on horrorcore. He didn’t mince words in his music or in public, didn’t dial back his aggression to make himself more palatable to a “mainstream” (read: white) audience. Yet despite not compromising an inch of who he was or what he stood for, he still became a household name. That’s what we loved about DMX, and to some degree those qualities are true to who Earl Simmons was. But the way we interpreted DMX’s behavior was colored by our perception of the larger-than-life figure that was DMX; when you strip that away, the behavior starts to feel a little different. In Earl, that tirelessness looks more like restlessness; the high-octane energy skews closer to mania.
DMX was an unstoppable force. Earl Simmons was an immovable object.
Everyone can remember a time in their lives when everything felt easy. We rarely realize it in the moment; only in retrospect are we able to recognize those easier times for what they were. In the beginning of “The Way We Were/Try To Remember,” Gladys Knight points out that as bad as things seem right now for the adults in the room, their kids will eventually grow to think of that moment as part of the “good old days.” It’s all relative, is the point. I don’t know if Earl Simmons ever had any good old days.
Even the thing he loved most—hip-hop, the art form to which he dedicated himself so fully, the thing he could be feel good about when everyone else was telling him he was worthless, his avenue to make something of himself—wasn’t able to exist separately from or untainted by his constant pain and torment: DMX’s crack addiction began at the age of 14, when his rap mentor gave him a blunt laced with crack without telling him.
The extremes we found so appealing about DMX are partly a manifestation of Earl Simmons’ physical and emotional restlessness, the byproducts of a childhood marked by poverty, abuse, and neglect. He ping-ponged between sobriety and relapse, spirituality and violence, love and hate. He went to jail some 30-odd times in his adult life. He reportedly fathered 17 children with 11 different women, and his relationships with his children and their mothers ran the gamut from loving and supportive to total estrangement and back again. He occasionally took off his coat and stayed a spell but he never truly settled down; it was always more a matter of when he would eventually leave than if. He was searching for something, and he wouldn’t—couldn’t—rest until he found it.
Most of DMX: Don’t Try To Understand seemed to confirm what I already knew: Earl Simmons was searching high and low for peace, and his life ended before he could experience it. That search led him to drugs, to addiction, to prison, to rehab. Eventually it led him to that blood-red coffin. But it led to good things, too. Despite his celebrity, he could (and frequently did) walk into the roughest neighborhoods and projects America has to offer. In these environments that are hostile even to those who live there—to say nothing of those who don’t—he still got nothing but love. A lot of rappers will go back to the projects as a way to shore up their street cred and show that “the ‘hood still love me,” but it wasn’t an image thing or a PR stunt for DMX. (There are a lot of ways to describe DMX, but “image-conscious” isn’t one of them.) When he visited these places, the people would greet him as DMX, but it wasn’t DMX’s decision to go there, just like it wasn’t DMX who wanted to get clean and stay clean. That was all Earl Simmons.
Earl’s search led him to these places because they were what was familiar to him. There’s comfort in familiarity, and if you’re looking for peace, where better to look than in the places you feel most comfortable? He loved connecting with the people who live in those places for the same reason, for who better to accompany him on his search for peace than the only people who truly understood what it feels like to live without hope? It’s also why he kept going back to the drugs: they were a way for him to cope with the physical or emotional trauma he’d endured. You get high, and all the stress and pain in your life just…fades. For a few fleeting moments, you’re free.
Despite his habit of leaving people behind, he always came back, and maybe what pulled him back was the idea that what he’d left behind was actually what he’d been looking for all along. Maybe he left because he felt he needed to lose what he had in order to appreciate what he’d left behind, and all the other things—the drugs, the projects, and the people—were just diversions, ways to pass the time until he could go back. The places he visited didn’t need Earl Simmons, but for some reason Earl Simmons needed those places. He liked being around people who he believed needed him, but he needed them just as much. The drugs offered a brief reprieve from the pain that caused him to turn to drugs in the first place, but the underlying trauma never went away, and over time it was compounded by the pain of not being high. None of these avenues could lead to the peace he was looking for, and it was heartbreaking to watch him following them anyway for the first hour and fifteen minutes of this documentary. But something shifts in the final scene, and it changes everything.
If someone wanted to learn about DMX, they could listen to his music or read articles about him or watch interviews with him or read his autobiography. But if they wanted to learn about Earl Simmons, they could learn everything they need to know about him in the four minutes it takes for this scene to unfold.
Honestly, the first time I saw the final scene I was disappointed. Here’s this dynamic personality, a truly unique figure in hip-hop, someone who inspired a thousand-person motorcycle escort through the streets of New York City, and the last image we see of him is…singing along to Gladys Knight in a kitchen? They could have intercut it with slow-mo footage of him tearing it up for 300,000 people at Woodstock ‘99, of his now-iconic club entrance scene in “Belly”, of the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” video that propelled him to megastardom, of him hanging out with various famous rappers, and then tied it all up with footage of his family saying goodbye at his funeral. It felt like a missed opportunity to show how beloved he was. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it—and the more I did, the more I came to understand how wrong I was.
DMX was chaos personified. He didn’t exist so much as he radiated. Everything he did was big and loud and defiant. He was ATVs and motorcycles and monster trucks, yelling and growling and barking. DMX made peace with the fact that he’d never be at peace; he lived that way because he didn’t know any other way to live. That’s what made this scene feel so underwhelming: it was everything DMX wasn’t. But that’s the point.
It’s not about DMX at all. It’s about Earl Simmons. Nobody in that room is there to see DMX; they’re there in spite of DMX. Even though he’s hurt them all at one point or another, for various reasons and to various degrees, they’re still there for Earl. They’re there because they love him and he loves them. They’re there because they’ve always been there and because they always will be. They’re there because they want him to find peace as badly as he does.
Gladys Knight’s voice comes through the speakers, and for once, he seems to slow down. He doesn’t look like DMX, that tightly-coiled bundle of energy and sinew who never seemed relaxed, just lying in wait. This is Earl Simmons: leaning against a wall, not seeking any attention, allowing himself to be still. He seems content in the stillness, even protective of it: he says he’ll do the dishes so everyone can just enjoy the song. He knows every line, and he sings along—but not performing, the way you might expect from a seasoned professional. He’s doing it without really looking at anyone, behaving like a regular guy who doesn’t do this very often and is a little self-conscious about it. Just once, he looks up and addresses the room as he sings along: Smiles we gave to one another.
It’s in this moment that we realize that Earl Simmons did have some good old days of his own; he just found them in a different place than most of us do. His good old days were in the music. And as he leans against that wall, lost in his good old days, everyone around him is remembering their own good old days: the times when DMX disappeared and all that was left was Earl. Those moments are the ones that made them fall in love with him; those moments are the reason they’re still here. Despite all the pain DMX has caused them, every once in a while they get Earl, and that makes it all worth it.
His intensity builds, and before you know it he’s singing in full throat with that gravelly voice of his, belting out the climax right along with Gladys: Sooooo it’s the laughter, weeeeee will remember, wheneeeeever we remember…
…the way we were.
There are still a few lines left in the song, but Earl doesn’t sing them. He goes quiet. His eyes open; he starts looking at his phone as if unsure of what else to do with himself. Nobody claps or cheers or even really acknowledges that he was just singing, but it doesn’t seem like he needs or wants them to anyway. DMX might need that kind of validation, but Earl doesn’t.
The scene is all the more powerful for how unremarkable it is. For those few minutes, we saw Earl Simmons: a father, a friend, part of a family. He was just a guy singing along to a song he loved. He could have been anybody.
And he was at peace.