Ruff Ryders’ Anthem is a rap song about how mean and tough DMX and his friends are, and how you are the opposite of that, which means he’s probably going to beat you up or spit on you or shoot you soon. Because he took what the most popular version of rap was at that moment and attempted to break both of its arms and legs and shoot it in the face and then shoot it in the face again.
DMX is maybe the most compelling person I have ever considered. He’s not especially complicated, nor is his history. But that helps build his case instead of working against it.
He was abused and abandoned as a child. That led him to emptiness. Then that led him to crime. Then that led him to rap. And then compulsions (drugs/fame/anarchy) turned all of those into the same thing, and that was eventually the foundation for his unraveling.
And this, the whole everything, all of the hurt and the anguish, he’s viewed it through the belief that his suffering was/is/will remain God’s will. It’s a perpetual torment. He absorbed and processed the absence of truth and love early in life, the two things he coveted the most but was rarely able to find, and eventually interpreted that absence as beneficial to others in their own lives, so long as he spoke on it.
He’s addressed this indirectly and also directly, most admirably on a track called “Prayer (Skit)” from his first album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot: “So if it takes for me to suffer for my brother to see the light / Give me pain till I die, but please, Lord, treat him right.”
Lots of people have compared DMX to things before (a dog, mostly, due to his branding and a variety of other things). The most auspicious comparison was in the book HipHop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhyme. In it, Ralph Basui Watkins rhetorically asks if God really was communicating through X, wondering, “What if God is using DMX as his weeping prophet?” I don’t know if He is, but I know I’d have gone to church way more often if it involved more contemplation of God as He relates to Dark Man X.
A THING THAT DMX HAS THOUGHT
“Oh, so this is how it goes down? I zap out and then you want to talk. A few minutes ago, you were coming to whip my ass, now you want to ask me what’s wrong? Hmmm. Maybe getting reckless is not such a bad thing after all.”
That’s a passage from DMX’s autobiography, E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX, which came out in 2002. For context: It’s DMX, as a child, thinking to himself, when he finds his mother and her then-boyfriend sitting at the kitchen table waiting to talk to him. In the minutes prior, the then-boyfriend had gone to X’s room, belt in hand, intending to beat him for some trouble he’d caused. But the then-boyfriend welshed on the threat (probably) because X, fed up with a history of abuse and a lifetime of fear and uneasiness around anybody bigger than himself, had decided to bark back.
DMX is certainly not the first person to associate reckless behavior with a favorable outcome (it’s basically the impetus behind every immoral act committed by coherent humans), but it was an important moment for him here, so much so that two decades after it happened, after he’d had that single thought, he felt the need to highlight it in that chapter, and then eventually extend it to become the thesis for the entire book. Because it’s been the thesis of his entire life.
A TERRIBLE THING DMX HAS EXPERIENCED (ONE OF THE MANY, AS IT WERE)
DMX’s early existence was built largely around isolation. The most overt and literal case involves his mother quarantining him as a young child alone in his room for thirty days straight with the door closed as a punishment. He was only allowed to leave to get water and use the restroom. I can’t imagine what kind of impact that has on the psyche of a person, particularly a child, or how that feeling mutates with maturity. But others have:
In a documentary series called Biography Late Night, Ted Kaczynski’s mother told a story about how when her son was a nine-month-old baby, he suffered through extended isolation during a hospital stay (his body had become covered in hives and nobody knew why, so nobody was allowed to visit with him). The experience had, she felt, eroded him. “I took that baby home and I rocked and coaxed and cajoled and hugged and sang to him, and it took days before he would look at me. And when he looked, it was a sober look. He became a sober baby.” I’m not saying DMX is Ted Kaczynski. But still.
A THING SOMEONE HAS SAID ABOUT DMX
“I could hear the breaking of the wires.”
That’s a quote from Lyor Cohen, remembering watching DMX perform for him in 19975 when Cohen was with Def Jam Records. X had suffered a very crucial beating prior and had to have his mouth wired shut. Still, given the opportunity to perform for a contract, he rapped with such ferocity and fervor that he nearly pulled the brackets holding his mouth together apart. Cohen signed him that night.
DMX’s first five albums all released at number one, and two of those, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, came out the same year. It was the first time in the history of music that someone had released five consecutive number-one albums, and only the second time a rapper had released two albums the same year and both debuted at number one.
A THING DMX HAS SAID ABOUT VISITING A NEW CITY
“I go straight to the grimy part, you know, the unattractive parts of the city. You know, a lot of abandoned buildings, you know, stray dogs and cats running all over the place. I know that area; never been there before but I know it.”
He said that in 1999 during an episode of MTV’s Diary.
HOW ALL OF THIS RELATES TO “RUFF RYDERS’ ANTHEM”
“Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” is the second track on It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, and the album’s fourth and final single. While it’s largely recognized as an anthem track (meaning “Let’s turn it on to get everyone to wild the fuck out”), it’s also philosophical, and glances at nearly all of the parts of DMX that make DMX “DMX.”
Consider the first twenty seconds of him rapping, where he manages to touch on his twisted history…
“All I know is pain / All I feel is rain”
…And how the aftereffects will narrate his Rap Charts Pillage and Plunder but will never let him escape himself, no matter how high into the stratosphere he ascends…
“How can I maintain with mad shit on my brain?”
…And how his first instinct will always be the wrong one…
“I resort to violence.”
…And how none of the introspection or self-loathing or self-sacrifice or good intentions matter because, truly, if someone has something that he wants, he is going to take it without concern, and then he is going to tell you that he took it and dare you to attempt to recover your property…
“You want it? Come and get it / Took it then we split / You fuckin’ right we did it.”
The most commercially successful song of DMX’s career was “Party Up (Up in Here)” from…And Then There Was X. The most trenchant was “Get at Me Dog” from It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. The most self-aware was “Slippin’” from Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. But the most well-known one, the most important one, the one that cemented everything DMX would become in the pop culture canon into place, is “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.”
HOW “RUFF RYDERS’ ANTHEM” INVERTED RAP
This is every song that reached number one on Billboard’s rap singles chart the year before DMX became a superstar, before he’d released “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” and how long it was there:
“No Time,” Lil’ Kim, featuring Puff Daddy (two weeks): This song is about only having time to drink very expensive beverages with friends and count money. Also, Puff Daddy spends a whole verse talking about how good he is at sex, because I guess he wasn’t paying attention to the chorus.
“Cold Rock a Party,” MC Lyte (two weeks): This song is about how cool MC Lyte is, according to MC Lyte.
“Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” Puff Daddy, featuring Mase (twelve weeks): This song is about how Bad Boy is so effervescent that nary a person is capable of suppressing any of its members. Also, they are in possession of an automobile that is bulletproof.
“Hypnotize,” The Notorious B.I.G. (seven weeks): In the video for this song Puff and B.I.G. are on a yacht being chased by helicopters (but it’s a chase that’s more funny than dangerous, so much so that B.I.G. smiles during the chase, which is a thing he’d never done in a video before then). Later in the video, Puff and B.I.G. are in a convertible Mercedes being chased by men on motorcycles and also some men in a Hummer. In the last part of the video, mermaids rap the chorus to the song underwater. Nobody had more fun having money in the late ’90s than Puff Daddy.
“I’ll Be Missing You,” Puff Daddy and Faith Evans, featuring 112 (eight weeks): This song was about B.I.G. dying and how terrible it was.
“Mo Money Mo Problems,” The Notorious B.I.G., featuring Puff Daddy and Mase (four weeks): This song was about how being rich was troublesome, although it kind of seemed like the problem with being rich was that others weren’t, which seems okay to me. (The one specific issue Puff mentions is that if you wanted to reach him, you had to call him on his yacht. Do yachts have great reception? I don’t know. I’ve never been on one. I was on a barge once. My cell phone worked fine. But if you’re missing important phone calls due to excessive yachting, then I admit, yes, that is a true problem.)
“Up Jumps Da Boogie,” Timbaland and Magoo, featuring Aaliyah and Missy Elliott (eight weeks): I don’t know what this song is about and nobody else does either but everyone knows that it’s all-caps AMAZING.
“Feel So Good,” Mase (six weeks): This song is about how good it feels to be rich.
“Been Around the World,” Puff Daddy & the Family, featuring the Notorious B.I.G. and Mase (three weeks): This song is about how there are people all over the world who hate Bad Boy because they have so much money and also because Puff has sex with attractive women (and how he prefers ones who are cinnamon-colored).
Rap in 1997 (the most prevalent form of it, anyway) was aspirational. “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” helped fracture that, helped turn one of its eyes away from the moon and down into the dungeons. DMX had had other successful songs before, but “Ruff” did what they couldn’t: It was menacing enough to maintain X’s energy and fire, but scalable enough that it reached far out beyond his established fan base, comparable to the balance Public Enemy found on “Fight the Power”.
Puffy wanted a plane made of diamonds to fly him to a private island where the beach was also made of diamonds and the natives were big-bottomed women and, guess what, they had diamonds for nipples. DMX did not want a plane. DMX wanted a father. DMX wanted a mother who didn’t abuse him.