Saturday, July 01, 2000
Again Robin inspires me into verbosity. Filling in for Tom at NYLPM, he ponders DMX, that strange half-man, half-canine rapping machine who rules both the Ruff Ryders camp and America itself in the year 2000. Robin makes some fantastic points about the guy, perhaps largely because he doesn't feel comfortable liking him.

I like DMX. Admitting that isn't difficult for me, though he seems to actively offend the intelligence of so many hip hop listeners. Definitely his rhymes are incredibly simplistic and artless (eg. "You can't fight a coward/if a coward be a coward") and his morals are questionable, but I find myself simply not caring. I think in a way I enjoy the fact that DMX isn't an incredibly smooth, lyrically gifted rapper - instead he allows his personality to literally crush the flow of his words.

One of the problems I have with hip hop artists who place an emphasis on the nuances of their rhymes is that they end up sounding like they're lifelessly reading someone else's text rather than building a concrete image of themselves in the listener's mind. Every DMX track sounds the same, you might complain, but at least every DMX track sounds like DMX - and we know it's DMX because we recognise his pissed off mood, and we have an image of him, his facial expression, what he might be thinking and what he just might do to us which thoroughly transcends the banality of his lyrics. DMX's delivery might be as unsubtle as his rhymes, but it's a powerful one, and it draws its power from its inarticulacy and vulnerablity.

Yes, vulnerability - where other rappers use words to cloak themselves in an invisible armour, DMX is completely surface-level. His voice is full of rage and frustration, but I rarely find it menacing. It's the roar of a lion stuck in a cage, having scored itself deeply by throwing its body against the bars too many times. The music reflects this; on tracks like "Some X Shit" and "What's My Name", Swizz Beats' production simultaneously recalls Belgian techno and early techstep drum & bass: it's simple, brutal, effective and, as Robin pointed out, totally devoid of any funk whatsoever.

In the same way that you could trace a tenuous link between the heavy, black-sounding r&b of the sixties and the even heavier, whiter-than-white sound of punk, the Ruff Ryders style takes the agression of hip hop, intensifies it, and then strips it of its blackness, leaving music that is cold and inflexible. The effect is heightened by the practice of eliminating the middle frequencies in the tracks, concentrating on the contrast between heavy bass kicks and high-pitched synth blares. But inflexibility can also mean brittleness, and so Swizz's tracks always sound like they're on the verge of collapsing or shuddering to a halt. The beats are like blocks of sharpened wood immersed in liquid nitrate: they smoke impressively but in truth they're hardly holding together.

"Come Back In One Piece" (DMX's Timbaland-helmed duet with Aaliyah on the Romeo Must Die soundtrack) is funky though, and it's a nasty, nasty sort of funk: the bass line snarls and the beats ricochet like bullets. Despite this though, the strong narrative of the song - Aaliyah pleading with her wayward man to always return to her no matter what he does - reminds me of a showtune from West Side Story or something. DMX is playing a role, but he's also very obviously playing DMX.

It makes me think that his redeeming quality is that he is a character rapper. Like Ol' Dirty Bastard or Missy Elliot, DMX's identity is perhaps more important to the hip hop community than the songs he writes, because it establishes a parameter for what hip hop can recognise within itself, while at the same time providing a thesis which can create dialectic conflict with other, antithetical representations of black people within hip hop. "Come Back In One Piece" works marvelously because of the tension between the characters of DMX (the dog) and Aaliyah (the shy, unsure girlfriend - a role she's built up in tracks such as "Are You That Somebody?" and "Try Again") - two more dialectically opposed characters you'll rarely find.

Because self-promotion (and hence the formulation of identity) is such an integral part of black music, there is an opportunity for these sorts of character-driven stories which have the capacity to transcend the cliches of their subject matter. Sure, hip hop is dominated by the gangsta ethos, but at least when DMX is telling it, the same-old-story still has the potential to thrill precisely because it is DMX's perspective. In a sense hip hop (and, for that matter, r&b and its obsession with relationships) isn't so much going over old ground as building up a collection of arguments about particular ideas and concepts. It's almost as fascinating to watch this process from a distance as it is to hear it close up.

I contrast this with, say, Divine Styler, whose album from last year, Wordpower 2: Directrix I picked up in order to give underground hip hop another chance. With the exception of a couple of cool Timbaland-inspired disjointed grooves, the limpid, proudly sparse nature of the music doesn't really appeal to me. More relevantly though, while I know that Divine is a far superior lyricist to DMX, he could really just be anyone to me. His rapping certainly tells me about the black experience, but it doesn't really show me anything, and it certainly doesn't inspire me to think like DMX. Maybe I'm just weird and too unused to rapping as a medium to convey information to see how much better Divine Styler obviously is, but until I'm taught differently, I know which records I'll be reaching for.


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