DMX—the alias of the vitriolic, platinum-selling East Coast rapper Earl Simmons—has more problems than he can rhyme about. Simmons has been in and out of jail for much of his life, despite his unprecedented commercial success. Negotiations between his record label, lawyers, promoters, investors, publisher, and manager are byzantine and slow-moving. Marijuana and cocaine exacerbated an over-the-top celebrity lifestyle. On a spiritual level, Simmons has had trouble reconciling his penchant for excess with a hunger for Christian meaning in his life. Really, reading the biography of rapper DMX is like watching a man fastened to a post at the intersection of a crossroads by a giant rubber band—every time he tries to venture down a fresh path, he’s disastrously yanked right back to the center. Or, as Niki D’Andrea exclusively reports for City Pages, it’s
like watching someone punch himself in the face repeatedly. One can easily picture a cherubic angel sitting atop one of the big guy’s shoulders, telling him not to snort that line of coke or skip that appointment with his probation officer. But on the other shoulder, he’s got a horned red devil prodding him with a pitchfork, urging him to just go ahead and do it.
Like politics, the world of hip-hop and rap suffers from media oversaturation—Simmons’ delinquent behavior, issues with chemical dependency, and financial headaches notwithstanding, his ongoing struggles for renown, oblivion, and salvation can’t be understood apart from the omnipresent, reproachful eye of media.
Pharoahe Monch—an artful, underground MC recently interviewed by The Believer (and pictured above)—explains another dark current in hip-hop music brought on by pervasive media influence: the self-imposed suppression of experimentalism and echo-chamber-like proliferation of radio-friendly beats and rhymes. “A colleague of mine played me some stuff from a guy who gave him a CD and was like, ‘This is my group. And this is what we do,’” Monch told The Believer’s Adam Mansbach.
And that shit was cool; it was cash and rims and coke. But then the same guy was like, ‘Here’s the CD of what I actually do outside of them, because I’m on my own shit.’ And we were fucking blown the fuck away. You feel pressured to do what you think the public wants, when in actuality the sales aren’t reflecting what the radio is doing.
Forced paternalism is another institutional limitation stifling creativity in contemporary rap and hip-hop. “These days, you don’t get development,” says Monch.
When new artists come out and they’re not being cosigned or some company doesn’t have a stake in it, or someone’s not getting paid under the table to produce the whole record or bring it to video, the artist really suffers. You’ve rarely got an artist that’s not being chauffeured into the business by some huge-ass names. Before, it could be like, “Who the fuck are these cats Ultramagnetic MC’s?” “Oh, they’re from the Bronx and they’re insane and this is what it sounds like and this is what they’re bringing to the table.” Now, unless somebody who’s already eleven thousand times platinum is like, “We’re ushering this project in,” it’s not really gonna pop commercially.
Not to be confused with a doom-and-gloom prophet, Monch maps out a plan for young rappers to rekindle their own innovation: get back to your roots.
I had a conversation with Nas a couple of years ago and he was saying, “Yo, you remember when such-and-such song was out and we would go and see them perform and there would be this energy and this electricity?” The virtual shit has deadened that actual transference of energy somewhat. When people can create a professional-level song without really having to test it and perform it, they lose: they don’t have the experience of seeing how an audience responds, and learning how to implement that shit into the record. This is why you have these veterans lasting.