In 1986 at Shabazz Restaurant in Mount Vernon, New York, the satin-tongued rapper Heavy D gave Joaquin “Waah” Dean some advice: “I ain’t guaranteeing you nothing or promising you anything, but what you do is you make hits and the industry comes to you.” Dean, a Bronx-born entrepreneur, was trying to make his way into the music business, and he took D’s advice to heart. In the decade that followed, with his brother Darrin and sister Chivon, he founded Ruff Ryders, a management company turned music imprint under Interscope, and signed DMX, a rapper with the kind of folkloric talent that comes along once in a generation.
DMX had flow, bite. Even before he’d released his first album, he cut through cold New York City winters on songs like “Make a Move” and Mase’s “24 Hours to Live.” Once he was blessed by Def Jam A&R Irv Gotti’s Midas touch, he became a breakout mainstream success with the 1998 release of his critically adored, warrior-spirited debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. It didn’t just have hits, it had moment-altering anthems. Heavy D’s prophetic counsel proved true: the industry was now all ears.
With momentum on X’s side, Island Def Jam Music Group co-president Lyor Cohen proposed a high-stakes wager: finish another album before the year’s end and he’d award DMX a $1 million bonus. It was a test of faith — of DMX, and of the Ruff Ryders crew. With producers Swizz Beatz, Dame Grease, DJ Shok, and P. Killer Trackz, they got to work. The result was Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, a throbbing testimony that found the rapper running face first into the murk of his past. With features from Mary J. Blige, Jay Z, rock oracle Marilyn Manson, and labelmates The Lox, and released just three days before Christmas, the album was a platinum-selling success. It made DMX the first rapper to drop two No. 1 albums in the same year, and cemented him not just as a crossover success but a conflicted messiah whose grimy truths resonated with people living at the margins.—JASON PARHAM
The 1998 release of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot filled a void in rap, which, in large part, had become defined by the get-money mindset of Bad Boy and the brass-knuckled bravado of Death Row.
KAREN R. GOOD (music journalist): It was a good year for expansion. Hip-hop was picking its way out of something. It was a rebirth, trying to get out of its box.
LYOR COHEN (co-president of Island Def Jam Music Group, 1998-2004): Hip-hop had become overly aspirational and shiny, full of vivid technicolors. Cosmetic fronting was not part of the ethos of our get down. Our get down was more blue collar. Our aspirations were to shine a light on the plight and experience of the inner cities of America.
DARRIN “DEE” DEAN (co-founder of Ruff Ryders Entertainment): You had Puff and Biggie, and they were supposed to be the definition of hood. But they was wearing Versace, all expensive stuff that most people in the hood couldn’t afford. That just wasn’t the representation for the hood and the people who were less fortunate.
STYLES P (rapper, member of Ruff Ryders group The Lox): Young black men had an opportunity to make money that they had never made before, so why not be flashy? I’m not mad at the flash. It just needed to be balanced.
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN (co-founder of Ruff Ryders Entertainment): When Pac and Biggie passed away, everyone was dormant. People were asking, “What’s gonna be next, what’s gonna be hot?”
DAME GREASE (producer): [Def Jam] was probably a little confused and didn’t know what the next turn of events was gonna be for the future. And that’s where Dog [DMX] came in, to give the label a whole new energy and light. He even sparked Jay Z up. Jay Z had more of a spark of energy to do things.
DARRIN “DEE” DEAN: Ruff Ryders stood for the streets, the hood, the have-nots. We come from a minority area where everybody’s in a struggle, everybody’s trying to survive. We wanted to speak for the people that’s not heard. X was different, he drew you in to him.
SWIZZ BEATZ (producer): We came and disrupted it. When we came in the game, we were on that rebellious vibe. My uncles [Dee and Waah] were very powerful already at that time. That mentality was something we were living way before music, so when it came to being in the industry, it was hard to shake a lot of those habits.
DMX (rapper): It was just my time. I was in my zone.
KEVIN LILES (CEO and president of Def Jam, 1998-2004): The consumers were starving. X fed that hunger — that hunger for realness, that hunger for the street. And what better way to serve it up than to give two full entrees in the same year?
DMX: Lyor said if I could do another album in 30 days, I’d get a million-dollar bonus. That was the whole drive.
LYOR COHEN: There was a huge demand and very little supply. We don’t typically do what you’re supposed to do. We focus on what we should do.
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN: They had all kind of bets going on. But it was nothing for us. We were doing an album every 30 days anyway. That’s for all of our artists. We had one month to do that album, and it was ready to go. But nobody slept.
DAME GREASE: The momentum was just going so good. We were like, “Fuck the norm” and just ran. It was like, “Let’s go knock they head off again. While they knocked out, we gon’ pick em up and knock em out again.”
STYLES P: Why not take the world by storm?
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