DMX :: It's Dark and Hell Is Hot
Label: Def Jam ** RapReviews "Back to the Lab" series **
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon
Odd choice for a featured review? Not necessarily. As many music lovers, let
alone rap heads know, January tends to be a slow month for new record releases.
The labels tend to rush out new albums in November in December just in time for
Christmas, and then things tend to slide for a while after that. Thus the time
seems appropriate to take a look back at a few old albums that haven't been
covered, and surprisingly 1998's "It's Dark and Hell Is Hot" by DMX is one of them.
In fact, it may be the single most requested "Back to the Lab" review in
the history of the site; due to DMX's large fanbase and the review's non-inclusion
up until now.
Being this album was what kick-started DMX's popularity nationwide, the album
is definitely worth dipping into the archives to review. Looking through the eyes
of a rap fan in 1998 who had never heard of Earl Simmons on any of his previous
(virtually unknown) singles or sporadic cameo appearances with the likes of Mic
Geronimo, the song "Get at Me Dog" certainly would have been a sensation. To be
bluntly honest, I resented the song when it was released because it used the same
riff as EPMD's 1989 classic "Get the Bozack." Given the time and distance to
re-evaluate the song, I can see that it uses the riff at a lower pitch and
arranges it in a slightly different way, enhanced with a bigger bass bottom.
If anything, it could be said producer Dame Grease was just paying tribute to
the old school by resurrecting this fat beat. More importantly though, DMX
grabbed rap by the throat with his surly growling vocal flow, and pegged himself
as the "dirtiest dog" in hip-hop by literally BARKING during the chorus
of the song. Despite his penchant for "survival of the fittest" thug lyrics
X's voice singlehandedly gave him a credibility other rappers lacked. With a
penchant for spicing up his war tales with comedic concepts, X got over quick:
"Transformin ass niggaz'll get it quick
You know for real that nigga can't fuckin suck my dick
And it's gon' take all these niggaz in the rap game to barely move me
Cause when I blow shit up
I have niggaz fallin like white bitches in a scary movie
AHHHHH! You know I don't know how to act
Get too close to niggaz, it's like: 'Protected by Viper, stand back!'
What's this?! I thought you niggaz was killers, demented
Fuck y'all want me to do with this coward? Finish him, let's end it!
As big as this first single was though, it has nothing on the "Ruff Ryders'
Anthem" that followed. Produced by the mostly unknown at the time Swizz Beatz,
this repetitive, melodic and POUNDING production generated an instant
love/hate reaction across the hip-hop nation. A lot of people hated on it
for how simplistic the melody was, but whether they liked it or not the song
became a huge crossover hit. Ironically, it may have been the Stone Cold-esque
"WHAT?" repeated ad nauseum between pauses of his lyrics that got the
attention of even the biggest haters. Whether you liked it or not, the song
was damn catchy, and showed more of DMX's flair for macabre humor:
"What the fuck you gonna do, when we run up on you
Fuckin wit' the wrong crew, don't know what we goin thru
I'ma have ta show niggaz, how easily we blow niggaz
Let me find out there's some mo' niggaz, that's runnin with yo' niggaz
Nothin we can't handle, break it up and dismantle
Light it up like a candle, just cause I can't stand you
Put my shit on tapes, like you bustin grapes
Think you holdin weight? Then you haven't met the Apes"
Millions of people nationwide were left screaming the chorus which at first
sounds like it's mimicking a fire drill: "STOP! DROP! Shut 'em down, OPEN UP SHOP!
OHHH, NOOO, that's how RUFF RYDERS ROLL." Of course that left people wondering,
"Who are the Ruff Ryders?" Dame Grease's epic "For My Dogs" production introduced
us to several members: Big Stan, Loose, and Drag-On. It's hard to even concentrate
on the lyrics though, as the dirty bassline and church bells send chills up and
down your spine. Drag-On in particular though showcased the memorable voice and
flow that would later get him notice as a solo artist out the crew:
"You're my dog; NIGGA, I die for (shit)
Bust a 5 for, see the judge and lie for
You the type of nigga I throw weight up on the block for
Just go ahead and lock jaws, and your half? I got yours
Send in the dog I smell it all night
I told niggaz to shut up and write, X barks with a hell of a bite
For the love they always will be 'til they kill me
I put my thugs on it; and slide 'til I die on it"
Bad Boy Records members The LOX appear on "Niggaz Done Started Something"
along with Mase. Ironically by the 21s century the latter had retired from rap and
the former had left Bad Boy to join the Ruff Ryders after a nasty public feud
with Sean 'Puffy' Combs. Once again, Dame Grease provides a pounding dark bass
beat for these thugs to flow over. Styles built up his rep as the clever
member of The LOX trio with his verse full of lyrical quips on this song:
"Twenty niggaz batter me, still couldn't shatter me
I'm only gettin up, splittin up your anatomy
Official LOX family, Grants niggaz handin me
I want the finer things, and I hope you understandin me
Sittin at the table, plannin and plug the fan in
Let the sweat dry off and then grab your cannon
Think you smartest, and retaliate the hardest, regardless
If you a thug or a rap artist, respect me like Pesci
and if rap was hockey, I'd be Gretzky, puffin Nestle"
At 19 tracks long though, not every cut here can be a winner. For one, DMX makes
the rookie mistake of including too many skits on his album that have no musical
value to the listener. "The Storm" and "Mickey" could certainly have been cut.
PK (latter known as P. Killer) produces a few tracks that are good but really
nothing special, including "Fuckin' Wit D" and "Look Thru My Eyes." He does
redeem himself on "How's it Goin' Down" though, a track which would go on to
be X's next huge crossover hit on it's hook and sex-starved story. The "Damien"
series is also started with this album, and while the introductory track of
DMX talking to the devil (or perhaps the devil in himself) is good the concept
gets bogged down on later albums. "Crime Story" sounds good but given that
it's built entirely on a loop of "Easin' In" with almost nothing changed, Irv
Gotti doesn't deserve much credit for creativity. It's possible the label
also thought that "I Can Feel It" with the obvious riff from Phil Collins
"In the Air Tonight" would be another crossover hit, and you can't blame Dame
Grease for trying to make something out of it; ultimately it's skip material.
Taken as a whole, "It's Dark and Hell Is Hot" was an excellent introduction to
the mostly unknown rapper and included all of the right songs to push him into
the stratosphere of rap superstar. It's likely that Earl Simmons charisma, wit
and vocal talent had been there all along, but never encountered the right beats
and a big major label push to get him to that level. With a wise contract
signing, Def Jam changed all that and gave themselves a much needed shot of
credibility after mediocre releases by Onyx and LL Cool J nearly sunk the label.
DMX became their brightest star, and they rode his wave of popularity all the
way until Ludacris. He himself has ridden the wave of popularity by branching
out into acting roles and movies. The DMX train seems in no danger of slowing
down any time soon, but it was on this album that it got up to full steam.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10
Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: January 28, 2003