By late-1997, the “Shiny Suit Era” was at its absolute peak. A monster had been created, which extended to an overflow of glossy videos and ’80s samples. While I personally enjoyed a good deal of the music that came out of it , some of it was flat-out unfukkinecessary. Regardless, it was the thing of the moment, and the whole world was on it. In the middle of this craze, there was an upcoming artist who was the complete opposite of everything that era represented. As a matter of fact, he seemed like he would’ve fit more into the era that preceded it, when things were a lot more grimy and a lot less polished and mainstream-aimed. His name was DMX, and in spite of what was dominating the charts, ’98 was about to be his year.
Ironically (or maybe not), X’s buzz started building through his appearances on albums by people who were actively jumping into the Shiny Suit Era. In the midst of Ma$e‘s extra glossy-flossy Harlem World, X was stealing the show on “24 Hours To Live”. As The Lox were trying their best to fit into the Bad Boy team with their Money, Power, Respect album, X shut it down on the title track. While LL Cool J was Puff Daddy-in’ it up with the Phenomenon album, there was still “4-3-2-1″, which X appeared on and killed. On top of that, he closed out ’97 with his own single “Get At Me Dog”, which hit hard and fast into the new year.
And from there, it was probably the greatest pre-album buildup ever. It seemed like every other week, he was making a guest appearance on some shit. From DJ Clue tapes, to remixes by Ice Cube and Mic Geronimo, to a currently obscure-as-fuck song by two female MCs named Duo, DMX was unavoidable. By May 19, 1998, X could do no wrong, and that was the level of anticipation he had as It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot hit the stores.
That album was the must-have of the time. Just about everybody I knew had it by the end of that week, and of course I did. I was STILL just getting over “Get At Me Dog” (and its video, which was the perfect introduction for him being the anti-shiny suit), so I was definitely ready to hear what else he had on deck. As expected, he brought the same aggression he’d become known for by then. His lyrics were violent, dark, and at times even comical to a degree, while the in-house production (mostly done by Grease) were both timely and different for its time.
Speaking of the production, It’s Dark was also the album that kicked off the long-running career of Swizz Beatz. He only actually did one track, but that one happened to be “Ruff Ryders Anthem”, which ended up being arguably the album’s biggest song. After that blew up, Swizz spent the second half of ’98 the same way X spent the first half- with his name popping up in some of everybody’s album credits. It was also that song which established the Ruff Ryders label as a brand and sound that would expand and remain relevant for the next couple of years.
As I said earlier, X surely brought the aggression and violence, but there was another angle to his music that I didn’t really expect. On top of all the chaos, he also rhymed about struggle- not just “trying to make ends meet” struggle, but being internally conflicted between living right and doing wrong. There was also a religious angle, most emphasized by his prayer towards the end of the album. While it didn’t dominate the content of It’s Dark, it did seem to flesh it out, especially in the era where who an artist was as an individual became just as important as what an artist said. It also turned out to be very true-to-life, as evidenced by the downfalls in both X’s life and career in the years since It’s Dark.
There’s a friend of mine who in retrospect said, “I can’t believe I used to listen to a nigga who barked on his records”. That is kinda funny when you think about it- I don’t know that if an artist came out nowadays making animal noises of any sort, I could even attempt to take that shit seriously. But it also says a lot about how strong DMX was as an artist at his peak in ’98. Outside of all the growling and barking (and I’m positive I heard him yelp and wimper a few times too), he had a voice that came along at just the right time. For that reason among others, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot was one of the best and highest-selling albums of ’98, and one that brought the street element back into the forefront.