It’s 2 a.m. and DMX is snoring. (Imagine DMX snoring and you’ve got exactly the right picture.) We’re in an SUV, driving to a pool hall in Westchester, New York, which is where he grew up and currently lives. He’s wearing headphones and just barely holding an iPad that’s fruitlessly playing an episode of Ozark. Exodus, DMX’s three-year-old son, is in the far back seat, blasting that baby-shark song that drives parents insane. The duet of deep snores and dooo-dooo-da-dooo is the soundtrack of our 50-minute trek from Lower Manhattan.
It’s easy to forget how successful DMX was. To this day, he’s the only rapper to have his first five studio albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. He is the only living rapper to have two albums go platinum in the same year. He starred in massive-budget action films. And he made millions. It’s easy to forget the highs because of his lows. X has, for example, been to jail some 30 times in his life. Charges against him vary—from drug possession to robbery to probation violation and everything in between. He’s struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine. He has 15 kids and unsuccessfully tried to file for bankruptcy as recently as 2016. (The case was dismissed.) But his latest return from prison feels different. Even in a world where hip-hop is now controlled by kids a fraction of his age with fuchsia-colored dreads and face tattoos, there seems to be a cultural demand for DMX. He did Kanye’s Sunday Service weeks after being released—where he delivered a prayer that was harder than any freestyle we had seen that year. People began to tweet old clips of him performing in his prime. Friends like Swizz Beatz began to hype up the Dog’s return.
Eventually the now 48-year-old DMX returns from his nap and Exodus falls asleep. Which is when we head inside the quaint pool hall. He puts $2 in the jukebox and runs through nothing but love ballads (Teena Marie’s “Out on a Limb” kicks things off) before beating me, handsomely, in a round of pool. He also beats a white guy wearing an “I Stand for the Flag” T-shirt who was starstruck by DMX.
How many pairs of Timberlands do you think you’ve owned over the years? If you had to give it a number…
You’ve owned 1,500 pairs of Timberlands?
Wow. That’s a lot of Timberlands. Do you ever hear stories about yourself and find them funny?
Yeah. There was recently a story about me. I think there was a murder or robbery or something that happened in South Carolina? I guess an eyewitness was like, “Oh yeah. The person who did it looked like DMX.” So they did a “police sketch” but it’s not a police sketch. We know what a police sketch looks like. Police sketches are in black and white, and they’re like outlines of a person. This was a full-on portrait of me. What they did was, they took one of my press photos and drew that. Because the lighting was the same and everything. And they drew hair on it. And matched it like, “Oh, really? This is bullshit. Really? So you basically just said: ‘Here’s DMX and this is your suspect.’ ” That was a little funny. But if I had been in the area, it might not have been so funny.
What do you think is the biggest challenge of being someone who is successful?
Staying true to yourself.
Do you have a tough time doing that?
I did initially. My first year of success. I made one mistake.
What was that?
I referred to someone I didn’t care for as a bum-ass nigga. The minute the words came out my mouth, it was like shit was coming out of my mouth. I was like, “Wow, I never called someone a bum.” That was a reference to how much money they had and how successful they were. If I don’t like you, fuck you. If it’s fuck you, it’s fuck you. It is what it is, you know what I’m saying? But why would I make a reference to how successful or how much money you had? That was just ugly.
Are you a happy person?
When are you happiest?
When I’m looking at my son.
Why did you name him Exodus?
It’s new beginnings. Exodus speaks to beginnings. He was a new beginning.
You have an Exodus tattoo on your neck. Which verse is it?
Exodus 1:7. It says, “Be fruitful and multiply and your children will inherit the world.”
Have you read the whole Bible?
How many times?
Did you read a lot as a kid?
What was your favorite book?
My book of Bible stories. It was a Jehovah’s Witness book. It was like a children’s version of the Bible.
Do you still set goals?
I don’t need to have a goal in mind. I just need to have a purpose. And I don’t even know that purpose, because God has given me that purpose since before I was in the womb, so I’m going to fulfill that purpose…whether I want to or not, whether I know it or not, because the story has already been written. If you appreciate the good, then you have to accept the bad.
Tell me about the first time you had your heart broken.
Oh, okay. So I met this girl from Connecticut. I saw her walking by out the side of my eye. You know, at that time, if you had a chick from out of town, that was like a thing. We started hanging out and all that. And she was just so fascinated with me and where I was from. She’d be like, “Oh, my God, this is where you grew up?” I’d be like, “Yeah, cutie.” Anyway, I got locked up. We had plans the next day and everything. But I got locked up for a robbery warrant. I got four months. She came to visit me a couple times with her mom and all that, crying on the visit. I was really feeling this chick. This is my first girlfriend—like girlfriend girlfriend—you know what I’m saying? So I got released after four months. Her and her mom had moved back to Connecticut. I looked in the phone book, I called them and said, “Hi, how you doing?” I drove out there with a friend. I had no money. I was, like, a week out of jail. Me and my man rolled to her place in Connecticut. I’m 17 years old, but I got to find my girl.
Her mom said she was at work and told us she worked at the mall. We walked to the mall and…we’re starving. Remember, I had no money, nothing. We go to the mall, walk around, and I see her and I’m like, “Oh, shit.” She was with her coworker. She’s like, “Oh, hi!” And I’m like, “What up? I came out here to see you.” I had on the sneakers that I got locked up in. They wasn’t the freshest joints, you know what I’m saying? But I did four months in jail in these joints. I was in the yard and all that. She’s like, “Yeah. I get off at 10 p.m.” So I’m on cloud nine, waiting. We walked around the mall all day. All day. I’m starving at this point…starving.
I’m scared for this ending.
9:30 p.m. comes around, and I didn’t know what store she worked in, and I didn’t know where I was supposed to meet her at exactly. Security started to kick us out because the mall was closing. I’m like, “No. I’m waiting.… My girl works here. Chill. She told me—” He was like, “Listen, homie, all the stores are closed; everybody left.” I’m like, “You sure? Really?” And he was like, “Yeah, nigga.” All right. So then we waited outside for like another hour. I was like, “Damn, maybe she just had to leave, maybe she had to get a ride.…”
Still hopeful! Ouch.
Still hopeful. I called, didn’t get an answer.
Did you ever speak to her or see her?
So that same night, somebody said this club not far away was going to be popping. At that time, my robbery game was crazy. We about to make something happen. You know what I’m saying? We’re going to pull some robberies outside the club. So we went. We’re in the cut, checking everything out, when she pulls up. I’m like, “Oh, here she go. She probably knew I was going to be here anyway.…” I’m like, “Yo, what up?” She like, “Hey.” I’m walking up the steps with her, she was like, “You coming in?” I’m like, “Yeah.” Then we get to the door of the club, and she’s like, “You don’t have no money.” I’m like, “Uh-uh.” She was like, “You ain’t got no money? What type of man is you?” I just looked like, “All right, now it’s clear what it is.” So I just left. I just left. That shit hurt my feelings. Because I really liked her, and I know she really liked me before I got locked up. I don’t know what happened.
Did you ever see her again?
No. Remember Ricki Lake and all them shows? I forgot the exact show, but they had a show where they had guests who wanted to meet their favorite artists, and I was one of the artists. I said, “All right, I’ll do the show, but I need you to do something for me. You need to find this girl. We’ll do another show, where you invite her out to be a guest of the show, and I pop up like, ‘Yeah, what up?’ ” I wasn’t going to be mean. I just wanted to say, “I’m this type of man. Double-platinum, two-platinum-albums-in-one-year type of man.” Not to throw it in her face, but I ain’t even going to front. I really just wanted to ask her why she did that.
Do you ever read the news?
Not at all?
I usually hear the news from someone else. Like people talking about a certain story, and then I’m like, “Oh, shit!” There’s just so much shit happening in the world today that it’s crazy. If you just listen to the news all day, you’d be depressed.
Are you a political person?
Have you ever voted?
I’m a felon.
When was the first time you got arrested?
Actually I was 10. For arson and again at 10 for assault.
You’ve been to jail a lot, and jail is so disruptive of one’s life—
Sometimes. You can also find solace there.
This is a weird question, but does jail get easier? Was this last time easier than the other times?
No. It was harder.
Why was this last time so hard?
Because I knew that at any given time I could be smoking a cigarette and enjoying a glass of Hennessy, eating what I want. There’s so much more to life. Before I really had a life, jail was a playground. I’d be like, “I’m going to jail and have fun.” You know what I’m saying? People were sneaking weed in. I was sneaking into different cellblocks and battling rappers and shit. Jail used to be fun.
Is it true that during your last stint you spent a lot of time in the hole?
Ninety days. My last 90 days. One fourth of my bid.
You know, police target you. I went to the hole once because I was paying people for their phone time. Because you only get 300 minutes a month. That’s not enough time to talk to my baby. The second time, I got caught with a bag of wine. I bought the wine, and after I paid for the wine, the guy said, “Your wine will be done Friday.” Friday we go to rec… boom. When he handed it to me, it had a hole in it. So I put it in my shirt and tried to walk out. The wine bag fell out when I reached for something in my pocket. I picked it up and tried to walk to my cell real quick but got caught.
There have been extensive studies that show the effects solitary confinement has on the brain. Have you experienced any of them?
If you don’t got a strong mind, it’ll fuck you up. I didn’t get out of my cell at all.
How’d you pass the time?
What you try to do is sleep as much as you can. Read books. Because you got to think of shit that’s going to pass the time. Then they give you rubber pencils. I swear to God, a pencil that bends. Like, I’m saying to myself, “How the fuck do they make lead bend?” So you can’t stab someone. And then they give you paper with no lines. It’s just a bunch of shit that they don’t have to do that they do anyway, just to make your time harder.
Do you have a top five?
Top five what?
Greatest rappers of all time.
I mean, first of all, not too many rappers had that longevity. There are talented rappers, but if they only come out with one album, how could you compare that against someone else who put out seven albums?
Do you have a top five most influential rappers to you?
Yeah. I don’t know that they’re in the order that they are influential to me. Jimmy Spicer, a.k.a. Super Rhyme. Big Daddy Kane, Rakim…Slick Rick and Kool G Rap.
What would you say is special about your music?
The randomness, the recklessness. The creative aspect of it and the depth. And the from-here-to-there-ness of it.
When you were a kid, did you think you’d be successful and special?
No. That wasn’t really no option. I didn’t know anybody that made millions of dollars doing anything.
You came into hip-hop at an interesting time. It wasn’t the most lucrative, dominant music form in the culture then, right?
When I entered the music game, I guess country music was the most successful moneymaking music prior to that.
You never seemed to make mainstream pop-rap records, though.
No, I didn’t. I didn’t. It just wasn’t my thing. If the mainstream accepts it, okay. I’m not going to make it for the mainstream. I’d rather make music for people that I come in contact with, people that I can count on. That’s what I make my music for. People in the hood.
You are working on new music?
Rumor is you’re back at Def Jam.
Yeah, it’s good to be back home. I wanted to be a part of Def Jam since 1985, when the movie Krush Groove came out. And I found out that Run’s last name was Simmons, and Russell’s last name was Simmons. And Russell was running Def Jam. I saw the movie Krush Groove, and I was like, “Yo.” And at that point, I was so naive then. I was like, “Yo. If I could just meet them.” And like, “Yo, my last name is Simmons too.” And that’s it.
That’s all it would take! Do you have any reservations about making an album in 2019? It could be great. It could be terrible. We don’t know. We do know it’s really hard to be good for that long.
Right. It’s going to be great.
But it’s a totally different challenge, right?
No, it’s not.
The standard that I hold myself to is the same: Better than everything I hear. I need to be better than everything that I hear. And I can hear it. They winning with that? Oh, I’m good. If you don’t give people something incredible to listen to, they’re going to listen to whatever. And I get that. I’m not mad at the fans for enjoying these songs, or the DJs for playing songs they play. I’m not mad at them or the artists that’s winning even though they suck. I’m not mad at them.
Who are some of the new artists you like?
Kendrick is dope. J. Cole. Ya know, lyricists.
Do you put yourself in the “lyricists” category?
I don’t put myself in any category. I can do it all. I was in elementary school winning contests with fucking Hallmark, where you had to write a poem for a card. I was winning shit like that. I’ve always been a poet.
How did your cameo at Kanye’s Sunday Service come about?
He reached out.
What was your perception of the ceremony?
I wouldn’t call it a church service. There’s no word.
Yeah, it’s like a concert.
Yeah. It’s joyful, which God says to do. We about to make a joyful noise. I enjoyed it. It was moving. I didn’t know what to expect, though. I didn’t know what to expect.
How’s your relationship with your mother currently?
I love my mama. I love my mama.
Is it true that she abused you growing up?
That doesn’t mean I don’t love her. That doesn’t mean she’s the same person. Children don’t come with a fucking instruction manual. She was 20 when she had me. Four sisters; I’m the only boy. Maybe she didn’t know what to do with me. I found out I just knew things that she didn’t know when I was only six years old. I would get up at night sometimes to drink water because I was so hungry. And I saw something in her notebook that was open on the kitchen table. And it was wrong, so I erased it. I thought I was helping. I don’t know what she thought I was doing, but… I don’t know if she thought I was trying to sabotage her or whatever. I don’t know what she thought. But she beat two teeth out of my fucking mouth with a broom. And I think about this today, I’m like, “Okay, you saw me erase something in your notebook. What did you think I was trying to do? What could you have possibly thought I was trying to do?”
It’s awesome that you’ve been able to find peace and forgiveness for your mother despite things like that happening.
I think a lot of people struggle with forgiving their parents. In fact, I personally struggle with forgiving my parents. But until you learn how to forgive others, you can’t forgive yourself. You can’t forgive yourself if you don’t know how to forgive.
Have you fully forgiven yourself for the mistakes you’ve made?
Yeah. Hell yeah.
Do you still like touring and performing?
Performing in front of people is beyond a high. It’s beyond a high that any drug could duplicate. Just being onstage, period, and knowing that there’s so much love out there. I pray before I go onstage with everyone in the room. And I end my show with a prayer onstage. And I’d say maybe 65 percent of the time that I get offstage, I’m so emotionally overwhelmed, I just break down. Sometimes it’s leaving the stage, it’s just like, “Get me to my dressing room. I don’t want people to see me like this.” I just take a minute for myself and just, I thank Him, I praise Him. And I’m like, “Thank you, thank you.” I’m like, “Who am I to deserve this?” We all bleed the same blood.