Photography by Jonathan Mannion
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?
“One thing about X, he just embraces love. He don’t care about what kind of love, he just embraced the love.” —Swizz Beatz
TINA DAVIS (head of A&R at Def Jam, 1996-2004): We were trying to have shock value. That was what was important for us. DMX kind of had his own vision of what he wanted to do and we just made it happen for him. We allowed them to tell us what they had in mind and we just improvised on it.
DMX: I wanted to get that bonus. So I wasn’t playing with that whole studio shit. I wanted to get it out. The first album had 19 songs, so I already felt like I was cheating a little bit by giving them less songs than on the first one.
DARRIN “DEE” DEAN: We’d already put in a good 10 years of work before we even got in the game. So for the second album, we just redid most of the songs we had left over from the first one, mixed it, mastered it, and got it done.
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN: Timeline was the biggest issue. Everything had to be done yesterday. They hated me for that, cause that was my job: to make sure the pressure stays on all day. “Damn, y’all taking forever to make this song.” The hardest part was we had the two-inch reels. It took forever to mix the songs. It took us eight hours just to mix one song, and then we had to double check it. It’d take us 48 hours; sometimes it took us a week to do a damn song and mix it. We had to book out three, four rooms at once.
As Ruff Ryders worked on the album, its impending release came to represent something more: a chance to define a movement.
STYLES P: We had a lot on our shoulders. Nobody really gave a fuck about Yonkers. Rap-wise, there was no notches, there were no salutes, there was no acknowledgement, there was no nothing. So all four of us [Styles P, Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, and DMX] took that very personally. We took that as a badge of honor to make sure muhfuckas know it. Putting that work in was a badge of honor for us.
SWIZZ BEATZ: My uncle was just establishing the label, moving around, still kind of in the streets. That’s just how it was — one foot in, one foot out. X had to record wherever the goons were.
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN: We recorded up in Yonkers, at Powerhouse. We recorded at the Hit Factory. We hit Sony, we hit Quad. We locked down all the studios in the city. We had our own studio, too. All at once we had New York, L.A., and Miami studios on lock, mixing that album.
DMX: We did [pieces of the album] out in Cali. That was different for me. Being out there for an extended period of time like that. I bought my first lowrider. We was just in the studio a lot. We had fun with it.
DAME GREASE: I used to sleep at Powerhouse. I’d be in there eating turkey sandwiches, Chinese, and sleeping on the boards. Just cranking, cranking, cranking around the clock. The energy was crazy. All of us was, like, right off the street. Right off the corners and shit. We just put all that energy from the street — the bad shit, the love, the good shit, the hate, all that shit. We just put it inside the album.
KEVIN LILES: Rap wasn’t a hobby to him, it was his life. X would do four to five songs a day because he was just writing about what was going on around him.
DMX: I record because it’s a dope beat or I have something on my mind; that’s why I write. I just always wanted it to come from the heart.
KEVIN LILES: With X, we never chased radio. We chased to make sure we knew where he was. What were we chasing when he said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling, I can’t get up?” That’s just where he was in his life.
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN: X was writing “Slippin’” for a while — six months, a year. He wanted this song to be impacting people’s lives.
DARRIN “DEE” DEAN: There was a million people out here that was going through what he’s going through. He could relate to them and they could relate to him.
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN: He made the people feel his pain and he let them know, “Rappers can talk about fluff, and yeah I’m nice and I can do a hot song,” but X on this second album made the people understand that he was them. And he was going through what they was going through.
KAREN R. GOOD: When people are like that, when they lay themselves bare — to an extent, you know, he wasn’t telling everything. He was telling a lot. He had real issues. He was dealing with serious addiction issues and had a lot of pain. X couldn’t really be fake. I don’t think he knew how, really. There was no artifice. People were like, “He’s the next Pac!” He would throw biblical references around and just be talking really frankly about his demons, which is what made him endearing. He could do both.
Working alongside producers like Dame Grease and P. Killer Trackz on Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, the album also marked the emergence of Swizz Beatz as a bonafide hitmaker.
SWIZZ BEATZ: I was still in school when they were doing It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and I was pissed. Like, “Y’all went and did this without me?” My uncles made it pretty hard. They were like, “If you’re messing up in school, you can’t be around this.” So I just focused on school and getting my grades right. Songs started popping off, and it got real, so I moved to New York. I was around after that. With Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, me and X got the formula going and there wasn’t any stopping us.
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN: They had worked together since Swizz was 12 years old. That’s what made Swizz and X be able to gel, because they were so in tune with each other, with doing damn near everything together. Going out, partying together, jumping cabs together, hanging out with the same girls, and just having fun together.
DARRIN “DEE” DEAN: It was easy for me to be like, “Yo Swizz, give me a beat. I need a beat for tomorrow.” He’d go in there, come back out, and he’d have another beat.
SWIZZ BEATZ: On “My Niggas,” X was just vibing. The track made him want to talk like that in the beginning. It had that little spaced-out chorus I was putting in there. I was making it a little bit dramatic. We were about anthems. When you look at most anthems, they’re very repetitive, they keep coming back around. “My niggas” was just the anchor, and it was like filling in the blanks. Everybody kept saying it over and over in the studio, and it was easy for him to record. That’s the thing — the reason why I got so many tracks on X’s album was because I had a formula that was different. I would come up with the choruses, I would come up with the concepts, and then the artist just had to fill in the blanks.
KAREN R. GOOD: Swizz was traveling in two worlds. On the one end you are dealing with some gritty dudes, and on the other end, you’re making these anthems. And the thing about anthems is, you can have a “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and that’s not tested out, but then by the second album, you’re kind of known for that first anthem so you kind of gotta do another anthem. Then it becomes something else. X and Swizz had a hardness to them, but they were also pop. They knew how to create anthems, and it was still good in the club.
SWIZZ BEATZ: “It’s All Good” was a requested sample [from Taana Gardner’s 1981 single “Heartbeat”]. X always loved it. He used to freestyle to a lot of old school beats on his early demos, so we was very comfortable with old school breaks and beats. When we were recording, he was like, “Just slip that one to me please.” I remember having a debate with him. I was like, “We should just take the sample out.” But he was like, “Nah, I just wanna hear it like how I remember it.”
“I felt vindicated. I knew I was fucking dope.” —DMX
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN: This album was real horn-driven. Swizz brought a mixture of the East Coast and the South. He’s from the Bronx, but then he went down to Atlanta to finish high school, and he brought back a lot of original music. When he mixed those two regions together, and then he put the Dog on it, you got Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. The heat is on. Matter of fact, X wrote “Heat” in Atlanta.
DAME GREASE: The original version of “Heat,” that shit was crazy. The version on Flesh of My Flesh that Swizz did is hot, too. This older dude that we rented the space from in Georgia — a couple rooms to just work — always had this old dog that was in the house. We opened the back patio for one second, and the dog darted out. Hours later, somebody called the guy and said, “Yo, your dog is dead on the highway.” The dude was so mad, and he pulled out a gun on us like, “You killed my dog.” X was just like, “Fuck you.”
STYLES P: It was a team, a brotherhood, an army. We were trying to make our mark on the land, leave our footprints behind so muhfuckas remembered we was here, and what we gave, and what we did. X brought upper-echelon grit to the game. Shit was epic. High energy, dogs, motorcycles, lotta homies, lotta hunger, rough days. It was a crazy lifestyle.
DMX: The album is a journey. With “Ready to Meet Him,” I wanted to end on a prayer because that’s what we started with, and I wanted the last thing you hear to be a conversation with the Lord.
TINA DAVIS: DMX does not play with God. He’ll test you and test you. If you don’t have the same feeling or spirituality, he kind of backs away. He was so spiritual that you just kind of let him do what he does. He was a really good person so you trusted his vision. Irv would pull out [DMX’s] ideas and they would be rough on the edges. Irv would shine it, fix it, and make it right, but not take it too far away from what DMX had in his mind or what Waah had in his mind.
SWIZZ BEATZ: I remember seeing the album cover and I was like, “Come on Dog, we taking it too goddamn far with this.” He’s covered in blood — what the fuck is this? But X allowing himself to do that on the cover of his album is an art piece. It was horror film grimy. I hadn’t ever seen anything like that before. I can’t say I loved it at that time. It grew on me when I realized how groundbreaking it was.
JONATHAN MANNION (album photographer): Originally, we were supposed to shoot [the cover] in New York, but we had to switch to L.A. because X was so busy at the time. His popularity was through the roof. The label said I wouldn’t be able to speak to him before, but they gave me the title and told me I could do anything I wanted. It was a risk to put him in a pool of blood. Everybody instantly thinks violence and horror, but in my mind, why isn’t it a protection thing — covered in the blood of Christ? I went with the white [background] to evoke this peaceful, prayerful side of him, which speaks clearly to faith and his belief in himself. The red was the intensity of the delivery of his message. You couldn’t look away.
DMX: I was fucking freezing. Freezing! With jeans on. I’m talking bone-chilling cold.
JONATHAN MANNION: The whole time I was shooting I had chills, just knowing we were doing something different for the entire genre, but also for him. X was willing to go there with me.
SWIZZ BEATZ: One thing about X, he just embraces love. He don’t care about what kind of love, he just embraced the love. When fans started embracing him after “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” it was a whole different audience and that led to movies and things like that. I’m glad that he embraced that because it was a challenge for us. We were being very competitive at that time — trying to have the biggest win, which we did.
DMX: PK was definitely instrumental, too. His beats brought out emotion. He did the “Bring Your Whole Crew” beat. I was gonna lay the hook, and he ended up doing it. We all thought that he sounded like Ice Cube when he did that. It was kinda funny because we were in L.A. I was like, “Oh shit, this nigga went and got Ice Cube to get on the song,” but it turned out to be PK. I had good chemistry with all the producers. We were all in house. We were walking the dog together, for a long time.
SWIZZ BEATZ: All I was doing was scoring the movie, he wrote the script. I took it like that — I’m scoring the film, and it’s a scary film. With “The Omen,” it was X playing his roles and his theatrical style, him and Marilyn Manson. We was going way far on that song. I was producing Marilyn Manson at that time. We were just having fun with it and thinking big at that time. Like, “We can cross over into the rock world! OK, let’s go. X is a rockstar.” They loved him.
Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood entered the Billboard charts at No. 1, selling more than 650,000 units the first week. It eventually went 3x platinum and solidified DMX’s late-’90s dominance.
KAREN R. GOOD: You sell 5 million albums [of your debut], and the next album you go platinum, and you do that in the same year — you can’t ignore it! People are fly-by-night, but X also had a compelling story, he had a provocative way about him.
STYLES P: He brought the fuckin’ dog to the rap game. He brought a lot of energy, a lot of raw shit, and a lot of pain.
SWIZZ BEATZ: People thought we were crazy. But the numbers showed us we were far from crazy. That’s when we really had people scared. They was like, “Uh oh. This is dangerous. These guys are powerful.” It’s like what Drake is doing now. Same thing when Cash Money came, same thing when Jay had Hard Knock Life. It’s just these moments in hip-hop where you feel invincible. It felt good hearing the music on the radio and in cars, skating rinks, and clubs. This was before I even realized that I had made a shitload of money. I didn’t even know those publishing and royalty checks were gonna look like that because I had never got them before. I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I can sit here and do this and that happens?” I never did this for money; I just did it because I loved doing music. So when it finally came, it was unexpected.
TINA DAVIS: X just cut through being as raw and rugged as possible. He always believed that it could happen for him. And everybody, I mean everybody, every rapper respected it. We sold a lot of fucking records, which was great. We had big bonuses, hella parties.
DMX: I made $144 million dollars for [Def Jam] that first year. I felt vindicated. I knew I was fucking dope. Not in an arrogant way, but in a way that was like, “Yes, I dare to believe in myself.” And I turned out to be right. And dropping two albums in one year, it sped up the pace of how music is put out. It set a new standard.
DAME GREASE: You know how some people become superstars and that rules them? That was never X. It’s certain stars that are like, “Damn, I wanna walk in that chicken spot, but I can’t walk in that chicken spot.” That’s a typical superstar. A person like X, he’d go get a piece of chicken.
JONATHAN MANNION: He’s an artist that occupies his own lane entirely. He always has. He shook up the system and made people realize you could eloquently deliver a perspective in your own voice — loud, angry, gruff, barking your way through it — and still get your point across. He was that dude.
KAREN R. GOOD: It was his time. I don’t know if he was filling a void, I just think he was reminiscent of something and he was himself. He had a familiarity to him of these spirits, of this energy, but in his own right.
KEVIN LILES: The albums were actual chapters in the same book; they were moments in his life. ’98 was a defining moment for X. He moved culture.
LYOR COHEN: It was almost like congressional areas being redrafted, like lines through neighborhoods being repurposed so that power shifts. It was our gerrymandering.
JOAQUIN “WAAH” DEAN: We ain’t know we was making history. We was learning the game. Earning it. We ain’t even know half of that shit! We just jumped out the window with no parachute. All we knew is we wanted to win, and X was ready to go. I don’t know what to tell you about the legacy of this album; there’s no words to be attached to it. Flesh of My Flesh is forever.