NOEL KING, HOST:
The rapper DMX was hospitalized this weekend after a heart attack and is on life support. That's according to his lawyer. If you were anywhere near a radio or a club in the late '90s or the early aughts, you know songs like "Ruff Ryder's Anthem" and "Party Up." DMX was born Earl Simmons. And he grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. Even as he became successful, though, he struggled with legal problems and addiction. NPR's Rodney Carmichael covers hip-hop. He's been following this story. Good morning, Rodney.
RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey, Noel. How are you?
KING: I'm good. I'm good, thanks. This is some really sad news. How are fans taking it?
CARMICHAEL: Yeah, it is sad. Hundreds of fans and family actually showed up at a vigil yesterday that was held outside of White Plains Hospital where he's been since Friday. And, you know, news of his condition, it's inspired an outpouring of tributes from fans and music industry peers. And, you know, Noel, there's really been a lot of prayer, which is fitting because, you know, there's no bigger prayer warrior in hip-hop than DMX. I mean, this is a man who raps like a pit bull and prays like a Baptist preacher in the pulpit. And, you know, that can happen in the same song sometimes. So - you know, there's really, like, no rap artist before or after that even comes close to being as conscious of his own contradictions and equally adept at laying them bare on record.
KING: Talk about his emergence on the scene and what made him so unique.
CARMICHAEL: Well, he emerged in this kind of post-Biggie and Pac era in the late '90s when, you know, rappers really didn't have to cross over anymore because the mainstream had basically crossed over to them. But, you know, the genre had also gotten a lot flashier. Rappers were flaunting their wealth and wearing shiny suits, you know? And so in comes DMX, like, straight out the gutter, basically. He was this tormented soul making club anthems and redemption songs. And he achieved, like, massive commercial success for a street-oriented artist. He was the first living rapper to release two No. 1 albums in the same year. And his first five albums all hit the top of the charts. And then he went on to cement his legend on the big screen in films like "Belly" and "Romeo Must Die" with Aaliyah.
KING: How did his problems with addiction start?
CARMICHAEL: So you know Tupac. He has this really famous acronym he created called Thug Life, which stood for the hate you give little infants Fs everybody. And DMX, man, he really is like a living embodiment of that as he's growing up in Yonkers, N.Y. He's a product of parental abuse, boys homes, jail before his teen years and, eventually, prison. So he was forced to grow up really fast in the streets. And he recently told the story on rapper Talib Kweli's podcast of how he was only 14 when an older mentor gave him a cigar of weed and secretly laced it with crack. DMX, he'd never smoked anything in his life. And he said he was forever changed after that.
KING: And then, how did he change the genre?
CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, simply put, man, DMX is a living legend. He made rap more confessional, more spiritually grounded. And he made it compelling not just to expose your demons, but really to express your devout faith in God. When you see rappers like Kendrick Lamar or Kanye West rapping about their faith, well, they're following a path that the DMX laid. And he wasn't doing it for personal gain either but really to voice the unspoken pain of his generation.
KING: NPR's Rodney Carmichael.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO WE BE")
DMX: (Singing) They don't know...
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