It's around 5 on a November evening, and DMX is getting ready to do a sound check inside the Venue Scottsdale, an upscale concert space. Dressed in a black shirt, long shorts and hiking boots, the rapper paces the stage. Suddenly, he brings the microphone to his mouth and hollers, "What?"
His manager, Nakia Walker, sitting in front of a speaker, covers an ear and winces. DMX — his real name is Earl Simmons — chuckles and lowers his voice, imitating a smooth radio announcer.
"Hello, and welcome to a mellow evening with DMX," he says. "Tonight, we'll be playing all of your favorites, like this classic tune."
The DJ cues the track for "Slippin'," from DMX's second album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. He raps its memorable lyrics: Hey, yo, I'm slippin', I'm fallin', I can't get up/Hey, yo, I'm slippin', I'm fallin', I gots to get up. The music takes a sudden pause, and he screams: "I want to make records but I'm fucking it up!"
Walker's cell phone rings. It's somebody asking what DMX wants in his dressing room, other than the items already assembled: fried chicken, Now and Laters, Skittles, a bottle of Hennessy.
"Hey, Earl, what do you want in your dressing room?" Walker yells.
"Butt-naked women and jelly beans!" he says with a big grin.
"Make sure it's somebody Angela likes," Walker jokes, referring to the woman with Simmons, an aspiring model whom he introduces as "my baby mama."
Simmons puts his arms around Angela's waist and hugs her. Earlier, he had taken her aside and given her a necklace. "So you can look at that and think of me, and know I'll always be with you," he had told her.
This is the side of DMX that people rarely see. Simmons and the rapper whom friends call X are two different people, according to Simmons and to those closest to him. He raises money for his church, loves his nine kids (whom he's had with five mothers), and collects toy cars and trucks because he's still a kid inside. X, on the other hand, doesn't give a shit.
"Earl is a person who still holds on to a lot of things he suffered in the past, as a child," Walker says. "He holds on to things instead of talking about things and releasing. He expresses himself through his music."
So watching DMX's career has been like watching someone repeatedly punch himself in the face. You picture a cherubic angel atop one of his broad shoulders, telling him not to snort that line of coke or skip that appointment with his probation officer. And you know that there's that other shoulder.
For DMX, the struggle to choose between right and wrong has never sounded more fierce than on his unreleased double album, Walk With Me Now and Fly With Me Later. His gruff, deep voice bursts forth on these tracks. He makes liberal use of the words nigga and faggot and raps about breaking shanks in jail and feeding people to javelinas. But from the shoulder of his better angel, he raps about repentance, about praying to God. This is a man falling down and trying to get back up.
With its jazz-horn samples, funk beats, rhythmic scratching and screaming guitar, the record also sounds phenomenal. And why wouldn't it? DMX is the only hip-hop artist in history to have five straight albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. He has sold more than 21 million albums worldwide. For the first time since 2006, there's some great new DMX music ready for release.