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.
But right now, with the rapper back where he has spent much of the past several years — in jail — no one can buy it.
Simmons was born December 18, 1970, in Mount Vernon, New York, the only child of Arnett Simmons and Joe Barker. His mother already had a 2-year-old daughter by another man when she became pregnant with Earl. She was 19.
As a child, Simmons lived with his mother and sister in a one-bedroom apartment in Yonkers, New York. They were on welfare. He had no father figures except his mother's boyfriends, who rarely paid attention to him. "My mother beat me for every man that did her wrong, for every man that fucked her and left her," Simmons writes in E.A.R.L., his 2002 autobiography.
Simmons discovered his talent for words in the third grade. One day, he ran home and proudly proclaimed, "I can spell 'Empire State Building!'" But he says his mother just glanced up and told him to run along. So Simmons started doing other things to get attention, like fighting and throwing chairs at teachers. He was first incarcerated at 10, when the courts sent him to a children's home for 18 months.
Simmons returned home to his mother but ran away often. Many nights, he slept in clothing bins outside the Salvation Army in Getty Square. By his teens, he was using drugs and mugging people on the streets of Yonkers.
And he started taking in stray dogs, the mangier the better. They weren't allowed inside his apartment building, so he slept with them on the roof. He trusted dogs more than people.
One day, a neighbor kid called Peanut called animal control about Simmons' dog Blacky, and they shot Blacky right in front of him, he says. A week later, a pissed-off Simmons went to school with a sawed-off shotgun taped to his leg. A few days later, he was in a juvenile detention facility, the first of many where he would have an extended stay.
It was in juvie that Simmons decided to be an MC. He was beatboxing and calling himself Beat Box Enforcer, but when he noticed the rappers getting more attention, he began writing rhymes. He called himself DMX the Great, a nod to the Oberheim DMX drum machine that he used to make his beats.
He battled other MCs on the streets, performed at community centers, and continued to steal and sell drugs to get money. In 1991, he was featured in a column called "Unsigned Hype" in the hip-hop magazine The Source, and in 1992, he was signed to Ruffhouse Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. But DMX's first single, "Born Loser," didn't take off, and he was released from his contract.
Around this time, Simmons was reintroduced to a woman named Tashera, who had been a classmate at Yonkers High School. She first met him when he was 11. "I was coming down the block, and he was taking an old lady's purse," she recalls with a chuckle.
When Simmons heard for the first time that one of his songs was on the radio, he was in jail in Valhalla, New York, on assault and battery charges. His track "Spellbound" was getting airplay on local station WBLS 107.5. After Simmons was released, he hooked up with Joaquin "Waah" Dean and Dean's brother, Darrin. Together, they formed a company called Ruff Ryders.
Ruff Ryders arranged a record deal for DMX with Def Jam Recordings. His first album, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, released in May 1998, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. His second album followed in December 1998 and also debuted at No. 1. He was the second rapper to have two albums debut in the top spot that year; the other was Tupac.
Simmons and Tashera married in 1999 and had four children. She says she noticed Simmons' "different mood swings" early in their relationship. "I started to think he had multiple personalities," she says. "There was Earl, that really, really loved me and was the person I fell in love with, and then there was this dark one, X, who didn't care for me and didn't want to follow the rules." Tashera says Simmons' success caused the rapper's drug use — "always a big fight," she says — to worsen.
DMX released three more albums over the next five years, all of which debuted at No. 1. Columbia put out his most recent studio album, Year of the Dog ... Again, in 2006. It fell short of debuting at No. 1 by about 100 copies. Between albums, Simmons had begun making movies, with roles in Last Hour, Exit Wounds and Romeo Must Die.
But despite his commercial success, Simmons' personal problems continued. His rap sheet, like his music, would become epic.
In June 2004, DMX was arrested at JFK International Airport in New York. He reportedly had tried to steal a car by telling the driver that he was an FBI agent. Then he crashed his SUV — with a billy club and a bag of crack in it — through an airport parking gate. Simmons was charged with impersonating a federal agent, possession of cocaine and other crimes, and attempted carjacking. He pleaded guilty, paid several fines and served a seven-day sentence.
He moved to Arizona in 2005 after recording an album, and he started racking up arrests there three years ago. His most recent, in November, marked his sixth in Maricopa County. He stayed in Arizona between arrests, despite his vows never to return. "At one point, I think I said I'd rather fly around the state than over it," Simmons says outside Venue, between puffs of a Newport cigarette. "To tell you the truth, I haven't left yet. I think I'm gonna stay. I've been in jail out here, so I guess it's home now."
In August 2007, sheriff's deputies in Maricopa County raided Simmons' Arizona home. According to court documents, they found several firearms (which Simmons was prohibited from possessing), a Bell Atlantic bag containing baggies "with a yellow rock substance," as well as three dead pit bulls and a dozen others in bad condition. Simmons wasn't home and wasn't charged until almost nine months later, when he was slammed with seven misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and four counts of felony drug possession.
Simmons was in New York in the weeks leading up to the raid. He says he hired a caretaker to look after his dogs. That man, Brad Blackwell, told sheriff's deputies that he agreed to watch the dogs "for just a couple of days."
Simmons skipped out on his court date in Maricopa County and went to Florida, where he was promptly arrested for driving on a suspended license. Four days later, he was arrested again in Miami for attempting to purchase drugs from an undercover cop.
Simmons left Miami and flew to Phoenix on July 2, 2008, and was arrested at the airport. Seventeen days after posting bond, Simmons was arrested again, this time at a shopping mall, for allegedly providing false information to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale to avoid paying medical bills.
He pleaded guilty to four of the charges stemming from the raid on his home by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and he was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 18 months of supervised probation. During his time in the Lower Buckeye Jail, he was placed in solitary confinement for allegedly throwing a food tray at a guard.
Simmons was released on probation in late April 2009. Everything seemed fine until 11 months later, when he was arrested after a drug test came back positive for cocaine. He pleaded guilty to violating his probation and got six months in jail. "It was a pretty good stretch," Simmons says. "At least I was in the A/C."
He was released early for good behavior last summer, after serving four months. A couple of weeks later, Tashera Simmons announced that they were separating.
Simmons says he's trying to do positive things. Before his arrest in November, he had planned to participate in a charity event to raise $500 each for 20 Phoenix families in need.
Many of the new DMX songs were written and recorded on the first take, right after Simmons heard the beats the first time.
"He is truly one of the world's greatest rappers and a genuine poet," says Don Salter, owner of the Saltmine Studio in Mesa, Arizona, where DMX recorded Walk With Me Now. "He has a spontaneous ability to rhyme, reason and record masterpieces on the fly."
The new material reflects DMX's chaotic life in Arizona. Perhaps most haunting is the track "Soldier," which begins with a collage of sound bites from news stations about his various arrests, laid down over a melancholy piano hook and a martial beat. In the first verse, DMX raps: Ran through the streets, made it out of NY/Come to AZ, cowboys trying to end my/Man, you can't be serious homie/Besides mountains, ain't a fucking thing you can show me.
Whenever DMX has been arrested in Phoenix, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been right there, helping make it a media production, saying the rapper "never learns his lesson" and vowing to treat him the same as any other prisoner, which includes making him wear pink underwear like the rest of the MCSO inmates. A couple of years ago, DMX told TMZ, "For the record, fuck Sheriff Joe."
Asked if he feels that he's been treated unfairly by Arpaio, Simmons says, "I'd say I've been given a lot of unfair treatment. But I'm not gonna let that dictate what I do."
Many of the tracks on his new recording feature beats contributed by Swizz Beatz (Kasseem Dean), nephew of Waah and Darrin Dean. Beatz was 17 when he sold his first beat to DMX. He has gone on to produce music for Beyoncé and Busta Rhymes, and he now runs his own label, Full Surface Records.
When Beatz initially sent the music, DMX had been out of jail for a while. "He [DMX] was very diligent at being clean and maintaining his sobriety. He was very clearheaded," Salter says. "I think he really did buy into the idea that he was going to get his life together and get his career back."
But Simmons' career had fallen apart by 2010. He left the Def Jam label in 2003 and, for years, claimed that he left because the new president of Def Jam, Jay-Z, wasn't promoting his albums. Others in Simmons' camp, such as Walker, say Jay-Z let Simmons go so he could deal with his problems, and Jay-Z didn't demand the $2 million that Simmons would have owed for not fulfilling his contract. (Jay-Z's publicist at Universal Music did not respond to interview requests for this story. An interview request through his book publisher was declined.)
Simmons signed to Bodog Music in 2007 to record and release Walk With Me Now and Fly With Me Later. After Bodog Music shut down in 2008, International Arts Management and Her Royal Majesty's Records retained the rights to the songs. According to IAM CEO Peter Karroll, the plan is still to release the record.
"I've always felt the guy was a creative genius and deserved another shot," Karroll says. "This is a big record. I think this album has the potential to take him back to number one."
But Karroll doesn't want to release the record while Simmons is in jail, and it needs money for distribution and promotion. He says he has received several investor offers, but negotiations collapse whenever DMX lands in jail. Somebody who has sold millions of albums could conceivably live off publishing royalties, but Simmons admits that he never looked at his finances the first 10 years of his career.
When Walker came onboard and looked at Simmons' business papers last year, she says she discovered that someone had been stealing his publishing royalties for more than a decade.
On April 26, 2010, Simmons filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court against Rich Kid Entertainment, a company that he hired in 1999 to collect his royalties. The lawsuit, which is still pending, alleges that instead of taking the 10-percent cut dictated by its contract with DMZ, Rich Kid pocketed 100 percent of Simmons' publishing profits.
Walker says she's doing everything she can to keep Simmons focused on positive things: "We're reaching out to Swizz [Beatz]. Busta Rhymes is calling. He wants to help. Flava Flav is calling. He wants to help. And I'm not lying to people. I'm telling them, 'He needs help. It's time we address it. It's time we come together and save his life. Or else he's going to die.'"
On a Thursday morning in December, Simmons is dressed in the black-and-white-striped suit of a Maricopa County prison inmate, waiting for his probationrevocation hearing to start. In recent days, bags had formed under his eyes. But today he looks rested, and thinner than a month ago.
When the hearing begins, Simmons pleads guilty to a felony probation violation. Judge Christine Mulleneaux accepts the plea but adds some observations.
"His substance-abuse issues are at the root of this problem," she says. "He's been on some type of substance since he was 14."
Simmons' probation-violation report shows that he admitted using cocaine on August 12 in Los Angeles and again on October 20. Drug tests were positive for cocaine on October 12, 15 and 25. He didn't show for a drug test on October 28.
"You went on a downward spiral," Mulleneaux tells Simmons. "Your criminal history goes back to 1988. It's going to continue if you don't take care of your mental health."
Prior to sentencing, the judge asks Simmons if he has anything to say. He bows his head. "I did make the effort that I could," he says. "And I appreciate any help you can give me."
Mulleneaux announces the sentence: one year in jail, minus 113 days already served. Simmons casts a disappointed glance at his attorney, then raises his head high. Though he receives the maximum sentence for his offense, he gets nearly four months shaved off right away. With no thrown trays, he might get out even sooner.
He turns to the handful of court spectators, who include Walker and a cousin. Simmons smiles. Walker wipes away tears.
Not long into his sentence, Simmons will be transferred to the mental-health unit of the prison. His mental well-being and the long-circulated rumor that he has bipolar disorder were not items that Simmons would comment on during interviews for this story, saying only, "That's way too personal." But for the moment, he seems upbeat.
"Yo, I'll be out in two and a half, three months, all right?" Simmons says as a guard leads him through a steel door.