DMX’s Downfall: From Hip-Hop King to the Brink of Death

In 1998, DMX was the hottest rapper alive. This week, police resuscitated him after a possible overdose in a Ramada Inn parking lot. How the Ruff Ryder lost his way.

DMX was found unresponsive at a Ramada Inn parking lot in his native Yonkers, New York, this week after suffering a possible drug overdose. The growling rapper’s long history of addiction and arrests is as well-known as his music at this point—perhaps even more so—so it’s not hard to see why many would jump to those conclusions. Varying reports claimed that cops gave him CPR and a medic injected him with Narcan, which is an anti-opioid used to reverse the effects of a heroin overdose.It was reported that a witness at the scene said DMX had taken a powdered drug before he collapsed.“We’re told when cops arrived DMX was on the ground in the parking lot next to a parked car,” reported TMZ. “Cops quickly determined he was lifeless, not breathing with no pulse and immediately began CPR.”For his part, the man formerly know as Earl Simmons claims that he did not take any powder or drugs, and says all he remembers is that he was experiencing trouble breathing after a recent bout of bronchitis and then collapsed, while a family member reportedly told TMZ that he’d requested his inhaler for his asthma before falling unconscious. Asthma attack or drug overdose, it’s hard to know what to believe. Given DMX’s history, both are equally likely to be true. But every time his name pops up in the headlines, with mentions of drugs and health and this ominous, lingering feeling of impending tragedy, we’re reminded of how far he’s fallen—and how upsetting it is that he can’t seem to stop the spiral.In the spring of 1998, there wasn’t an album rap fans like myself were more intensely anticipating than DMX’s debut. He’d been burning through hip-hop for months, with guest appearances on hits ranging from “Money, Power, Respect” and “24 Hours To Live” to “4,3,2,1” from flossy rappers like Ma$e and LL Cool J. His single “Get at Me Dog” had been released that winter and was a go-to track at parties on my college campus that year. I have fond memories of my college days, but in retrospect, that time was especially divided when it came to mainstream hip-hop fans on my small HBCU campus in central Georgia. Most of my peers fell into one of three camps: No Limit soldiers, Wu-Tang Clan disciples, and Bad Boy fanatics—not to mention those who were devoted to “artsier” fare from the Dungeon Family and Native Tongues/Soulquarians.But everybody seemed to love DMX. He had the hardcore East Coast aggression, the radio-friendly hooks, and the “tear da club up” energy that resonated with all of the disparate camps at my school. We all had It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot that spring.

Now, there’s an entire generation of music fans who only know DMX as this middle-aged troubled figure who was once, apparently, a very big hip-hop star. It may seem unfathomable to people under 25 that there was a time when the three biggest rappers in the world were Jay Z, Eminem, and DMX. And DMX achieved true superstardom even before the other two—Jay wouldn’t release his first crossover-hit album until that fall (the multi-platinumVol. 2… Hard Knock Life) and Eminem’s mainstream debut The Slim Shady LP was still a year away. By the end of 1998, DMX already had two hit albums that topped the Billboard charts: It’s Dark… and Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood.

He went from grimy underdog to hip-hop superstar in what seemed like just a few months. Unlike most rappers, X was already in his late twenties before he broke through, but he was just as ill-prepared as youngsters like Chief Keef and Bobby Shmurda would be a generation later. Almost immediately after he became a star, DMX was making headlines for bad behavior. There were drug and weapons possession arrests, and charges of animal cruelty. He’d been ordered to make public service announcements and he’d gone to rehab, but DMX’s demons never seemed to subside. By the early 2000s, he’d released a string of successful albums and had made the transition to bona fide movie star, appearing in films like Belly, Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, and Cradle 2 the Grave. But he was getting more and more out of control.

One of the most notoriously bizarre moments happened in 2004, when DMX and an accomplice broke into the parking lot of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport after X told an attendant he was a federal agent, then attempted to commandeer a man’s SUV, with X telling the shocked driver he was working for the FBI. According to court documents, DMX then physically removed the driver from his vehicle—while the man’s 12-year-old daughter was in the car. Upon his arrest, police found a handgun, nightstick, 20 rocks of crack cocaine, Oxycodone, and Diazepam, and the rapper was charged with criminal possession of a weapon, criminal possession of a controlled substance, criminal mischief, driving under the influence, menacing, impersonation, and endangering the welfare of a child. He struck a plea deal where he only ended up serving under six weeks behind bars for violating parole.

DMX would spend the next decade making headlines for arrests and spending time in and out the slammer—all to the detriment of his once-stellar entertainment career. He’s only released one album since 2006 (2012s lackluster Undisputed) and his movie career fizzled, with X only appearing in straight-to-DVD clunkers since 2006, along with the occasional cameo (he spoofed his penchant for incarceration in an awkwardly funny scene from Chris Rock’s 2014 comedy Top Five). He became a celebrity pariah more renowned for his bad behavior than catchy hits: the drug addiction, the seemingly endless litany of arrests, and his crumbling marriage to now-ex-wife Tashera Simmons (she separated from X in 2010 after he was incarcerated three times that year). X has also fathered 12 children with several women, including two via extramarital affairs while he was with Tashera. In 2013, he declared bankruptcy due to outstanding child support payments, and in July 2015 was sentenced to six months in jail for owing over $400,000 in back child support.

Through it all, DMX has shown the occasional flash of humor regarding both his troubles and his hardcore image (in addition to the Top Five cameo, his impromptu rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and his anxiety-ridden ride on the Sling Shot became viral sensations), but his troubles also seemed to become something of a punchline. As we often do with troubled celebrities, the world started laughing at DMX’s fall.

That fall stopped being funny a long time ago, if it ever was. When the depths of X’s addictions were revealed during that awful and unfortunate episode of Iyanla: Fix My Life, where the rapper copped to his infidelity and all but admitted that he couldn’t abandon drugs in lieu of reconciling with his son, I’d long stopped chuckling at the strange headlines and erratic behavior. We snickered at Whitney Houston (and her daughter, Bobbi Kristina), until we realized all too late that her problems were pushing her past the point of no return. We marvel at guys like Keith Richards without acknowledging how much damage their behavior problem did to both them and their loved ones. There’s nothing admirable about addiction—even if you live to tell the tale. It’s a crippling, debilitating disease, and DMX’s life is a testament to that.

The rapper has reportedly left the hospital following his episode in that Ramada Inn parking lot. We may never know the whole truth regarding what happened, but we know that X has a long, hard history. And one has to wonder who he has in his corner helping him push forward and making sure he’s staying focused on sobriety. But fans and media would do better by him, and all famous addicts, to not treat him like a spectacle or to treat his behavior and his problems like they’re just part of the “troubled artist” mythos. We may never see another DMX album or another blockbuster DMX movie, but we could one day see a healthy DMX—if he wants it bad enough.

Lord knows I do.