[Def Jam： Fight for NY]DMX Wanted a New Beginning. Swizz Beatz Is Seeing It Through.
ObituaryDMX MemorialAppraising His LegacyPlaylist: 10 Essential SongsPopcast: Telling His Life Story
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The New York rapper had big plans for a comeback album before his death in April, but it was up to his longtime producer to finish the job.
DMX died before the release of “Exodus,” his eighth album, and his first on Def Jam since 2003.Credit…Clay Patrick McBride
By Joe Coscarelli
May 27, 2021
DMX was supposed to start working out soon.
Nearing 50, fresh off serving a year in prison for tax evasion, the rapper had signed a new deal with his old label, Def Jam, and set upon making his first album in almost a decade. In the studio, his bark remained ferocious. But DMX, who had long battled drug addiction, knew he had also gained some weight and was feeling self-conscious.
At first, “he felt his look was off,” said Swizz Beatz, DMX’s longtime friend and producer. But as the recording process went on, the rapper came into his own and stopped caring. “He wanted people to post videos of him dancing,” the producer said. “His confidence was back and that’s what we needed to complete the album.” A strict two-month regimen with a personal trainer was the next phase of the plan.
But the full DMX comeback never came. On April 9, a week after suffering a heart attack, the artist born Earl Simmons died in a White Plains, N.Y., hospital, leaving the hip-hop world stunned. Amid the outpouring of grief and appreciation, Def Jam announced that “Exodus,” DMX’s eighth album — and his first on the label since 2003 — would still see the light of day, with Swizz Beatz as its steward and executive producer.
Out Friday, the 13 tracks on “Exodus” showcase DMX’s enduring snarl and weathered psyche alongside guest appearances by Jay-Z, Nas, Bono, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys. And although the album begins with DMX’s trademark New York rawness on songs like “That’s My Dog,” “Bath Salts” and “Hood Blues,” the album ends with DMX rapping to his children about his lifelong struggles over mournful violin on “Letter to My Son.” And then he prays.
This week, Swizz Beatz discussed the process of recording “Exodus” and the responsibility he felt in shepherding DMX’s career, both in life and in death. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Swizz Beatz, left, with DMX. “I couldn’t sleep knowing that he wasn’t at his full potential,” the producer said.Credit…Johnny Nunez/WireImage Via Getty Images
Is it pain or joy for you to hear this music now?
It’s joy. Am I in pain? Yes. But I’ve been hiding in the cracks of the creativity, staying strong so I can get this to the finish line and deliver the people what he wanted them to have. There was a whole plan. This was the rebuilding of him — physically, spiritually and mentally. He was dedicated. You know, showed up to the studio 12 o’clock. We’d be finished by 4.
You’d record during the daytime?
You need him during the daytime. The nighttime is just — a lot of things are probably on his mind at that time. A lot of people gathered around him. So I liked to catch him before that. It was like a job. We hadn’t done something like this for over 13 years, that type of togetherness in the studio every day.
What was it like to get DMX to do Verzuz with Snoop last year? Was that where this all started?
I had to definitely be patient with him with Verzuz, because he’s a real battle rapper. He’s like, “I’m trying to bite somebody’s head off.” And I was like, “Uhhh …” But I let him have some time to understand the concept, and then when he understood that it was a celebration with two people that respect each other as opposed to two people ripping heads off, he came around.
After he did Verzuz, he was just geared up, he felt the love from the people — from the fans, his peers. It put him in a very celebratory mood. We stayed at Snoop’s studio and finished the album. It’s like we took that energy and bottled it up and put it on the dresser. And we came in the studio and touched the bottle every day. Snoop would cook for us. X felt comfortable.
Not a lot of rappers are putting out albums at 50. What goals did you guys discuss for this comeback?
I wanted to get him on the level that he deserved to be on, minus the trials and tribulations that he’s been dealing with since 14 years old. He still had more gas in the car. And it was like, man, we can still play in the race. That’s why the features feel like that, from Bono to Alicia Keys to Lil Wayne to Jay-Z and Nas. Surrounding him with a supporting cast of people that’s on that greatness level.
Guys like you, 50, Dre, Jay, Nas — you’ve been able to transition into tech, art, fashion, business. X never really got that chance. Was that something you two talked about?
He was definitely in a business frame of mind this time around. X is a very simple person, not materialistic — he just wants to feed his family, play with remote-control cars, ride 4-wheelers. But he’s a great writer and he was writing these TV shows.
Did you feel any sense of responsibility or guilt with him, since you’ve been so successful in the subsequent phases of your career?
One thousand percent. I couldn’t sleep knowing that he wasn’t at his full potential. Because X has been fighting his habit since 14, so when the world first heard X, he was fighting the same fight. It’s not like this came later. We can all be busy in this world, but I just couldn’t be too busy no more for him. I stopped all my projects. I was like, I’ve got to fix this. That was a driver for me, because X created a lot of opportunities for a lot of people, myself included.
ImageDMX onstage in 1999.Credit…Joe Traver/Reuters
In the last few months we’ve lost X, Shock G and Black Rob. So many hip-hop legends barely make it out of their 40s and 50s. Do you think the industry and your peers do enough to take care of Black artists as they age?
I just don’t think it’s set up that way. We have to individually take responsibility. We can’t wait on an industry to change. We have to take responsibility and give the artists that we respect their flowers and check up on them and try to create some type of plan.
The founders of hip-hop should be on jets every day. We need to come up with something where we pay dues to the founders. How we going to own the culture and we not doing what we supposed to do? We shouldn’t depend on other people or any type of corporation to save us. We got enough people together. Everybody talking about millions and hundreds of millions and billions — the founders of hip-hop is not even a lot of people. They should at least get a million dollars a year between everybody. Just out of respect.
What did you learn about addiction being around DMX?
Although X had an addiction, I never looked at his addiction — I looked at him as a human and I knew so many sides of him that overshadowed the addiction for me. It felt like something that happened when he got bored. I knew he was a gentle giant and I knew him for his greatness and I never judged him on his addiction. I would always talk to him, but I would never tell him what to do. I never told him to go to rehab.
Do you wish you would have?
He knew what he had to do. I would have a different conversation with him, encouraging him to get to a place where he could do the things that he really wanted for himself and his kids. The way I dealt with X was very gentle. That’s how I got through to him. I spoke to him as a human — not a rapper, not an addict, but as a good human.
Was he clean while you guys were working, as far as you knew?
Yeah, that’s why he gained so much weight. I was making fun of him, but I was happy at the same time.
When did you guys part ways?
We finished the album almost two months before he left us. He called me one day and I was on my way out of the country to Saudi Arabia and he said, “Man, I need to be with you. I want to be next to your energy.” I’m like, X never says that. I said, “Matter of fact, you should just come on the trip. I’m leaving in two days.” He said, “OK, how long is the flight?” “17 hours.” He said, “Ummm, I don’t know if I want to be that close to you!” [Laughs]
Of course, I didn’t hear back from him. I get there and he writes me and says, “I just want to tell you I’m grateful for everything that you’ve ever done for me” — just out of nowhere. I said, “I appreciate you too, love for life.” And I sent him the Mr. Magic “Rap Attack” playlist that I found online of old-school hip-hop. That was the last time we spoke.
You were in Saudi Arabia when you heard?
I’ve never seen it rain in Saudi Arabia — it rained all day. I couldn’t get out of bed, I broke out in hives.
ImageDMX’s “Exodus” features appearances by Jay-Z, Nas, Bono, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys. Credit…Jonathan Mannion
Do you think he was stressed about the idea of this comeback?
No, I think he was excited about it. But I know when he comes to New York, it’s not always a good vibe for him. This is where all the demons are.
Posthumous albums can be complicated. “Exodus” didn’t have a release date before DMX passed. Do you think it would have been tougher to get the label behind this album if he was still alive?
Def Jam has been very supportive. Every request, I haven’t heard a “no” yet and that’s very rare, especially when you’re dealing with an older artist.
How do you avoid the appearance of trying to capitalize on someone’s death?
I just know what the truth is. The respect is there. Even helping out with the funeral — Def Jam helped out with the funeral. They just didn’t talk about it, which I thought was classy.
What happened to the Pop Smoke collaboration that people expected on this album?
We had to take him off the record. They used the verse on something else, which is cool. I put Moneybagg Yo on the song. But this is an album he did fully while he was alive. This is not something we put together because he’s not here anymore. These are songs he approved. The only thing that’s changed is Pop Smoke.
When you lose someone, often old memories resurface, things you haven’t thought of in years. Are you having that with X?
I act like I’m strong and I hide with the music, but I’m hurt. I’m just now able to listen to “stop, drop” since he passed — I’m just now getting OK with playing it. And the reason why I’m OK with it is because he came to me in my dream and he was watching “South Park.” That was his favorite show.
We used to always play pranks on each other, so in the dream, I ran up behind him and shook him to try to scare him. He just started laughing. He turned around and we just started wrestling like how we would do — play-fighting, pinning each other to the floor. He got up and he grabbed both of my arms and looked me dead in my eyes and shook his head like, I’m good — don’t worry about me, I’m good. He looked like he was about to cry. He turned and walked into a room and the door closed. And then I woke up.
Any other X stories that have been floating around in your head lately?
Just a funny one — me and Jadakiss were talking about this. He would rent a car — imagine going to Avis or whatever and renting a Cadillac truck and you take the Cadillac truck to go get new rims on it and to get it wrapped. A rental. Just for the weekend. X was spontaneous like that. “It’s mine for the weekend, so I want it to look like I want it to look!”
And he would just drop it back off at Avis?
With the rims and everything. They’d be like, “What is this?” And he’s like, “Figure it out!”
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