From struggle to success: why DMX was one of hip-hop's most influential and loved artists

The troubled rapper died at 50 after suffering a heart attack in New York

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The hip-hop world is mourning the loss of one of the genre’s preachers.

On Friday, veteran New York rapper and actor DMX died at a New York hospital after suffering a heart attack. A statement from relatives said he died "with his family by his side after being placed on life support for the past few days".

Superstar Nas led music peers, actors, sportsmen and fans in paying tribute to DMX. "Gods Poet. I Love You," he posted on Instagram.

“Rest easy king Hug my Babegirl Aaliyah when you see her !!!!”, said producer Timbaland on Twitter.

US basketball coach LeVelle Moton addressed members of the new hip-hop generation who may not be as familiar with the rapper, pointing to DMX's popularity and influence.

“Dear kids, DMX sold over 72 million records,” he said. “Do your homework before you ask if the man has fans.”

A star-studded album on the way

While tributes lauded DMX's past achievements, many fans also expressed anguish over the nature of his death. The rapper, who had fought hard to overcome problems with substance abuse, allegedly suffered a heart attack following a drug overdose, though his lawyer, Murray Richman, said he could not confirm the rumours.

DMX’s career followed the familiar trajectory of young prodigious talent shaking up the music scene, then unceremoniously falling to the scourge of drug abuse before making an inspiring comeback.

In the past few years, DMX had reunited in the studio with his svengali, producer Swizz Beatz, to record a new album full of his signature blend of gritty street poetry and spirituality.

In a February appearance on the popular hip-hop podcast Drink Champs, DMX illustrated his enduring industry clout by confirming that U2 frontman Bono was set to appear in the project.

"Bono, he’s a music lover. I’m a music lover. We knew each other for a while,” he said.

From the streets to the top of the charts

Born Earl Simmons in New York in 1970, it was his traumatic and violent upbringing that set the tone for DMX's personal and professional life.

DMX was born into a broken home and suffered from severe asthma as a child. He also grew up in a number of boys homes and found himself in legal trouble at a young age because of a series of robberies throughout his teenage years.

That downward spiral was fuelled by a combination of substance abuse, which began from the age of 14, and bipolar disorder, a diagnosis revealed in his 2003 memoir EARL: The Autobiography of DMX.

These experiences served as inspiration for his brooding lyricism, which first bloomed during his prison stints as a teenager in the mid-1980s.

After a series of successful mixtapes and an unfruitful period with Columbia Records, DMX eventually found his place with leading hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings in 1998.

Their partnership remains one of the most successful in the music industry, with an unprecedented five albums debuting at No 1 on the Billboard 200 Charts and landmark hip-hop anthems, including 1999's What's My Name, 2000's Party Up (Up In Here) and 2003's X Gon' Give It To Ya.

The success allowed DMX to follow Ice-T and Ice Cube in making the rare transition to Hollywood with starring roles in action films, including 2000's Romeo Must Die, 2003's Cradle 2 the Grave with Chinese martial superstar Jet Li and 2001's Exit Wounds alongside Steven Seagal.

Pain and bravado

While legal troubles racked up, including drugs charges, a six-month jail sentence for failing to pay $400,000 child support to four of his 15 children and a one-year prison stint in 2018 for tax fraud, DMX managed to maintain his fervent following, thus transforming him into one of the genre’s biggest cult acts.

That enduring appeal is not down to the timeless bangers still heard in clubs worldwide, but for the rare blend of authenticity and vulnerability not seen since Tupac Shakur.

Similar to the late rapper, who was gunned down in 1996, DMX’s lyrics are a potent cocktail of bravado and pain.

Sometimes they are addressed separately, such as in 2001's boisterous Bloodline Anthem and 1998's Slippin', which was a recount of his agonising upbringing.

However, what gives DMX’s body of work that X-factor, so to speak, is a deep and unwavering spirituality displayed from the onset of his career.

From his 1998 debut It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, to 2015's Redemption of the Beast, each of his eight albums featured songs inspired by his Christian faith or spoken-word addresses to God that detail his struggles with addiction and other darker impulses.

DMX often finished his concerts by performing prayers and walking off stage to the sound of "amens" from the crowds.

He also often faced challenges of recovery directly through his music. He alluded to that approach in 2006's Lord Give Me a Sign, in which he asks God for strength to overcome adversity.

"Devil's trying to find me. Please, hide me," he pleads before changing his stance. "Hold up, I take that back. Protect me and give me the strength to fight back."