How DMX Found the Light in His Celebratory Final Chapter, with Some Help from Bono
"It was a celebration every night in the studio," says executive producer Swizz Beatz about DMX's posthumous new album 'Exodus'
Published May 27, 2021Swizz Beatz remembers the look on his friend Dark Man X's face when he received a gift from Bono. Not only had the U2 frontman blessed the most unexpected duet from DMX's final studio album, Exodus, with his vocals, but Bono drew the artwork for the long-in-the-works "Skyscrapers" single and penned a personal poem for DMX.
"And when X got the poem, he was just super ecstatic. Like, 'Man, Bono just wrote me this poem and did this drawing.' Bono was just saying how great it is for his voice to be next to another great. And X was just so happy," says Swizz, who executive-produced the project. "He was feeling super loved. He never really did features. This is the first album that has this many features. But he was just in this celebratory space. And he wanted to embrace the people that he respected."
The death of the troubled and triumphant supernova that was Earl Simmons on April 9 at the age of 50 rocked family and friends, fans and followers. But there is some measure of solace in knowing DMX completed his eighth and final album — out today via Def Jam — with a giddy sense of pride and acceptance.
"I really feel like my love for the craft has been restored," DMX said in a teaser for the release. "I got some bangers."
The love wasn't there at the beginning. DMX last LP, 2012's Undisputed, had flopped. Swizz had always stayed in touch with his Ruff Ryders "brother" and often cooked up beats for his singles as a contributing producer. But decades had passed since 1998's Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, when the two titans holed up in the studio together and concentrated on snatching hip-hop by the chain.
In retrospect, Swizz thinks his minimal involvement in the latter half of DMX's catalogue led to those LPs falling short of platinum-plus expectations.
Working out of Snoop Dogg's L.A. studio, Swizz says his ability to recruit inspirational collaborators and read DMX's mood helped form a snowballing momentum that led to a fury of fresh verses from one of music's most recognizable voices.
"It felt like old times. Because me and X maintained a brotherhood and friendship the whole time. Even if we wasn't around each other, me and his energy's always been great," Swizz tells Exclaim! over Zoom. "It was a celebration every night in the studio. It was a good time. It wasn't even work. You know, listening to old-school music. He just was present. He was super present.
"Every day was like the playoffs, and we just trying to get to the championship and win the ring." To extend the metaphor, Swizz had to play the role of coach, coaxing one last triple-double performance out of his fading star player before he floated into the hall of fame.
"He probably felt like at a certain point that he gave so much that he was tired. He used to tell me he was tired. He's like, 'Man, I'm tired. You know I'm gonna do this record, but this is gonna be my last album.' By the time we got to the end of the project, he wasn't feeling like that anymore. He was ready to come out with the project, like, that week," Swizz says.
With each featured guest Swizz was able to secure, DMX's enthusiasm grew. First, it was old Ruff Ryders pals the LOX submitting some of their sharpest bars in years for growling opener "That's My Dog." Then Swizz's wife, Alicia Keys, came through to bless "Hold Me Down." There was Bono and Usher. JAY-Z (with whom DMX had once had a falling out) and Nas approved their verses for Swizz's long-vaulted New York trinity track "Bath Salts." Snoop Dogg slid all over a Marvin Gaye sample on "Take Control."
"When those features started to show up, he started feeling the love. Because X only wanted the love. He didn't want the money or anything. He wanted the love, then the respect. But he wanted the love first," Swizz says.
The momentum swelled to the point that DMX traveled to Buffalo to lay down the excellent "Hood Blues" street single with the Griselda Records crew of Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher. Swizz had looped up the same Lee Mason & His Orchestra's "Shady Blues" horn sample Madlib used on Lootpack's "Answers" and Pace Won snatched for "I Declare War," but the producer wasn't even in the room when DMX recorded "Hood Blues."
"I like that he was so motivated that he went to their space, and they caught a vibe," Swizz says. "That was good. I'm like, 'Man, X is now out and about.' He's not only in his space; he's cool to go to somebody else's space. Now, that I had never seen."
Once the album was recorded, the plan was to have DMX make a physical transition to promote it properly. The artist had "gained a lot of weight," Swizz says. Personal trainers were arranged, and X was ready to devote two months to get in shape while Swizz cleared samples, trimmed the musical fat (the producer estimates seven songs were cut) and mastered the finished product.
Tragically, X died before his first training session. He'd lost functionality in multiple essential organs, reportedly his liver, kidneys and lungs.
"A lot of people put together things that is just things. This album, we didn't want to just be a thing. We want it to be an experience where you actually felt something," Swizz says. "I want this to be one of his biggest albums ever — because he deserves it. This is literally a gift from X to the world."
The greatest myth about DMX — who suffered an abusive childhood, battled addiction, and was famously tricked into smoking crack at 14 — is that he was a dark person.
"X is a ball of light. He hides in this darkness, but he's a ray of light," Swizz says. "That's why people compare him to a prophet. You know, he would do things for others before he would do for himself. Pray for other people. Feed other people. Take the clothes off his back, give it to other people. He was just different. A very simple man. Played remote-control cars. Wanna ride four-wheelers. Wasn't about no materialistic things at all. And if you look at the things that he was always in the news for, it was really him hurting itself, not ever hurting anyone else. You never heard about X hurting anybody else. As tough as he is on the record, as loud as he sounds, his energy, you've never seen him in the news doing anything violent."
The light side of Dark Man X burns brightest on "Letter to My Son (Call Your Father)," Exodus's closing song.
DMX's lone verse is literally a letter of regret and hope he's scribbled in one of his many lyric books. Once he let Swizz hear the words, arguably of his most vulnerable ever, Swizz knew it required an acoustic arrangement. Usher handled the singing, and Brian King Joseph built the drama with his bittersweet violin.
"I knew it had to be empty. No drums. I had to score his movie with that song and keep it about him and let the music act as his supporting cast. Because he wanted that message to be strong," Swizz says.
"He just started opening up more. A lot of these things X is saying, although he's always been vocal, he hasn't been vocal on this level. He hasn't been open on this level, you know? He always said deep things. But letting the world get a peek at a letter he has written to his son for real is deep. I wouldn't have seen him doing that [in the past]."
Perhaps more than his trademark growl or his shirtless mosh pit energy, it's X's willingness to bear pain and frailty that makes him so unique in a genre that too often gets caught up fronting in machismo.
"I just don't think that everybody's ready to display that side. it's a very personal side, which is why I was so surprised myself," Swizz considers. "Just because you're an entertainer, that don't mean people should have access to your life. You're giving people a craft, but X decided to give people a look into his life. He decided to give them a story."
Listen to Exodus below.