DMX’s death sent shockwaves through the world of music. The Yonkers-bred rapper carved out a unique place during Hip-Hop’s most high-profile era; at the height of bling, the artist born Earl Simmons came with a realness, a conflicted vulnerability that made him stand out even amongst rap’s biggest icons. From X’s very first album, the multiplatinum 1998 classic It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, Swizz Beatz has been a part of the late rapper’s sound. And since DMX’s passing at the age of 50, it’s been Swizz who has taken the reins of caretaker for X’s career and legacy. Swizz has overseen the release of X’s new album, Exodus, a project that Swizz says X watched over intently before his death.
“This was not an album that was pieced [together] after he left.”
“Every song on this record he had his hand on and he approved,” Swizz says. “The only one that he didn’t get to approve was the Moneybagg Yo verse. We had Pop Smoke on that song but they ended up using the verse somewhere else, so I had to change it.”
Moneybagg Yo appears on “Money Money Money,” one of many guest appearances on Exodus. With names like Usher, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Bono of U2; Exodus feels like an affirmation and a proclamation of who DMX was as an artist, a testament to the man’s undeniable legacy. Swizz says the list of guest artists is testament to how much DMX was respected and loved.
“The reason why he never really had features [on previous albums], X didn’t wanna ask nobody for nothing,” Swizz explains. “He wouldn’t even give them the opportunity to tell him no. So he just wouldn’t ask for anything. But once he realized that I was going to be doing the asking around, it was easier for him to accept. But then, when people started coming to the studio – when Usher came to the studio for ‘Letter To My Son,’ he was like ‘oh this is serious’…and my wife came to the studio and did ‘Hold Me Down.’ He was in a different type of mood, a very celebratory mood. He was like ‘Man, it feels good to get love like this.’
“All X wanted was love.”
The bond between Swizz Beatz (born Kasseem Dean) and DMX goes back to their days in New York City in the 1990s, when a teenage Swizz met X through his uncles Waah and Dee, who were launching their new rap label, Ruff Ryders. Over the next twenty-five years, Swizz and DMX would bond over life and music. Now, it's hard for Swizz to think about his comrade in past tense.
"I’m definitely not OK," Swizz explains to Rock The Bells' Mister Cee. "I’m acting strong. I’m hiding behind shades. I’m hiding behind my creativity. But I have to finish the mission that he wanted the people to hear. I he wanted the people to hear this record. So I was like ‘you know what? We’ve gotta keep it going.’ I’ve been doing so many interviews and so much work because he deserves it. I’m only doing what I’m supposed to do. He put so much into this record. I don’t just want people celebrating him being gone. I want people to celebrate the work that he did when he was here."
Exodus is a moving statement to who DMX was a 50-year old, wiser, more at peace version of the bombastic rapper the world had come to love. Songs like "Letter To My Son" and "Superstar" feature X's trademark earnestness and emotion, while also highlighting an artist unafraid to push himself into new territory. His collaboration with Bono was a no-brainer for the rapper; it was one of several high-profile team-ups that gave DMX proof that his peers held him in high regard.
"X said ‘I’m a rock star, so me and Bono make sense,'" Swizz shares. "We was building a story. So whoever we didn’t catch on this tory, we was going to catch on the next one. [Dr. Dre] wanted to be a part of it. But then he started going through his personal situation and we didn’t want to disturb that."
With Exodus, Swizz saw an opportunity to celebrate the fullness of who DMX was. They began this project together, and X's death turned the album into an elegy.
"The name of the album was supposed to be It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot Again," Swizz reveals. "But when he passed, we decided to change it to Exodus. He has that tattoo on his neck, his son is named Exodus and his son was in the studio with us almost half the time when we was doing the album. And it meant so much to him. He wanted to name another album that…so I know he approved the name. ‘Exodus’ is such a strong word that it’s across [his] windpipe."
And working on Exodus proved to be a far cry from all those years ago.
"The studio environment was different," Swizz says. "It was more relaxed. Back then, it was like fifty or sixty people in the studio; dogs, weapons – the whole movie. That was just our everyday thing, it didn’t even feel like we was doing something. Now I look back at the studio sessions like…man! This album, I was having him come to the studio early. He would work quick. He comes in at eight, gonna spend time congregating with friends and we not gonna get any work done."
And Swizz points out that bringing this project back to Def Jam Recordings, the label where things started for X, was also motivated by love and support.
"Def Jam has been supportive of everything," he explains. "His funeral – a lot of people don’t think they was involved, and they was involved. Because if they wasn’t, I’d say. They never said no to anything we asked for with this project. And even still right now, they’ve been supporting. And it’s not just because he’s gone – this release was coming, either way."
It's all so bittersweet; hearing how at peace DMX sounds on his new album hurts knowing that he never got to build on that peace. But his legacy, his art, will always be a powerful reminder of what he brought to the world. For Swizz Beatz, it's important to make sure the world appreciates exactly who Dark Man X was as an artist.
"I just want people to understand that he was one of one," Swizz says of his late friend.
"A lot of people like to mention different people names [like] Pac – who was one of one in his own area. And other rappers are great in their space. But there is only one DMX. We’ll never get that again. This album covers who he is; from the street side, to the funny side, to the party side, to the personal side, the vulnerable side. I’m glad we curated the record like we did because it shows all the different parts of him, which I think the world should know."