Three hip-hop icons passed away last month: rapper DMX, Bad Boy Records’ Black Rob, and Digital Underground frontman Shock G. KCRW talks about their imprints on the music industry with Craig Jenkins, music critic for New York Magazine.
KCRW: DMX was born Earl Simmons in Mount Vernon, New York, and had a very rough upbringing. Can you tell us about that?
Craig Jenkins: “He lived in Yonkers as a kid in an abusive home. He was a very smart child ... but also sort of mischievous in a lot of ways that the handlers and the teachers in the schools didn't realize pointed to bipolar disorder. The mental health community wasn't there yet.
And so he bounced through the school system and ended up in the streets, doing what made the fastest money, and just was failed by a lot of people in a lot of ways. He found his way up in hip-hop by hook or by crook. It took him the better part of the 1990s to blow up.”
He's really open about that in his lyrics. And he went to prison many times and struggled with alcohol and drugs. Tell us about how he captured the streets in his music, as opposed to some of the other rappers and hip-hop artists, who are more about talking about the glamour of hip-hop.
“He was a total package. ... He's talking about pain, he's talking about connecting the different sides of life in the music. He would write about when he was struggling, and he would write about when he felt triumph. Sometimes you would hear it from one line to the next in the same song.”
Was his style and what he was rapping about in opposition to what else was going on in hip-hop? Did he chart a different course in hip-hop?
“He really started trying to put records together in the early 1990s, and I think was maybe a little bit too gruff for what was popular at the time. So it took until the late 1990s, when there was a really different, kind of tougher and … grittier style. That's when he actually became a major player in hip-hop.”
At one point, DMX was the most popular rapper in the world. He had one album that went quadruple platinum.
“Between 1998 and, I want to say, 2000, in an 18-month stretch, his first three albums went platinum. I don't think that's really something that's been repeated. People have definitely put out two records in a year, but no one has done the hat trick. He was super popular. He was talking about pain and suffering, even in the party records. And I think that's something that gets kind of misunderstood about him. I think that people didn't necessarily take him seriously, people who didn't come from where he came from, who didn't have an understanding of the stuff that he was talking about.”
Tragically, DMX died of an overdose. What was the reaction to his passing?
“He's a guy who has had a lot of brushes with tragedy, who has gone to jail for a lot of really outlandish activities and stuff. And so you always think he's going to pull back, that this is not going to be the thing that takes him down. And so I think people were, in spite of the difficult life that he led, surprised because you just think that guy's Teflon.”
He was very popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. What was he doing in the last several years?
“He did some features here and there. He did get a big feature on a record with The Lox, his old Ruff Ryders buddies, last summer. That actually was really good. There was always the excitement for when he was going to pull it back together and do something in keeping with his best work. And there’s a posthumous album that seems to have had some really good stuff on it that I guess we'll hear in due time. But he was just a great performer and a great artist, heart on his sleeve, who you just never counted out.”
Let's now talk about Robert Ross, also known as Black Rob, raised in Harlem and best known for his work with P. Diddy at Bad Boy Records. Tell us more about him and his sound.
“He’s definitely a storytelling kind of an artist. He would tell crime stories. His debut album ‘Life Story’ had a lot of really intricate storytelling. His song ‘Whoa!’ hit at a peculiar moment for Bad Boy Records, because the label was kind of falling off. Diddy had been embroiled in that whole thing with the shootout where J. Lo was involved, then the rapper Shyne got locked up.
And so there was this question as to whether Bad Boy Records had seen its last hit, and ‘Whoa!’ came along and revitalized everyone. It’s also in the pantheon of just great New York rap records that you can still play at a party. And so I feel that he's underrated, but he also has a place in the history of this juggernaut of hip-hop commercialism.”
Let's move on to Shock G from Digital Underground. He's sort of almost the opposite of DMX, right? I think people think of him as kind of goofy and entertaining. Tell us more about him.
“He was a fun loving guy, a musician, a producer, sort of a mastermind of a lot of things. He had the Digital Underground group that you could argue drew a bridge between hip-hop and classic funk as much as the Dr. Dre stuff gets credit for, as beloved by the people in the actual Parliament-Funkadelic collective. He just literally and figuratively wore many hats, and made a lot of different kinds of music. He played around with an alter ego and stuff, but was just an unpredictable character, in style and in music.”
Tell us more about how he was influenced by George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. How did they, and have they, loved him back?
"Yes, I believe it was Bootsy Collins who spoke out in the wake of his passing and paid his respects. Digital Underground’s first album, ‘Sex Packets,’ is sort of in the spirit of the old Parliament records, kind of a concept album with a ridiculous, inappropriate concept, but that was also really funny, and then out of the box and intelligent. And so they took inspiration and they also were respected by the guys who inspired them, which is kind of rare.
And Shock G definitely is in the hip-hop hall of fame for introducing us all to Tupac, who he put on some of the early Digital Underground records, and who we produced for. I would say some of the greatest solo Tupac songs are Shock G productions. He did ‘I Get Around’ and he did the song ‘So Many Tears,’ two of the best songs Tupac ever did.
Digital underground didn't necessarily get the commercial heyday it deserved. If you were topside, if you weren't really involved in the culture, you might have only heard ‘The Humpty Dance’ and/or ‘Kiss You Back.’ But those records stand up to this day.”
And these three that we’re discussing were mainly active in the early-to-late 1990s time period.
“Yes. The thing that I find fascinating about them is that they each blew up in a different sort of phase in that decade, even though they were all, you could argue, the same age, and were coming up around the same time. It's really tough to get into the industry. And then once the hits run dry, whatever money that you had set aside is what your situation is.
Black Rob had a lot of health issues. And even though Bad Boy kept him on the label for a long time, he didn't really get the shine that he deserved anymore, to the extent that in the last days of his life, there was a GoFundMe for his health. And so there's that. You can be a hitmaker, you can be a valuable asset to the company, and in 10 years, you might be on the street. It's kind of a rough situation. And there's not the infrastructure in hip-hop the way there is in rock and roll, where you can go on a package tour or television. Sometimes hip-hop just spits you out, and you’re left to your devices. It’s quite like football, where you give your best years to something, and then your body's broken down, and there's nobody coming around. That happens to a lot of greats.”