DMX is dead. Admittedly, when he blew up in late 1990s, he wasn’t my go to for hip hop, although I did appreciate him. He was unapologetically rough. He was uncompromisingly raw, despite slick production. That man embraced hell and darkness on his first release and you’re like WTF. When that Ruff Ryders Anthem and the video for it hit, well that was taking it to a whole new level. It had a legit feel of ungovernability, criminality.
DMX to me seemed to have as much in common with the East Coast Hardcore punk sects of Madball, Merauder, Skarhead, Crown of Thornz and 25 ta Life. That was the whole wave of the DMS crew (Doc Marten Sons or Drugs, Money, Sex. Take your pick, both apply). It was the music of kids who grew up in the cracks of society, dejected and looked down on for their decidedly proletarian, if not straight up, lumpen origins. Ruff Ryders to DMS, both were the same. I wouldn’t say I could run with cats like these; more like, I could find myself in an uneasy proximity, sometimes accepted or sometimes worrying about having my block knocked off. These tribes were scary and occasionally psychotic. But those kids then and now are real and they represent where loads of kids come from and sometimes don’t get out from. Criminality or an aspiration to some kind of serious criminality is a way to survive for many, whether we agree with it or not. And there is plenty to disagree with.
But DMX spoke to the fucked situation and the desire to rise above it. It could have a club feel, but underlying it was something else.
Working in Detroit at a Level-One trauma center, I’ve seen some pretty crazy shit. Steak knives in people’s heads, human beings literally scalped alive through motor vehicle accidents (please wear your seatbelts people), gunshot blasts to the face, lost limbs, brains leaking out…bad stuff. I see the wildly dark and yet sometimes comedic stuff. Like a guy who just was hanging out in his car, getting fellatio, smoking it up, and all of a sudden some stranger drives up and blasts him with a shotgun. Guy gets to the ER, is surprisingly calm, and just looks at me and says, “Damn, my Friday nights all messed up now. My good times went bad quick.” And I’m like, “Ahhh, well, we’re here to take care of you so you can get those good times back.” I mean what else can you say? Or like the guy who’s been laying on a gurney for hours, refusing to go to the bathroom, refusing to use a urinal, and then suddenly jumping up, dropping his pants and peeing on the floor, in front of me and my co-workers. Meanwhile my partner has his hands up in the air going, “Really? Really?” Yeah, really!
One of my co-workers and friends, Vee, she’s a hardcore Detroit born and bred woman.
She’s a year younger than me. Vee grew up in the notorious inner-city projects, the now demolished, Brewster Douglas Housing Projects, some of the roughest in the city and where the likes of The Supremes came from too. Vee, as a young teenager, joined up with a black motorcycle club and rolled with them. She told me about red-light parties in basements, shootings, being shot at, and dodging bullets by running zig-zag through the streets, and dead people in streets. She lived the life till she found Jehovah and became a Witness for him. With that moment she sought to turn her life around from where it was and that not very good road she thought that she had been riding on. Twenty years in the church now, and she’s hardcore about it. But every now and then, she has this inkling of a wild side coming out, especially when we’re dealing with fools.
She calls me Pretty Boy Floyd, in part because of my handsome boyish looks (LOL), the tat’s including ones that say “death” and “kill,” and most importantly for the nickname. She knows I consider myself a revolutionary, an abolitionist of this system, and one who believes trouble is good and that “giving the wealth back to the people” (as she would say) is a necessary thing. So, DMX, the whole Ruff Ryders orientation, that kind of stuff was Vee’s life once. She’s a pious woman now, but wasn’t before. When work is bonkers and were surrounded by fools, Vee and I trade verses of DMX’s Party Up (Up in Here):
“Y’all gonna make me lose my mind, up in here, up in here. Y’all gonna make me go all out, up in here, up in here.
Y’all gonna make me act a fool, Up in here, up in here. Y’all gonna make me lose my cool, up in here, up in here.”
Anyway, that’s us. That’s our song to get through the BS in the ER, to get through the crap people throw our way, whether co-workers, management, or patients. It’s our side eye and the way we laugh. Vee’s like, “these people don’t understand I’m trying to be a good woman, to do right. But they’re trying to break me, they’re gonna make me lose my cool.”
It’s always a shit show in Level-One trauma centers, especially ones that serve the neglected, the marginalized, those who for generations have been the victims of racist, anti-black and capitalist policies. We scramble every day. It’s exhausting and it’s all we can do sometimes not to lose it. Lots do lose it though. COVID makes it all worse, and the new surge that’s hitting us makes DMX’s song even more poignant as it’s always a shit show “up in here.”