In March 2020, as New York headed into lockdown, DMX got into an RV and headed south. He spent much of the next year on the road: First, a four-month stay on a farm outside of Nashville, then a trip to L.A. to celebrate his musical legacy on Verzuz and to record what would become his posthumous album, Exodus.
The album was something X and Swizz Beatz had been talking about for a long time. Though the two had created some of the Yonkers rapper’s most enduring hits together over the past two decades, Swizz Beatz says their time in L.A. marked their most significant joint work in the studio since X’s history-making sophomore album, 1998’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Inside Snoop Dogg’s Inglewood studio, and inspired by the love that X received around the world during Verzuz, they set about recording what would be the rapper’s final songs.
Exodus is a more feature-heavy album than any other in DMX’s catalog, and most of the guest appearances, with the exception of Moneybagg Yo’s verse on “Money Money Money,” were completed before his death. X trades bars with contemporaries — the Lox, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and Nas — and holds court with more recently ascendant rappers, like the Griselda crew, who have clearly felt his influence. His familiar gruff tone is balanced out by soaring hooks from Bono, Alicia Keys, and Usher. Perhaps most importantly, the voice of his youngest son, whom the album is named after, appears toward the end of the project to sing along and cheer on his father.
Despite being energized by the new album, DMX was tired, and he told Swizz that this album would likely be his last. Following DMX’s death on April 9th, Swizz faced the task of bringing the album to completion, adding in, editing, and reordering to create a tight, 10-song album that honors the legacy of the late rapper. As Swizz discussed in this interview, the process was a heavy emotional lift.
You’ve been talking about working on a new album with X as far back as 2019. How did that idea develop from there?
We’d been talking about this record for a long time, but after we did Verzuz [in July 2020], he was ready. He saw that the people were showing him love and the fans were ready. That even allowed him to accept all the features and things like that he would have never accepted. We just kept that positive energy and kept him in the studio.
X was tired. The whole time we were doing the album, he was excited, but he was like, “I think this is going to be my last album.” I was just like, “Let’s get through this and then let’s see; let’s judge it later, let’s not judge it now.” I just tried keeping him in the now spirit, instead of thinking about what he’s not gonna do. But obviously he knew something we didn’t.
Because of that, was it ever a struggle to get back in that mode of making music together?
Yeah, because he was tired. I know he went to Nashville to start some vibes and wrote some lyrics there. But he called me and said, “It’s time.” We did Verzuz, and then we just caught a flow. I stopped everything to be there with him. We had our schedule. That’s how it works with X: You gotta have a schedule. You gotta let him be his own boss.
That’s one thing I always empowered him to understand: He was the boss of the project. There’s no big I’s and little U’s. If he didn’t wanna do something, I’d say, “Listen, this is your project. If you don’t want this, don’t do it.” I never told him what to do; I asked him if it was something he wanted to do. People have been trying to tell him what to do aggressively his whole life. He’s never gonna connect with that. But making him a part of it, you’re gonna get a whole different DMX. Like, “Man, this is your album, you’re the owner of this, this is what you want. I know what everybody else is saying, but I’m here to do what you need.” He’s a boss and this is his craft, so give him that power.
He’s known as a rapper who didn’t like to bring in many outside collaborators. What was his attitude toward the features on this project?
He was delighted. When Usher came in, he was blown away. My wife came and played the piano, and he was making requests for his favorite old songs. You just see him become a kid and a fan and appreciate it. Snoop would pop up on him and cook food for us. He went to Griselda’s studio space and did the verse there with them. Bono drew him some artwork and wrote him this letter talking about how it’s amazing having his voice next to another legend’s voice.
He felt pretty big-time when these things were happening, and I liked him in that space, because the next phase was he was going to take two months to go work and get in shape — he had gained a lot of weight from being sober. He was like, “I’m ready to get this weight off me and take over.” That was his energy, so when this happened it really caught me off guard because he was focused. He wasn’t even on that vibe at all.
You can see his footprint if you go back and look at all the rounds he made before leaving us. He was in a happy space. That man was volunteering to do interviews. He was like, “I’m out here working, so when we get the album started, I put the groundwork in.” He was thinking like that. I’m happy he got to complete the mission.
X and Jay-Z have a long history, and their being on a song together is obviously a big moment. What was that conversation like with Jay?
It was a good one. It was like, “I’m not his enemy, I’m his brother. I think the song is perfect for the project. Give me a day to think about it, and I’ll get back to you.” He got back to me three days later, and it was on. That was something that was undeniable, that just had to be on this project, because it was the caliber that we were aiming for.
Are there any moments or conversations from that time being in the studio with him that really stand out to you now?
All of it. Not knowing that it was our last studio time, I couldn’t say that we could go back and have a better time than we did. Every day was full of life, full of energy, no dull moments, and happiness for making history with my brother again. Just seeing him smile and seeing him happy. And the days he wasn’t happy, if he was tired or thinking about something, I’d just say, “Go home.” There was no pressure. It wasn’t a job, it was us having fun.
At the memorial at Barclays Center in April, you talked about the importance of making a will and people only showing up for him in death. What made you want to make that statement?
I just felt like X was speaking through me onstage that day. I meant what I said, but I was very direct. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes things going on. I just felt like for one day, can we make it about him? A lot of people were making it about them. The people that were doing silly shit when this man is laying in a coffin — it’s not right. And where were all these people at before? The fakeness just made me want to tell everybody to protect themselves, because when people find a vulnerable moment they’re gonna come for it.
Since X’s death, what has the work of actually putting this album together looked like for you?
It was like curating an art show: editing, taking things off, adding things, even up till the last minute. I had to step away from the project for a few and let other people make their orders of the playlists. I just had to let it go, then came back to it.
There must have been a heavy emotional burden as well in that process.
I can at least listen to a song now without breaking down. I’m making it look strong, but I’m crushed, I’m destroyed, I’m hurt. But I had to pull this through for him and his family and for his legacy.