DMX’s “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem” Remix Is A “Swagged-Out Air-Raid Signal”
Producer Ken “DURO” Ifill remembers the making of 1998’s biggest remix
Here’s the story of an iconic hip-hop single, its remix, and how that led to a mixtape becoming a platinum-selling album. Or rather, how incredibly successful DMX was in 1998.
From Grandmaster Flash blending David Mancuso’s Loft favorites to Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia debuting Nas or 50 Cent teaching hardcore rap fanatics “How To Rob,” street mixtapes have played an integral role in hip-hop. For aspiring artists, paying a DJ to compile your best underground singles with freestyle raps over industry-known beats was a surefire way — in the pre-internet age — to build a fanbase.
By 1998, all things hip-hop culture were crossing over into the mainstream with significant success. That acclaim necessitated an even deeper dig into the culture’s roots for intriguing content. Enter DJ Clue. While also serving as Jay-Z’s tour DJ, Clue had co-founded Desert Storm Records, his own label distributed via Elektra and Atlantic Records. Furthermore, while experiencing this appeal for his curatorial work, he was asked to create a mainstream version of a street-ready mixtape. Ken “DURO” Ifill, a Grammy-award winning engineer, current senior vice president of A&R at Republic Records, and then co-founder of Desert Storm, remembers Jay came to Clue and said, “You can make — this — amount of money on the streets selling these mixtapes, or you can make it legit, and make a lot more. It wasn’t a hard decision for him to make.”
With appearances from MCs like Nas, Cam’ron, Missy Elliott, The Def Squad, M.O.P., a then-still-underground Fabolous, and more, The Professional was also set to feature a Ruff Ryders posse cut. But it was Steve Stoute — Former Interscope and Sony Music president — who secured the rights to create the remix of DMX’s “Ruff Ryders Anthem.” “We had another track called ‘The Ruff Ryders’ that we wanted on there, but the decision was made to switch that for the remix,” DURO says.
Swizz Beatz doesn’t — always — like remixes of his productions, save maybe the one of DMX’s 20-year-old hit single “Ruff Ryders Anthem.” “Certain classic songs should stay the way they are,” Swizz told Complex in 2013. “It’s rare that you’ll hear a Swizz Beatz remix. I’m not the remix king, I like to do original compositions.” However, it’s a kingpin remix of one of Swizz’s countless originals that made DJ Clue’s The Professional mixtape album a Platinum record.
“I never talked to X or Swizz after mixing the original track,” DURO says. In 1998, DURO was an in-demand engineer, plus co-founder (alongside Clue and his manager Skane Dolla) of Desert Storm Productions. “Swizz was still in high school and flying to New York City every weekend with his productions. I just got all of the tracks to be mixed, maybe six of them. All I heard from X about [‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’] initially were his vocals and ad-libs!”
Irv Gotti, the executive behind Murder Inc. Records at the time, was instrumental in getting Ruff Ryders Records a subsidiary deal under Def Jam. “We knew it was a hit, as well as ‘Stop Being Greedy,’” DURO says in regards to another single from X’s quadruple-platinum debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.
Easily, the rapper that rapped the hardest over Swizz Beatz’s tracks was DMX.
X brought New York’s grimiest streets back to the forefront of mainstream hip-hop culture in 1998. Between 1992 to 1997, the rap industry was besieged by a pop-friendly wave of melodic west coast G-funk, the East coast’s dalliance with ’80s new wave and pop samples, and a set of MCs whose smooth voices and entertaining, ’70s blaxploitation film inspired wordplay engaged with top-40 loving ears in a hugely commercially successful manner. However, X offered something uniquely different.
Seemingly instantaneous mainstream success resulted from three years of X becoming a known entity on the underground mixtape circuit. Appearances on tracks like Mic Geronimo’s “Time To Build” (along with Jay Z and Ja Rule), LL Cool J’s single “4, 3, 2, 1,” and Ma$e’s “24 Hrs. to Live” created out-of-the-gate infamy for DMX. Whether rapping about being an altruistic, Robin Hood-style presence or spitting verses about his activities as a shirtless, bellowing, and tattoed villain with bloodshot eyes, he was a standout presence.
The follow-up? Swizz Beatz’s “Ruff Ryders Anthem.” Similar to how Run-DMC had to be cajoled by Rick Rubin into recording their cover of Aerosmith’s rock classic “Walk This Way,” DMX had a similar issue with the production that became “Ruff Ryders Anthem.” “I had [the beat] for a minute, and I remember X didn’t even want to do it — he thought it was a rock-n-roll beat,” Swizz told VIBE — in 2013. “ Then he did it, and I remember being right here [in Harlem] on 125th, sitting down in front of the mart and seeing every car pass by playing the anthem. I thought I could retire then.” DURO echoes Beatz’s sentiments regarding its universality. “Anywhere you go in the world right now, you still put that on, people hear those drums and synths, the club goes crazy,” he says. “It’s infectious.” The remix to “Ruff Ryders Anthem” may have been the ideal manner for DMX to close his astounding 1998.
The original production and song sound like a swagged-out air-raid signal as if the antagonists from The Purge film series are creeping down 125th Street on custom motorcycles looking to wreak havoc. Lyrically, in the original “Ruff Ryders,” if you snitch about the forthcoming mayhem, DMX personally vows to kill you and states this in at least a dozen different ways. He’s unable to control his violent urges, and he’s surrounded himself with a hip-hop label as accessories to murder. The hook allows the remix to resonate in the annals of hip-hop history. It’s an adlib unto itself. X turns the already hugely popular “stop, drop, shut 'em down, open up shop, yooo, hoooo, as my Ruff Ryders roll” into “y’all dogs gon’ stop, y’all dogs gon’ drop, y’all dogs gon’ shut em down, open up shop, my dogs like yooo, my dogs like hooo…what babay!!!! As my Ruff Ryders roll!” It’s a childish sing-along moment, the kind of thing that, when noting his infamous radio station performance of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” shares its joyous irreverence.
For most mainstream hip-hop fanatics, the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” remix was also an introduction to the Ruff Ryders Records clique, which at the time on the recording included The LOX (Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek Louch), Eve, and Drag-On. In 2018, The LOX’s Jadakiss and Styles P are still quite active as recording artists and highly-regarded in industry circles. In December 1998, they were two-thirds of a Yonkers-born trio who, alongside fellow Westchester County native DMX, was in the midst of a trailblazing opening salvo of debut records that re-established street credibility for New York rap in the midst of the shiny suit era. Their “Ruff Ryders Anthem” remix appearance is an instant classic. The tandem spits what feels like effortless bars about knucklehead-leaning criminal behavior. Jadakiss is urinating in a bottle of Cristal champagne, while Styles P is celebrating an armed robbery by starting a fight and committing an unarmed robbery at a party, then selling his ill-begotten goods for cocaine that he intends to sell. Twenty years later, these bars are absolutely well aligned with the duo’s career to date.
As for Eve, the legendary, now semi-retired TV talking head and “illest pitbull in a skirt’s” lyrical showcase on the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” remix was her “debut” of sorts. It was followed by guest verses on tracks by Blackstreet and Janet Jackson, The Roots, The LOX’s “Ryde or Die Bitch,” and alongside Lil Mo, Nas, and Q-Tip on “Hot Boyz.” Before anyone asks any questions about the legitimacy of her background as a street-certified lyrical craftswoman, Eve aligns herself with stick-up guys and drug dealers, who is as quick to punch a questioning hater in the mouth as she is to go on a shopping spree with funds of questionable origin. “Who dis bitch? Mind your business, n*gga,” indeed.
“Eve’s verse on the “Ruff Ryders” remix was so hard,” Duro says. “It set a standard for female MCs at that time that I don’t believe, past say, Remy Ma or someone, has been equaled since.”
As the producer of the original, Swizz Beatz may not enjoy remixes of his material, but he does enjoy the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” remix. As far as his favorite verse? That honor would belong to Drag-On, whose verse is a victory for word-play enthusiasts and fans of intertwining concepts in rhyme schemes. Drag-On’s debut album did not see release until 2000. Though it did feature eight Swizz Beatz productions, it only reached 500,000+ sales.
“What’s crazy is that on songs like this remix, we weren’t even thinking about, ‘Oh, this is a hit that needs a remix, or ‘Hey, let’s make a track and break all of these new artists,’” Duro says. “Instead, we just wanted to make the best material possible with really talented people that surrounded us.”
DJ Clue’s career as a mixtape-pushing DJ-as-artist lasted only one more album. Similarly, the 2000-released Backstage: A Hard Knock Life mixtape was a release largely based around a huge remix — Mya and Jay-Z’s duet for “Best of Me.” Whereas Clue’s follow-up went Gold, his “Ruff Ryders Anthem” remix-featuring debut was a Platinum-seller.
In the streaming era, the popular argument is that a “new age” now exists where singles push everything and albums are stagnant. However, this album, and the track that made it a platinum-seller, prove that this was true 20 years ago, too. This dovetails nicely into the legacy of DJ Clue’s The Professional. It’s an important reminder that oftentimes, in any business, everything old can be new again.
(This piece was originally published in December 2018)