Behind The Beat is a new series where journalist Thomas Hobbs interviews rap producers about the making of their most iconic beat. For the first edition, he spoke with Dame Grease about crafting DMX’s iconic single “Get At Me Dog.”
The mythology around DMX suggests an artist whose studio sessions were based around catching lightning in a bottle, with producers faced with a hyper-animated MC spitting unvarnished bars about tearing the music industry a new one while barking indignantly like a starving dog. But producer Dame Grease says the legendary rapper was a lot more relaxed in the studio than people might expect.
“Yes, X could have that aggressive side when he was rapping, but one of the main things I recall is how he’d always be dancing and singing along to disco music,” Grease said. “Disco was pretty much the only music we listened to. It helped X relax. He used to have this big ass CD case and it was filled with disco, funk, and soul; there wasn’t one rap record in there. The only rap shit was by X himself.”
Dame Grease was the prominent producer on DMX’s legendary multi-platinum debut It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, helping craft the raw sound that many have credited with centering mainstream rap back in the streets and away from the shiny suits uptown. Songs like “Fuckin’ Wit’ D,” “Niggaz Done Started Something,” and “Damien” not only resonated with the streets, but white America, too, thanks to their frenetic energy, which replicated the exhilarating rush of post-punk.
Yet Grease said his production and sessions with X had a much lighter touch than history tends to acknowledge, with the rapper often unwinding in the studio by swaying over the mixing decks to floor fillers like “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer and “Baby Be Mine” by Michael Jackson. Subsequently, Grease gravitated towards flipping old disco and soul samples when making beats for the gruff gangster rapper — something that worked to glorious effect when the producer crafted the beat for “Get At Me Dog.”
The song is about as gutter as New York hip-hop gets. But even if the hood anthem, and X’s pledge to blow up everything in sight, might have acted as an antithesis to the more syrupy, care-free sound of the Bad Boy-led Shiny Suits Era, it still had euphoric disco music at its core. “I flipped this old disco sample from the song “Everything Good To You” by B.T. Express,” Grease said. “I remember that EPMD had used the same sample [on “Get The Bozack“] and it just instantly makes you feel good. I doubled it up and made it sound grimier with these new drums. When I came with those gritty New York beats and matched them with X’s gritty energy, something magical just happened.”
Grease enjoyed taking eccentric disco and pop songs and turning them into something darker for DMX. (For example, “Let Me Fly” sampled Mexican José José’s soppy synth-pop anthem “Lo Dudo“). Even though the pair’s music might first come across as abrasive or built around the idea of destroying everything in its path, there’s still some light in there if you look hard enough. This was an extension of how the rapper and producer saw themselves as human beings.
“One thing about me as a producer is I never like to just sample regular hip-hop shit. I’m always trying to do the unexpected,” Grease said. “But it’s deeper than that too: me and X had very similar childhoods in terms of being abandoned and having to find our own way, and maybe that comes across in the energy of a song like ‘Get At Me Dog.’”
Referring to the crack epidemic as a “holocaust” for Black people, the producer explains further: “I remember being in the house by myself at nine-years-old with a key and having no rules. My moms was out smoking weed or crack, or whatever the fuck she was doing, and I was left alone to fend for myself. I would sleep under the stairs of my project building and had two stray dogs that would protect me. X’s experiences were pretty much identical.
“For me and X, hearing a disco record spinning and seeing people dance to it was some of our only positive memories from growing up poor in the crack era. We were both abandoned so had this shared attitude of like, ‘they left me for dead, so now everybody has to die!’ Honestly, that was me and X’s approach to the whole music industry, and is probably the reason why the song sounds like this avalanche.”
The “Get At Me Dog” beat was initially used for a freestyle by DMX and Ruff Ryders’ teammates The Lox, appearing as the “Cluemanatti Freestyle” on DJ Clue’s Clue World Order Tape in 1997. Having produced The Lox’s polarizing hit single “If You Think I’m Jiggy,” which had Grease attempting to make his own spin on Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie’s “It’s All About the Benjamins” beat, “Get At Me Dog” was supposed to be a “twisted” extension of the sound of these two hit songs. “I knew we needed to shake up everything. The mixtape game, the mainstream, everything,” Grease said.
When DMX was working on It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, the decision was made to revisit the song and turn it into a single, with X adding new verses to the beat. “He knew all his verses off by heart. X walked in the booth, did them in one take and then walked out,” Grease said. The track was officially released as a single on February 10, 1998, peaking at No.39 on the Billboard 100 and almost instantly becoming a New York City rap anthem. It’s black and white Hype Williams-directed music video, which saw X perform at the infamous The Tunnel nightclub, embodied the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic that rap had been sorely missing amid a gentler re-calibration period following the murders of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac.
Of those “Get At Me Dog” sessions, Grease says the hook was just an extension of the way DMX would talk in the studio. “Half the shit X says sounds like lyrics already. He would rap a verse in one take and after say ‘Get at me dog, let’s go again’ so maybe that’s what came out in the hook. The LOX and DMX had the best chemistry. X used to call himself the big dog and Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek [Louch] his three pups. They came as a unit, so we had to get one of them [Sheek Louch] on this track.”
Grease says his favorite moment is when DMX goes after Central Islip, New York rapper K Solo, who X had met while in prison in the late ’80s. DMX was convinced his lyrics had been stolen by K Solo.“I love the last verse when X tells K Solo to suck his dick,” Grease said. “K stole the song “Spellbound” from X, like, he stole the whole shit from the flow to the rhyme pattern. We collectively made the decision to bleep it out, but it was good to hear DMX get that off his chest.” (In the January 1991 issue of The Source, DMX, who was featured in the “Unsigned Hype,” called himself, “the real author of ‘Spellbound.’)
Grease is currently relaxing at home with his kids after winning his battle with a nasty COVID-19 infection earlier in the year. He has worked with Nas, Max B, Mase, Fat Joe, and many more legendary rappers across a decorated career, but says he’s more than happy to be defined by his work with DMX. “It just changed the whole sound of rap. JAY-Z followed suit, everybody did,” Grease said.“We like what Puff did with the shiny suits and the jiggy shit. He showed real class. But that whole sound was anti-grunge and we came with all the grunge. After X dropped “Get At Me Dog”, the whole game changed. Things would never be the same again.”
Banner Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno.