Jordan Ryan Pedersen did not know the actual lyrics to “Party Up” until this morning.
“Party Up” is neither DMX’s best song nor his most personal. It is, however, a massive hit whose crossover appeal led it to grace the PA system at countless high school pep rallies, dances, and bar mitzvahs. It was the soundtrack to clumps of sweaty white children jockeying to see who could shout “suck my dick” the loudest. At this very moment, varsity bandleaders around the country are busy transcribing the song’s crossing-guard whistle blasts and pulverizing synths for trombone and french horn.
Even the version of the track edited for radio and TV—the one so many of us grew up listening to—is *itself* heavily censored. And in that time, getting ahold of the unedited version wasn’t a matter of clicking over to Spotify. In the year 2000, the kid who managed to procure an explicit version of “Party Up” without his parents confiscating it was a folk hero. Just knowing the real *lyrics* to the song was something of a coup.
The song’s big budget action-movie video positions X perfectly for a mass audience: a black man suffering a case of mistaken identity during a bank robbery. “Hey white parents! DMX isn’t scary,” the video seems to say. “Look, he even helped the old security guard out of the bank.” It was accordingly a TRL mainstay, right alongside blink-182, ’N Sync, and Korn. The early 2000s were weird.
The song—helpfully subtitled “Up in Here” for the dullards—was the evolution of the partnership between X and Swizz Beatz that began with “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” a song that X told GQ sounded like “fuckin ABCs” compared the the other work he was putting out.
Where “Ruff Ryders Anthem” was a hungry unknown reaching for stardom by channeling his hurt into simplistic “white boy beats”—a frat party staple which nevertheless includes the line “all I feel is pain”—the atmosphere in which “Party Up” was recorded was far more jovial. In 1999, X was coming off back-to-back number one debuts in the same year with It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, both of which went platinum. His film debut Belly had just been released. X was a celebrity, on the road to becoming a movie star. The whole crew flew down to Miami for the …And Then There Was X sessions. “Back then, Miami was exciting—jet skis, drop tops, hot weather, bikinis,” Swizz told Complex in 2011. “We were having fun.”
In the studio though, DMX was all business. “I’m angry all the time. It was a good time, we had a lot of fun down there [in Miami]. When I get in that studio, it’s a whole other situation.” Remove “Party Up” from its nostalgic context, and its lyrics are pure brutality. “It’s very disrspectful,” X said.
DMX refused to kowtow. “I didn’t make it for the club. The beat is for the club,” DMX told GQ. “You give me a beat that people can dance to? I’ll spit some shit that motherfuckers can beat somebody up to.” It’s a club banger with a battle rap pedigree.
The song proves that the essence of X is irreducible. X did not soften, he did not tailor himself to a particular audience. He was a blunt instrument in the best sense of the phrase. “I come from a real place when I make these songs,” X said. “I don’t compromise.”
“Party Up” remains ubiquitous, an old millennial touchstone that still appears on at least one film or TV soundtrack a year. It created the blueprint for maximalist four quadrant shout-alongs that Lil Jon is still capitalizing on.
I’m not a DMX completist. I am not the plug for DMX loosies. I do not have the keys to the secret Ruff Ryders vault. I’m just one of millions of kids who heard “Party Up” at the age of 13, and was never the same. Whooooo.