All of a sudden, DMX is everywhere – especially for nerds. Some 12 years after recording “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” for the Cradle 2 the Grave soundtrack, the song is seeing a massive resurgence in popularity. It was famously used at the end of the “Something Ricked This Way Comes” episode of Rick and Morty, in a scene where Rick and his granddaughter Summer go on a steroid-fueled rampage against her old boss/The Devil, and then widen the scope of their beatings to “anyone who has it coming.”
(That scene is embedded below, censored to the degree that it was when it ran on [adult swim].)
As Rick and Morty‘s popularity explodes, the song’s YouTube count has soared, but it got another boost early this year when it was the backdrop for Deadpool‘s trailers and TV spots. Tim Miller has said that the song was part of the movie’s DNA since the script first came into being six years ago. The references to “stainless steel” as the camera lovingly lingers on Colossus (and of course the oblique “X”-references) make it a perfect fit for the film. (Below is a TV spot for the film which also uses the song, though maybe not to quite such perfect effect.)
But why does it get stuck in your head so hard? Let’s try and take a look at this on sort of a “music theory-lite” level. Hopefully this’ll be useful to somebody.
The first, most obvious part is that insane beat, which makes use of one of the oldest ways to communicate “sinister badassery” known to Western music – it just walks down the minor scale, for the most part. Those first three notes, Bb down to Ab down to Gb, tell you immediately that something’s about to go down. But then there’s that fourth note…
Normally when you walk a bass down in minor, you just keep walking til you get to the 5th note of the scale. You walk down from 1, to 7, to 6, to 5.
A 1 and a 5 are, on a basic level, all you need to make a musical “sentence.” It’s like having a noun and a verb. This walking motion is perfect because it has a definite sense of motion, it immediately communicates the minor mode very effectively, and it sets you up to land on that 5 really quickly so you can jump back up to 1 and do it again. Sometimes people tuck in an extra note between the notes so it’s extra slidey and sneaky and/or sad and/or sexy, but this is the basic bass line. When you’re going for “dark,” it doesn’t get better than this.
You hear this all the time, in some form or fashion. Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” comes at you with this right away. So does “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles. (Both of those sneak in an extra note or two. A whole host of other people from Monteverdi to Green Day have made use of it. (This bass line is called “Lament Bass” by people who need to have a name for every single little thing.) It sounds cool, and it’s super effective, and again, it gets you to 5 in a hurry.
This song doesn’t do that. They take that bass you’re expecting to hear and drop that last note down an extra step, to a 4.
Now, this isn’t completely unheard of, or massively groundbreaking, or anything. Pop music swaps the 4 chord in for a 5 chord all the time. But in this context, it’s different from what you’re expecting in a subtle way. It’s less common. So that immediately grabs your attention. And that interval between the third and fourth note – it’s not a slide down anymore, is it? It’s a leap. Look at that jump and you can almost hear DMX’s boot come crashing down on you.
So you’ve got an unexpected bass line, and then you’ve got the same thing repeated, insistently, an octave higher.
So that bass hits you, and then those trumpets hit you again, on the same note, but higher. Like a one-two punch. When you combine the dark atmosphere from the bass walking down, the unexpected turn of that leap down to the last note, and those trumpets reinforcing everything you hear from the bass, you’ve got a powerful little beat.
You may notice we also added rhythm here, and this is where it’s DMX’s turn to shine.
There are a lot of ways for a rapper to call attention to themselves. In an art form that celebrates speed, inventiveness, and braggadocio in equal measure, an excess of any one of those things sets you apart. DMX goes for “braggadocio” here, but it’s a carefully-calibrated one that emphasizes the strengths of the beat he’s using. (Feel free to play the relatively work-friendly, music-video version embedded here while you read, or grab the proper one from somewhere else.)
First off, just listen to the raw power in his voice, and the way that he emphasizes words in a way that’s less about the meaning, and more about how the emphasis will sound against the beat. The weird way he says “I AM right, so I GOTS to WIN!” Obviously, nobody talks emphasizing words like that, but he knows that what’s happening underneath his voice is magical, and he’s using his voice to draw that out to the full extent. Let’s look at a couple of the more obvious examples – the very title of the song, when you say it, rolls off the tongue with the same rhythm the beat uses. Two 8th notes, four 16th notes. Two long syllables, four short ones.
He starts the song this way, while the beat is still in its relative infancy. It’s strong, but as the producer adds more things happening in and around it, it gets even stronger. Here, at the start, and with the hook that he’ll keep coming back to, DMX is reinforcing that boot-stomp of the beat. with the rhythm of his lyrics
Then later, when there’s a ton of stuff happening in the music and he doesn’t need to help it anymore, he steps out of its way for the big impact.
He’s doing the opposite of what he was. Now he’s rapping faster over the slower notes of the beat, and not only is he only giving one word to us over the fast notes, he’s offset that lone word. It doesn’t land on the beat anymore. Instead, it gives you a different kind of one-two punch, augmenting the one built into the music. The trumpet blast hits you on the beat, and then right off of the beat, DMX bellows a single word. He’s tailored his lyrics and his delivery around what’s happening and what he wants to draw out of it, like a jazz player pulling their favorite notes out of a big chord to draw the audience’s attention to them.
“X Gon’ Give It To Ya” is an incredibly effective song not just because it’s aggressive, but because it was made by people who delicately curated the aggression in the sound, who fully understood how to take a single musical idea and bolster it to the point that it becomes this powerful, towering thing. It’s the perfect “fight scene” music not just because the lyrics are cocksure and confident, but because it’s a powerhouse of driving rhythm, unexpected changes, and a vocal performance that draws out the best in the music.