The Illest Villain: A Tribute to MF DOOM

Features
01/08/2021
Martin Douglas

I. THE GAME IS NOT ONLY DANGEROUS BUT IT’S MOST STRANGE

Every villain’s origin, at least the ones worth their weight in blueprints for world domination, is forged from catastrophe of malice or circumstance. This has been recited to the point of cliche over the past number of days, but cliche is simply universal truth repeated ad nauseum. Instead of listing examples and misleading you into thinking I was ever an avowed fan of comic books, let’s cut to the chase scene: the story of MF DOOM begins with a teenage Daniel Dumile, born to a Trinidadian mom and a Zimbabwean dad in London (more on that later), and adopting the alias of Zev Love X, stealing the show on 3rd Bass’ hip-hop purist quasi-anthem “The Gas Face” with glimpses of the brilliant deadpan wit and internal rhyme mastery which would eventually earn him a spot on hip-hop’s all-time greats list.

After his group KMD went from trio to duo (alongside his brother Dingilizwe, who went by DJ Subroc), they darkened the corners of their Native Tongues-adjacent sound and titled their sophomore album Black Bastards, a mostly caustic rebuke of institutionalized racism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

As Black Bastards neared completion, Subroc was struck down on the Long Island Expressway. He was only 19 years old when he was pronounced dead.

A matter of days after, the elder Dumile brother was summoned to the offices of Elektra, the label set to release KMD’s sophomore album. Catching wind of an impending misinterpretation and backlash regarding its cover art – famously a Sambo caricature hanging from a noose – and not wanting anything to do with a similar sort of controversy and outrage they suffered from the 1992 release of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” Elektra revoked their intentions of ever releasing Black Bastards. With most major labels equally scared of what being associated with the album may entail, Dumile held onto the master recordings of the album while bootleggers relentlessly pressed and sold secondhand copies.

For a small handful of years after, Dumile shrunk from the spotlight. He split his time between New York and Atlanta. He persevered through homelessness. He grieved the loss of his brother over blunts and beers. He probably stewed in more than a little resentment after being ground up by the major label system. He eventually resurfaced, rocking shows with his face covered in pantyhose.

In an era where rappers were James Frey memoirists extolling and cleverly exploiting the virtues of “keeping it real,” Dumile dove deeper into abstract self-mythology and started rapping from behind an iron mask. MF DOOM, rap’s foremost supervillain, was born.

II. I ONLY PLAY THE GAMES THAT I WIN AT

Reinventing himself as a metal faced terrorist and releasing a series of expressionist singles on small but influential label Fondle ‘Em (run by Bobbito Garcia, co-host of the massively influential hip-hop radio landmark The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito show), Dumile rechristened himself as MF DOOM and drew up plans to destroy rap. His mission statement was written from beneath a mountain of discarded Phillies tobacco and Olde English Malt Liquor bottles, titled Operation: Doomsday, and flown in on the waves of quiet storm, lounge, easy listening, and Saturday morning cartoon samples.

The mask was reportedly inspired by Doctor Doom, but his first music videos featured a Toys ‘R Us replica of the visage of Kane – known in World Wrestling Federation lore as the Undertaker’s seven-foot-tall, 320-something-pound little brother whose face was damaged by a fire the Undertaker set – spray-painted into a comic book antagonist’s choice accessory. It was a symbol of defiance against the increasing marketability of hip-hop culture, at this point slightly more commodity than way of life in the eyes of the people charged with putting records out.

From the entrance door to the escape hatch, Operation: Doomsday is full of iconic jams burned into the memory of every grade of rap fan born between 1980-1995. “Doomsday,” “Rhymes Like Dimes,” “Dead Bent,” and “Gas Drawls” have been eternal “waiting between sets” music of true-school rap concerts all over the world. This uber-auspicious solo debut is the distillation of Dumile’s talents; his verses here explode with verve and the beats are loose enough to make you believe he’s punching them out in the next room while a lit blunt hangs from his lips. According to DOOM, James Brown was one of the few who could feel it.

III. THE TRAVELING VAUDEVILLE VILLAIN, WHO DON’T GIVE A FLYIN’ FUCK WHO AIN’T NOT FEELIN’ HIM

It’s remarkable enough that Dumile was able to construct one character as carefully and cleverly as he did, but his career is marked with imaginative alter-egos occupying different lairs in its creator’s headspace. King Geedorah, the three-headed hydra stomping buildings on the exquisitely beat-centric Take Me to Your Leader, made an appearance on Operation: Doomsday. Viktor Vaughn will also show up on a crestfallen breakup song/DOOM diss track on “Fancy Clown,” from his best-of-genre salvo Madvillain, the year after Venomous Villain drops.

IV. WASN’T EVEN TWEAKED, THEN IT LEAKED INTO CYBERSPACE

The first time I had ever heard of MF DOOM was upon hearing the leaked version of Madvillain. It came from a time where I was searching for something different. My horizons were as narrow as iron tunnels in the staid, suburban existence I had carved out for myself as I approached my early twenties and I was being drawn to my spiritual kin; the artists and weirdos. The stigma of “backpack rap” had shaken off and revealed a new skin as a creatively stimulating place for word nerds thinking outside of the mainstream box. Just like I had found 17-minute Royce da 5’9” radio freestyles in high school, I managed to snag this addictive-grade construction of rhyming words and off-kilter music via early-2000’s file-sharing websites.

Memory escapes me when considering who put me onto it. I was reading about music from every reputable source, plugged in early to the advent of mp3 blogs and skimming through peak-era Pitchfork. The inception of Myspace had me making friends with fellow music fans all over the world.

I wonder what would have happened if I had found DOOM as a high school senior, stringing together 15-syllable rhyme patterns and telling the yearbook staff I was going to be a rapper one day?

A chill rushed over me while listening to “Meat Grinder” for the first time and goosebumps raised on my arm. “Figaro.” Listening to DOOM flip words, twist them and grind them down. His delivery was assured and crisp. No one I was listening to at the time even had the capacity to rhyme like that. I was floored. The fact that I heard this dude was rapping from behind a metal mask and rapping in character made me think about pro wrestling, the obsession I left behind to dive deeper into music. I laughed when DOOM kicked a bar in “Good Day” about Kurt Angle.

V. GOT MORE SOUL THAN A SOCK WITH A HOLE

When I first heard the commercial version of Madvillain, purchased on CD when compact discs were still pretty much the dominant and most readily available music format, I thought the version obsessively traded online was superior. It was all in the delivery. DOOM went from bullying the beat to loosely coasting around it, sounding half-awake or in a stoned stupor. It wouldn’t take me long to figure this was actually a brilliant character move. Any talented villain could beat up a beat; it took a special one to lazily taunt it with dazzling wordplay.

That change-up in vocal styling, forged out of necessity (lest Madvillain joined Black Bastards in bootleg folklore legend), makes songs like “America’s Most Blunted,” one of the handful of unchanged tracks, hit that much harder.

The iron hand pulled strings and pulled together a constellation of disparate but spiritually aligned subcultures. The “underground/subterranean/indie” rap stalwarts, the stoner word nerds who poured over out-of-print slang dictionaries, record collectors of basically every stripe, the regular-ass people who get stoned and watch cartoons every night before bed, the obscure pop culture geeks, Thom Yorke. Madvillain instantly became an essential, transcendent piece of music, like Are You Experienced? or A Love Supreme or Kid A. A mastery of musical form.

I’d need a few more thousand words to fully articulate the genius of Madvillain, just know after about a hundred projects later I think this is the greatest collection of Madlib beats coupled with the most memorable selection of DOOM rhymes. A tall order in and of itself for two of hip-hop’s most idiosyncratic geniuses.

VI. THEY TOLD THE PLACE NOT TO LET THE BASTARD TYPE CASE IN


(Disclaimer: The video above is not footage from DOOM's 2006 Seattle show.)

The only time I saw MF DOOM live was a cold December night in 2006. I had borrowed my stepsister’s car and she was late getting back to the apartment we shared, so I drove from Northeast Tacoma to Southcenter in 18 minutes as not to miss the carpool from my fashion retail job, where my buddies and I planned to take one car up to Chop Suey.

Billed as “MF DOOM of DangerDOOM,” a quixotic move in hindsight – as DOOM’s full-length collaboration with Danger Mouse exposed the latter’s limitations as a rap producer – I wasn’t one of those lucky rap fans on the wrong side of history by drawing one of the infamous impostor DOOMs. But it was a rap show, so my friends and I had to suffer through damn near a dozen openers before DOOM finally hit the stage at 12:30. One Be Lo and John Robinson were the clear highlights; my friends groaned during a set from a new rapper named Macklemore, with his self-deprecating raps and song about white privilege – this iteration of what would become Seattle’s most famous rap star sounding like Eminem with his self-awareness phasers set to paralyze.

Out of boredom, impatience, and antipathy for what I was hearing, I booed Moka Only, getting dirty looks from other members of the crowd. (The next day, my underground rap devotee acquaintance from the next department over who joined us as the venue started an intense, passive-aggressive campaign against me, nearly screaming at me in the stockroom about my disrespect. Naturally, we didn’t speak to each other much after that.)

DOOM finally took the stage, and the energy in the room gathered electricity. He had a star’s presence, stalking the stage to a set heavy with jams from MM...FOOD and The Mouse and the Mask, peppering in King Geedorah highlights and “Red and Gold” from Operation: Doomsday. He threatened to crowd surf after repeating the last line of “Kon Queso” for effect, his hype man pretending to hold him back each time.

The news broke regarding fake DOOMs being deployed and it made me feel a little sympathy for all the people who went to those shows, but also led me to believe it was the perfect crime for a supervillain, to be such a natural entertainer and deny unsuspecting fans the privilege of seeing Daniel Dumile rock a show. 

VII. ONE MONKEY DON’T STOP NO SLAUGHTER

Though parts of Born Like This, what is now DOOM’s final solo album, have aged terribly (“Batty Boyz,” where the villain rather homophobically disses superheroes running around in colorful tights), the lion’s share of the LP finds Dumile unfurling the knottiest wordplay of his career over beats from the dearly departed J Dilla (whetting our eternal appetite for a full-length DillaDoom LP) and Seattle’s own Jake One, a menagerie of more obscure pop culture citations and Charles Bukowski readings, along with guest verses from the key impressionists of the epochal art movement known as Wu-Tang Clan, Raekwon the Chef and Ghostface Killah. There are still riotously funny couplets like “Turn dirt to dollars like Don Henley / Ugly and still get hollas like Ron Jeremy.”

VIII. EITHER UNMARKED OR ENGRAVED, WHO’S TO SAY?


(Video courtesy of Open Mike Eagle)

Dumile was denied reentry into the United States after a 2010 tour in support of Born Like This, as he was never naturalized when his family found a home on Long Island decades ago. A bevy of projects – including a second Madvillain LP and Swift and Changeable, a full-length collaboration with Ghostface – were never completed. Tragedy struck again in 2017 when Dumile’s 14-year-old son passed away (details about the cause of death were never revealed to the public). Reeling from grief once again, his output was even more scant and sporadic than earlier in the decade.

DOOM’s career over the years has taken some unexpected, even indulgent, turns, reminding the entitled listener and fan that musical vision lies in the hands of the artist making the music. They’re taking us on a ride and it doesn’t matter where we think it should go. It’s an easy stance to lament DOOM’s output from 2010 on, but it’s also fitting to the villain’s narrative that the final decade of his life was putting, you know, actually living his life rather than putting out music for us to fawn over.

Daniel Dumile died as he lived for more than 20 years, subverting our expectations for the artists we admire. The ways he pursued his very human right to privacy, including being dead for two months before his public were made aware of it, surprised and sometimes confounded us. The way he forced many people to listen to rap music outside of the first-person paradigm and the way he embodied characters were both revolutionary and inimitable. The metal-faced terrorist started a revolution of influence in many different areas of rap music; actually, pretty much every conceivable metric of hip-hop songcraft and production.

As MF DOOM, Daniel Dumile was simultaneously from a bygone era, of his time, and far too ahead of it. He was one of the few unimpeachably timeless rap artists who have ever lived.

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