Remembering MF DOOM

I didn’t believe it when I first saw it. He couldn’t die; supervillains don’t die, they evolve, disfigured with newborn penchants for world destruction. Surely this was a trick, another gaff pulled by the ultimate huckster, just another hoodwink from up the sleeve of hip-hop’s most infamous villain.

On December 31, 2020, Daniel Dumile, world-renowned underground hip-hop artist of many aliases but most commonly referred to as MF DOOM, was announced dead by his wife Jasmine on his Instagram page. In a heartfelt note, Jasmine thanks her husband for a beautiful life and explains his passing took place on Halloween two months earlier. For two whole months, the world’s most notorious supervillain had been dead and nobody had the slightest clue. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist; DOOM convinced us for a short time that he hadn’t died, even releasing several feature verses from beyond the grave. Not only that, but Dumile, maybe the first rapper to consistently wear a mask, passed on a day where people everywhere spawn masks to conceal their identities and cosplay as characters. The villain’s skullduggery never seems to end.

MF DOOM is one of hip-hop’s most important, talented, enigmatic, influential, and hilarious figures to ever grace and impact the genre, and is by default my favorite rapper. His footprint on today’s musical landscape cannot be overstated. From having an influence on three generations of musicians (from Odd Future to Joey Bada$$ to Mos Def to Questlove to Lil Uzi Vert to Drake to Thom Yorke of Radiohead), DOOM concocted a legendary career from the caverns of his own mind and forever altered the music industry. None of my favorite current-day artists would exist without him. But even beyond his impact, DOOM’s music stands on its own as startlingly imaginative, cerebral, whimsical, and inimitably original. Many make music that sounds like DOOM’s, but DOOM made music that sounded like nobody else’s. DOOM is a one-of-one, the stuff of Stan Lee comic books, science experiments gone wrong, stoned studio sessions spent guzzling beer, penning rhymes, and watching Adult Swim. My life and so many others would not be the same without DOOM.

This is an ode to the metal-fist terrorist who holds heat and preaches nonviolence; the killer who loves children, and is well-skilled in destruction as well as building; Mr. Bent, who’s at where your sister went; the man who stretched the boundaries of creation with his metal fingers, silver tongue, and evil charm. This is an ode to MF DOOM, one of the most creative minds to grace the planet.

Art by Ember Nevins


THE METAL-FACED VILLAIN’S ORIGIN STORY


Every supervillain has an origin story, and MF DOOM’s could have been ripped straight from the pages of a Marvel comic. Dumile officially began his music career as part of KMD, a group he created with his brother DJ Subroc and another emcee, Rodan (who would later be replaced by Onyx the Birthstone Kid), in 1988 in Long Beach, New York. He went by Zev Love X then, and was only a teen when the group got signed by Elektra Records and released their first album, Mr. Hood. The music was lighthearted, bouncy, and politically-aware; he and his brother were just having fun, making the music they liked to hear and seeing some commercial success along with it. Dumile wasn’t yet wearing a mask—Zev Love X was still green and happy-go-lucky, a futuredesperadolivingcarefreebeforetheevilwaysofthe world bent him toward vengeance. Then, in 1993, while in the thick of recording their second album Black Bastards, exactly that happened: DJ Subroc was tragically hit by a car and killed while crossing the expressway. He was only 19 years old. Dumile finished the record alone and played it from a boombox at his brother’s funeral. Set to release in 1994, Elektra Records suddenly and unexpectedly shelved the album indefinitely, deeming the album artwork’s black Sambo character hanged from a noose in a game of hangman too controversial. The record label gave Dumile $20,000 and the masters to the record, sending him on his way. In the midst of tragedy, a supervillain began to take form.

The next three or four years of Dumile’s life are shrouded in mystery. As the legend goes, he almost entirely disappeared from the music industry and was on the verge of homelessness, spending most days writing, listening to jazz, and drinking whatever beer he could afford. His wife would bring him a sandwich during her lunch break; every morning he would see his son off to school. After going through immense trauma, it seems like this was Dumile’s step back from the world, to grieve, regenerate his powers, and plan his schemes for world takeover. And then, he reemerged. Around 1997, Dumile began anonymously performing at New York City open mics with women’s stockings over his face to conceal his identity. Exit Zev Love X. Enter MF DOOM.

In 1997 and 98, Dumile released a handful of 12” singles (“Dead Bent,” “Gas Drawls,” and “The M.I.C.”) under his new alias MF DOOM on legendary radio host Bobbito Garcia’s Fondle ‘Em Records imprint. The music was rawer, more inebriated, presented with the perfect amalgam of spontaneous stream-of-consciousness and mind-jarring intricacy. The drums were unquantized, the looped samples woozily dreamy, the lyrics hilarious and ornate and recondite. Ditching the women’s leggings, DOOM began donning a metal mask, at first a plastic Toys-R-Us-purchased WWE Kane mask spray-painted silver, and later a stripped-back and suited-up version of the Russel Crowe Gladiator mask. And then in 1999, the supervillain presented his mission statement: Operation: Doomsday, one of underground hip-hop’s most imaginative theses ever created, and the beginning of a shocking career renaissance.



A street-smart nerd in every sense of the phrase, Dumile was an avid fan of comic books, cartoons, science, literature, and hip-hop. Boiling all these things down into one, he took on the persona of Doctor Doom, a fictional Marvel supervillain and archnemesis of the Fantastic Four. In the comic, Doctor Victor Von Doom attempts to use his scientific genius to rescue his mother from hell after she dies in a deal with the devil gone wrong. While constructing a machine to bring her back to life, a horrific explosion occurs, terribly disfiguring Victor’s face. Just like that, Victor becomes Doctor Doom, a masked and misunderstood supervillain with a heart of gold, dead-set on world domination.

Dumile’s repurposing of the persona worked to convey the deep-seated emotional trauma he underwent in adolescence, growing up in crime-addled Long Beach watching his brother and several friends die before adulthood. The similarities between Dumile and Doctor Doom’s journeys are uncanny, and wielding a wildly-expansive imagination, Dumile decided to write from the supervillain’s perspective as if Doctor Doom popped out of the pages, copped a bottle of Olde English and some loose Phillies from the bodega on the corner, and decided to kick a few rhymes during his transcendental sojourn as an in-the-flesh entity.


There was a possibility Dumile’s blasphemous stratagem could’ve come off corny, a jokey gimmick attempting to fuse comic book lore into hip-hop sensibilities—a slightly-tweaked rip-off of Wu-Tang. Except here’s the thing: it wasn’t. It was the opposite of corny. It was strikingly disparate. It was funny. It was honest. It had never been done before.

In fact, it had been done in direct opposition to the boasting and keeping-it-real era of late-90’s and early-2000’s hip-hop, where street authenticity and lavish opulence were king. Jay-Z was big pimpin’; Puff Daddy was victorious. Before that, N.W.A reported on poverty and crime from the streets of Compton; Mobb Deep penned hard-boiled autobiographical grit. Either gravelly and intrepid or sumptuous and silk-lined, hip-hop wasn’t fiction. It was real-life rags to riches, sound- tracked by cinematic, grand instrumentals. And in utter defiance, DOOM decided to pen semi-fictional tales of magical-realism over chopped-up, off-kilter, glossy soul samples that were simultaneously mischievous, clever, impressive, vast, and meaningfully heartfelt.

Operation: Doomsday is like a kaleidoscope: a wonky, beer-goggled, beautifully colorful world of refracted light, taking the every day and transmuting it into oddball lunacy, hyper-detail, free association silliness, and surprising truth. The drunken exploits, braggadocio, street violence, and endlessly smooth-talking women out of their clothes were all there—but it was like nobody had ever done before, unspooling from the mind of a metal-faced comic book character. And almost immediately, DOOM had a cult following of language-loving hip-hop nerds who laughed when DOOM used words like “Zoinks!”; that shout-sang along when DOOM shakily crooned the lyrics to a sample of soul group Atlantic Starr; that would debate the meaning of endless entendres and obscure references until hell froze over. As Mos Def once famously said, “DOOM rhymes as weird as I feel.” Also: “Do you understand the majestic gift that is Operation:Doomsday?” Underground hip-hop had a hero in the form of a supervillain. Sometimes, it’s impossible not to root for the villain.

From there, DOOM’s star – concealed under a metal filter, pouring out from square eye-holes and malt-liquor-rusted mouth-piece – would only shine brighter.


DOOM’S UNRIVALED PEAK


If Operation: Doomsday was unprecedented – the weird comic-strip comeback story nobody saw coming – then the next five years of DOOM’s career were next-to-impossible. Starting in 2003, DOOM came back with another alter-ego—a three- headed dragon named King Geedorah, based off the nefarious Godzilla enemy. As DOOM explained, King Geedorah was an extraterrestrial being sending communications down from space based on what he observed of Earth’s happenings. Take Me to Your Leader is DOOM’s showcase as a producer, finding Dumile’s voice on only a handful of songs but his ingot-covered fingers on all of them. Hectic space sounds, jam-packed samples collaged over each other, and his friends’ quick-witted raps make Take Me to Your Leader an odd, ever-entrancing entry in DOOM’s catalog. Next came 2003’s Vaudeville Villain under the name Viktor Vaughn, a younger, more energized version of Doctor Doom who trades in the mask for youthful exuberance and delinquent shenanigans. Vaudeville Villain may be DOOM’s tightest, most precise rapping ever, an evil laboratory containing a mind-boggling amount of internal rhymes, turns-of-phrases, and astute shit-talking that underscore the character’s adolescent arrogance preceding the maleficent twist that forges a true supervillain. Mm...Food came in late-2004, Dumile again rapping under the MF DOOM alias within a loose concept album of completely food-themed double-entendre rhymes; and in 2005, DOOM teamed up with producer Danger Mouse to release the Adult Swim-sponsored The Mouse and the Mask, a cartoon-laden joke-fest that feels like a dorm room stoner’s wildest dreams come true. In only a handful of years, DOOM unleashed a fury of dense, complex, insanely creative weirdo hip-hop albums that would take years to fully dissect and appreciate. And right in the heart of this run, in early 2004, DOOM released the album that would define his career, gaining him the most acclaim and attention any underground artist can receive without being signed to a major label. That album is Madvillainy.


DOOM and legendary producer Madlib came together under Stones Throw Records (the eccentric independent label out of Los Angeles that would birth the era’s least pretentious, most important subterranean hip-hop records) to form the super-duo Madvillain. Madvillainy is an otherworldly concoction of multi-layered, ever-evolving beats – largely sampled from arcane Brazilian records and madcap jazz – paired with career-defining writing that sees DOOM spinning his craziest fables yet. An acid-laced morning of cartoons and cereal, if the cartoons were made by surrealist communists and the cereal was radioactive (shout-out to Anna Parisi for that analogy), Madvillainy is simply one of the best hip-hop albums ever created, catching two of the most peculiar, incredible creative minds at the height of their powers. As Jeff Weiss writes in his amazing profile of the making of Madvillainy, the duo lived together in a rented house in Los Angeles for a handful of months; Madlib stayed in a windowless concrete basement coined the “bomb shelter,” while DOOM strolled around the house writing his absurdist anecdotes and fourth-and-fifth-dimensional yarns in between “doing bong hits on the roof in the West Coast.” The two barely spoke—they seemed to communicate through telekinesis, creating a beamed-down outer-galactic world by merging their two streams-of-conscious rivulets into a single, stranger, more daring channel of misfit artistry. The result immediately shook the worlds of underground rap, music critics, and anyone who had a taste for imagination and experimentation. DOOM was already heralded as one of the most bizarre, enigmatic, remarkable rappers working— but after Madvillainy, he became the stuff of hip-hop folklore: your favorite rappers’ favorite rapper.

DOOM's Legend, Legacy, & Importance


MF DOOM entered my life during my senior year of high school. I had recently discovered the wordier, more introspective side of current-day hip-hop, and I was devouring whatever I could get my hands on. A couple of months prior, during the summer before my senior year, my friend Dave had introduced me to Doris by Earl Sweatshirt; after listening through the album countless times, dissecting every line to its fullest extent, tracking down every interview with Earl, I found out about the immense influence an album called Madvillainy had on Doris. Some dude with a mask apparently left a ginormous impact on Earl, inspiring his entire style and career. What the fuck was that all about?

I still remember sitting on Dave’s treadmill in his basement as we pressed play on Madvillainy and heard the opening lines of “Accordion”: “Living off borrowed time the clock ticks faster / That’d be the hour they knock the slick blaster / Dick Dastardly and Muttley with sick laughter / A gunfight and they come to cut the mix master.” That string of outrageous, cryptic words would change my life forever.

What makes DOOM so extraordinary is how much fun he has with words. He culls the depths of the English language, using diction and verbiage most writers and wordsmiths wouldn’t dream of touching. There was no word too weird, no phrase too outdated, to be dolloped into DOOM’s lyrical gumbo. He imbues a certain whimsy into his work that only a rare creative soul can capture. He’s unafraid of being an outcast, of being himself, of interpreting life in the way only he knows how; he doesn’t feel the need to explain his strange ways to anyone, and instead, dives fully down the rabbit hole of his imagination, chasing the furry tale of inspiration wherever it takes him. The result is breathtaking sentences—indelible creativity showcased in endless perplexity and laughable wonder. To listen to DOOM is to enter an entirely different universe, to become fully submerged in another man’s mind as he winds through the twisting curves of reflection, reverie, and the application of his favorite art to his own life. DOOM pens his autobiography inside the panels of a comic, conjuring the mysticism and infinite possibilities of cartoons, science, and indie hip-hop. DOOM broke all the rules of rap—he showed yet another way to twist words into abstract self-expression.

Like the greatest science-fiction writers, DOOM is an elite world-builder, never over-explaining the set-up but expecting (requiring) the listener to become entirely enveloped in the universe to understand it. And they always will, just because it’s so much fun. DOOM is a constant reminder of the importance of play, the magic of words and escapism, of being whisked away into a verbally-constructed cosmos that enthralls, enlightens, and delights. DOOM’s music displays the reasons to write and read and listen, to want to make art that lessens the strain of existence, that shows the beatitude of creation. DOOM’s music shows why we choose to pick up a pen, pick up a book, pick ourselves up out of bed every morning and choose to live and breathe and be a part of this strangely beautiful, oddly gratifying, sometimes painful but always interesting experience of existence. MF DOOM’s music makes me happy to be alive. As Bob Kaufman once wrote, “Creation is perfect.” DOOM’s art embodies this fully.

In an era where every rapper chose to be themselves, DOOM chose to be somebody else. He inspired three generations of musicians and writers. His music means the world to me and countless others. His art will live on forever. Thank you, Daniel Dumile, for a beautiful life. Rest easy Villain.