When I first learned on New Year’s Eve that MF DOOM had died at age 49 (and had in fact died on Oct. 31), my first response was disbelief. Not in a figurative, “I can’t believe he’s really gone” way, but in the literal sense that I couldn’t completely believe he was really gone. MF DOOM was hip-hop’s greatest supervillain, a virtuoso of mystery and subterfuge: What would be more diabolically DOOM than faking his own death? Even now, days later, part of me holds on to hope that somewhere there’s an empty casket, a missing mask, another improbable comeback on the way.
Taken at a certain angle, the history of MF DOOM can look like a history of the hip-hop industry writ small. He was born Daniel Dumile in London in 1971, but he grew up in Long Island. In 1988, Dumile and his brother, Dingilizwe, who rapped under the names Zev Love X and DJ Subroc, respectively, co-founded the group KMD. The following year, fellow Long Islanders De La Soul released their debut LP 3 Feet High and Rising, a surprise smash that proved there was a market for the very sort of esoteric and bohemian hip-hop that KMD offered. A guest verse on 3rd Bass’ 1989 Aretha-sampling cult classic “The Gas Face” gave Zev Love X his first real exposure and caught the ear of renowned A&R man Dante Ross, who signed KMD to Elektra Records, which in turn released the group’s debut album, Mr. Hood, in 1991. Mr. Hood was a minor hit, but in a moment when the word alternative was suddenly bringing dollar signs to the eyes of industry execs across all genres—lest we forget, Arrested Development once went quadruple Platinum—hopes were high for its follow-up.
Then it all collapsed. In April of 1993, Dingilizwe Dumile died at age 19 after being hit by a car on the Long Island Expressway. Shortly thereafter, Elektra abruptly dropped KMD after a prominent Billboard columnist objected to the cover art of the group’s second album, Black Bastards, which featured a satirical depiction of the group’s Sambo mascot being hanged at a gallows. (For a thorough account of the Black Bastards ordeal, consult this excellent essay by Brian Coleman.) At a time when the Los Angeles Riots and Body Count’s “Cop Killer” had inflamed the rap culture wars anew, and when record companies’ what-have-you-done-for-us-lately attitudes toward hip-hop acts were still more inclined to measure “lately” in weeks rather than years, KMD had seemingly gone from buzz bin to dustbin in the blink of an eye. (Black Bastards was finally released in 2001.)
The loss of his brother and the implosion of KMD’s major-label dreams devastated Daniel Dumile. Accounts of exactly how Dumile spent the years after KMD’s demise vary in their specifics but are universal in their depiction of an artist in despair. Then, in the late 1990s, he suddenly reemerged, performing at an open-mic night at the Nuyorican Poets Café, wearing a cloth mask in case anyone might recognize him. He christened himself MF DOOM (after Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom), swapped out the cloth mask for a metal one, and in 1999 released his “debut” album, Operation: Doomsday, most of which he also produced. It presented an entire artistic persona fully formed, a diabolical genius intent on intergalactic domination via mic-wrecking:
I had this style ever since I was a child
I got this other style I ain’t flip in a while, it goes
Pure scientific intelligence, with one point of relevance
MCs whose styles need Velamints
And once the smoke clears, tell ’em it’s
The super motherfuckin’ villain
n-gga came through raw like the elements
By the time Operation: Doomsday announced DOOM’s (re)emergence, underground or “independent” hip-hop had a far more robust commercial infrastructure than it did during the heyday of KMD. Around the turn of the 21st century, there was a whole world of artists who were making great music and selling records and packing shows with little to no mainstream radio play; this world didn’t normally offer a ladder to the Hot 100, but it wasn’t trying to, and for a while, it was a place of relative comfort, economically and particularly critically.
It was this world that MF DOOM utterly marauded his way through in the years following Operation: Doomsday. He was extraordinarily prolific, releasing at least seven full-length projects between 2003 and 2005 alone, including 2004’s Madvillainy, his album-length collaboration with Madlib that remains DOOM’s masterpiece. More than a decade after the demise of KMD, Daniel Dumile had finally claimed the musical esteem that had once so frustratingly eluded him, from a new generation of fans who were largely ignorant of or indifferent to his origins as Zev Love X, which is presumably how DOOM wanted it. It was one of the more remarkable second acts in American music.
Listening to DOOM at the height of his powers remains a surreal experience, like hearing someone offhandedly invent his own possibility, doing the previously undoable. His creativity feels bottomless, like if studio time wasn’t budgeted by the hour, he could simply rap forever. His rhymes are dense thickets of references and wordplay, gotta-keep-up puns elbow-to-elbow with nerdy pop-culture detritus, like this passage from Madvillainy’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”:
Goony goo goo, loony cuckoo
Like Gary Gnu off New Zoo Revue, but who knew
The mask had a loose screw? Hell, could hardly tell
Had to tighten it up like the Drells and Archie Bell
In four lines we go from children’s TV to a double-entendre on “loose screw” to a reference to “Tighten Up,” the 1968 hit by Archie Bell and the Drells, except here it’s “the Drells and Archie Bell” so that the end of the line will complete a three-syllable rhyme with “hardly tell” (give or take a syllable or two with “Drells” and “Hell”). (I should note here that excerpting DOOM’s lyrics feels a bit like turning a Vermeer into a jigsaw puzzle and then waving around a photograph of one of the pieces.)
He wears a mask just to cover the raw flesh
A rather ugly brother with flows that’s gorgeous
Drop dead joints hit the whips like bird shit
They need it like a hole in they head or a third tit
Her bra smell, his card say, “Aw hell”
Barred from all bars and kicked out the Carvel
It’s fun to marvel at the hilarious “kicked out the Carvel” punchline of this passage, but just as astonishing to my ears is the “rather” in the second line, a weird and vaguely aristocratic adverb that partly exists to fill rhythmic space but also because DOOM is acutely aware of how incredible the words “a rather ugly brother” will sound when massaged together through his raspy New York monotone. That’s not just lyrics; it’s music.
DOOM never relinquished his iconic mask, which always seemed to double as a tool of both artistic liberation and puckish mischief. I never saw DOOM perform live, in part because I was wary of his well-known penchant for sending masked impostors to shows. (Many paying concertgoers were, quite rationally, upset by this. DOOM’s similarly rational response was always something along the lines of, hey, you gave money to a supervillain—what did you expect?) But another reason was that Daniel Dumile, who’d never become a United States citizen, was denied entry to the United States after returning from a European tour in 2010 and was forced to spend his final years in England, a great American artist in exile. During those years, the music business that once rejected KMD continued to implode, while the guys who started Rap Genius—a website that would not have existed if not for the creativity of artists like DOOM—got far richer than he ever did. MF DOOM deserved a third act, and it’s still hard to write about him in the past tense, so I’ll stop now. Supervillains never really die; just remember all caps when you spell the man’s name.