Marvel, A Mask and the Music: The Legacy of MF DOOM
By Stereo Williams
In many ways, it's sadly appropriate.
Daniel Dumile, the rap titan mostly known as Metal Face DOOM, reportedly died in October 31, 2020. The world at large didn't learn of his death until two months later. On New Year's Eve, Dumile's wife informed everyone via DOOM's Instagram page that the masked rapper was no longer with us. Fans and peers were stunned. The grief was immediate. The "how did they keep this a secret for so long?" questions began. And it all felt...sadly appropriate. Because MF DOOM never gave the public more than necessary. Appriopriate that an artist who's persona was shrouded in mystery and Kaufman-esque misdirection would pass away and the world not really know. It almost felt like another DOOM stunt.
But not this time.
Long before he was sending mock DOOM imposters to perform at shows, long before he was a wordsmith celebrated by the likes of Mos Def, Thom Yorke, Ghostface and Lupe Fiasco, Daniel Dumile established that he was a uniquely gifted artist with his own flow and perspective. With his brother Subroc (born Dingilizwe Dumile), Daniel (now christened Zev Love X) would form Kausing Much Damage aka KMD, and after adding Onyx The Birthstone Kid, KMD landed a deal with Elektra Records. KMD's debut album Mr. Hood, established Zev Love X as a clever rhymer; focused on knowledge of self but always presenting socio-political commentary with a sense of humor. His subsequent trademarks were already in place on Mr. Hood: a freewheeling, polysyllabic flow and a seemingly-endless array of pop culture references and in-jokes.
Most fans know how things turned out for KMD: Subroc was hit by a car on the Long Island Expressway and killed in 1993 while they were working on their second album, Black Bastards. That album was shelved by Elektra because of its controversial album cover (a likeness of the "Sambo" caricature being hanged in a game of Hangman), and KMD was unceremoniously dropped. X was given $20,000 and his masters, and the rapper more or less walked away from Hip-Hop for several years.
Like every great supervillain, there has to be an origin story. Magneto wouldn't have become the X-Men's greatest tormentor without the pain of watching his family die in Auschwitz. Lex Luthor's obsession with Superman is born of his own innumerable insecurities. The Joker was a manic depressive who'd lost everything before he literally drowned in acid and re-emerged as a psychotic clown. You gotta have an origin if you're gonna wreak havoc. The pain of losing his brother and his career falling apart was like the vat of acid that led to the birth of Metal Face.
Zev Love X didn't exist anymore.
"Like my twin brother, we did everything together/ From hundred raka'at salats to copping butter leathers/ Remember when you went and got the dark blue Ballys/ I had all the different color Cazals and Gazelles/ The 'SUBROC' three-finger ring with the ruby in the 'O', ock/ Truly the illest dynamic duo on the whole block..." - "?", MF DOOM
The love for MF DOOM is born of his obvious love and passion for wordplay, his unapologetic oddness, an approach that didn't seem to give a shit about what was "hot" at whatever time; he was dedicated to his own free associative world.
His favorite cartoons and cereals made their way into his rhymes. Mainstream popularity wasn't something he was ever preoccupied with; opting to rock a dented metal mask in homage to Dr. Doom, arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four, at a time when being a rapper seemed to mean having an addiction to the spotlight. He became a new kind of anti-star for the Internet age.
Operation: Doomsday, his debut album as MF DOOM, arrived as the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, and underground Hip-Hop was experiencing a bit of a golden age. DOOM had already released "Dead Bent" and Gas Drawls" in 1997, and his rise coincided via acclaimed projects by underground artists like Company Flow and Dr. Octagon. DOOM stood out, with Fantastic Four cartoon samples and . At a time when a group like Wu-Tang Clan (themselves also armed with a thematic obsession and 70s pop culture references) was suddenly flossing for the mainstream, a rapper like DOOM connected with an audience that was eager for giddily stream-of-conscious wordplay and nerd-friendly conceptualism. Wu's obsession was kung-fu flicks, MF DOOM's was cartoons...and comic books...and food...and...well...everything.
The classics would cement MF DOOM as a legend: Madvillainy with Madlib; Vaudeville Villain (as Viktor Vaughn); 2004s epic Mm...Food; The Mouse and The Mask with Danger Mouse; and Born Like This. A discography unlike any other.
I was a Hip-Hop fan who'd always loved cartoons and comic books. That's not at all unique: Hip-Hop has been connected to the lore of superheroes and characters ever since a Grandmaster named himself Flash. But DOOM crystalized nerdiness and sick-ass skills in a way that hadn't been embodied in such a way. His Dr. Doom mask; his noticeable paunch, his obvious love of the art of rapping; it all made him one of the most compelling artists of the 2000s to a cadre of fans who maybe couldn't find what they were jonezing for in Hip-Hop's bling-driven Y2K mainstream. Over the course of a career that saw him collaborating with everyone from Ghostface to Madlib to MF Grimm to De La Soul, MF DOOM remained consistently inspired -- even as he recorded and produced under various aliases, in countless collaborative projects and on several labels. Hiding his face may have given him relative anonymity, but his art made him a legend amongst those who love rhyming. And as a producer, he could deconstruct a sample in wildly inventive ways. His work on 2003s Take Me To Your Leader, an album released as King Geedorah with appearances from the NY-based Monsta Island Czars highlights his knack for dense, minimalist beats; his sound is nothing if not atmospheric.
The death of MF DOOM was a shock to end 2020. In a year that saw so much tragedy, this was a sad period at the end of a morbid and depressing sentence. Daniel Dumile's legacy isn't confined to any "underground" tag, his legacy transcends that label precisely because he never fought to be anything else. In hiding his face, in rapping about all the nerdy shit he wanted, in all those references to Dick Dastardly and Scooby-Doo, in producing a sound that defines him as much as his lyricism; he became a legend. Underground or over anything, MF DOOM destroyed everything in his path. The pain that birthed him only fueled him. And it inspired the rest of us.
Long live the supervillain.