You get raised on simple, binary conflicts. Coke versus Pepsi. Hot dogs versus hamburgers. Mars versus Venus. Yankees versus Red Sox. Heroes against villains. But life in all of its myriad ways, will reach out and tell you that it never has been, and never will be that simple. Hip-Hop culture, and rap is certainly no different. Neither are the multitudes to be found in comic books. Same with wrestling. And the figures that dispel and shatter those simplistic conflicts are heralds of unbound creativity and inspiration. These figures come to this point at the end of a torturous and weighted journey to create their own mythology. You can rattle off numerous pop culture figures, comic heroes and the fleeting wisps of street legends on blocks and corners around the world. So it was with Daniel Dumile, formerly known as Zev Love X and reborn as MF Doom.
It’s been one whole week since the world let out a collective gasp at learning of the passing of MF Doom through the words of his widow on social media in the remaining hours of 2020. Disbelief and dismay. A penultimate doomsday in a year that would qualify as a contiguous one due to the coronavirus pandemic and other societal ills. The news is still the impetus for a slew of tributes, and other memorials and fan art and stories being told about the enigma that was Metalface Doom. For me, I felt as if someone had hit me with a zap from a phaser. Like many others in the wake of the news, I initially thought it was another “gotcha” moment from a rapper and artist who was a master of the kayfabe to the point of having stand-ins go on stage as him. (Shoutout to comedian Hannibal Burress who served in that role too.) But to be honest, it is a fitting way for Doom. Leave on your own terms, just as you came back on your own terms when the world counted you out.
Joseph Campbell wrote, “myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” It’s hard not to think of that whenever you listen to rap music, and when you start considering where MF Doom resides in hip-hop culture. You’ve got a rapper and producer that tasted fame way back when he stepped onto the scene in 1988 out of Long Beach in Strong Island aka Long Island, New York as one-third of KMD along with his brother, DJ Subroc and Onyx The Birthstone Kid who came on after Rodan left. “The Gas Face”, a playful and clever track from 3rd Bass, Def Jam’s latest rap act composed of MC Serch and Pete Nice was the showcase for Zev Love X and became a hit partly due to his witty lyricism — and a highly public diss at MC Hammer. Elektra Records took advantage and signed Kausing Much Damage to a deal, which led to them releasing Mr. Hood in 1991. Mr. Hood is an album that gets left out by some when recounting the era where the Native Tongues and other rap artists and groups were exploring and expounding on their Blackness and their views on society in varied ways. Listen to it now and you might get that “ah-HA” moment as you notice its a blueprint for Doom later in his career, from the quirky samples to the biting but funny criticisms of American racism and oppression mixed in with fresh overture songs dedicated to women like “Peachfuzz”. But like a lot of comic book narratives, the journey to create a hero or villain is never a smooth one. Losing his younger brother Subroc in 1993 out on the Nassau Expressway, and then having your label summarily drop you because you got to be TOO Black and too raw and real to the point where you had a Sambo figure being hung on your sequel album’s cover was a one-two combination that left Zev Love X out in a cold, cold world.
In the origin story for Doctor Doom created by Stan Lee and Jack “King” Kirby, the reader gets to know him first as a Romani who possesses a genius level of intelligence born to a witch and a medicine man. He doesn’t become Doom without enduring a series of hardships even as he’s on the precipice of greatness, and dons the mask along with his trademark suit of armor made by Tibetan monks who took him in. Being discarded by your label to the point that they gave you a check and your masters just to leave them alone, losing your brother and being homeless — that series of hardships turned Zev Love X into the rap supervillain MF Doom. Operation Doomsday, when it dropped in 1999, blew my mind from the intro that drew from the 1967 Fantastic Four cartoon (which also was the source for the iconic cover) to the way Doom rapped on every track. His voice was insistent, heavier, like walking into that one room in a house party where the air’s rich with sativa that overpowers those scant sprays of air freshener or sticks of nag champa. It was a shot in the arm for those who wanted alternatives to the bling era that positioned artists like Jay-Z and Diddy as the music gained greater footholds with white audiences who had plenty money to dole out for it.
Chock full of beats that blended R&B with pared-down basslines that still had plenty of snap (Rhymes Like Dimes), with each track concise and impactful like hooks to the ribcage, Operation Doomsday proved to be a brilliant return and origin story all at once.
Doom knew, much like the wrestlers we grew up watching like Ric Flair, Randy “Macho Man” Savage and others that to gain the attention of the crowd it is important to create the mythos that will draw them in and keep them there. The kayfabe has gotta be lived out. And so, the man in the metal mask went forth conquering crowds that ran to sites like Sandbox Automatic to snag his CDs. I remember seeing him live once, dropping in on a showcase at some spot on Houston down the block from what was once CBGB’s in 2002. Seeing people in the crowd raise their beer bottles in salute as he strode on stage, the mask glinting in the yellow gel lights was the same energy I imagined people got seeing El Santo and other luchadors step into the ring with. The mask would never come off in public again, and Doom would go on to rock under other aliases like Viktor Vaughn and King Gheedorah.
The legend was solidified once Madvillainy, his Stones Throw collaboration with Madlib dropped. Think about the time it was released. Your favorite rap music video shows were mostly dead if not on the way out, given up for live request programs held daily that were wedged in between “reality TV”
that highlighted bad behavior as personality. America is deep into military conflicts prompted by the terror attacks on 9/11, with a presidential administration that’s spurred on by corporate right-wingers. Rap music chugged on, with burnt champagne aspirations and trap ballads due to the influx of artists from the South and New York City losing its prominence as
“the” place to reside. Madvillainy was an art album the likes of which rap overall didn’t expect or could explain initially. Even now, as you listen to it, you realize that Doom and Madlib filled a vacuum and helped to forcibly create a lane that now has a sizable space in contemporary rap. They took the “backpacker” sneer and did a suplex on it to the point where you can now go to posh bars and lounges (any hotel in the W hospitality network will suffice)or enjoy a brunch at a trendy bistro and it’s almost certain you will hear a track from that album on the playlist of the establishment.
Another comic book inspiration I found myself reflecting on these past few days? Alan Moore’s quintessential V For Vendetta. One line that resonates with me? “You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.” For the artist known as MF Doom, I believe that was never an issue. Even as he went on to drop more heat and team up with the producer Dangermouse and Adult Swim, I felt as if he completely understood where MF Doom ended and Daniel Dumile began. There were a number of people who thought otherwise back then, especially as he began sending out stand-ins to take his place at shows here and there. The mask wasn’t solely to hide his face, to amplify his rap villain persona. It was armor to protect himself from being damaged again, to protect himself from the cloying of a music industry and all its trappings and a fanbase that had its fickle side. The mask was meant to inspire, and to be a legacy of sorts. It was a tie-in to the pioneer days of rap where Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force reigned along with Rammelzee. It was a totem of lyrical power, as iconic as the way Ol Dirty Bastard created his own unique rhymes. It was a nod to the diaspora that birthed him, representing the spirit that nurtured him and egged him on during that time frame he felt lost to himself and the world. The mask also hid the hurt of the loss of Subroc and later on, his son. But to take another quote from V for Vendetta:
“Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all that we really have. It is the very last inch of us. But within that inch, we are free… An inch; it is small, and it is fragile, and it is the only thing in the world worth having. We must never lose it or give it away; we must never let them take it from us.”
It’s irony, and not a gentle one that he passed away on Halloween — a time where many focus on hiding and wilding out beneath masks without a thought to the energies and spirits that make themselves felt in that time frame. A Halloween where most of the world is now compelled to wear a mask to suppress the spread of the coronavirus. I’d like to think it was a relief & a time to lay the mask down, to leave it for others to be inspired by. MF Doom’s place is hip-hop is that of the iconoclast who reigned supreme in an art form that was maturing to take its proper place in American and global culture. An artist that laid waste to the simple binary constructs that rap had embedded in it and became an anti-hero that gave illumination and reflection mixed up with wittiness and humor and boom bap like different parts of the cereal you used to demolish with your Saturday morning cartoons. The rap world is better for having had him in its ranks.
All caps when you spell the man’s name…MF DOOM.