MF DOOM: Death of a Villain

by  Lochlann de Brún

When the news broke on New Years Eve that MF DOOM had passed away two months ago, some initially thought, or hoped, that this was another one of the masked MC’s elaborate tricks, that hip-hop’s most beloved antihero had pulled off his most outrageous heist. The rapper spent his entire career shrouding himself in mystery, choosing anonymity over celebrity and in the process crafting a larger-than-life persona that was almost completely separate from the man who created it, but so enchanting that it was hard to believe that there was a man beneath the mask. Is it really any surprise that it was also hard to believe that that man had died? The thing was - MF DOOM wasn’t just a stage name that Daniel Dumile had adopted, he was a character that Dumile had conjured. A character that was constantly shifting and evolving with each song and each bar - as his tracklist grew, so did the character.

Dumile created DOOM using two things: a mask, and a complete mastery of his craft. The iconic mask he wore in virtually all public appearances was fashioned after that of Marvel supervillain Doctor Doom, though the version seen on the cover of his 2004 masterpiece Madvillainy, and tattooed across many a rap-nerd’s forearm was actually based off the mask of a helmet worn by Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator (2000). These geeky comic book and pop culture references were an important aspect of DOOM’s character and lyrics, as well as his production work, and in many ways a big contributor to his fearful stature as an MC. DOOM would frequently reference comic book villains, and his production often featured an array of obscure 1970s superhero cartoon samples that would build on his persona as the ‘metal-faced terrorist’. DOOM took the trope of the heartless ‘thug’ that dominated in gangster rap and elevated it to a literally cartoonish level – he wasn’t content to be labeled as just a petty criminal, he was an evil supervillain. This idiosyncratic concept and DOOM’s commitment to it set his music apart from that of any rapper that came before him, and made him something of an anomaly within hip-hop. His references weren’t just contained to marvel comic strips and Hollywood blockbusters however; he seemingly rapped about everything and anything - from Shakespeare to Japanese anime, quantum physics to beer, there was nothing he wouldn’t or couldn’t rap about. The obscurity and wide-reach of his references only further deepened the enigma of DOOM, it was almost like he was some kind of all-knowing, all-seeing evil genius, claiming power over the world by knowing all that it contained. In his words, he was ‘The worst hated God who perpetrated odd favours’.

The phrase ‘your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper’ is often thrown around in hip-hop, usually directed at a more underground though technically proficient and highly respected rapper. Of course, no one else had this phrase thrust upon them more than DOOM. It derives from the older phrase, ‘a writer’s writer’, a writer whose work is oftentimes concerned with the craft itself, and whose mastery of the craft is most evident to those who partake in it. It’s a phrase often associated in both literature and hip-hop with gatekeeping and elitism, but in DOOM’s case, it’s almost too accurate to be just a figure of speech. The list of rappers who have named DOOM as a favourite range from experimental hip-hop artists like JPEGMAFIA, to none other than the most streamed artist of all time, Drake. Even Thom Yorke has cited DOOM as his favourite rapper, but I’m not sure if his bars are any good. A video on YouTube shows Mos Def rapping some of his favourite DOOM verses, unable to contain his laughter at the masked rapper’s famous punchlines, full of an almost childlike delight at the quality and oddity of DOOM’s writing: ‘He raps as weird as I feel!’ he exclaims at the end of the video. But it doesn’t take a rapper to realise how good DOOM was as an MC, anyone can hear it in the multi-syllable rhymes stacked together in one line, where the multiple rhyme schemes continue bar after bar until you start feeling dizzy, or the wordplay that makes you scratch your head and then laugh an hour later when you figure out what he meant. Language for DOOM was something to be toyed with; words became bent into new shapes and phrases twisted into different meanings, but the most impressive thing about this was that he did it with such ease. With all his tongue twisters and internal rhymes, he always sounded impossibly smooth. His flow was somehow off and on beat at the same time, instantly recognizable and completely original. If DOOM was indeed the supervillain that he always rapped about being, his superpower was his rapping, striking fear in anyone who dared match him: ‘When he had the mic you don’t go next’.

The life and career of the man beneath the mask was full of highs and lows. Dumile suffered personal tragedies and systemic discrimination as a black man in America, yet his talent couldn’t be derailed. Despite the hardships he faced, he released some of the best hip-hop albums ever recorded and inspired generations of musicians both in and out of his respective genre. Born in London in 1971, his family relocated to Long Island, New York, when Dumile was a child, and he grew up in Long Beach though he never gained American citizenship. He was an avid comic book reader in his younger years, and began DJing when he was only just 9 years old. In 1988 Dumile formed rap group KMD, under the first of his many monikers, Zev Love X, along with younger brother DJ Subroc, and the group released their debut album Mr Hood three years later. In 1993 tragedy struck just before the release of the group’s second album, when Dumile’s brother was hit by a car and killed. In that same week KMD were dropped from Elektra Records. Dumile was deeply affected by his brother’s death, and the callous treatment of the music industry; he took a hiatus from rap between 1994-1997, and has stated that he practically became homeless in this period, sleeping on benches in the streets of Manhattan. This was a formative experience for the rapper; wounded from grief and cut out from the industry that no longer saw him as a profitable commodity, he was made an outsider, and there he became the antagonist of the norm. He even stated that he swore revenge against the industry, giving some serious weight to his villain origin story.

In 1997 Dumile re-emerged from the ashes and reimagined himself as MF DOOM. Now donning the iconic mask and taking his vengeance in his own hands, he released his self-produced debut album Operation Doomsday two years later and declared his devotion to hip-hop, and to his brother: ‘‘Til I’m back where my brother went, that’s what my tomb will say’. Between 2003-2004 the villain was at the absolute peak of his powers, releasing three classic solo albums under three different monikers King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn and MF DOOM. It was in this period that he cemented his legendary status as both rapper and producer, and released one of the greatest and most influential hip-hop albums of all time, Madvillainy. A collaborative project that saw the coming together of two of the best talents to ever grace the genre and in the most fruitful period of their respective careers, DOOM teamed up with producer Madlib and formed a match made in heaven. Madlib’s stoned oddball beats and obscure samples provided DOOM with the perfect soundtrack for his absurdist supervillain rap odyssey; it was on Madvillainy that the character was pushed to its most hilarious and sinister heights. DOOM then released his final solo album, Born Like This in 2009, and after that he largely operated in the shadows, featuring on the odd track here and there or doing a collaborative project where he would largely take a backseat. In these years, the man beneath the mask was again hit by hardship and injustice. After completing a European tour in 2010 he was refused re-entry into the United States. Though he had lived there for the majority of his life, he had never become a naturalized citizen. Despite his longterm residency, he was refused back into the country where he had grown up, and was separated from his family for two years, until they reunited in 2012 and settled in London. In those two years Dumile would only see his wife and three children through video calls or their brief visits to the UK. In 2017 he was once more struck by grief following the death of his son aged just fourteen.

Reality for Dumile was full of cruelty and heartbreak, and maybe it was for this reason that the rapper was so obsessed with creating fictions. He was notorious for sending imposters onstage for live shows; sometimes the audiences caught on and booed the stand-in DOOM off stage, other times they didn’t. It makes you wonder – how many people thought they had seen DOOM perform live, and to this day live in ignorant bliss that the man they saw was not who they believed it to be. But does it even matter? Dumile once said that he ‘might send a white dude next…whoever plays the character plays the character’. For him, all that mattered was the mask and the bars. The reason he wore the mask in the first place was to separate the art and the artist, to give all attention to his creations: the music and the character. In a time where reality seems to be made up of news stories read in order of how disheartening they are, DOOM reminds us of the importance of make-believe, of our capacity to create. Daniel Dumile devoted his life to hip-hop and to his art, and though the man beneath the mask may have passed on, MF DOOM has not, and will not.