How MF DOOM Saved a Generation of Lost Hip-Hop Fans
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How MF DOOM Saved a Generation of Lost Hip-Hop Fans

The masked rapper’s worldbuilding and commitment reminded us that there was always something more to discover

I planned to write about MF DOOM this past November to mark the 16th anniversary of his classic album Mm..Food? But as can often be the case for writers, other stories happened, so I put it off, figuring I’d have more opportunities to give Daniel Dumile his flowers while he could smell them through his metal mask. Little did I, or the hip-hop world, know that even mid-November would have been too late. On New Year’s Eve, his wife announced that the 49-year-old cult rap legend had died on October 31.

Around that time, I revisited Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2009 New Yorker profile of the reclusive MC. I was struck by what had initially driven Coates to become a fan of the artist formerly known as Zev Love X. “When I rediscovered Dumile in his new guise,” Coates writes, “I was on the cusp of fatherhood and life-partnership, and considering divorce from the music of my youth… I was worn down by the petty beefs between rappers… and by the music’s assumption of all the trappings of the celebrity culture in which it now existed.”

I’ve been thinking about this quote for the past two months because I, too, fell in love with DOOM during my own withdrawal from mainstream rap, though it happened five years after Coates’. DOOM was a dam who caught those of us on our way out of hip-hop, bringing us back to the culture by reminding us that there was always something more brilliant, beautiful, and creative than we’d previously thought possible.

MCs often take on personas as facades, fronts of masculine bravado and fictionalized tough-guy sagas. DOOM turned that idea on its head, fully ensconcing himself in a world of his own making.

I was introduced to MF DOOM in 2004, during my freshman year of college. Hip-hop was undergoing an identity crisis that mirrored my own. Jay-Z had just retired after releasing The Black Album. OutKast had just dropped their final non-soundtrack album. The entire industry was chasing a Southern style that was becoming more mainstream — and the more derivative it got, the more played out it sounded. While I loved to hear Lil Jon booming from club speakers and my car’s subwoofers, I was struggling to find music that spoke to my burgeoning backpacker proclivities.

And then I discovered Mm..Food?

The album sounded like it was made from my own imagination. DOOM had transformed himself into a rap version of the iconic comic character Doctor Doom. He referred to himself in third person as “the villain” and rhymed between soundbites from Fantastic Four cartoons. The album was an evisceration of the current state of rap, all expressed through food allegories. For instance, on “Beef Rapp,” he spits, “Every week it’s mystery meat, seaweed stewed,” and, “Stop feeding babies colored sugar-coated lard squares.” The hook for “Rapp Snitch Knishes” is a crystal ball forecasting the 6ix9ine era of rappers incriminating themselves on social media: “Rap snitches, telling all their business/Sit in the court and be their own star witness/Do you see the perpetrator? ‘Yeah, I’m right here.’”

DOOM was a worldbuilder, and he was committed to that practice as much as anyone else in music. For me, Mm..Food? was the gateway to an entire universe. His flawless collaborative album with producer Madlib, 2004’s Madvillainy, is an endless array of non sequiturs, multilayered lyrics with hidden meanings, and more of the villain persona, all spat over jazz-inspired production. “Fancy Clown” is the embodiment of the DOOM experience: a narrative about DOOM stealing the girlfriend of a guy named Viktor Vaughn. The catch: He rhymes from Vaughn’s POV. DOOM even released two albums under the alias Viktor Vaughn, a more down-to-earth version of the comic supervillian’s character. (Dr. Doom’s real name was Victor Von Doom.)

DOOM did all of this before the days of Reddit threads and the explosion of social media, a time when fans like me had to scour hip-hop message boards and obscure corners of the internet to understand the coded meanings and narrative threads embedded in DOOM’s catalog. (Had DOOM come out in today’s era of deep dives and rabbit holes, he’d be an even more dominant figure.) It was in those forums where I learned the villain’s origin story: Daniel Dumile, born in London and raised in Long Island, New York, first performed as Zev Love X, part of the early 1990s rap crew KMD, along with his brother DJ Subroc. In 1993, Subroc was hit by a car and killed. After Elektra dropped KMD from its label due to concerns over an album cover depicting the lynching of a Sambo-like character, Dumile retreated from public view, presumably never to be heard from again. In the late ’90s, he reemerged as DOOM, first rocking a nylon mask over his face. But the full character would come to fruition on 1999’s Operation: Doomsday, where his brooding, ominous voice expressed his heartbreak over losing his brother, his disillusionment with the industry, and the creative genius on display.

MF DOOM’s apex came in 2005, when he linked with Danger Mouse for The Mouse and the Mask, a collaboration with Adult Swim that put the rapper firmly in the realm of prominent underground rap. Just as he was becoming a household rap name, DOOM took a left turn, embracing the villain (and his inner Andy Kaufman) by sending out decoys in masks to concerts, magazine interviews, and public appearances. Like this one. Even as fans became increasingly agitated at his stunts, they had to accept that it was just part of the villain role he’d created. It all somehow became endearing — just part of the legend of MF DOOM.

MCs often take on personas as facades, fronts of masculine bravado and fictionalized tough-guy sagas. DOOM turned that idea on its head, fully ensconcing himself in a world of his own making. He reimagined what was possible as a creative even beyond rap. He taught me how to write. He taught me the importance of packing as much meaning as possible into the tiniest, most claustrophobic spaces. He showed the ways individuality can transcend the need to follow the sound of the moment. His legacy is that of a creative force who never cared about trends or convention. He was DOOM — a world sustained by his own ingenious inertia.

Like so many other beloved figures, Daniel Dumile left us before he could see 2021. But even his passing has a hint of poetry. DOOM, the man who wore a mask to “cover the raw flesh,” died on Halloween — the day we all wear masks — during a pandemic that forced the world to mask up. Furthermore, his death was kept a secret for two months, leaving us to imagine even for just for an instant that this could be another plot from the villain. That he’d one day reemerge, masked up and laughing diabolically.

Further reading

Dart Adams, who was covering rap through the DOOM era, with some backstories to his works:

Madvillain (Madlib x DOOM) “Madvillainy”: A 15 Year Retrospective

MF DOOM “Operation: Doomsday”: A 20th Anniversary Retrospective