By Kevin Gordon
My first exposure to MF DOOM was a similar experience to many of his fans, I’m sure.
Madvillainy was brought to my attention as a classic hip-hop album of the 2000’s; featuring outrageously precise rhyme schemes, sample-heavy production by a genius in their own right, Madlib, and a mysterious gravelly voice with a silver tongue. While all of those were of course, true, what makes MF DOOM special is much more than the objectively awesome aspects of his music.
It’s the artistry of his elusive character, the tone DOOM pervades when he hops on the mic, the comic-book style big brass production that brings to mind a force of evil. You have to be truly bought into your schtick as a bad guy to send out a fake version of yourself at your own concert, just to keep people on their toes. MF DOOM embraced his role as well as anyone in hip-hop ever has, and it would only be fitting if I let him introduce himself to you in his own words, as any of the great evil-doers would do. From the track “Bistro”:
“And I’m your host, ‘The Supervillain’”
London born, New York raised Daniel Dumile, under the stage-name Zev Love X, began his music career in 1988 as a part of the East Coast hip-hop trio KMD (Kausing Much Damage) with his brother DJ Subroc. KMD was able to garner enough success in the underground New York rap scene to sign with a record label and release an album, Mr. Hood, but the group was abruptly dissolved in 1993, prior to the release of their second album, due to the death of DJ Subroc. Following a stint away from music, Dumile, now under the stage-name MF DOOM, returned to the public eye with the release of his 1999 debut solo album, Operation: Doomsday.
Operation: Doomsday is where the mythos of MF DOOM begins; a charming collection of jazz-rap and alternative hip-hop goodness that evades comparison due to its simultaneous display of lyrical skill mastery and ahead of its time production. The track “Doomsday” centers around a seductive sample of “Kiss of Life” by Sade and classic boom-bap drums. MF DOOM functions as the witty observational rapper whose braggadocious lyrics are endearing for their pompousness as much as their advanced rhyme intricacy.
“Definition “super-villain”: a killer who love children / one who is well-skilled in destruction, as well as buildin’ / While Sydney Sheldon teaches the trife to be trifer / I’m trading science fiction with my man the live lifer.”
He depicts himself as the supervillain of rap, meant to destroy the game itself, while also being sympathetic to children (he means the community of young rappers, but imagine a masked DOOM swooping in to rescue your baby from the evils of poorly made huggies), and his willingness to build great songs. “Rhymes Like Dimes,” my favorite DOOM song, is set over a little synth riff from the delightfully schmaltzy R&B song “One Hundred Ways” by Quincy Jones, and sung by James Ingram. DOOM’s flow is spotless, he has the uncanny ability to juggle never-ending rhyme schemes with catchy hook’s that get you singing along inside the bathroom at your local Chipotle (that actually happened, no Potle slander around these parts). The chef’s kiss element of this album are the multiple skits placed throughout the tracklist, adding an amusing backbone to the overarching villainous theme. Doomsday should be remembered as one of the greatest debut records of all time, setting the bar wayyy high for DOOM’s subsequent releases. Spoiler: he doesn’t miss.
DOOM’s second record under the “MF DOOM” moniker (he put out multiple albums under the aliases King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn between this time) came in 2004 with the release of Mm..Food, another classic record brimming with zany loop-heavy production and musings of a man begging to get his hands on a Coney Island hot dog. “Beef Rap,” the opening track of the album, begins with one of DOOM’s many samples declaring my exact thoughts after not eating for two hours: “Now I haven’t eaten all day. How am I gonna do this man?” After a few more comic-book character voices warn the listener of the return of mad-genius-supervillain MF DOOM, a cartoonish horn enters the beat and drops directly into DOOM’s firing-on-all-cylinders verse. It all makes for a track that is equally lighthearted and goofy as it is hard, a balance that many of DOOM’S contemporary hip-hop counterparts struggle to find (I’m looking at you Eminem).
I can’t write a blurb about Mm..Food without at least briefly touching on the spectacle that is “Rapp Snitch Knishes” feat Mr. Fantastik. This track is similar to “Rhymes Like Dimes” in that it features a kick-ass chorus that’s singable amidst a flurry of lines spoken way too quickly for me to ever be able to rap along with. Bonus points to “Rapp Snitch” for incorporating maybe the most iconic guitar riff in hip hop music history, instantly captivating any future Playboy Carti fan to wonder what the hell a guitar is and how to make baby sounds over it. Picture the line “everybody wanna rule the world with tears for fears” with a bunch of loud “SLAT!” ad-libs in the background. Isn’t it beautiful? At this point of time, DOOM as a solo artist was at the peak of his power, flexing his talent as a top-tier producer/rapper combo in the elite status of “mainstream but also kinda underground” artists. But even the most mighty supervillains know they can only do so much on their own, which led DOOM to seek out a partner in crime worthy of his expertise.
Madvillainy, the aforementioned 2004 collaboration album between heralded producer Madlib and MF DOOM, known jointly as Madvillain, cemented both members of the duo as legends among their peers. Madvillainy is a symbolic middle finger to any would-be poet-rapper trying to emulate DOOM’s utter mastery of language, it is playfully complex purely because it has the ability to be that way. The early 2000’s are commonly remembered for the popularity of gangster rap, which is based in harsh, realistic depictions of the world through the eyes of the artist. It isn’t necessarily simplistic, but it does usually involve describing events that are bound in some rationality. DOOM bucks this trend completely, instead choosing to blend substantive and supernatural like it’s your two favorite flavors of slurpee at a 7-Eleven (does anyone actually like the Coca-Cola flavor slurpee?)
“Meat Grinder” is one of those tracks I can only describe as being absolutely fucking filthy in the most positive way possible. Madlib cooks up a scintillating beat for DOOM to rap over, sampling both Frank Zappa’s “Sleeping in a Jar” and the daydream-esque steel guitar from “Hula Rock” by The Lew Howard All-Stars. After the dramatic introduction to the song, love the creepy Zappa “THE JAR IS UNDER THE BED” part, DOOM neatly slips into the beat and proceeds to go berserk with wordplay.
“Tripping off the beat kinda, dripping off the meat grinder / Heat niner, pimping, stripping, soft sweet minor / China was a neat signor, trouble with the script.”
Like… what? The level of control of rap flow it takes to properly place all of these words within the context of the beat (ending a line at the proper time, etc.), while also squeezing as many little rhymes as possible, is astounding. Mastering language in such a commanding way is on par with some of the greatest writers of our time, and I have serious doubts that William Shakespeare could perform Hamlet in an oversized metal mask.
“Fancy Clown” is special because of its narrative song structure as opposed to the “I’m gonna rhyme things with the word banana a bunch and you’re gonna like it” method of other tracks. “Fancy Clown” is rapped from the perspective of DOOM alias Viktor Vaughn on a phone call with a girl who has been cheating on him (funnily enough, the girl in the song cheated on Viktor Vaughn with DOOM). The song artfully samples “That Ain’t The Way You Make Love” by Z.Z. Hill as its chorus, also giving name to “Fancy Clown” itself with the line “You’ve been tripping around uptown / with some fancy clown.” DOOM proceeds to show off his usual expert lyricism in the arrangement of a story, and I think it’s really awesome to witness the versatility with which he can lay down bars that make sense linearly.
MF DOOM is larger than life. He reminds me of David Bowie and the Ziggy Stardust character he had cultivated around his early 70’s music. These characters may just seem like imaginary vessels with which an artist can create an identity, persona and background for, but that completely disregards how real the emotions and impact these “characters” can have on our very real lives. They are eternally a part of our universe, whether the artist who brought them to existence is here with us or not. The masked crusader that is MF DOOM will never be caught or defeated. He is THE supervillain, wreaking havoc on the world one cleverly syncopated bar at a time. We won’t ever forget him,
“Just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name”