Beneath the nacreous mask was an MC of many identities. MF DOOM, Viktor Vaughan, “your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper,” or just simply “Doom,” Daniel Dumile (Doo-mi-lay) went by many monikers. Fitting, as he was in fact as much a protean and elusive figure as his many masked identities suggest. The announcement of his passing last week is a tragic one, both for the underground golden era faithful and those, like me, who have only recently hopped onto his cult bandwagon. The Doom canon has spanned more than two decades, and his death sees the end of one of rap’s most enigmatic geniuses.
The late 90s was a divided, but nonetheless fecund, age for hip hop music. Whilst mainstream rap was consumed by the battle between East and West, the beginnings of the empire of Eminem and a whole lot of machismo, more jazzy, Afrocentric groups such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest operated at the other end of the spectrum. It was into this milieu that Doom stepped. Starting under the name Zed Love X with his brother Subroc as rap duo KMD, with a flair analogous to late 80s groups like EPMD, their debut record Mr Hood was released in 1991. The tragic death of Subroc in 1993 and the departure of Elektra Records following their subsequent album left Doom in a period of anomic inactivity for several years. But 1998, with a performance at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan in which he donned a pair of female stockings on his face, saw the inception of a new underground empire.
Taking his name from the Marvel villain Dr. Doom, the rapper has been able to act as the architect behind his own on-stage persona. Oscillating between nefarious villain, Bukowski-like lowlife loaf and goofy stoner, he is as multivalent as they come. “Other MCs are obsessed with machismo; Dumile is obsessed with ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Logan’s Run’” wrote the New Yorker. Think Wu-Tang but nerdier.
But his dizzying lyricism is what truly sets him apart. Across six studio albums, Doom offers a vast array of esoteric references and confounding wordplay with a nous and perspicuity unrivalled in the hip hop world. Take his delivery on ‘That’s That’ off 2009’s Born Like This: “Already woke, spared a joke / barely spoke / rarely smoke / Stared at folks when properly provoked, mirror broke / Here, share a strawberry morning / Gone, a more important spawning, torn in, poor men sworn in.” His delivery, with its multisyllabic internal rhyme scheme and rhyme chains, has such a distinct rhythm to it, the pause on the eighth or sixteenth beat allowing a sneakily concise transition into a new set of half rhymes. “Doritos, chitos and fritos,” he raps on Madvillainy’s ‘Accordion’. It’s all good, regardless.
Doom would not be Doom, however, without the sheer villainy that lurks beneath all his work. He raps with tongue in cheek, yes, but also knife in hand. When he is not delivering acutely funny witticisms, he is losing himself in the masculine bravado of his anti-hero alter ego, “MF the supervillain.” Operation Doomsday in 1999 demonstrated his first foray into this world, and a glimpse of the raspy, roughly recorded nascence of MF’s evil. Following a gorgeous sample from Sade’s ‘The Kiss of Life’ on the track ‘Doomsday,’ Doom raps “That’s the difference between sissy-pissy rappers that double dutch / how come I hold my microphone double-clutch,” showing his gutsy self-aggrandisement and chiding of the putatively inferior rappers he comes up against. Fan favourite MM…FOOD was released in 2004, and, again, showcased Doom’s Ability to spin double-entendres and symbolism into a humorous, reference-filled patchwork. The extended food metaphors play out across an array of self-produced beats. Muddy and jazz-infused, it sits high on critical lists of the Dumile discography.
But the magnus opus, the album that has come to stand for many as a lyrical vade mecum, is 2004’s Madvillainy. Madlib’s production offers a bass-oriented palette of deep cuts and niche samples; everything from Sun Ra to Citizen Kane. Sometimes woozy, other times pleasingly rough on the ears, the succession of twenty-two beats takes its listener through a plethora of marijuana-soaked sounds. But what elevates the record to the highest of honours is Doom’s consistent, considered, and cutting-edge level of verbal jousting. On ‘Meat Grinder’ he cleverly suffuses touch football references with Sesame Street: “Then its last down, seven alligator seven / at the gates of heaven / knocking, no answer / slow dancer, hopeless romancer, dopest flow stanzas.” All over a Frank Zappa sample; incredible. Yet you simultaneously also have the comedic toast to getting high on ‘America’s Most Blunted’: “DOOM! The Madvillain killing mad boom / Consume weed and drink brew ’til we perfume the room.” There are just so many tracks on this that blow your mind away, and it is absolutely worth sitting down in a room somewhere and soaking them up, one by one.
Rap’s most dastardly nerd, he really was the best emcee with no chain ya ever heard. He will be sorely missed.
Image: Universal Images Group via Getty Images