Tripping Out on MF DOOM

Dear readers, I have a question for you. Could you explain the Marvel universe to me in five minutes? Now, you might be asking yourself what Marvel has to do with MF DOOM, but bear with me. MF DOOM is an amalgamation of a childhood nickname (DOOM is play on his last name, Dumile) and Marvel supervillain Doctor Doom (what kid growing up didn’t love comic books and cartoons). Taking this childhood love of comics a step further, MF DOOM built an entire universe and filled it with a cast of characters, more on that shortly, just as Marvel did with the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. As an MC, producer and writer, MF DOOM is the Stan Lee of the hip hop world.  Going back to my opening question, how does one even begin to summarize the maddest villain of them all without it becoming a dissertation.

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for longer than I’d like to admit. While I’m happy to finally sit down and get my thoughts out on the page, I wish the impetus for this was under different circumstances. On New Year’s Eve it was announced to the world that MF DOOM had passed away under unknown circumstances on October 31, 2020. In a world addicted to social media and 24/7 media coverage, it is unthinkable that news as big as this was able to be kept a secret for so long, but it really speaks to the enigmatic figure that MF DOOM truly was.

Before we go anywhere, I first need to introduce the cast of characters in the DOOM universe because MF DOOM doesn’t just represent a single artist. The use of different characters is a tool MF DOOM uses to carry the out a storyline, giving each character their own unique voice and points of view, allowing them to interact with and contradict each other. If you really stop to think about it, it’s quite ingenious. Unlike traditional artists, MF DOOM isn’t locked into any one single style, vision or voice. In a genre that’s all about street cred and bragging, his bragging was limited only by his own imagination.

Daniel Dumile, born July 13, 1971 in London, is the man behind the mask. What little information is known about Dumile’s personal life is heartbreaking and filled with despair. First the death of his brother and dissolution of their group KMD in 1993 followed by a stint where he was forced to sleep on benches in Manhattan. Fast forward to the 2000s and Dumile was refused entry to his adopted home of the United States in 2010, forcing him to suddenly uproot and relocate back to the UK. Then in 2017 he was hit with the unthinkable sudden death of his own son. Outside of a handful of other anecdotes, not really much is known about the 49-year-old.

Zev Love X was the name under which a young 17-year old MF DOOM earned his chops as part of KMD, his first group, during the late eighties and early nineties. While KMD feels dated by today’s standards, they are definitely worth a listen.

MF DOOM, after recovering from his wounds, emerged from the underground in 1998 to exact his revenge on an industry that had chewed him up and spit him out. MF DOOM is an OG villain. Similar to the likes of Daft Punk, his most recognizable trait is his mask. It is object that he uses to get us to focus on the music rather than his looks (editor’s note: rather than Doctor Doom, the mask is actually based on the gladiator’s mask used in the 2000 film Gladiator). It should be noted that MF has two different meanings depending on which aspect of the artist we’re talking about. Metal Face represents the artist as an MC while he is rapping, while Metal Fingers represents him in his producing capabilities. For whatever reason, DOOM seamed to drop the MF moniker altogether after 2006.

King Geedorah is where things start to get weird. Geedorah is a three-headed dragon from outer space based on King Ghidorah from Toho Cinema’s kaiju monster universe. Geedorah’s sole album represents the monster’s perspective on humanity viewed from up in space. Given that a dragon from outer space wouldn’t speak English, Geedorah’s channels his thoughts through DOOM.

Viktor Vaughn is a young cat, a know-it-all that idolizes DOOM and wants to be him. Vaughn is play on Doctor Doom’s alter ego Victor Von Doom. Compared to DOOM though, young Viktor is a jerk. He’s grimy and willing to exact his violence when need be.

Just as with any good comic book, DOOM has a variety of other sub-characters that are based on his different collaborative efforts. I won’t go through all of them, but to name a few you have Madvillain, easily the most famous, which represents DOOM’s work with DJ / producer Madlib; DANGERDOOM, which paired up DOOM with Danger Mouse; and the ultimate Marvel pair up represented by DOOMSTARKS, or DOOM alongside Ghostface Killah aka Tony Starks.

Whatever name he goes by, just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name.

Every comic book character has their origin story and DOOM is no exception. After several years of struggle, a defeated Dumile felt that he was ready for one more go. The inspiration for the character of DOOM came from a childhood love of comics and sci-fi. As the MC put it during a rare interview, “[Doctor Doom] always come through after he disappeared. It seemed like they killed him, but always comes back…If I was to come back, it would have to be as that dude.” After the tragic passing of his brother and being exiled from the music industry, Dumile re-emerged in 1998 to exact his revenge. The first known appearance of DOOM was at the most unlikely of places, Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. This may seem like a strange choice of venue, Nuyorican was the epicenter of underground hip-hop in the mid-90s with the likes of Talib Kweli, Mos Def and El Mascarado’s favorite Erykah Badu. While the trademark mask had yet to be adopted, the concept of retaining his anonymity still existed and DOOM performed with a pair of pantyhose over his face just like the burglars you see in old TV shows and movies. His reason being that:

“It doesn’t matter what I look like, it don’t matter what the artist look like, it’s more what the artist sound like.’ So, the mask really represents the whole like, to rebel against trying to sell a product as a human being. And it fits with the theme of the rebel, the villain. Villain represents anybody, anybody in here could wear the mask and be the villain.”

After almost a decade since KMD’s first album, 1999 saw the release of Operation: Doomsday. While this was an amazing year for the underground what with releases that included The Roots’ Things Fall Apart and Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, hip hop was still dominated by the mainstream with the likes of DMX, Juvenile, Dr. Dre and Eminem. Listening to the album the now, it must have felt completely foreign and out of place back when it was released. Rather than DOOM’s own voice, the album opens with two minutes of samples pieced together from obscure tv shows and superhero cartoons. Operation: Doomsday cemented a format that would go one to be repeated on almost every subsequent release, skits and samples interspersed between tracks featuring a wide cast of guest characters, including DOOM’s other personas, alongside DOOM in either the role of MC or producer. Between tracks likes Doomsday and Rhymes Like Dimes and the various skits, DOOM is able to weave a mysterious storyline that sets the story of his own personal history as well as the origins of his new persona. This is less an album in the traditional sense and more like experiencing a 50s comic book cartoon.

As DOOM would not release any new material for the next few years, now is a good time discuss his unique style. DOOM is far and away my favorite rapper, but I would be the first to admit that he isn’t for everyone. Talib Kweli described DOOM as a non-sequitur rapper who is all about rhyme schemes and patterns. While JPEGMAFIA would say that “DOOM’s flow is probably the most memorable thing about his music. His off-kilter flow splits a lot of fans and doesn’t allow them to get into his music as it’s not remotely easy to digest.” Mos Def on the other hand simply left it at “[DOOM] rhymes as weird as I feel.” In stopping to read DOOM’s lyrics you start to realize his true genius and that not only is the man a master wordsmith, but an amazing storyteller. While DOOM usually rhymes on the beat, he also uses multi-syllable rhyming phrases to string entire lines together, hitting us with clever wordplay and killer punchlines. Using changes in his intonation and tone, DOOM is able to rhyme words and phrases that normally should not work. In a world where everything is spelt out to us, one could spend hours upon hours trying to decipher these lyrics as the following video from Lyricology 101 goes to show.

2003 and 2004 would prove to be two of the greatest years in the history of underground hip hop with DOOM at his creative peak. In no short order DOOM would release Take Me to Your Leader as King Geedorah followed by Vaudeville Villain as Viktor Vaughn in 2003. Like Operation: Doomsday, Take Me to Your Leader is spliced with samples from old Godzilla and King Ghidorah movies to tell the story of the three-headed dragon. Given that the theme of the album is supposed to be Geedorah’s take on the human race, it was purposely made it sound much more out there than anything else at the time. Unlike his previous release, DOOM only actually raps on a few tracks and is more focused on the album’s production, which has significantly improved in the intervening 4 years. Of note, the track Anti-Matter sees the first appearance of the infamous Mr Fantastik (another Fantastic Four reference), one of DOOM’s most popular collaborators and a man whose actual identity is still a secret and heavily debated. Vaudeville Villain on the other hand is a much grimier and more aggressive album that utilizes samples from the Fantastic Four to tell the backstory of both DOOM’s alias Viktor Vaughn as well as Victor Von Doom. Tracks such as Let Me Watch describe the hotheadedness of a young Viktor out on a date that gets too ahead of himself, ruining his chances with a cousin’s friend’s friend.

Then in 2004 one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, Madvillainy would drop, this time as the Madvillain. This album represents the meeting of two respective geniuses. DOOM’s lyrics likely would not have the same impact without Madlib’s beats and vice a versa, Madlib’s instrumental would not be the same without DOOM’s lyrics. The album’s open track The Illest Villain summarizes this perfectly:

“As luck would have it, one of America’s two most powerful villains of the next decade is turned loose to strike terror into the hearts of men…Madvillain”

Long before the shift to albums filled with shorter tracks in order to feed Spotify’s algorithms, Madvillainy took this unique approach, somehow stuffing 22 tracks into a mere 46 minutes. While one might expect this to have an impact on the overall quality, the album is filled with amazing track after amazing track with the likes of Accordion, Meat Grinder, Figaro and the infamous All Caps. If you consider yourself into hip hop in the least bit and have not heard this album, stop what you are doing right now and go listen to it. Released at the tail-end of 2004, DOOM returned as himself on Mm..Food, an album solely devoted to food and not the usual villainy that encompassed all his prior releases. As a result, the album is more lighthearted and funkier with songs like One Beer, Kon Queso and probably the most well known DOOM track, Rapp Snitch Knishes.

There is so much to unpack and analyze when it comes to DOOM that this article could go on forever. I will leave you now to listen to the accompanying playlist and ruminate over the passing of one of the greatest characters in the hip hop universe. Just as the comic books he modeled his universe on, MF DOOM made himself into something that was superhuman and has the ability to live on forever while the rest of us are confined to reality.