MF DOOM: Rap’s Greatest Villain

Words: Yemi Abiade

While the entire world was preparing to leave the abyss that was 2020, hip-hop fans were dealt one final blow on New Year’s Eve when the wife of MF DOOM, Jasmine Dumile, announced the rap icon’s death via a statement on his official Instagram page. Flying high two months before the announcement, MF DOOM’s untimely passing is a bitter pill to swallow for those familiar with his work—the loss almost akin to that of a family member—because he was more than just an MC, more than just ‘that dude in the metal mask.’

In the mid-to-late 1990s when hip-hop was on a commercial rise, with big budget music videos and shiny suits its most visible aspect, MF DOOM represented a preservation of a bygone golden era where the bars and the music took centre stage. Breaking down the symbolism of the mask to the Red Bull Music Academy in 2015, DOOM said: “There was a time in hip-hop where things were going to more of what things looked like as opposed to what things sound like. Once hip-hop started becoming a money-making thing, then you get these corporate ideas of putting what it looks like to sell what it sounds like, but we’re dealing with music. The mask really represents rebelling against trying to sell the product as a human being. It’s different, and it fits with the theme of the villain.”

Born in London in 1971, Daniel Dumile was raised in Long Island, New York City, and started rapping under the alias Zev Love X in 1988. Forming the group KMD with younger brother DJ Subroc and Onyx, the group dropped their debut album, Mr. Hood, in 1991. While in the middle of recording the follow-up, Black Bastards, in 1993, tragedy struck when Subroc was hit by a car and died, setting off a chain of events that would lead to Dumile’s transformation into MF DOOM. Soon after, KMD’s label, Elektra, shelved Black Bastards (partly due to its controversial cover art of a Sambo character being lynched) and dropped them from the label. A period of inactivity followed, and Dumile re-emerged from the shadows in the late ‘90s with the mask (inspired by Marvel Comics supervillain Doctor Doom), a new name and a new album, Operation Doomsday, that would shake underground rap to its core. Here, the first signs of a reformed Dumile were evident, with one lyric (from the classic track “Doomsday”) immediately standing out: “On Doomsday, ever since the womb ‘til I’m back where my brother went, that’s what my tomb will say.” Despite the rebrand, this was a darker Dumile from the jump, with the theme of death never too far away from his music.

The 2000s brought with it a renaissance period for DOOM, from his 2004 follow-up MM…Food to debut projects for his alter-egos Viktor Vaughn (a time-travelling scientist) and King Geedorah (a three-headed flying monster), plus a collaborative album with Dangermouse as DangerDOOM. The holy grail of this era came in 2004, when his immortal link-up with LA producer Madlib produced Madvillainy, a 22-track opus of abstract raps, textured beats and incredible chemistry. With this, the duo produced a rap album for the ages, arguably both artists’ greatest work and a lasting legacy for their respective geniuses.

The latter stages of his career would see a third and ultimately final album under the MF DOOM name, Born Like This, in 2009, and further collaborative projects with Jneiro Jarel (JJ DOOM), Bishop Nehru (NehruvianDOOM) and CZARFACE. Not to mention a number of tracks with Ghostface Killah and, later, Griselda’s Westside Gunn. Particularly on Born Like This, the theme of death loomed more heavily than usual, from the more sombre production to DOOM’s use of famed poet Charles Bukowski’s apocalyptic poem, Dinosauria, We, on album track “Cellz”. Now, with hindsight being 20/20, it was as if he knew he wasn’t much longer for this world.

Citizenship issues would prevent DOOM from re-entering the States from 2010 onwards—he remained a British citizen throughout his life—and the death of his son, King Malachi Ezekiel Dumile, in 2017, will have been yet another hammer blow to Daniel Dumile, the man. But MF DOOM, the MC, never wavered in exploring the unexplored. His music spoke to the outcasts, the nerds, the misfits and those who felt as weird as his music sounded. At a time where hip-hop was very much settling into its ‘mainstream’ and ‘underground’ denominations, DOOM was an entry point for a new generation of fans to develop their own relationships with the genre, or for older fans to retain an essence of the ‘real hip-hop’ the mainstream had supposedly left behind. Never officially donning himself with the ‘underground’ label, his raps and soundscapes found a natural home alongside contemporaries such as Madlib and J Dilla, endearing a new sector of rap fans to a style seldom seen in the game.

Listening to DOOM is a surreal experience in and of itself, akin to a walk around the ends high on magic mushrooms, embracing whatever comes your way. With every listen, more is uncovered about the DOOM character, how he ticks, his habits and faults. He revelled in the villain role he created for himself, so much so that he would send imposters in the DOOM mask to perform at live shows, a move so audacious it borders brilliance. He was the ultimate recluse, elusive and mysterious, rarely speaking or taking interviews. Yet he created a bold, bright and colourful world in which his life made a bit more sense. Where he carried the mantle of an everyman, rapping about everything from food to pursuing the opposite sex, via getting very high in random locations, all while bumping into characters such as Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah, both of which had their own unique voices. A walking contradiction of sorts, his elusiveness shone a bright light on his brilliance, his intricate lyricism (tightly balanced between humorous and stern) and complex rhyme schemes, made to sound easy by his gravitating presence. It is fitting that the announcement of his passing came two months after his death, as true to DOOM’s character, as true to his elusiveness, as any of his work.

MF DOOM’s legacy lives on through much of the new generation of rappers touched by his aura, from UK rappers such as Lord Apex and Louis Culture to US MCs like Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. Each have taken pages from the DOOM book of lyricism, crafting their own immersive universes through their music. Lord Apex told Crack Magazine in 2020: “[DOOM’s] a fucking animal, he’s broken every rule there is, from his stage presence to the way he moves as a person.” Meanwhile, artists as illustrious as Mos Def, Thom Yorke, Flying Lotus and many more who met and worked with him have recognised his creative genius, an ultimate sign of respect. It is somewhat appropriate that, despite a classic catalogue, despite his publicised tragedies and a hell of a life, very little is still known about Daniel Dumile—which is just how he liked it. One time for a rap legend.

Posted on January 05, 2021