MF Doom(ed?), or: Crisis on Infinite Jerks

In last week’s New Yorker, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a profile of MF Doom.  Doom’s been missing in action lately, and I’ve definitely felt his conspicuous absence from the Hip Hop landscape, so I was eagerly anticipating this article, especially since MF Doom is notoriously reclusive and makes a habit of giving interviewers a hard time. I was hoping that Coates would be able to peel back some of Doom’s artifice, or at least take him to task for some of his more bizarre behavior. Unfortunately, the article is more sycophantic and navel gazing than informative. So, in the interest of telling a jilted fan’s side of the story, I decided to put together an alternate history of MF Doom. Read on.

MF Doom ismf_doom_31 Daniel Dumile, a Long Island native who began his career under the stage name Zev Love X. After getting his start with a verse on 3rd Bass‘ minor hit single “The Gas Face“, Dumile and his brother, DJ Subroc, released the album Mr. Hood (1991) with the rap group KMD. During the recording of their second album, Subroc was run over by a car and killed. Once completed, KMD’s second album, Black Bastards (1993), was held from release because of controversial cover art. Around this time the group disbanded and it seemed that both KMD’s members and their music would be a footnote in Hip Hop history.

But it appears that Dumile wasn’t done yet. In 1997, he began quietly releasing singles not as Zev Love X, but as the mask-clad rapper MF Doom. He drew from the mythos of the Fantastic Four supervillain Dr. Doom, wore an intimidating iron mask (the MF is short for “Metal Face”), sampled liberally from old Fantastic Four cartoons, and referred to himself as “the illest villain.”

His break from the rap game noticeably changed him as a performer. His voice took on a noticeably gruffer patina, and his flow developed the lucid ease of conversation, but the most dramatic change is was in the depth of his lyrics. As Zev Love X, Dumile wrote fairly abstract rhymes. As Doom, they became downright surreal.  In just a few bars he would throw off densely laden references to arcane 70’s kids shows, old school hip hop, sci-fi, comic books, cartoons, classic soul, the MF Doom persona’s mythology and tie it all together with some effortlessly evocative wordplay:

Goony goo goo loony koo-koo like Gary Gnu off New Zoo Revue/But who knew the mask had a loose screw?/Hell, could hardly tell/Had to tighten it up/Like the Drells and Archie Bell

Rhinestone Cowboy, from Madvillainy (2004)

On top of his new found lyrical dexterity, he also began producing and releasing instrumental only records called Special Herbs. Each of the instrumental albums (there are 10 in total) feature beats that appear on his releases, beats produced for other performers, and some beats that to this day have no associated vocal track. These tracks also found their way onto Doom albums as background music for skits made up of vocal samples from newscasts, cartoons,  and commercials.

The early 2000’s were a creative renaissance for Dumile. 2001 finally saw the release of Black Bastards, and between 2003 and 2006, he released a seven albums on which he did either the lion’s share of the MCing or producing. Madvillainy, a collaboration between Doom and the west coast rapper/producer Madlib is considered one of the greatest underground Hip Hop albums of all time.  On top of these releases,  he released eight of the ten Special Herbs collections during this period.

The breadth, depth and consistency of his output makes the intervening years all the more painful, because Doom  flamed out spectacularly. Between 2006-2008, only a few singles and some substandard remix records came out. He got production credits here and there, but it was largely just beats taken from the Special Herbs collections (though, to be fair, sometimes used to great effect – see Ghostface Killa’s 9 Milli Bros off of 2006’s Fishscale.)

Not only was he not releasing new music, but his public behavior got more and more bizarre. More bizarre, that is, than wearing a metal mask all the time. Formerly known as a fantastic performer, reports began to emerge that he was lip syncing at his shows, followed closely by the accusation that the person performing wasn’t MF Doom at all, but an imposter (or “Doomposter”) wearing his mask. This culminated in a performance at last year’s Rock the Bells festival where he (or his surrogate) was literally booed off the stage.

As far as I, a rabid fan, was concerned, Doom had a lot to answer for, and I figured Coates would either hold him accountable or at least provide some explanation for his sudden and precipitous drop in output. I assumed the article would be a detail of incredible personal strife that has kept him from showing up at performances and recording new material. Instead, all we get by way of explanation is “Dumile routinely sends out one of his comrades in the Doom costume and has him lip-sync the entire show. He sees this as a logical extension of the Doom idea.” Dumile apparently finds fleecing his fans hilarious:

If Dumile had his way, he would take it further. He jokes that he’d like to dart back stage after a performance, take of the mask, and then wade into the crowd-beer in hand-and applaud his own work. In conversations with strangers, if the subject of Doom comes up, Dumile will simply play along, like Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne.

“I’m the writer, I’m the director,” Dumile said. “If I was to go out there without the mask on, they’d be like ‘who the fuck is this?'” He went on, “I might send a white dude next. Whoever plays the character plays the character . . . I’ll send a Chinese nigger. I’ll send ten Chinese niggers. I might send the Blue Man Group.”

In March of this year, Doom released his first album since 2005, Born Like This. I was optimistic because it received generally favorable reviews, and I was hungry for a new Doom record. There are some amazing tracks, notably the album opener, “Gazillion Ear“, produced by the late J. Dilla. But the album just doesn’t have the same bizarre energy of his previous efforts. Doom seems to be doing a lot more yelling and flailing on this album, and, to my surprise, he’s still plucking 5-year-old beats from the Special Herbs records.

The nadir of both the album and Dumile’s career as a rapper is “Batty Boyz”, a track that stands out as exemplifying the disconnect Dumile has regarding the ‘character’ MF Doom and the way he is perceived as an artist. The song is a cartoonishly homophobic jab at superheroes for dressing “In thigh high boots, red tighty-whities and blue cat suit (Holy Homos).” The title “Batty Boyz” is meant to is an evocation of superheroes like Batman and an invocation of the Jamaican Creole term for homosexual. It’s a slur often used by influential Jamaican musicians who implore their listeners to murder gay people. While homophobia is alive and well in the rap scene (see: ‘No Homo‘), the song comes off as lazy and distasteful coming from an artist as talented and funny as Doom.

I assume that Dumile would justify this by claiming that it’s told from the villain’s perspective, that these are not his actual opinions. That it makes perfect sense for a supervillain to emasculate superheroes by calling them gay. I assume, because Coates never asks him to justify this song, his Doomposters, or his long hiatus. While Coates spends most of the article tacitly acknowledging that Dumile is becoming a victim of his own success (the bulk of the articles narrative is Coates accompanying Dumile as he does anything and everything but recording), a lot of the piece is just nostalgic reflection on The Golden Era of Hip Hop and how MF Doom spared Coates from disaffection and disinterest as rap became more commercial.

I’m still hopeful that Doom can redeem himself when (or if) Swift and Changeable, his long anticipated collaboration with Ghostface Killa is released, but that album has been in the works for as long as Dumile has been on hiatus. With no album release date in sight, a weak new album, and seemingly no interest in actually performing, I’m pretty much ready to write him off. Ah well, Doom, we’ll always have 2004.

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