In Memoriam of MF DOOM
On New Year’s Eve 2020, the death of the iconic MC/producer MF DOOM was announced by his wife. He had apparently passed two months prior on Halloween. We at Lampin are deeply saddened by this unexpected loss, and we wanted to do our best to commemorate the staggering impact this man has had on hip-hop over the course of three decades– basically since rap’s infancy.
In short, we believe that DOOM is the purest distillation of the hip-hop compound: raw beats, off-the-wall hand-crafted lyrics that demand repeat listens, dry humor, braggadocio, and a rough and rugged persona. Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, lies in his commitment to focusing on MUSIC, allegedly the main export of musicians. DOOM forsook the emphasis on image in favor of substance: the very antithesis of what it means to be championed in rap today. Hence, “The Villain”.
We brought in two friends, to share their love of the metal man with us. Like all great friendships, my bond with these two was in a major way founded on a common taste in music. Both are thoroughly well-versed in DOOM’s work under all his many monikers, and both possess a precise pen. Danny will give a brief history of DOOM's young career and a reflection on the powerful mystique of the mask, while Josh will discuss lyrical form and content as well as stylistic choices. We hope you enjoy.
IN MEMORIAM– DANIEL (MF DOOM) DUMILE
Writing about the legendary MF DOOM seems at face-value, antithetical. He spent the greater part of his adult life avoiding the spotlight and avoiding acclaim. It is because of this that DOOM became what he is today; the enigmatic and compelling persona of hip-hop’s underground. From the debut of his solo album ‘Operation: Doomsday’ in 1999, Daniel Dumile was no longer Daniel Dumile, nor Zev Love X like in his former hip-hop group KMD. He was now DOOM, who, like his namesake Dr. Doom of Marvel Comics, wears a mask to hide the scars of the past.
Here, we will attempt to unravel the riddle of Daniel Dumile.
Ever since the womb 'til I'm back where my brother went
That's what my tomb will say
Right above my government; Dumile.
Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who's to say?
- "Doomsday", 1999
Daniel Dumile was born on July 13th, 1971 in London – by accident. His mother, a citizen of Long Island, NY was said to have just been visiting family at the time of her son’s birth. Thus, Dumile was destined to be an outsider, growing up in New York and never achieving American citizenship.
At just 17 years old, Dumile first came onto the scene in 1988. Joining him in the hip-hop group KMD was his younger brother, Dingilizwe, known as DJ Subroc. The two of them, along with New York MC Onyx, signed with Elektra Records in 1988. From left to right below: Zev Love X, DJ Subroc, Onyx.
You can hear the first ever recording of Dumile below, on the 3rd Bass track Gas Face.
KMD released their debut album, Mr. Hood, in 1991. The album was largely part of the conscious rap movement of the time, focusing on issues of social justice and racial equality; in the vein of De-La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy. KMD used a lot of skits and comedy in their work, displaying these themes in a lighthearted and positive nature. But this motif was short-lived. In 1993, halfway through the recording of their second studio album, tragedy struck.
On April 23rd, 1993 DJ Subroc was killed after being hit by a car attempting to cross the Long Island Expressway. From this moment on, the life of Daniel Dumile would never be the same. He was forced to finish up KMD’s follow-up album Black Bastards alone. As a result, Black Bastards became a departure from the lighthearted nature of Mr. Hood, choosing to focus instead on themes of sex, drugs and alcohol with songs like Plumskinnz, Smokin’ that S*#% and Sweet Premium Wine.
This dark departure from their thematic style caused Elektra Records to cancel the album’s release and drop KMD from their label in 1994. In under a year, Dumile faced the reality of losing his only brother, his record deal, and his livelihood. This profound sorrow and loneliness led Dumile to disappear from the hip-hop scene altogether. It is said that at this time, Dumile became completely homeless, sleeping on park benches, couches, or even jail cells. It was a dark time; but this defeat would not be his curtain call. Rather, his retreat out of the spotlight of the sinister corporate world would serve as the origin story of his new villainous and vindictive persona: MF DOOM.
It's ugly, like look at you
It's a damn shame
Just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name.
- "All Caps", 2004
I first heard DOOM when I was 14 years old. My older brother, addicted to pirating underground rap songs off Limewire at the time, was driving us to school with his iPod on shuffle. And then I heard it; a vicious, dark piano loop. Only 5 or 6 notes, each time it looped it felt like the song was going somewhere… getting ready to explode or fall off a cliff. The anticipation was immense, and my expectations were so satisfyingly fulfilled when I heard the raspy voice chime in over the piano loop:
“So nasty that it’s probably somewhat of a travesty having me daily people call me your majesty.”
Unhesitant. Breathless. Whoever this was rapping, it was eminently clear they approached rap in a completely different way than the popular artists of the time. Keep in mind this was 2009. Hip-hop had been almost completely consumed by popular culture – and so true underground was few and far between. But through DOOM, it was alive and well.
”Wait, so he never takes off the mask?”
After being exposed to DOOM through All Caps at 14 I knew I had to have more. I downloaded every song I could find from him on Limewire. Watched all I could find on him from YouTube. Something was different about MF DOOM. It was the mask. He never took it off, was never seen in public or photographed without it. Being a fan of comic books growing up, I kind of intuitively knew why, even at just 14 years old. How? I had felt the urge to put on a mask myself.
Why does anyone wear a mask? To conceal their identity, surely. But why? It’s pain. Trauma. Every superhero has an origin story, as does every supervillain; a hardship they underwent that makes them turn evil or good. Alan Moore’s Watchmen contends that we feel the urge to put on masks to hide our shame. We are ashamed of our failures, our pasts, and wish to hide our scars that remind us of them. This is what I intuitively understood about DOOM. And the fact that he was a musical artist with a discography, yet, he refused to show his own face was mystical, almost. And the quality of music he put out made his aura even that much more alluring.
The mask is a symbol. It means, unlike the popular “rap music” of the 2000s, it’s all about the music. DOOM said himself in an interview:
“The significance of the mask is this: It could be anyone under here. It could be you, your homeboy. It don’t matter. All that matter is the quality of the music. Period.”
A concise statement from a concise man. It’s for this exact reason that DOOM would often even send IMPOSTORS wearing DOOM masks to perform in his stead at “concerts”, often getting booed off-stage for not being the real Dumile. I mean, that’s gotta suck for concert goers. But how fucking metal is that? Sending out fake performers dressed like you? When I learned that DOOM does that, the whole “supervillain” persona really made sense. That is some real supervillain shit. The heroes in comic books can never find the supervillain; they are more than likely scheming in their secret lair somewhere. There are always impostors. Just like in the Fantastic Four comics of which DOOM takes his namesake. Dr. Doom, sworn enemy of the Fantastic Four, wears a metal mask and suit to cover his facial scars as a result of experiments gone awry. So, no one knows what he looks like, and he also creates millions of “Doombots”, anthropomorphic robots who look just like him that can carry out his evil doing and make him appear to be everywhere (and nowhere) at once. Like I said, real-life supervillain shit.
Beyond the aesthetic choices that made DOOM a real-life supervillain, he sounded like one too. From the twisted soul-samples, to the comic book monologues that populate his albums, he created endless vignettes – endless backstory for the character he was playing. His style was cutthroat and vicious. His vocabulary; astounding. You could teach a college course about DOOM’s mastery and manipulation of the English language. Here, we will turn it over to our resident English expert to break down some of the Madvillain’s wordplay in greater detail.
Stylistic Choices of MF DOOM
Throughout MF DOOM’S prolific career, he utilized a multitude of personas whose subtle intricacies provided another layer of intrigue to his intensely purposeful and maze-like lyrics. A fully comprehensive analysis of his lyrical content would require months, if not years, of research to fully give justice to the genius of this artist. For the sake of a timely memoriam as we hope this to be, I have chosen a few choice examples upon which to discuss the poetic devices and linguistic choices of the Metal Face Villain.
Hip Hop has become an art form synonymous with rhyme. The most common rhyme in both Hip Hop and poetry is typically the end rhyme; a couplet in which a line rhymes with the line following it. This rhyme scheme is simple and universal and can be easily represented by AABBCC… and so on. Although DOOM commonly uses couplets throughout his dense catalogue there are instances when he identifies the expectation of the end rhyme and manipulates said expectation. An instance where this is especially noticeable comes from the song “Great Day” from the album Madvillainy:
Last wish: I wish I had two more wishes
And I wish they fixed the door to the matrix, there's mad glitches
Spit so many verses sometimes my jaw twitches
One thing this party could use is more... ahem
Booze, put yourself in your own shoes
And stay away from all those pairs of busted Timbs you don't use
The underlined line is where my main point lies. There is an obvious expectation for a rhyme at the end of the fourth line here presented, something that rhymes with the rest of the previous three lines, something to complete the quatrain. DOOM plays with this expectation and where we expect a misogynistic term to complete line four, instead we receive something else entirely, an internal rhyme in the form of “Booze.” If the destruction of the expectation of the completed quatrain is not enough poetic prowess from DOOM, he also carefully connects via internal rhyme “Booze” to “shoes” at the end of line four. This is a clever internal rhyme as it is sandwiched between two lines that contain further internal rhyme via the repeated use of “use.” Although consisting of entirely single and double syllable words, this excerpt is an indication of DOOM’S immaculate knowledge of rhyme scheme and its manipulation.
DOOM’S mastery of rhyme technique expands into the type of rhyme that he uses. While a consistent user of perfect rhymes as comically shown on another Madvillain track “Accordian;” “Doritos, Cheetos, or Fritos,” DOOM is a master of the slant or near rhyme. These rhyme connections tend to be more difficult to hear than the common perfect rhyme but the near rhyming of syllable feet allows for his unique flow to shine. Here examined are the opening lines of “Vomitspit” from the album MM…Food (an anagram of MF DOOM):
It's the beat, he hear it in his sleep sometimes
Blare it in your jeep so your peoples can stare at them rhymes
I have underlined all rhyming words here, however I am focusing on the words that don’t necessarily appear to rhyme. Although the cadence of DOOM’s flow boldly pronounces the perfect end rhymes of this couplet through “sometimes” and “rhymes,” the glue of the couplet, if you will, comes from the internal slant rhymes present and here underlined in first “beat” and “sleep” and then in “hear” and “blare.” These slant rhymes help solidify DOOM’s meter in a subtle way that is difficult to hear upon first listen but proves crucial to the technical mastery of many of DOOM’s recordings.
Due to time being finite and my admiration for DOOM being unending I conclude here with one more example of the poetic prowess of this MC. Again revisiting Madvillainy and the track previously detailed by Danny, “All Caps”:
Sometimes he rhyme quick, sometimes he rhyme slow
Or vice versa, whip up a slice of nice verse pie
The first line portrays the syllable acuteness of DOOM’s meter. The first and second part of line one, separated by the comma, possess the same exact syllable count. In line one DOOM is rhyming slow, the syllable count is matched and therefore predictable. The next line however is sped up; the amount of syllables is supplemented. In these bars DOOM’s language is actually doing what he says it is doing in line one, sometimes he rhyme quick, sometimes slow. This amateur analysis is just the result of a lover of words forever humbled by the master of language that is MF DOOM.
I watched the fireworks from a dimly lit room when
My modern masked Mozart, as I knew,
Cut to scene; my belly full of Blanton’s bellowing at the moon,
Hollering something like,
“Why’d the dude have to leave so soon?”