MF DOOM Leaves Earth
On Christmas Day, MF DOOM’s name trended on Twitter. It wasn’t directly because of anything DOOM did. It was because Playboi Carti, the Atlanta trap mutant, slid an unexpected DOOM namecheck into the guttural throwdown “Stop Breathing”: “Brand new Ventador, I drove that bitch right to the moon/ I just hit a lick with a mask, MF DOOM.” DOOM is a revered touchpoint for entire generations of rappers, but it was still an out-of-nowhere thrill to hear someone like Carti — a rapper with absolutely no stylistic connection to DOOM — using the masked elder as a reference point. That’s why DOOM trended. People were happy about it. I was happy about it. I spent about a half-second idly considering what DOOM might have thought of that little homage. But MF DOOM didn’t think about Playboi Carti’s line at all. MF DOOM was dead.
We learned a week later, on New Year’s Eve. Daniel Dumile, the rapper who’d spent two decades under the mask, had died on Halloween. Nobody had known. DOOM’s widow kept the news secret for two months before announcing it. We still don’t know how he died. DOOM had slipped out of the world, unnoticed. By the time Playboi Carti yelped his name, MF DOOM was an absence. But then again, MF DOOM’s presence had always been defined, at least in part, by absence.
DOOM moved in mystery. That was part of the appeal. You didn’t know when he might pop up. His own collaborators and record-label bosses didn’t know when he might pop up. For years, DOOM promised new projects that floated in the ether and then never materialized: The Madvillainy follow-up, the collaborative album with Ghostface Killah, the track-a-week series for Adult Swim. Sometimes, DOOM barely appeared on his own albums.
In 2006, I saw Gorillaz play the first night of a five-night stand at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The group’s big video screens weren’t working that night, but Damon Albarn still remained out-of-sight until the end of the night. Instead, the various guests from the Gorillaz album Demon Days took the stage: De La Soul, Bootie Brown, Neneh Cherry, Roots Manuva. The notoriously unreliable Shaun Ryder was there — fly undone, sucking on a lollipop while singing, but still there. The just-plain-notorious Ike Turner was there, too, playing his “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” piano solo and mugging for the crowd. But DOOM was a no-show. For “November Has Come,” DOOM’s recorded voice filled the theater, and a room full of people stared at a dark, empty stage. We heard DOOM, and we saw nothing.
Absence was built into the mask. The singular stroke-of-genius visual trademark introduced DOOM to the world and allowed him to move freely, his identity a secret. If you’ve ever been backstage with a musician of any prominence, you probably know that most of them try to keep out of sight of the public at all costs, holing up in dingy dressing rooms because they don’t want to get mobbed by their well-wishers. DOOM was Rey Mysterio. He could stand around in the crowd at his own shows without attracting any attention, as long as the mask was off.
The mask wasn’t an affectation. It was a signature, and it was also a coping mechanism. The entire MF DOOM project is probably best understood as one man’s attempt to process grief and trauma. Years before he put on the mask, Daniel Dumile was Zev Love X, a member of the sly and playful Long Island group KMD. Zev had formed KMD with younger brother Subroc in the late ’80s, and they’d started off writing graffiti before moving to music. In his pre-DOOM years, Zev was only on my radar because of his appearance on “The Gas Face,” the gleefully silly 1989 hit from the white true-school trio 3rd Bass. The song clowns MC Hammer and PW Botha and 3rd Bass’ label boss Lyor Cohen, and Zev’s verse has some of the word-drunk intricacy that would later become a DOOM hallmark: “A gas face can either be a smile or a smirk/ When appears, a monkeywrench to work one’s clockwork.” Meanwhile, Pete Nice credits Zev with coining the title term. It’s poetry: The man under the mask caught his first shine with a song about making faces at people.
“The Gas Face” got KMD a deal at Elektra, and their 1991 debut Mr. Hood fit neatly into the smart-goofy bohemian lane carved out by fellow Long Island group and future DOOM collaborators De La Soul. But just like De La, a disillusioned KMD gradually moved in a darker, moodier direction, digging deep into America’s history of racism on their sophomore album Black Bastards. As the group worked to finish the album, Subroc was hit by a car while crossing Nassau Expressway on foot. Subroc died at the age of 19. Soon afterward, Elektra objected to the Black Bastards cover art, a cartoon of a Sambo figure being lynched. The label didn’t even try to get Zev to change the art. They just shelved the album and dropped KMD. Black Bastards didn’t come out until DOOM released it himself, years later.
The whole experience of KMD’s end threw Dumile into a tailspin. For years, Dumile disappeared. He didn’t make music. He didn’t make anything. Instead, Dumile split his time between fatherhood and drunken oblivion. (He also served a short jail stint in Baltimore.) Dumile only came back to music while crashing with famed New York DJ Stretch Armstrong, digging around in Stretch’s vast cache of records. Finally, Dumile returned to the stage at open-mic nights at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, hiding his face under a stocking.
Starting in 1997, Dumile fashioned himself a new persona: MF DOOM, a masked rap supervillain. DOOM was modeled on the Marvel Comics nemesis Victor Von Doom, a hideously scarred scientific genius who’d been driven insane by his inferiority complex and who was determined to have his revenge on the world. For DOOM, that reference didn’t come off as nerdery. Instead, it was a born introvert using the culture he knew to make sense of the world around him. At first, DOOM rapped under a Halloween mask that had been spray-painted silver. (According to different reports, it was either a Darth Maul mask or a mask of the wrestler Kane.) Then a friend, the graffiti writer Lord Scotch, built a new mask from a modified replica of a prop that had appeared in the movie Gladiator. The mask became essential to the project — guilt and anger and self-loathing literalized, worn on the man’s face.
In his new guise, DOOM released a few singles on Fondle ‘Em Records, the New York indie run by Stretch Armstrong’s DJ partner Bobbito Garcia. (Garcia, as it happens, had started out as a dancer for 3rd Bass.) Then, in 1999, DOOM released his Operation: Doomsday album. In a thriving New York rap underground — a scene that sprung up in reaction to the perceived excesses of late-’90s pop-rap — DOOM stood out and struck a chord. As a producer, DOOM chopped recognizable loops of ’70s soul and ’80s quiet storm into disorienting, seasick lurches. As a rapper, he’d become looser and stickier, drawn to layered internal rhyme-schemes and jagged internal landscapes: “Only in America could you find a way to earn a healthy buck and still keep your attitude on self-destruct.”
I saw DOOM for the first time about a year after Operation: Doomsday came out. At the time, I was working the door at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan. One night, Chuck D’s short-lived and catastrophically shitty rap-metal band Konfrontation Kamp played at the club, headlining on a bill full of indie-rap up-and-comers. I remember everyone that night working hard to win the crowd over — everyone, that is, but DOOM. Atmosphere’s Slug did some freestyle sparring with his hypeman, a pre-Blaze Battle Eyedea. J-Live rapped and DJ’ed at the same time. Even Chuck D tried to ingratiate himself to the audience. (It didn’t work.) But DOOM just stared into nothingness and rapped expressionlessly. I don’t remember him saying a single thing to the audience between verses. At the time, I didn’t get it.
A little while later, it all made sense. In a 16-month run, DOOM, working under a bunch of different aliases, released a mind-bending series of albums: Take Me To Your Leader, Vaudeville Villain, Mm.. Food. Right in the middle of that run came Madvillainy, DOOM’s full-album team-up with Madlib. On the cover, Doom stared out from under his mask in stark black-and-white, looking like a Viking from Alexander Nevsky. On the album, Madlib’s dazed loops made an ideal showcase for DOOM, whose free-floating wordplay reached wild new heights.
The writing on Madvillainy is dense and allusive, but it’s also funny and approachable, crammed with endorphin-rush wordplay and virtuosic games of reference: “Lookie here, it’s just the way the cookie tear/ Prepare to get hurt and mangled like Kurt Angle, rookie year.” DOOM’s word choices were baffling — part old-timey gangster-flick jargon, part E-40-style mutating slanguistics, everything somehow coming together and making sense. DOOM had written these stunningly crafted lines, and he delivered them in a muttered monotone, like he was half-embarrassed or maybe just bored. It didn’t make any sense, and yet it made perfect sense. Madvillainy came out a week after the Hold Steady’s debut album Almost Killed Me, and the combination of those records was enough to send a young writer’s head spinning.
Especially in combination with DOOM’s 2003-2004 run, Madvillain couldn’t help but make DOOM a kind of cult star. At the time, I wondered whether DOOM’s newfound fame was based on a simple, cartoonish interpretation of his persona. The people who praised DOOM most breathlessly, guys like Thom Yorke, were not the same people who seemed to care much about rap music in other contexts. But DOOM was chasing other sounds, other ideas. He didn’t seem to care much about where rap was going, and he didn’t sustain any of his collaborations with his contemporaries. (DOOM split bitterly with his close collaborator MF Grimm, a battle-rap veteran who was processing his own trauma after being shot and paralyzed from the waist down.) Even if his mask made him merch-friendly, DOOM never bothered with making approachable music. Instead, he kept making records that made you feel like you were floating in a pool of chloroform.
Before DOOM, I can’t remember another rapper reinventing himself as completely or as successfully. At his mid-’00s peak, I don’t know how many of DOOM’s fans even knew about his background as Zev Love X. In a farewell Instagram post yesterday, DOOM’s fellow Long Island veteran Busta Rhymes wrote, “He figured out something that none of us has before him and that was to be completely free!!!” DOOM never achieved anything like Busta Rhymes’ popularity. Instead, he carved out a zone of artistic experimentation and enviable anonymity. He also rapped his ass off, to the point where his peers spoke his name with awe.
Back in the early ’90s, KMD had opened for Brooklyn superstar Big Daddy Kane on tour. In 2006, I saw DOOM headline a show at Times Square’s Nokia Theater, and Big Daddy Kane was opening for him. The show was weird. Kane was a showman, and even though he’d fallen hard from the days of “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’,” Kane could still wreck a stage. DOOM, on the other hand, was just as disinterested as he’d been years earlier, at the Knitting Factory. I wrote about that show, and I wish I could take back my clickbaity headline. But DOOM was terrible that night.
Truth is: DOOM was terrible live every time I saw him — at small clubs, at big clubs, on festival stages. Despite the innate theatricality of that mask, his act wasn’t really built for the stage. Either as an art stunt or a work of carny hucksterism, DOOM notoriously sent fake DOOMs out to fill in for him at a few live shows — imposters who wore the mask but who otherwise didn’t look or sound anything like DOOM. (Crowds never appreciated it.) I took the whole episode as proof that DOOM didn’t really want to perform — that he knew his music was built for headphones, for solitary immersion. But this week, a video of DOOM and De La Soul playing Last Call With Carson Daly together has been making the rounds, and I don’t know, maybe DOOM really was good live. Maybe DOOM just needed the right context, or maybe I was just in a bad mood every time I saw him.
In any case, touring was DOOM’s undoing. DOOM had grown up on Long Island, but he’d been born in the UK, and he’d never been naturalized. In 2010, DOOM was denied reentry to the US while trying to return from a European tour. Instead, DOOM had to settle down in London — a villain in exile. For a couple of years, he lived there by himself, before his family came out to join him. In interviews, DOOM said that his label reps were the only people he knew in England. The music he released since his forced relocation sounded understandably distracted and detached. On top of all that, DOOM’s 14-year-old son died in 2017 — another baffling tragedy in a life that had already seen too many of those.
Many, many rappers of DOOM’s generation have died in middle age. Professional success can’t erase lifetimes of trauma and racism. There’s nothing happy about the news of DOOM’s passing. It’s a sad end to a sad story. But DOOM was also a great writer and a great artist — one who sometimes seemed to anticipate death with something other than dread. (DOOM on “Doomsday,” 23 years ago: “On Doomsday/ Ever since the womb till 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?”) In death as in life, DOOM was an elusive figure, an artist who turned terrible experiences into something great. DOOM died too young, but he lived long enough to see himself become the villain.