Over the six years I have written this blog, I have on occasion told you to tune in to some obscure musical act for what I have taken to be your own spiritual good. My article on Jandek converted one bloke who wrote to me subsequently to say that he “obsessively listens to Jandek most days now”, something which he found frightening but nonetheless continued to do. I listen to MF DOOM most days and I think that unless you hate hip hop, you should give him a whirl. He’s a lyrical and production genius and has produced at least four of the greatest albums in the entire history of hop hip music. A friend of mine said to me, early in my experience with Doom: “Watch out, he sort of ruins almost every other hip hop MC for you once you really get into him”.
The MF DOOM back story: he was born Daniel Dumile in London in 1971, although his parents emigrated to America when he was a child and he grew up on Long Island. He started a hip hop group called KMD when he was a teenager alongside his brother Dingilizwe (who called himself Subroc) and a kid who crowned himself Rodan, about whom almost nothing on the internet exists other than the fact that he has subsequently appeared on some MF DOOM albums. Daniel called himself Zev Love X at this stage of his career. KMD ended up getting signed to Elektra Records and recorded the album Mr Hood in 1991, which remains a minor hip hop classic. Their follow up, the politically charged Black Bastards, Elektra refused to release. Part of the reason may have been, in addition to the title of the record, the album cover which featured Little Black Sambo being lynched. KMD were dropped by Elektra in 1993.
The same week the label sacked the group, Subroc was killed in a traffic accident. Having lost his nascent hip hop career and his brother, who by all accounts was the person he was closest to in the world, all in the same week, Dumile embarked on what can only be described as a missing period. He dropped out of the hip hop scene altogether for several years. From what can be put together from the rare interviews Doom has given, added to what can be figured out from some of his lyrics on the topic, he spent at least a portion of this part of his life homeless. In 1997, he re-emerged, rapping at open mic nights with tights over his face. He soon restyled himself as MF DOOM (MF standing for “Metal Face” or sometimes “Metal Fingers”) and replaced the tights with a metal false face, one reminiscent of a mask used in the 2000 film, Gladiator (although Doom’s mask came before the film’s release, which is pop culturally intriguing). He always wears this mask in public now, at all concerts, interviews and in videos.
In 1999, Doom released his debut album under his new persona, Operation: Doomsday. The album was light-years ahead of even the best KMD tracks; it was like Dumile had progressed 25 years as an artist in just over half a decade. Part of this is down to the production: on one hand, sophisticated with its use of different overlapping genres and styles; on the other, gritty and raw, with a tendency toward cheap mics and samples using vinyl that sounded like it had been around the block a few times. Another element is the change in Doom’s voice from his KMD days; grittier yet more soulful. He sounded like a guy who had been through hell and back and kept his sense of both humour and himself along the way.
Doom’s style, a blueprint that has followed him since, was established on Operation. Loops from the 70s and 80s which by logic and derivation should be cheesy but somehow aren’t at all; samples from some Fantastic Four cartoon, in which MF Doom makes the connection between his adopted post-KMD persona and the cartoon villain Dr Doom explicit; and of course, again, Doom’s new MC style. He sounds almost unrecognisable from Zev Love X; the reinvention of a vocal style here is the most severe in popular culture since Johnny Lydon adopted a new voice on the first PiL record. He often spits out rhymes at a break-neck pace, making it hard to keep up on first listen; it’s one of the many reasons why repeat listens of his songs can be so constantly rewarding.
Operation: Doomsday wasn’t commercially speaking a hit – it had been released on a small indie label with poor distribution – but was a reasonably large critical success. MF DOOM quickly became what Bill Hicks had been to stand up comedy – the rapper’s rapper. Everyone who loved the first record was keen to see what Doom’s next move would be; yet he went underground again, not releasing another album for more than four years. He popped up now and then on other people’s records, but a follow-up to Operation had to wait. One of the things that is tragic about Doom’s output – and why it sometimes makes for uncomfortable listening – is the Greek tragedy element to it all. Doom had to lose everything, including his brother, to become what he became.
When Doom did resurface, it became clear quickly that in that four year interregnum, he had in fact been very busy. What followed was a burst of creative energy never seen in hip hop before or since as Doom managed to release, in the span of less than eighteen months, five albums, four of which are in my opinion amongst the best hip hop albums ever released. The only thing I can really compare it to in all of popular music is Dylan’s 65-66 period.
Take Me to Your Leader was released in the summer of 2003, confusingly under the artist title King Geedorah as opposed to the MF DOOM persona he had taken so long to establish. It’s like Dumile was trying to hide; to make the listener work hard to find him. Leader as an album explores this theme of obscurity to its fullest; of the twelve tracks on the record, Doom only raps on five of them (note: the number of tracks Doom lends his voice to on this album tends to be even more discounted by critics who don’t seem able to recognise Doom as a rapper, even though he is one of the most distinctive MCs in the history of the genre). This second album picks up where Operation left off and is in my opinion one of Doom’s most underrated albums. The contemporaneous Pitchfork review of the album, which gave it 9.0, puts the appeal of the album perfectly: “It’s not straining for credibility nor putting effort into being revelatory; it just is.”
A mere three months after Leader came out, Doom released Vaudeville Villian, this time under another pseudonym: Viktor Vaughn, a reference to Dr Doom’s given name, Victor Von Doom. Another hip hop classic, this one with a little more production value than the first two and a little darker sounding overall lyrically. It still has bits of Doomesque humour though. One of my favourite moments is in a song called “Open Mic Nite”, which is split into two parts, during which Doom has a couple of his associates do sidesplittingly hilarious imitations of terrible rappers.
2004 was to be Doom’s annus mirabilis, starting in the early spring with what many believe to be his best work, Madvillany. It is a collaboration with a producer named Madlib; the two of them called themselves Madvillain and worked on and off on the record for several years before its release. Many things make Madvillany one of the best – if not the all time best – hip hop album. Part of it is what makes all MF DOOM albums great, just done even better this time round; the dirty yet well thought out production, the great lyrics. There’s a song on Madvillany called “Fancy Clown” which is a diss song against Doom himself. He imagines himself as a third party whose girl has cheated on him with MF DOOM. “When you see tinhead, tell him he better be ducking down”. The album is the only one I’ve ever come across that samples both Zappa and Sun Ra, which would be enough for me to like it alone.
Next up was Venomous Villain, another album made under the Viktor Vaughn persona. It is the only album from this golden period that isn’t brilliant. It feels a little thrown together and has stretches that are a little lacklustre. Given how much he was chucking out there at the time, this can be forgiven. Even mediocre Doom is still pretty great.
Mm…Food was released in November 2004, Doom’s fifth and final album in the eighteen month golden period. This was the Doom album that took the longest time to grow on me. Part of the problem with it is that Doom packs four skit songs – ones in which there is no rapping, just word samples over the loops – into the middle of the album in a row. Weirdly, even this, the weakest thing about the album, grew on me after a while. Mm…Food has some of the best Doom tracks in the man’s entire catalogue: “Beef Rap”, “Hoe Cakes”, “Rapp Snitch Knishes” (featuring the immortal line “Do you see the perpetrator? Yeah, I’m right here”), “Kookies” and “Vomitspit”.
Unfortunately, after this insane period of action, Doom went quiet again soon. 2005 saw The Mouse and the Mask, a collaboration between the producer Danger Mouse and MF DOOM, a really entertaining record with a great Ghostface Killah cameo, but after that, Doom wouldn’t release another album until 2009’s Born Like This. The 2009 record saw divided reactions, which I have always found weird as while not quite being up to the 2003/04 golden period standard, is still the best record Doom has made since. It has another great Ghostface Killah collaboration – this one about “Charlie’s Angels” – as well as some other fantastic tracks like “That’s That”.
In the almost eleven years since Born Like This was released, Doom has only released three studio albums – Key to the Kuffs, a collaboration with Jneiro Jarel, released in 2012; a collaboration from 2014 with Bishop Nehru called NehruvianDoom; in 2018, the last Doom project to date, Czarface Meets Metal Face was released. There are mitigating factors to the Doom story that may have taken a toll on his productivity – in 2009, he was refused entrance back into the US given he had never applied for American citizenship. He’s lived in London ever since. Still, it’s sad that there has been so much less Doom over the past decade. A sequel to Madvillany keeps being promised and never delivered.
If any of this sounds interesting and you want to know where to start with MF DOOM, these are my recommendations:
- “Books of War” – Omegah Red. This isn’t actually a Doom track, which makes it a weird place to begin, but trust me here. This was produced by a guy called Omegah Red, who created the backing track and then took a Doom verse from a Herbaliser album he appeared on in 2002, followed by a RZA verse from a Gravediggaz album in 1997. Somehow, it is one of the greatest things ever. What makes it particularly enjoyable is the fact that it shouldn’t work yet does: the thrown together nature of the track combined with the fact that Doom’s verse is about partying, smoking dope and drinking, while the RZA’s verse is about the slave trade in the 16th century, makes it extra sweet.
- “Vaudeville Villain” – the title track from the Viktor Vaughn album is a good place to go next. It is better produced and more mainstream hip hop sounding than a lot of Doom stuff, while still being undeniably Doom-esque lyrically and spiritually.
- “Rhymes Like Dimes” – from Operation: Doomsday. This is one of the first Doom tracks I ever heard and I still love it to bits. The loop is a classic example of something from his output that should by rights be so cheesy it melts your brain and yet somehow, it’s ultra cool. Contains the best diss of other MCs I’ve ever heard: “A lot of them sound like they’re in a talent show”.
- “?” – another Operation: Doomsday track that is core Doom, with a particularly good verse about him communicating with his dead brother.
- “Fazers” – from Take Me to Your Leader, this is another great Doom track, with him both producing and rapping here.
- “All Caps” – from Madvillany, tells you as much as anything will about Doom’s mystique.
- “Hoe Cakes” – from Mm…Food. If you don’t like his use of the “super!” sample here, you may never become a Doom lover.
Those seven tracks will get you started; let you know if this is the thing for you. I can only say that if at first it seems a little weird, stick with it; MF DOOM takes some getting used to, but once you’re there, he’s pretty addictive. As the man himself says on “?”, “Retarded in real life, on the mic, Rain Man”, which probably isn’t true but sticks with you nonetheless.