MF Doom: a hip-hop genius who built his own poetry universe

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It makes a twisted sense that, with barely any accompanying information, we only hear of the passing of Daniel Dumile, better known as MF Doom, two months after his death.

Dumile’s backstory was a chimera of mythmaking and real-life tragedy, an artist who thrived in the shadows. He worked behind a metal mask for most of his career, and later abused the notion to ridiculous effect by sending masked impostors on tour in his name (“I’m the writer, I’m the director,” he reported to Ta-Nahesi Coates of The New Yorker in 2009). Even his face was a mystery. In 1989, Dumile made his recording debut as a fresh-faced 18-year-old when he delivered the final verse of The Gas Face (MC Pete Nice’s verse testifies that Dumile did indeed coin the titular slang) of the classic diss anthem of 3rd Base.

Dumile, born in London, had moved with his family to Long Island in the 1970s and was now one-third of the New York rap trio KMD, performing with his little brother Dingilizwe, aka DJ Subroc, under the name Zev Love X. Their debut, Mr Hood’s 1991, made the trio worthy heirs of the golden age of rap – witty and restlessly sample-happy as the Native Tongues Posse, with a steep political undertone evident in the biting, anti-racist Who Me? A darker, denser beast that juggled samples of Pharoah Sanders and black nationalist lyrics was KMD’s second album, but their label Elektra objected to the stark title Black Bastards and a notorious record sleeve featuring a racist ‘sambo’ caricature hanging from its neck.

With a $25,000 settlement and possession of the master tapes, Elektra rejected the album and removed Dumile from the label.

Subroc was hit by a car and killed shortly before the Black Bastards were done, and Zev Love X vanished from the scene…. Dumile remained comfortable in a genre where ego was everything, but still dominated when breaking the tempo and the rules…. Dumile was down, but not out, and after licking his wounds and cultivating his idiosyncratic voice for a number of years in obscurity, he resurfaced before the end of the decade and took his final form: MF Doom. Doom wore tights over his face in his early appearances at the Lower East Side boho hangout, the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe.

Soon, however, for his signature mask, modelled after the nemesis of the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, he traded the disguise. The Marvel Comics villain wore his fake face to mask the disfigurement that influenced his villainy; MF Doom, on the other hand, wore his tragic origin story on his sleeve, the title track of his debut album, Operation: Doomsday of 1999, signalling his commitment to rap “until I get back to where my brother went” (though, as Coates noted, “other MCs are obsessed with machismo; Dumile is obsessed with Star Trek”).

In a hip-hop underground that had been redefined by the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Octagon, and Company Flow, Operation Doomsday arrived: Doomsday proved the time had come for Dumile.

Dumile entered a busy time, lauded by critics and fellow MCs alike, releasing instrumental CDs (the Special Herbs series) that showed a fearless inventiveness, cutting Gojira soundtracks into Hermann-esque horrors (Star Anis), and creating new aliases Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah (whose Godzilla-esque concept album Take Me to Your Leader is one of the best works of Dumile). Dumile got his first commercial success from his partnership with West Coast producer/MC and soulmate Madlib.

Madvillain’s only album, Madvillainy of 2004, was fueled by beer, Thai food, marijuana and mushrooms, and had doom rhyming over immaculately stoned Madlib beats taken from the cartoons of Mothers of Invention, Sun Ra and Tex Avery, laying waste in their wake to hip-hop conventions.

Dumile developed with the scenario, his lyrics inspired and elliptical, his rhythm idiosyncratic, masterful and wildly unpredictable, spitting unflinching earworms such as “tripping off the beat kinda / slipping off the meat grinder” over a hazy Hawaiian guitar and declaring himself “the most hated god to commit weird favors”

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