The Greatest Enigma in Hip-Hop: The Rise and Legacy of MF DOOM

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His name is Daniel Dumile (DOOM-i-lay); that is one of the few things we truly know about rap enigma MF DOOM (“Just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name,” “All Caps,” Madvillainy). He shies away from the spotlight, releases his albums under a variety of pseudonyms, hides his identity behind a metal mask akin to a comic book villain, and is even rumored to send fake performers on stage to perform in his place (all accusations of which he denies); regardless, this just goes to show that even his most avid fans know little about the man behind the mask. Although his persona may seem gimmicky and sensationalized, DOOM has been providing solid production and a steady flow of albums in the 2000’s decade, all going (relatively) unnoticed in the eyes of the mainstream hip-hop crowd. His smart, lackadaisical flow, when combined with his jazz-inspired beats and samples from old superhero (or rather, supervillain) movies, makes DOOM one of the most unique and interesting figures in hip-hop history.

The day Dumile’s brother Subroc died was the day MF DOOM was born. After roaming the streets of Manhattan for nearly three years, homeless and sleeping on benches, Dumile emerged onto the scene, freestyling at cafes wearing a woman’s stocking over his head to conceal his identity. Soon after, Dumile decided on his first and most famous pseudonym—MF DOOM, inspired by the Fantastic Four’s archenemy, Doctor Doom, wearing a replica of the mask from the movie Gladiator. In 1999, the world received their first taste of DOOM in his first solo album Operation: Doomsday. As with most of his albums, the first few minutes are samples from old movies; DOOM sets the mood and creates context for what the listener is about to engage in. Throughout the album, it’s easy to follow the general plot of the album all while understanding DOOM’s development as a character, which gives this album a more wholesome and unique meaning. Despite the artificial feeling one gets from listening to a guy who’s displaying himself as a comic book villain, DOOM’s true personality and style still shine through—Dumile is notorious for slurring his voice, rapping off-beat, sounding downright lazy, and most of all, being the smartest lyricist in the game (all of which are positives, by the way). Consider this verse from the title track “Doomsday”: “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?” The number of internal rhymes within this short snippet gives only a taste of the intelligent, creative lyricism MF DOOM consistently provides in his work.

After the release of Operation: Doomsday, Dumile took a break from the MF DOOM pseudonym and released two solo albums as King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn (respectively Take Me to Your Leader and Vaudeville Villain), both of which are fantastic, yet overshadowed by his undisputed magnum opus, Madvillainy, a collaboration album with producer Madlib, released under the name Madvillain. In short, there’s simply nothing lacking in this album: at this point, DOOM had become an expert lyricist with a perfected style, and Madlib’s production perfectly complements DOOMs raw, unique style perfectly. This album is much more introspective and grandiose, focusing on the backstory of the newest supervillain duo, Madvillain; as the narrator claims on the opening track, “As luck would have it, one of America’s two most powerful villains of the next decade is turned loose to strike terror into the heart of men…Madvillain”—in a word, this is a perfect description of the album as a whole. A notable verse is on the song “Figaro”:

The rest is empty with no brain but the clever nerd/The best emcee with no chain ya ever heard/…A shot of Jack got her back it’s not an act stack/Forgot about the cackalack, holla back, clack clack blocka/Villainy, fell him in ya heart chakra.”

DOOM, the “clever nerd,” talks about how quick he is to shoot bullets at his enemies’ hearts, adding to the effect of DOOM and Madlib being the “most powerful villains…[striking] terror into the heart of men.” In short, this album is jazzy, dark, unique, and groundbreaking; however, it’s easier to listen than to describe.

Despite his persona, not everything about DOOM’s personality is dark and villainous; his album MM..Food marks a critical change in DOOM’s style and character. As the title suggests, this album focuses primarily on food, with each track adopting a different food-related topic. Consider the song “Beef Rapp”, a song that combines rapping about cooked cow while commenting on the current state of hip-hop, or more specifically, the tradition of “rap beef”. “Beef rap, could lead to getting teeth capped/Or even a wreath for ma dukes on some grief crap/I suggest you change your diet/It can lead to high blood pressure if you fry it.” The metaphor is deep, complex, and creative, and one should expect nothing less from DOOM.

In the past few years, DOOM has fallen off the radar, worrying his die-hard quasi-cult following; however, the enigma of Daniel Dumile will hopefully remain a mystery; the supervillain outlier of hip-hop whose rise to fame is one of the most unique stories to this date.

Image source: Wikimedia