Applied Science 5: MF DOOM & myth-making as artful business

"He cleans his metal mask with gasoline, they after him/ Last seen pulling chicks like a fiend pull a fast one"

A rap album is an auto biographical comic book, whose author styles himself as a twisted, oft put-upon antihero. Carlton Ridenhour, a Long Island native who studied graphic design in college, picked up a mike and became Chuck D, an enemy of the state, a revealer of racist conspiracies, a militant watched by the F.B.I. Christopher Wallace was morbidly obese and, by his own assessment, ‘black and ugly as ever,’ but when he became Biggie Smalls he transformed himself into a Lothario whose hits, like ‘One More Chance,’ portrayed him as a prolific cuckold artist—‘Where you at flipping jobs, playing car-notes? / While I’m swimming in your women like the breaststroke.’ At various moments, the rapper Nas billed himself as Nasty Nas (corner seer), Nas Escobar (gangsta drug kingpin), and Nastradamus...” - Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Mask of Doom” 

Wearing a mask and speaking in the third person, DOOM wasn’t just playing around with golden-age comic book tropes; he was calling into question the relationship between identity and image in hip-hop at a time when artists were spending millions of dollars to look cool and asking the listenership to believe they lived every story they told.” - Craig Jenkins, “Hip-Hop Needs No Other Supervillain After MF DOOM”

[This is not an obituary or comprehensive retrospective; it is a reflection from a fan reckoning with the passing of an artist who helped inspire my desire to pursue music as a career]

There’s an interlude early on MF DOOM and Madlib’s Madvillainy that I never paid much mind during my first obsessive phase with the album as a teenager. “Bistro.” On it, DOOM welcomes guests to the “Madvillain Bistro Bed and Breakfast Bar and Grill Cafe Lounge on the Water,” a nonexistent hospitality chimera with a preposterously long name. He introduces the cast of bistro regulars: 

Live on the beats, we have the one and only Madlib
We also have King Geedorah on the mix
Yesterday's New Quintet's here, Viktor Vaughn, Quasimoto
And I'm your host, 'The Supervillain’

The joke: each of these guests is fictitious, a processional of DOOM and Madlib’s aliases and alter egos. In typically mischievous fashion, DOOM nods to the duo’s constant shapeshifting and musical adventurism. Madvillainy made bonafide underground stars of its creators in 2004; “Bistro” serves as a winking in-progress inventory for two artists whose legacies soon intertwined inextricably.

I only listened to “Bistro” as a teen out of a sense of moral obligation to album sequencing, as if skipping songs would desecrate sacred artistic choices. After the news of DOOM’s passing, I returned to Madvillainy, rediscovering this skit in the process—really hearing it. To fresh ears, it revealed itself as a small key to DOOM’s legacy. The many reflections on DOOM’s process (and the collaboration on Madvillain in particular) shared by those who knew him best give the impression that this skit may have been an unconscious creation. It’s surrealist humor from a rapper who assumes multiple personas across the album, at one point reviving 2003’s Viktor Vaughn to play the part of a betrayed lover, fighting a woman who cheated on him with…MF DOOM (the track’s titling underscores the mistaken identity bit: “Fancy Clown” ft. Viktor Vaughn). Much of Madvillainy is a wry sleight of hand, a set of verbal gags and densely layered put-ons meant to embellish the super villain aura established across DOOM’s previous solo records. “Bistro” is as much schtick as it is an auteur enumerating his own myth, DOOM making light of the expansive rogues’ gallery he and Madlib created. Even in jest, he nods to the bedrock of his business: Self-styled lore that inspired feverish devotion from fans, cementing an alternative commercial reality that never required a radio hit in order to be lasting and lucrative. 

The word “myth” has two primary definitions. A myth can be a story that helps explain the origins of a custom or make sense of a natural phenomenon (the closest meaning to the word’s ancient Greek form “muthos,” which could mean “report,” “tale,” or “story” and referred to a set of stories depicting the world’s true beginnings). It can also denote a widely believed falsehood, a tale that warps truth. In both meanings, fiction takes center stage to distill complex realities. Every artist uses myth to one degree or another to swipe at the truth, but few wield folklore as effectively as DOOM did.

The expanse of DOOM’s legacy and influence prove difficult to measure, but also hard to overstate. While it’s unlikely he sold much more than a couple million records, his music and aesthetic shaped a wide swath of peers and varied successors. DOOM’s rare musical gifts were enriched by his singular devotion to a world in which that music (and its fans) could live. Over the course of his career, he provided a blueprint for rooting a business in mythic narrative; albums and merchandise were the hard product, but myth was what fans paid for (particularly when they paid to see DOOM in concert, and he sent an imposter instead). Fragments of an elusive favorite. 

DOOM shirked norms. He formed figurative scenes as rap turned towards obsession with authenticity. He explored human tragedy through fantasy while others wrote gritty, realist confessionals—and still others masked pathos with materialist sheen. Over the past few weeks, the many memorialists who’ve lovingly retold DOOM’s origin story pose the super villain’s birth as an almost direct counter to the Shiny Suit era—a blurry, lo-fi cartoon calamity that helped codify growing anti-mainstream sentiment with debut singles “Dead Bent,” “Gas Drawls,” and “Hey!” in 1997. In brief: DOOM, born Daniel Dumile, first popped up as Zev Love X alongside his brother Subroc, two thirds of early ‘90s rap group KMD (alongside rapper Onyx). Zev and Subroc were yin and yang, the former an eccentric, generative well of creation, the latter a polishing editor. They were brothers who thought of themselves as twins, close as could be. Dumile’s world imploded when in short order his brother died (struck by a car crossing the Long Island Expressway) and his record label (Elektra) dropped KMD, as misguided controversy swirled around the cover of their sophomore album Bl_ck B_st_rds. Dumile re-emerged in 1997, forging a new public self from mournful embers. 

DOOM’s first singles came at the pinnacle of commercial hip-hop’s opulence, but it seems crucial that his debut opus Operation Doomsday arrived in 1999: A year marked by Eminem’s corrosive emergence (fittingly “masked” by his barely differentiated alias, Slim Shady), Marilyn Manson’s parade of controversies, explosive new superstar DMX’s gruff soul-bearing, hustler hero Jay Z’s continued rise, Korn’s rumbling, detuned bass and domestic disturbances, The Roots and Rage Against the Machine’s apocalyptic realism, the close of one of New York’s most important clubs, The Tunnel (a temple of hip-hop that minted superstars in the city’s grimy tradition), the birth of Napster (and the dawn of illegal downloading, which would aid unconventional stars like DOOM), the horror of the Columbine massacre, the murder of Amadou Diallo by the NYPD, the end of a death-filled decade, and, with it, the potential promise of the literal world’s end (Busta Rhymes drilled the threat of Y2K into my head as an adolescent listener with each of his doomsaying ‘90s solo albums). If blissful materialist decadence still had a pulse in 1997, 1999 saw Babylon fall, a tortured echo of history’s most violent century. 

An anti-hero born of absorbing grief, posing as a mischievous masked super villain, could hardly pick a better time to emerge. 

DOOM’s creative output flipped expectation. His sampling practices made a mockery of copyright law. He pasted jagged bits of cartoon and movie dialogue across drums he programmed by hand, embedding human imprecision into a musical element typically expected to be airtight; he sampled Sade, Quincy Jones, and the Beatles; the same beat bearing his name often ended up on numerous projects, flouting the industry’s contractual customs. His music is a helix of clever contradiction; his humorous logic dictated that smooth jazz made a fitting background for multi-syllabic crime capers and elaborate boasts, rhymed in slippery thickets bookended by sliced up conversations from films and kid’s shows. If Puffy took hits from the ‘80s to make (mostly) feel good hits in the ‘90s, DOOM breathed new life into familiar loops to map the jagged landscape of a brain still healing from the death of a beloved brother. He was neither an adherent of some obsessive crate digger’s code, nor a lazy mainstream raider; he chose the most emotionally resonant sounds whether they languished in obscurity or came from famous sources. (You could write a dissertation on DOOM’s sampling). 

DOOM’s disregard for industry convention extended beyond his creative process. Adult Swim’s Jason Demarco revealed that, following the success of DOOM and Danger Mouse’s Adult Swim-backed collaborative project The Mouse & The Mask, DOOM signed a record deal with the cartoon company while he was simultaneously in a deal with another label (a probable breach of the existing agreement). Dante Ross reminded Jon Caramanica on the latter’s recent Popcast elegy to DOOM, the late rapper was always about “trying to make some paper”—even if it meant he had to make off with the cash before anyone knew he’d pulled a fast one. (None of this is a criticism of DOOM; if anything, it is refreshing to see an artist spend the majority of his career so consistently ignoring business norms and achieving success through mythical creation, all in service of and equally served by a perception that he was some kind of larger than life cartoon villain; as Demarco notes, DOOM confounded Adult Swim’s upper management and certainly pissed off Demarco himself, but his hyperbolic, villainous act, goofy demeanor, and endless well of creativity made him frustratingly endearing). DOOM: the perpetual motion machine, constantly concocting new art in search of the next big score.

DOOM crafted detailed lore with singular commitment, terraforming reality with fractured, fictional architecture. Each character on “Bistro” represents a different side of him: King Geedorah, the conquering, Godzilla-inspired monster; Viktor Vaughn, the sneering, bitter yin to the affable, food and liquor-loving yang of “the Supervillain,” DOOM himself. The tension between lived experience and colorful artifice generated soulful revelations (songs like Madvillainy’s “Great Day” play like a cascade of mournful aphorisms from a down-and-out nomad: “Last wish: I wish I had two more wishes/ And I wish they fixed the door to the Matrix, there's mad glitches” and “he just came from over there, the grass is greener”). DOOM posed his music as a kind of conversation with the ancients, channeling voices of the dead across his catalog. One particular quote from a 2009 HipHopDX interview with writer Andrew Noz reveals this mystic notion engrained in DOOM’s creative process and worldview (reprinted in full because it is stunning):

Anytime you lose a family member there's a grieving period. But it's not really no different, it's just a different realm, just a different form of communication. We’re all gonna go to that realm eventually. As long as you know that you can still know how to communicate with them. They're not gone, you just can't see them with the naked eye. The naked eye only picks up a certain spectrum of light. What else don't we see and what side are we on? Maybe that's the right side and we're gone. Connections never break. Energy can never be created or destroyed. Anything that it changes to is just change. If you know how to tune into it, it's the same thing. So to me, any of my brothers that are on the other side, I can just still tune into them. If I'm thinking about them I'm talking to them. I can hear them, I still laugh around them. It might look weird like I'm laughing in the room by myself, but I'm laughing with Bukowski, I'm asking his permission, I'm talking to [J] Dilla, I'm talking to Sub. To me, that's how it is. I think we're all headed in that way of overstanding, but to get over the emotional hump is what's important. When people feel like they lost somebody that they love, to know that they're not gone. There's no such thing as out of existence. They're just in another realm. They can hear us and all that from that realm, we just can't see them and hear them with these tools that we have. Or we do have the tools to see them and hear them, we just have to go inside and utilize those tools. Not to get too mushy with the shit.

From his earliest appearances in KMD, DOOM displayed an ability to explore deep existential questions through the kinds of low-stakes musing that allows teenagers to walk up to the abyss, then have a few beers after and laugh at some Aqua Teen Hunger Force episodes, cozying up to the healing powers of the preposterous. DOOM: master of the creation myth, sarcastic conjurer, villain with 1000 faces, faulty narrator finding hilarious truth through modern fables, a seer of the absurd serving small remedies for the darkest days. It is this concept of DOOM that fans bought into, the idea of an elusive genius spinning tales in response to life’s big questions, trying to make sense of it all, unconcerned with judgment. His ineffable charm and odd wit drove aspirationalism—his peculiar greatness inspired wide swaths of admiring peers (Mos Def reciting “Rapp Snitch Knishes” and “Beef Rapp” speaks to the respect afforded DOOM by other greats) and spiritual successors (artists like Ka, Kanye West, Mos Def, Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Tierra Whack, Travis Scott, Flying Lotus, Denzel Curry all pull elements from DOOM’s palette to disparate degrees), but his aura could never be duplicated. DOOM embodied the very character he rapped about, a larger than life figure that seemed to abide by no rules but his own. 

As singular as his catalog and creativity were, DOOM also left breadcrumbs for other artists to follow. He built a colorful landscape that rested atop the real world, populated it with projections of his psyche cloaked in pop culture armor, produced ephemera (limited edition singles and album pressings, rare merchandise, toys) to mount demand, performed rarely and often sent an impostor in his stead to create more demand (not recommended unless you’re a generationally great artist...and even then, not recommended), and released music on his own schedule, sometimes in clusters (study his blistering 2003-2005 run), sometimes separated by long stretches (his final true solo album came out in 2009, though he released many collaborative projects through the 2010s and his seminal projects have been consistently re-released in special editions). 

DOOM’s play with identity in the wake of death is one of his greatest gifts as an artist. It colors his catalog, a merciful provision inviting his audience to identify through safe remove. For all his triumph, tribulation chased DOOM. He spent many years as a political exile; born in London and raised in New York, DOOM never naturalized and was deported from the US to the UK in 2010. Barred from re-entering the US, he passed without ever returning to the city that shaped him. In 2017, his 14-year-old son King Malachi Ezekiel Dumile died. As much as DOOM’s persona was a poetic device, necessity catalyzed his aliases—commercial vehicles and coping mechanisms alike. His career comprised a manual for making sense of death as both an intensely personal and impossibly grand cosmic phenomenon (a decade after Operation Doomsday intricately explored DOOM’s interior struggles with his brother’s passing, he zoomed out on his album Born Like This to opine about the fall of civilization). DOOM provided the kind of mirror typically reserved for filmic monsters, the tortured characters that allow us to understand the darker aspects of our selves through the safe filter of fiction. He plumbed the pains of his past through clever allegory, but also sprinkled enough liquor-soaked reflections and precise memories to point to lived reality (one oft-mentioned line from Operation Doomsday’s “?,” “I keep a flick of you with the machete sword in your hand/ Everything is going according to plan, man,” references a closely held photo of Subroc). 

So much of hip-hop centers on notions of authenticity—of real observation or recorded experience, projections of the actual. Literalism has made hip-hop one of America’s most powerful and enduring folk traditions, but it has also fashioned a kind of critical trap, attitudes of implicit judgment fastened to assumptions that rap, by its nature, is less effective when largely figurative. DOOM inverted this dynamic, refracting the pain of cataclysmic loss through many fictitious faces, building a zany cinematic universe with the shards of his own psyche. His catalog is a testament to Black imagination and invention in the face of omnipresent tragedy—a window out to far flung worlds when the walls seem to be forever closing in. 

I told her more wine, mingling with no single mentions of
Stay tuned for more spine tingling adventures of...
” - MF DOOM, “Dead Bent”