MF Doom (Interview)
"I think hip hop is in a transitional phase, " hip hop icon MF DOOM tells an Italian journalist on the recently released Shaman Works Family Files Vol.1, one of a half-dozen independent labels the self-proclaimed 'supervillain' distributes his various alter egos on a tri-yearly basis, currently garnering long overdue press for Madvillainy, the mightily anticipated matchup with producer Madlib.
"I think people are starting to realize, you know, what lasts longer, what's the real quality music. People not being blinded by propaganda and big ads that promote groups that aren't really that musical at all, but might wear a lot of jewelry. But I think it's definitely changing back, a lot of people is waking up now."
The story behind legendary underground rhymer Metal Face DOOM travels well beyond the transcendental personas he drops on wax or the cult following and support from hip hop legends old and new, all for a guy who wears a metal mask whenever rocking the microphone. The triumphant story of MF DOOM features a lyricist who, after a few life-altering experiences, re-appeared and five years later took over a fervent indie/underground rap scene. Today's younger attention-deficit demographic, long spoon-fed pre-packaged FM-friendly hooks, may not be willing to digest and decipher a back to the future flow from a guy who wears a metal mask, dreams up retaliation against fictional foes and biters, rarely curses and speaks exclusively in the third person.
MF DOOM aka Daniel Dumile entered the rap world in 1989 as Zev Luv X on the 3rd Bass single The Gas Face produced by Prince Paul. The Cactus Album on Def Jam went gold, as did the 1991 follow-up Derelicts of Dialect, which also featured Zev on Ace in the Hole. That same year MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice helped Zev and younger brother DJ Subroc land a deal with Elektra and released Mr. Hood under the group moniker KMD. Using a cartoon Sambo-like character as the official logo and filled with odd skits featuring Ernie and Bert, the group enjoyed video rotation on Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City, and toured nationally with Brand Nubian, De La Soul and Leaders of the New School. Elektra refused to release the second album mainly because of the cover art featuring the Sambo character being lynched and some decidedly left-wing lyrical content, sidestepping the preconceived labeling after the abstract innocence behind Mr. Hood. This was around the same time that Time Warner was dealing with the backlash to Madonna's silly sex book and Ice-T's Cop Killer, enduring the negative press all the way to the bank. Things broke down completely when Zev Love X lost his younger brother Subroc in a freak car accident, and subsequent reports of alcohol abuse surfaced while Dumile went into hiding.
Fast forward five years later to a rapper named after Marvel Comics villain Victor Von Doom, sporting a makeshift metal mask to conceal his identity, simply "looking for a fresh start," DOOM has been repeatedly quoted. Close friend and cultural figurehead Bobbito Garcia released the first DOOM single in 1999 on his Fondle Em record label, and later that year the critically acclaimed Operation Doomsday (Subverse Music) was released, encapsulating all things DOOM; the rapid-fire braggadocio, jazzy beats and big bass, ol-skool scratches and plenty of Fantastic Four cartoon samples.
"Definition supervillain, a killer who love children/One who is well skilled in destruction as well as building," DOOM declared on the opening title track. But DOOM wins you over with a wise, weathered observation about the rap scene on the next track Rhymes like Dimes; "Only in America could you find a way to earn a healthy buck and still keep your attitude on self-destruct."
"He is one of my favorite if not my favorite MC to date," declared Prince Paul via email. DOOM was among the all-stars chipping in on the acclaimed Politics of the Business. Prince Paul recalls the first time he was introduced to Operation Doomsday, "I was in a car heading south to a gig and we had it playing - it amazed me."
The off-kilter flow was prevalent on his first full-length in four years under the moniker King Geedorah, this time named after the three-headed dragon known for his encounters with Godzilla. Take Me to Your Leader (Big Dada) loops everything from 1950's monster movies to Hall and Oates to Foghorn Leghorn and Cloud City landlord Lando Calrissian. DOOM addresses subjects such as child literacy and the futile war on terror but is sharpest when ego-tripping on Anti-Matter, unraveling lines like "Getting paid like a biker with the best crank/Spray like a high-rank sniper in the West Bank."
"V. Vaughn the traveling vaudeville villain/who don't give a flying fuck who ain't not feelin him."
The critics who couldn't get the gist of Geedorah were hailing Vaudeville Villain (SoundInk) an underground masterpiece four months later, chock full of stoned yet slick stanzas that require a few dozen listens, or risk losing out on ridiculously brilliant references such as "He hit em straight to the head like Reggie Denny" or "Call him back when you need some more yack Horseshack/ Doing 80 down the Van Wyck- on horseback." Sparse drums and looming violin decorate The Drop where Vaughn claims to "rock mics like the weapon on Krull," and gets burned on a drug deal in Lactose and Lecithin, but the crushing rhythms provided by RJD2 on Saliva steals the show.
During an interview on NPR last October in support of Vaudeville Villain, DOOM offered melancholy thoughts on the game.
"It'll never be the way it was. But the direction it's going, not just the production but the content with rap cats not really talking responsibility for what they're saying - you know what I mean?
There are different topics besides murdering everybody. That seems to be the in thing - how many people you can murder on a record. So I 'm bringing it back to the old, bragging about how nice you are with the words."
With a barrage of modern-era classics already crowding the shelves (including a series of instrumental albums), DOOM has at least five more on deck this year, including the highly anticipated, bi-coastal collaboration with jazz and weed fiend Madlib. The word is out on Madvillainy (Stones Throw), pure stoned genius laced with intricate wordplay, inside jokes and ill pop culture references. The gravelly and half-awake monotone flow of DOOM provides the perfect complement to Madlib's multi-faceted beats.
The opener Accordion finds DOOM skimming over the sad clown squeeze box, Meat Grinder incorporates a sinister walking bassline tailor-made for his gravelly, sandpapered esophagus. The instant classics America's Most Blunted and Money Folder need no introduction, and the second single All Caps (as in "when you spell the man's name") is just another sub-2 minutes of esoteric brilliance. But the opening line of Figaro might sum it up best with "The rest is empty with no brain but the clever nerd/The best emcee with no chain you ever heard."
When I recently spoke with MF DOOM over the phone, I had no idea what to expect, hearing reports of DOOM never breaking character. When a reporter from a Phoenix, Arizona newspaper called DOOM and inquired about the Viktor Vaughn project, he made the reporter hang up, call back and ask for Viktor. But, close to an hour of chatting about all things hip hop, DOOM is genuinely approachable, laid back and down to earth, the irony not lost on a guy with a space age vernacular projected through a metal mask.
"I'm an author, I'm writing a story, like a science-fiction writer working on a novel," he says brimming with confidence.
"I don't sit down and say 'Okay, today you're gonna be King Geedorah,' it ain't like that. All it takes is one word or phrase to spark an idea, like 'Damn, that sounds like something Viktor would say,' and then build upon that inspiration."
One of his numerous managers made only one request, "No personal questions or comments." When reminiscing about the 1991 tour with De La Soul, DOOM is reminded of a gig on the Rocky Point midway ("Oh shit, I remember that place!"), I was also feeling comfortable enough to mention a chance encounter with his brother Subroc that summer outside a rap show at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. He had the same mild-mannered personality as DOOM, courteous and friendly when I approached him in a tattered 3rd Bass shirt.
"Yeah, that was my brother," DOOM recalls in hushed tones. At that moment the call disconnects. A minute later the phone rings and DOOM apologizes for a faulty cell phone battery. Thank God.
The recently released Best of KMD plucks tracks from the group's two albums with the intention of promoting a new album, which reportedly will pick up where Black Bastards left off five years earlier, an autobiographic prequel of sorts of what should be an emotionally-charged rhyme diary as Zev addresses the loss of his brother and the meaning of the mask.
The new KMD single Sorcerers includes new recruits King Iz and Lil Sci chiming in while DOOM, er Zev, nonchalantly demands his fictional foe to run his jewels.
Local rap mastermind and ol-skool connoisseur Sage Francis offered his thoughts while on tour last month in support of his Sickly Business series, one of which features a track produced by DOOM.
"KMD was one of my favorite groups when I was younger. Mr. Hood is one of the few albums from that era that stands the test of time. Zev Luv X was one of my favorite emcees mainly because of the lyrical content and sound of his voice.
DOOM has an addiction for rhyming unique words together, and his multi-syllabic rhyme scheme is one of the best in the industry. His raw approach to laying down vocals and letting it sound flawed and incidental is a breath of fresh air in today's gloss fest. It truly is an honor and a pleasure to work with someone I have listened to for so long."
But any aspiring wordsmith knows it takes more than the requisite blunt session to pen his proverbial 'next level' rhymes. DOOM reveals a somewhat domesticated approach.
"Alright, first of all I gotta make sure there is a positive energy flow in the crib, no extra thoughts or outside distractions. And keep a pen in every room, because once it hits the paper, it don't take long for that, you know, raw pureness to come out."
"Enough about me, it's about the beats/Not about the beats or who FOOD about to eat."
When I mention to DOOM that his manager accidentally sent me a copy of the upcoming MM FOOD (Rhymesayers), the conversation stops. "You weren't supposed to get that," DOOM calmly notes. "I'm the only one with a copy, so please keep it under your hat," having just dealt with an Internet leak and subsequent lengthy delay of Madvillainy.
MM FOOD is the mind-bending pinnacle of DOOM's extensive resume. He drops couplets with an entertaining humility not heard since Biggie graced the mic, with punchlines such as "He wear a mask just to cover the raw flesh/ A rather ugly brother with flows that's gorgeous" on the opening track.
"It's just another play on words, I wouldn't call it a concept album," DOOM explains. Most of the tracks vaguely correspond to some sort of food, including the re-recorded Con Queso, originally released last summer under the name Yee Haw, showcasing a matured (and even more intense) flow as he coolly lobs subtle one-liners like "If I had a dime for every rhymer who bust guns I'd have a cool mil for my sons in trust funds."
Two recent releases, however, show a much darker side of DOOM. Hold On appears on the latest release from Science Fiction and stings of an introspective DOOM with death on his mind, "Wasn't worth the pain- ask Milli or Kurt Cobain," and "Sounds slick, he wrote it with a Bic Round Stic/ Tie a brick around his neck so he drown quick." And Nausea, pairs DOOM with Nature Sounds in-house producer The Professor, where woozy horns and hard snare are the sole accoutrement to DOOM assaulting the track with the gun-toting boast "Gift with the grime, criminal mind shifty cat/Swift with the nine through a 59Fifty hat." Clutching weapons is nothing new to DOOM; hell, in 1993 he opened KMD's controversial sophomore effort Black Bastards with "I got a brand new .380 in the box, a shoebox of bullets, two clips - no safety lock" on Get U Now.
DOOM is caught off-guard when asked about plans for an upcoming tour in what could be in support of at least five albums.
"That's a really good question," DOOM ponders for a bit," I'd love to just fill up a small club and tear it up, you know, just get on and give the people a little bit of everything for an hour straight."
Such was the case when DOOM headlined a handful of sold-out Madvillain record release parties, including a memorable hometown show last week at BB King's nightclub in Times Square.
What followed was a captivating and crystal-clear 45-minute set covering the DOOMography. And aside from a few blunt handlers and Madlib humbly observing behind a drum kit, the metal-masked DOOM stood alone onstage, sans the microphone-wielding entourage or hype man. The 1200 capacity room reached a feverish pitch when DOOM pulled out Doomsday classics such as Rhymes like Dimes and the Scooby Doo-infused Hey!, as well as plenty of Madvillainy cuts like Meat Grinder, Accordion and of course America's Most Blunted. A full tour coinciding with the MM FOOD and KMD albums is slated for late summer.
MF DOOM is confident that he can extend his demographic beyond the 15,000+ fervent posts on mfdoomsite.com.
"I know there's a million Herbs out there who like that other stuff, but I know there are also plenty of people who want to hear what I have to say - I'm just not reaching them yet. Once cats open up their minds I think they'll understand that this is a little deeper than, you know, just the standard rap shit.
"It ain't all about me. The music first, then everything else. I don't ever want to cheat the people with corny product, you know what I mean? You won't see me on the cover of an album with tattoos or a big gold chain - none of that."2 May, 2004 - 23:00 — Chris Conti