It makes twisted sense that we’re only learning of the death of Daniel Dumile, better known as MF Doom, two months after his passing, with scant accompanying detail. An artist who thrived in the shadows, Dumile’s backstory was a chimera of myth-making and real-life tragedy. Even his face was a mystery – he performed for much of his career behind a metal mask, and later exploited this concept to an absurd degree, sending masked impostors out to tour on his behalf (“I’m the writer, I’m the director,” he averred to the New Yorker’s Ta-Nahesi Coates in 2009).
Dumile made his recorded debut in 1989 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, delivering the final verse on 3rd Base’s classic diss anthem The Gas Face (MC Pete Nice’s verse testifies that Dumile actually coined the titular slang). London-born Dumile had relocated with his family to Long Island in the 70s, and was now one-third of New York rap trio KMD, performing under the moniker Zev Love X alongside kid brother Dingilizwe, AKA DJ Subroc. Their debut, 1991’s Mr Hood, signalled the trio worthy scions of rap’s golden age – witty and restlessly sample-happy like the Native Tongues posse, with a steely political undertow, evidenced by the acerbic, anti-racist Who Me?
KMD’s second album was a darker, denser beast, juggling Pharoah Sanders samples and Black nationalist lyrics, but their label Elektra objected to its stark title, Black Bastards, and a controversial album sleeve that saw a racist “Sambo” caricature hung by its neck. Rejecting the album, Elektra freed Dumile from the label with a $25,000 payoff and ownership of the master tapes. But KMD were done; shortly before Black Bastards’ completion, Subroc was hit by a car and killed, and Zev Love X disappeared from the scene.
Dumile was down but not out, however, and – following a number of years in obscurity, licking his wounds and developing his idiosyncratic voice – he resurfaced before the decade’s end, assuming his final form: MF Doom. For his early appearances at Lower East Side boho hangout the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, Doom performed wearing pantyhose over his face. Soon, however, he swapped this disguise for his trademark mask, fashioned after Fantastic Four’s nemesis Doctor Doom. The Marvel Comics evildoer sported his fake visage to obscure the disfigurement that inspired his villainy; MF Doom, meanwhile, wore his tragic origin story on his sleeve, the title track to his debut album, 1999’s Operation: Doomsday, signalling his commitment to rap “til I’m back where my brother went”.
Sampling Sade, superhero cartoons and Steely Dan, Operation: Doomsday was characterised by wonky, brilliantly disorientating beats, while Dumile’s new alter ego rapped with a deeper, raspier cadence, his rhymes offbeat, bleakly comic and menacing (though, as Coates observed, “other MCs are obsessed with machismo; Dumile is obsessed with Star Trek”). Arriving in a hip-hop underground that had been redefined by the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan, Dr Octagon and Company Flow, Operation: Doomsday proved Dumile’s time had come. Accruing acclaim from critics and fellow MCs alike, Dumile entered an industrious period, self-releasing CDs of instrumentals (the Special Herbs series) that showcased a fearless invention, cutting Gojira soundtracks into Hermann-esque horrorscapes (Star Anis) and developing new aliases Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah (whose Godzilla-esque concept album, Take Me to Your Leader, is one of Dumile’s finest).
His collaboration with west coast producer/MC and kindred spirit Madlib delivered Dumile his first commercial success. Madvillain’s sole album, 2004’s Madvillainy, was fuelled by beer, Thai food, weed and mushrooms, and saw Doom rhyme over immaculately stoned Madlib beats that lifted from the Mothers of Invention, Sun Ra and Tex Avery cartoons, leaving hip-hop conventions wrecked in their wake. Dumile rose to the occasion, his lyrics inspired and elliptical, his flow wilful, masterful and wildly unpredictable, spitting unshakeable earworms like “tripping off the beat kinda / slipping off the meat grinder” over hazy Hawaiian guitar and declaring himself “the worst-hated God who perpetrated odd favours”.
Indeed, this dope-drenched masterpiece might be the best album either Madlib or Dumile ever recorded. Riding high off his success as Quasimoto, Madlib’s productions favoured his feel for dubby, spaced-out and abstract funk, but in Dumile he’d discovered a foil who could deliver a weight and darkness he hadn’t achieved. If the likes of America’s Most Blunted threatened to tumble into stoner comedy, Dumile pulled them into more compelling, provocative directions, his voice low and rough, his words slipping from brooding mumble to staccato stabs, his lines sounding casual but, on closer inspection, proving densely constructed and complex. His woozy sing-song and menacing rumble lent Rainbows its shimmering noir, and expertly inhabited Fancy Clown’s tale of sad-sack betrayal.
In a genre where ego was all, Dumile remained laid back but still dominated as he broke tempos and rules. His lines dripped black humour and stoner-friendly cultural references, but the mind assembling them was wicked sharp, stacking up multiple rhymes like Super Mario power-ups, and fond of meta-textual intrigue. Check the understated swagger of MM.. Food’s Beef Rap, the way Dumile underplays the effort he puts into his work (“I wrote this note around New Year’s / Off a couple shots and a few beers / But who cares? / Enough about me, it’s about the beats”) moments before cutting a block of pure braggadocio (“A rhyming cannibal who’s dressed to kill / It’s cynical / Whether it’s animal, vegetable or mineral / It’s a miracle how he get so lyrical / And proceed to move the crowd like a old negro spiritual”) that is exemplary proof of the very skills it is praising.
Or That’s That, off Born Like This, where he stuffs so many internal rhymes into a couple of lines that he must be doing it for a bet, but the rhyme pile-up of “Already woke / Spared a joke / Barely spoke / Rarely smoke / Stared at folks when provoked / Mirror broke” stands as the perfect evocation of his rap-Rodney-Dangerfield sad-sack persona. That he delivers these lines so unassumingly only makes his bold and – let’s just call it here – genius rhyme schemes all the more audacious.
Madvillainy marked Dumile’s first entry in the Billboard Top 200, though an oft-promised sequel never materialised, Madlib suggesting the ball was firmly in Doom’s court. Dumile instead cut further collaborative albums with the likes of Danger Mouse, Jneiro Janel, Bishop Nehru and Czarface. There was also a final solo album, 2009’s Born Like This, which drew inspiration from Charles Bukowski and teamed Doom with the likes of the Wu Tang’s Raekwon and Ghostface Killah.
Dumile also notched up guest-appearances on tracks by Gorillaz, the Avalanches and BadBadNotGood, along with up-and-comers like Your Old Droog and Wilma Archer (and was working on an EP with Flying Lotus when he died). In all these appearances, his voice was always unmistakeable: that of an obstinate and one-of-a-kind genius in the Mingus mould who always used his minute in the spotlight to steal the show, but never sounded like he was trying too hard, which only made his lines more effective. His absence will be deeply felt.