MF DOOM (born Daniel Dumile) was not only one of the greatest lyricists in the history of hip-hop, but also one of hip-hop’s most unique personalities. MF DOOM began his career as a member of KMD. KMD was a trio which included DOOM (then known as Zev Love X) Subroc (DOOM’s brother), and Onyx.
KMD’s music dealt with themes such as racism and black empowerment. These themes were commonplace in the late 1980s and early 1990s when KMD was active. What made KMD unique from groups such as Public Enemy, X Clan or Brand Nubian was the light-hearted and humorous manner in which the group addressed these topics. For example, “Who Me?” centers around Zev Love X objecting to the blackface caricature which black people are often depicted as. Zev Love X complains about how black people do not look like this caricature (“Lips and eyes dominant traits of our race/Does not take up 95 percent of one’s face”), as Onyx tries to figure out who this blackface actyally is (“Have you ever seen this brother walking ‘round here anywhere? That must be missing person”).
KMD may not have gained the same level of recognition as the other African-centered groups from this era, but during this phase of Dumile’s career we saw some of the witty wordplay and humorous lyrics which he has since become famous for. Dumile also displayed his ability to craft characters or personas which reflected very real and personal aspects of his life. The Zev Love X persona was not only personal to Dumile because he had formed KMD with his brother, but the two of time were raised as members of the Five Percent Nation by their parents, so Dumile came from a household which preached black pride and consciousness. This was reflected in his music at the time.
Before KMD’s second album was released, Dumile’s brother was killed and he was dropped from the record label. Dumile would disappear from the hip-hop scene for several years. Dumile recalled that he was “damn near homeless” during this period. Dumile would eventually re-emerge with a new persona; MF DOOM.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about MF DOOM is the various layers behind this persona. It is obvious from MF DOOM’s music that he was a fan of cartoons (his song “Hey” samples the theme song from The New Scooby-Doo Movies) and has a particular love for superhero based cartoons, as demonstrated by how often he has sampled material from old Marvel cartoons (see songs such as “Beef Rap”, “?” and “One Beer”). MF DOOM’s album The Mouse and the Mask was created in collaboration with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
Adopting the persona of Dr. Doom from Marvel works not only because of Dumile’s love for Marvel cartoons and because Doom is a play on his name Dumile, but also because of Dumile’s experiences in years in between his work with KMD and re-emerging as DOOM. In the Marvel universe, Dr. Doom wears a mask to cover his burnt face. MF DOOM adopted a mask to cover his real-life emotional scars stemming from the tragic death of his brother and the struggles he endured after.
MF DOOM also embodies a sense of rage and anger. He declares in “Doomsday” that he “came to destroy rap.” That anger stems not only from the way that he was treated by the industry, but his real disgust at what rap music was becoming. DOOM introduced himself as a villain who wants to destroy rap, but he is also a sympathetic villain. He reminds his listeners on “Doomsday” that his definition of a super villain is being a killer who loves child; “one who is well skilled in destruction, as well as building.” His love for his departed brother is also very apparent in this song and in “?”. This insight allows us to sympathize with this villainous persona.
The MF DOOM persona worked because this persona allowed him to voice his personal pain and frustrations, while also maintaining a sense of mystique about himself. Dumile worked hard to maintain this mystique. Not only was he known for appearing in public with his mask on (even when not portraying the DOOM character), but the interview below demonstrates DOOM’s discomfort with revealing too much about the person behind the mask.
Dumile explained that one of the reasons for the mask was so that listeners could focus more on what he sounds like, rather than what he looked like. This is also a theme which he addresses in “Beef Rap” as well. Apart from placing more focus on the sound of the music rather than the look of the artist, Dumile also explained that he felt by covering his face he was sending the message that anyone could be the villain; anyone could be the individual behind the mask.
Dumile would expand on his villain persona by creating other villainanous characters, such as King Geedorah who is a conquering monster from space which is based on King Ghidorah from the Godzilla series and Viktor Vaughn (from Victor von Doom, which is Dr. Doom’s full name in the comics).
In reflecting on DOOM’s impact and legacy I know most will look at the way that he masterfully constructed his rhyme schemes and the creativity that he displayed in his music, but outside of his skill as a rapper, I think he also demonstrated creative brilliance in the way that Dumile was able to craft characters who were unique and reflected certain aspects of his personal life, while at the same time allowing him to maintain a sense of mystique. This is the aspect of Dumile’s work that I mainly wanted to focus on in writing this piece, but I will end by listing just some of my personal favorite lines from DOOM which display his creativity and wit as a lycirists. The lines are listed in no particular order:
“Only in America could you find a way to make a healthy buck and still keep your attitude on self-destruct”
“He wears a mask just to cover the raw flesh/A rather ugly brother with flows that’s gorgeous”
“And since deep in the studies he’s accepted non-violence/Don’t make him have to skip some classes and open up an old can of whoop ass with the fastness”
“How DOOM hold heat then preach non-violence?Shhh, he about to start the speech, c’mon, silence”
“You say the beat grabbed you, then the rhyme stabbed you, but can’t prove it was my clients DOOM and Babu”
“Listen, don’t look now, keep walkin’/Traded three beans for this cow, cheap talkin/Hawk men stalkin’ hear that we hawkin’ often/Coughing to a coffin, might as well scoff the pork then”
“We rock the house like rock ‘n roll/Got more soul than a sock with a hole”
“Get me every red penny/Sold a lonely only child an imaginary enemy”
“Definition super-villain: a killer who love children/One who is well-skilled in destruction, as well as building”
“The beats got family members asking him for closure”
“There’s four sides to every story/If these walls could talk, they’d probably still ignore me”
“I only play the games that I win at and stay the same with more rhymes than there’s ways to skin cats/As a matter of fact, let me rephrase/ With more rhymes and more ways to fillet felines these days”
“A lot of ’em sound like they in a talent show, so I give ’em something to remember, like the Alamo”
“To all rappers: shut up with your shutting up and keep a shirt on, at least a button-up”
“When the smoke clear, you can see the sky again, there will be the chopped off heads of leviathan”
“A villain in your land/In his land a ruler”
“Read the signs: “No feeding the baboon”/Seein’ as how they got ya back bleeding from the stab wounds/Y’all know the dance, they smile in ya face, y’all know the glance/Try to put ’em on, they blow the chance/Never let your so-called mans know your plans”
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.