A Memorial to the Iron Mask
One month ago, I finished the last words of a dedication to Madvillainy as the greatest album of the 2000s. For years, I've found myself turning back endlessly to the incomparable genius of MF DOOM, but unknowingly in December, instead of a simple celebration of one of the greatest albums of all time, I was actually crafting a eulogy. Of all the greats, MF DOOM stood alone. Peerless in talent, individuality and ability to re-invent himself, this was the passing of an icon; a supervillain incomparable.
The loss of Daniel Dumile has devastated me. No celebrity death had ever affected me like this before. I mourned B.B. King's passing in 2015, and grieved the loss of David Bowie in 2016, but this New Years Eve just past went somewhere inexpressibly beyond the anguishes of those deaths for me. With the passing of MF DOOM, it's more than the loss of an internationally beloved hip-hop legend, it's the loss of a man who unknowingly provided my life a direction for years. He’s a figure to whom I owe an immeasurable debt, but never even met. I went to university because of MF DOOM; I studied English literature as an excuse to study lyricism, and I studied lyricism to study hip-hop. Every second I have spent at university is indebted to the passion ignited in me by the poetry of MF DOOM's verse, and if the outpouring of recognition Dumile received posthumously over the past few days is good for anything, it's demonstrative of just how astonishingly influential this artist's legacy stands.
In underground music circles, it can be easy to take familiarity with MF DOOM as a given. Throughout his entire career, he remained purposefully on the periphery, hidden behind a metal mask and comic book pseudonyms in the manufacturing of intentional obscurity. There had never been a hip-hop lyricist close to DOOM's ability, and there never will be. For decades, the personas birthed from Daniel Dumile's super-villainous machinations sat on the fringes of hip-hop, appreciated internally, but never truly piercing beyond the underground. It was perhaps where DOOM's intricate complexities and inconceivable verbosity belonged, plotting cartoon evils from the shadows against a universe of rappers ten times his inferior:
"If you say so, lace the whole case load
They say he wear a metal mask in case his face show
He told them they flows is bitch talk and a-yo's
His whole crew walk with pitchfork and halos" (‘Kon Queso')
It shouldn't be surprising to see every hip-hop wordsmith pay their respects to the painful loss of MF DOOM. From Open Mike Eagle to Mos Def, the endless celebration of Dumile's lyrical craft is more than deserved. From his early days as Zev Love X with KMD, to his various monikers across the 2000s, the complicated construction of DOOM's verses always remained deceptively simple while coupled with effortless deliveries and calming instrumentals. KMD are themselves an often overlooked group, and I can never stress enough just how ahead of its time their sophomore LP, Black Bastards sounds. Long shelved after the controversy of its cover art, and eventually dropped altogether by Elektra Records following the death of DJ Subroc, the through line that unites MF DOOM with spiritual successors like Odd Future could perhaps best be identified in the grittily defiant outsider-ness that KMD cultivated.
Blending seamlessly between disparate rhythms and flows, all through a near Woolf-ian capability to tie streams of consciousness together, each and every song that DOOM gave to us stands as a testament to the capacities of a generational poet, musician and creative visionary. Take a classic verse from 'All Caps', as an example:
"The beat is so butter, peep the slow cutter
As he utter the calm flow,
Don't talk about my moms, yo
Sometimes he rhyme quick
Sometimes he rhyme slow" ('All Caps')
The parallel rhymes of "beat/peep", "so/slow" and "butter/cutter" shift perfectly into the next line, concluding "utter" while immediately establishing the new "flow." Take any line from MF DOOM's career and you get the exact same result. Each song lived up to the last; every verse as methodically assembled and outrageously perfect. His vocabulary was incredible, but his capacity to contort the English language to his own evil purposes is still unbelievable:
"Catch a throat-full
From the fire vocaled
With ash and molten glass like Eyjafjallajökull" ('Guv'nor')
But it's very easy to overlook the intricacies of Daniel Dumile's career, both as an MC, but crucially as a producer too. In hip-hop production, MF DOOM is undeniably one of the all-time greats, and was far too often neglected the praise he deserved. Dumile's solo debut, Operation Doomsday holds some of the most beautifully calming instrumentals of the late 90s, with tracks like 'Doomsday' and 'Rhymes Like Dimes' central to the successes of DOOM's debut becoming the accomplished mission statement it was. Immediately, the metal face mythos emerged, but it arrived with such self-assurance that it sounds as though DOOM had always existed, all thanks to the fusions of skits, spoken word and jazz-hop adjacent production, all owed to the genius of the Metal Fingers. The supervillain arrived with interludes sampling cartoon debauchery, totally re-inventing himself after the collapse of KMD with a metal mask and an instant ability to weave rhymes together like a true hip-hop desperado.
If listeners had doubts about the Metal Face's ability to self-produce, the Metal Fingers on MM..FOOD crafted something astonishing. An album based entirely on utilising food and consumption as a vehicle for metaphorical excellence, it could've been so easy for MM..FOOD to emerge as a novelty, but powered by beatboxing, crate-digging and inch-perfect drum samples, DOOM's 2004 LP stands out as one of the decade's best albums. 'Rapp Snitch Knishes' is one of the greatest hip-hop beats of all time, but it was in the relentless quality of MM..FOOD's instrumentals that provided the basis for DOOM's astonishing poetic genius.
MM..FOOD signalled the end of an outrageous period of success from MF DOOM. It's an immense achievement for an artist to end their career with just a couple of iconic albums, but Dumile built 4 from the ground up in only two years. Between 2003 and 2004, there has likely never been a more emphatically productive era of rap successes. But, fittingly, Dumile started it with two new personas. DOOM's 2003 projects Take Me To Your Leader and Vaudeville Villain do not get the respect they deserve, and released under the pseudonyms of King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn it represented another villainous act of DOOM; utterly resisting easy categorisation, or even a consistent Spotify profile. You have to seek out the various strands of Dumile's creative genius, and his work as King Geedorah, a three headed Japanese-kaiju dragon, with constantly shifting voices, is amongst the best. With Take Me To Your Leader, Dumile shifted to the back, letting other MC's take the mic while providing unbelievable instrumentals throughout. 'Fazers', 'Fastlane' and in particular 'Next Levels', are some of the best of a maniacally brilliant career.
But, of course, 2004's Madvillainy stands out as the true pinnacle of MF DOOM's career. Fusing together with Madlib, one of the greatest producers of all time, the supervillainous duo Madvillain arrived with the greatest one-and-done of all time. It might be the greatest rap album ever made, but its certainly one of the most mythologised. The holy grail of underground hip-hop, the iconic cover-art is now etched unshakeably in the celebration of hip hop legend. Madlib absorbed all of the idiosyncrasies of MF DOOM's sonic palette, incorporating archaic recorded voices alongside timeless production. Madvillainy will always sound like it just came out. It's two greats working at the height of their powers, and remains one of the most important albums in recent music history.
After Madvillainy, there were further successes, and those successes have been too often overlooked. From That's That, to JJ DOOM, DOOM's ability to knit verse perfection never left him, and even through 2020 his ability to inject songs with defiant uniqueness provided countless songs with moments of creativity from the greatest rapper of all time. It was always near-impossible to find MF DOOM off his game. He was always one step ahead, planning his moves with devious precision. Like all of the best supervillains, just when you thought MF DOOM had played his last hand, his maniacal versatility shone through. He was unpredictable and impossible to corner. He faded into the shadows, but remerged where you would least expect him. Gorillaz, The Avalanches, BADBADNOTGOOD; DOOM would appear from obscurity on projects with surprising collaborators, but it always worked, and he was always phenomenal.
In a way it's upsetting that it took Daniel Dumile's death to finally see an overt outpouring of recognition for his genius, but as 2020 came to a close, there was at least some positivity to be found in how music came together as a community to mourn the passing of MF DOOM. For the first time, and perhaps the last time, the astonishingly far-reaching influence of this master artist was celebrated to its proper extent. It wasn't just underground hip-hop fans that came together for DOOM, it was every musician personally affected by his trailblazing commitment to hip-hop artistry. Revelling in detailed concepts, character performance and unbelievable musicianship, MF DOOM has earned his place in the pantheon of the most important musicians of the 21st century. His recognition should only grow as generations come to appreciate the design of his music and the creativity he inspired throughout hip-hops most forward-thinking voices.
Nothing I can write can come close to encompassing the scale of his accomplishments, but I will forever be grateful for what MF DOOM did for me, and for the entire landscape of music he made possible. We are all lucky to have shared a hip-hop landscape during the era of this artist, but the legacy of Daniel Dumile will live on in the confidence that his music provided to outsiders and the underground.
It has, is, and will forever be: all caps when you spell the man name.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
This article was edited by Fin Cousins, a postgrad literature student studying at King’s College, London. He loves sport, music and writing and he is still waiting for Love Island to accept his application. He also made our logo.
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