5 ESSENTIAL RECORDS: MF DOOM

On New Years Eve, as the evil presence that was the year 2020 drew it’s final gasping breath it decided to let out one final act of tragedy and despair; merely 30 minutes before the midnight countdown to usher in 2021, the news broke that iconic hip-hop emcee and producer Daniel “MF DOOM” Dumile had passed away aged 49. The music world has lost a beloved icon and creative genius who transcended their genre. Artists the world over starting pouring out their tributes from the likes of Flying Lotus, Tyler The Creator, Q-Tip, Ghostface Killah and many artists outside the realms of hip-hop including Thom Yorke. MF DOOM was too cool and unique to just be appreciated by hip-hop fans after all.

Dumile originally rapped under the alias Zev Love X – way before donning that legendary metal face – in hip-hop group KMD, formed with his brother who went under the name DJ Subroc. Their 1991 debut album Mr. Hood fit in well with the afro-centric positive conscious hip-hop that was popular at the time, with a sound similar to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Their darker and more politically charged follow up album Bl_ck B_st_rds could have been a hip-hop classic, scheduled to be released in 1993 but shelved by label Elektra over fears that the title and illustrated artwork depicting a black cartoon figure being hanged would be too controversial. Even if they’d ended up changing things, tragedy hit as DJ Subroc – DOOM’s own brother – was killed after being hit by a car, thus ending KMD entirely. The album did not see a release until 2000 and has been retroactively praised as a lost hip-hop classic.

For Dumile, life tumbled into misery and he disappeared from the public eye completely. Not only did he have to deal with the loss of his brother and the dissolution of his band, but he even endured bouts of homelessness. It wasn’t until 1998 when Dumile was spotted rapping at independent rap freestyle open mic nights around New York wearing tights over his face. Dumile’s Zev Love X alias was dead and the seeds of MF DOOM were now born, his voice more aged and huskier, with his rapping style and lyrical themes completely revamped. Abstract hip-hop artist JPEGMAFIA summarises this transformation best in an interview with Primavera Sound Radio; “he left the industry because of tragedy and then he came back almost on some revenge shit; he’s like the anti-hero to me.” Indeed this transformation was so vast that not many people could associate DOOM as the same person who performed in KMD, and only knowledgeable insiders could join the dots together as Dumile has very rarely been seen in the public eye without his iconic metal face mask since.

MF DOOM embodied the likeness of Marvel Comics villain Doctor Victor Von Doom, and went a step further by incorporating samples from old comic book cartoon show adaptations as well as his love for Japanese monster movies. These elements would show up frequently in his own productions and beats. Yes that’s right; we probably think of MF DOOM for his commanding voice, his unique rapping flow and his surreal-bordering-on-nonsense lyrics, but DOOM was also a keen producer. His three solo albums, Operation: DOOMsday, MM…FOOD and Born Like This were largely made from DOOM’s own constructed beats, and yet some of his most notable works were made in collaboration with other producers, including MadLib, Danger Mouse, Jniero Jarel, Czarface and more. Outside of these solo albums and collaborative records, DOOM’s beats would turn up on other artist’s records, such as Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale, and DOOM was often cropping up as a guest spot on other rappers’ songs right ’til the end. His biggest profile guest spot was probably his verse on ‘November Has Come’ from Gorillaz’ 2005 album Demon Days.

Mainstream success never really applied to MF DOOM, but he has always been too much of an enigma to stay in hip-hop’s underground. His iconic look alone made him one of the most recognisable music stars the world over, yet not once did DOOM ever compromise his vision or fall off creatively, thus leaving a magnificent and highly influential body of music to dig through. As JPEGMAGIA implied, DOOM was like a spectre haunting the music industry that once left him in ruins. MF DOOM existed in a complete league of his own and played by nobody else’s rules. There’s east-coast, west-coast and southern hip-hop, there’s Wu-Tang Clan, and then over there lurking like an apparition in the dark stands MF DOOM, the illest super villain.

Here are what we consider to be 5 seminal MF DOOM records just in case you happen to be new to his music or are looking to reminisce over some of his greatest works…

MF DOOM – OPERATION: DOOMSDAY
[1999 // Fondle ‘Em]

The first album release under Dumile’s new alias of MF DOOM; Operation: DOOMsday is a complete stylistic rebirth. Interestingly the beats across this record do still embody some of the jazz rap styles of KMD, but have a completely different vibe and atmosphere. Operation: DOOMsday is musically much less abstract than many of DOOM’s following records that will appear on this list, with a lot of straight up boom-bap style loops on display. DOOM’s beats here largely act as a means to establish his new found rapping and lyrical style, and he absolutely goes off on this record. Across 19 tracks and an hour-long run time, Operation: DOOMsday packs a lot in and showcases some of DOOM’s wordiest tracks of his whole career. Having that five year absence of writing and recording must have left Dumile with a lot to talk about.

The interesting thing about DOOM’s rhymes is that no matter what period you place him in, he always sounds very far removed from what his contemporary rappers are talking about. In 1999, American hip-hop was still largely obsessed with the gangster lifestyle, Scarface, pop culture references, bling and braggadocio lyrics where rappers had this competitive desire to claim their rhymes to be more brilliant and hardcore than the rhymes of each of their peers. And then comes in MF DOOM rapping about ’60s Japanese monster movies and Spiderman comics. Hell even the follow up to this album is a concept record about food (2004’s excellent MM…FOOD). DOOM clearly shows no interest in fitting in with what other hip-hop artists were doing at the time, and that is a wonderful trait that endures across his entire body of work. Even if you are to sit down and read a lot of DOOM’s lyrics, a lot of it is impenetrable, surreal, geeky and probably only makes sense to Dumile himself. DOOM’s attempts at bragging come across as a comical deconstruction of bragging itself; “Guzzled out a rusty tin can; me and this mic is like yin and yang,” DOOM spits on ‘DOOMsday’, “I used to cop a lot, but never copped no drop / Hold mics like pony tails tight and bob a lot.” Thinking about what DOOM had been through; the death of his brother, homelessness, his former label shelving an album, his band ceasing to exist, he could have talked about some really personal and political things on this record and if he does, those feelings and experiences are buried in the abstract. Many DOOM projects are full of oddly quotable lines, but taken as a whole, trying to follow and make sense of his lyrics whilst you listen is largely pointless. Like watching a David Lynch film, you’re best to let it wash over you and then ask questions later.

Operation: DOOMsday still holds up remarkably well. The beats have a golden age ’90s hip-hop feel to them but ultimately it’s DOOM’s immersive and mesmerising rapping that steals the show, setting the bar high for what was to follow.

KING GEEDORAH – Take Me To Your Leader
[2003 // Big Dada]

2003 kicked off a prolific period for Dumile, releasing two albums in one year and neither of them under the MF DOOM name; perhaps inspired by Kool Keith releasing records under multiple monikers. DOOM felt more involved in underground hip-hop than ever before and with this project as well as 2003’s Vaudeville Villain, he gave a chance for friends and small local artists to shine. Take Me To Your Leader, released under the name King Geedorah (named after Godzilla’s three-headed monster nemesis) was produced entirely by Dumile and invited small name rappers to take the spotlight. DOOM himself only raps on a few tracks, but regardless this is an astonishing album that is important to DOOM’s evolution.

DOOM’s beats on this album are out of this world and much more unique, abstract and ground-breaking than on Operation: DOOMsday, moving into more experimental territory. Opening track ‘Fazers’ has a sensational beat with a sample he claimed to have nabbed from an old porno flick. DOOM also commands the mic on this track and he sounds even more hyped up than before, bending the form of his rap flows even further. ‘Next Levels’ recalls the jazz-rap of his debut record and stands as one of the most accessible tunes in his discography, whilst ‘No Snakes Alive’ is one of the most menacing tracks he ever made that shows off his fastest rapping. And whilst ‘I Wonder’ doesn’t have DOOM on the mic, it stands as a rare song that will make you shed a tear, as rapper Hassan Chop reflects on personal tragedy over a cinematic beat made entirely of string samples. DOOM’s trademark of constructing sound collage interludes are prevalent all over this record, drawing from old movies, cartoons and news broadcasts, sounding much more interesting than traditional hip-hop skits.

VIKTOR VAUGHN – Vaudeville Villain
[2003 // Sound-Ink]

Dumile’s second full length of 2003 is the conceptual opposite of Take Me To Your Leader. On Vaudeville Villain, DOOM doesn’t produce any of the beats here, instead inviting friends and small time names to run the show, but luckily we get to hear DOOM on the mic on every track. The production really isn’t far from what you would expect from DOOM’s music, and Vaudeville Villain has some dark beats as well as a sci-fi feel with lots of bubbling bleeps’n’bloops and whooshing synths. The opening title track has a beat that is just out of this world, allowing DOOM to completely go off on one. Vocally, Dumile sounds at the top of his game here with more energy and versatility than ever before. DOOM really sharpens his technicality on the mic, with much more internal rhyming patterns and parts where he is able to drift in and out of the beat. ‘Raedawn’ must have sounded like the hip-hop of the future with such a strange sine-wave style sample. ‘The Drop’ is one of the most hardcore sounding DOOM tracks out there that sounds like it could have fit into Method Man’s debut album Tical. ‘Can I Watch?’ is a brilliant gem that sees the broadening of DOOM’s storytelling, duetting with Apani B, who threatens to steal the show with an outstanding performance. If you listen to Take Me To Your Leader and Vaudeville Villain back to back you can pretty much hear the blueprints for MF DOOM’s most beloved and talked about masterpiece…

MADVILLAIN – Madvillainy
[2004 // Stones Throw]

Hip-hop heads should need no introduction to this masterpiece. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said!? Madvillainy showcases two artists in the midst of a creative hot-streak with MadLib producing some of the most eclectic, wild and colourful beats the genre has ever known. DOOM puts in an all encompassing performance and kills it on every track. His lyrics are as bizarre and complex as ever but he struck gold with not just his wittiest one-liners but also his most memorable and quotable phrases. On paper, Madvillainy shouldn’t be as accessible as it is – the album is complex, jittery and abstract – and yet this is the one that resonates with people the most, going as far to be praised outside of hip-hop conversations. DOOM and MadLib essentially did for 2000s hip-hop what Wu-Tang Clan did for the ’90s on 36 Chambers. It also serves as the epicentre for the wonderful out of the box sounds that Stones Throw Records were backing.

‘Accordion’ is a perfect introduction to DOOM’s abilities as a rapper and lyricist. “Slip like Freudian, your first and last step to playing yourself like accordion”, DOOM sounds at his most effortless and cool right here. ‘American’s Most Blunted’ is a stoner hip-hop anthem, whilst ‘ALL CAPS’‘ command “ALL CAPS when you spell the man’s name” has pretty much reached meme status and the most famous tagline attached to DOOM (hence why this article has so many capital letters). ‘Fancy Clown’ gets on some meta Christopher Nolan shit, having both DOOM and Viktor Vaughn rapping on the same track. ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ is the album closer to end all albums. In the universe of this song, when it ends, a sampled applauding crowd demand an encore in what is surely MF DOOM’s greatest moment? “Got more sole than a sock with a hole.”

DANGERDOOM – The Mouse & The Mask
[2005 // LEX]

MF DOOM’s collaboration with producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse may not have had quite the impact as Madvillainy before it (though what did?) but still produced more gold. The Mouse & The Mask stands as one of the most accessible albums in Dumile’s discography, whilst still having plenty of strange sounds and little moments. The most bizarre thing about this record is that it was made in collaboration with [Adult Swim] and therefore features a lot of skits throughout featuring the character voices from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Perhaps this dates the album a little bit, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as it hosts many DOOM gems. ‘Old School’ is a bouncy and catchy number sampling the old Grindhouse intro theme music with Danger Mouse adding horns on top… The man loves himself some horns! This is the album where DOOM had enough clout to start teaming up with some of hip-hop’s bigger names such as Talib Kweli and Ghostface Killah on the excellent ‘The Mask’. ‘Benzi Box’ does a fun job of transporting DOOM into an early ’90s west-coast hip-hop tune that sounds like Snoop Dogg could pop up at any moment. Danger Mouse does a great job of emulating the “DOOM sound”, drawing in samples from old films and TV shows and even cartoons with Aqua Teen Hunger Force. This album isn’t as dark or challenging as the other albums on this list, but it’s a lot of fun to listen to and shows a glimpse at what a “mainstream” sounding DOOM record might sound like.

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RIP Daniel “MF DOOM” Dumile (1971-2020)

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