“Cruel Intentions” written by Dave Morris and published in Toronto's Eye Weekly, Jan. 21, 2010. Illustration by Jack Dylan.
For a self-described supervillain, hip-hop MC and producer DOOM has a lot of fans. But with a reputation that’s steadily growing more sinister, is DOOM’s creator trying to alienate his audience — or does this character have an evil mind of its own?
VOL. 1, ISSUE 0: THE ORIGIN
Meet Daniel Dumile. A young MC from Long Island, calling himself Zev Love X, gets on a track with 3rd Bass, “The Gas Face,” around ’89. It wasn’t a character thing at the time; Zev was your typical rapper with an alias, whose flow sounded a bit like a conscious descendant of Slick Rick. He had a crew, KMD, with his brother Subroc and a revolving third member. Zev Love X was just a nickname, like Big Bank Hank or LL Cool J. Zev was Dumile, Dumile was Zev.
KMD made a pretty solid album in ’91 called Mr. Hood, which had some dope tracks like “Who Me?,” putting the boots to racist stereotypes. But when Subroc was tragically run over by a car during the making of the follow-up (the controversial Black Bastards, which Elektra declined to release), Zev lost it and disappeared for something like five years. Word has it he ended up in Atlanta, though in our interview, DOOM remains cagey. “Here on the dark side of Jupiter,” he says, “the weather is great around this time of the year. Atlanta and New York are both home as well.”
Around 1997, Dumile reportedly appears on stage at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York with his face covered up by a stocking. This time he’s got a grimy flow and weird lyrics about “pure scientific intelligence.” Soon after, a character called MF Doom (the MF stands for Metal Face) puts out a single called “Dead Bent,” and eventually makes a whole LP, Operation: Doomsday, in 1999 — all of which seem to be the product of our old pal Zev. “Doom’s day / Ever since the womb till I’m back where my brother went / That’s what my tomb will say / Right above my government, Dumile / Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who’s to say?” Not me, though I have my hunches.
MF Doom goes on to make a bunch more albums for different labels under different names, including Viktor Vaughn and DOOM (his current MF-free handle) or sometimes even with different characters like King Geedorah, a three-headed 400-foot-tall monster from the Godzilla movies. He makes Madvillainy, a collaboration with fellow MC/producer Madlib that the duo release under the name Madvillain, and that turns out to be one of the biggest indie rap albums ever. Critical respect, collaborations with venerated acts like De La Soul and Ghostface Killah, reliably strong sales figures — it’s all his for the taking. Until one day, the word leaks out that Dumile had been sending someone else to play DOOM onstage. Cue media hand-wringing, and, more damningly, fan outrage.
Dumile doesn’t think it’s such a big problem. Coming off a three-year hiatus following his 2005 Danger Doom project (recorded with Danger Mouse), Dumile gave an interview to HipHopDX to promote the release of 2009’s Born Like This; he addressed the controversy, saying, “I’m a director as well as a writer. I choose different characters, I choose their direction and where I want to put them. So who I choose to put as the character is up to me. The character that I hired, he got paid for it. There’s no imposter.”
For underground hip-hop’s notoriously discerning followers, though, Dumile’s explanation didn’t cut it. A lot of people think sending someone other than Dumile up there to play DOOM is bullshit, and maybe it is. To play villain’s advocate for a moment, though, is Dumile’s failure in the existence of the fake, or in the fact that we can spot him? Besides which, how do we know that Dumile’s the only one who rhymes as DOOM in the studio? For all we know, Dumile hasn’t been onstage since 1993. What’s a live performance, anyway?
“When you have a bunch of like-minded people together in the same place to enjoy music,” DOOM tells me, “there is an exchange of energy amongst us all. That dynamic makes it a unique experience for the listener as well as the artist.”
Whether that can happen without the artist himself in the building is open to interpretation. Dumile to HipHopDX again: “People need to think outside of the box, hip-hop is not just what you expect it to be. This is a growing genre, it’s a creative field. So when you come to a DOOM show, I’m letting all the cats know now, come to hear the show and come to hear the music. “You came out to see me? Y’all don’t even know who I am!”
DOOM UNMASKED, ISSUE NO. 1: VILLAIN
Secretive as he may be, there’s at least one thing that hasn’t changed in the decade he’s been haunting our headphones: DOOM has always been adamant about his status as a villain. And the longer DOOM’s been in the public eye, the less a sensible family man like Dumile would want to be associated with him.
As Viktor Vaughn, the star of 2003’s Vaudeville Villain, he was a thief, a philanderer and a “scoundrel.” By the following year, on Madvillain’s Madvillainy, he had become “the worst known,” making more frequent references to gun violence. One Madvillainy track, “Strange Ways,” addresses the war on terror; while the lyrics feature a pretty unequivocal condemnation of suicide bombing (“all you get is lost children”), it also contains a verse that would make a Fox News pundit turn purple: “Now, who’s the real thugs, killers and gangsters? / Set the revolution, let the things bust and thank us / When the smoke clear, you can see the sky again / There will be the chopped off heads of Leviathan.”
Anti-imperialist critique, or pro–radical Islam screed? Either way, he’ll have a hard time getting off the no-fly list before 2020. The right might forgive him, though, if they knew he had been one of their few supporters back in ’08, as reported in Rolling Stone — he claims to have voted for McCain/Palin. Furious lefties and assorted Obama-lovers assumed at the time that DOOM was messing with them, but when Born Like This dropped last year, it started to look as though the supervillain may have been a single-issue voter: condemnation for “Batty-Boyz,” a track making fun of costumed superheroes using no small amount of homophobic innuendoes (“With the Green Goblin got the Batcave robbed / Bust in, Batman’s head bobbin’, slobbin’ Robin’s knob”) came swiftly from the blogosphere. For an artist with such a web-savvy audience, online approbation actually means something.
Again, Dumile defended himself, telling HipHopDX that neither he nor DOOM are anti-gay, and that the reason DOOM used the slurs is that the superheroes in the song — DOOM’s enemies — just happened to be homosexuals. “I’m not homophobic, I got friends that’s homo,” Dumile insisted. “I’d say to the homos, ‘it’s no big deal, I’m just teasing.’
“I’m a nigga, how about that? You know how much shit I get?”
DOOM UNMASKED, ISSUE NO. 2: AFRO-AMERICAN
As far as I know, there has never been a tradition of Metal Face Minstrels in the US. There is, on the other hand, a long lineage of African-Americans using disguises or personae to deflect or diffuse the expectations placed on them because of their blackness, such as Sun Ra, the Alabama-born avant-garde jazz musician who claimed to be neither black nor white; instead, he was part of an “Angel Race” from Saturn.
Dumile claims to have discovered Sun Ra via Madlib during the making of Madvillainy — that disc’s “Shadows of Tomorrow” is a Sun Ra tribute — and given the heat KMD took from their record label for their lyrical references to the teachings of radical Muslim sect the Five Percent Nation, it’s easy to imagine why a more ambiguous persona might have appealed to or even inspired a grown-up Daniel Dumile. Would “Strange Ways” with its severed heads and suicide bombers have attracted more negative attention if it came from a rapper called Zev Love X?
“I guess a lot of people who are from my era can identify with characters like [King] Geedorah, and once they’re ‘in’ I can drop other jewels that they probably wouldn’t tap into if I came at them a bit ‘hard’ with an extra-militant black-power style,” Dumile told Jockey Slut magazine in 2004. “I don’t want to alienate anybody.”
Or to have to discuss his religious views in every interview. For hip-hop artists, though, the real moral issue is whether you’re a gangsta rapper or a conscious one — a decision that’s hardly even the artist’s to make, given the scorn heaped on gangsters who create an imaginary woeful backstory, as well as quasi-bohemians who shill for (or sign record deals with) major corporations. Most damningly of all, if you’re denied a ghetto pass because you didn’t get shot 19 times before your rap career took off, expect your shows to be full of Common’s “coffee-shop chicks and white dudes.”
As DOOM said on “Ballskin” from Born Like This, “He wears a mask so when he dogs his face / Each and every race could absorb the bass.”
Which means, he explained to me, that “when his face is distorted, you will pay attention to the music,” rather than whether the MC making it has a gangsta scowl or a beatific grin.
DOOM UNMASKED, ISSUE NO. 3: THE SHOCKING CONCLUSION
While DOOM’s stand-in issue is an obvious sticking point for fans, it was inevitable that some of them would brand an MC who wears a mask as a “fake,” one way or another. Ultimately, this is just another version of that boring old authenticity debate, mapped onto an exciting and (relatively) new art form.
Is Bob Dylan more important than The Ronettes because he wrote his own songs? Is Daniel Dumile less of an MC than Jay-Z because one of them is a homophobic, gun-toting sociopath with suspect political views, and the other just pretends to be? You can’t really blame someone like Daniel Dumile for wanting to find a way out of hip-hop’s obsession with the real, or at least, wanting some measure of the freedom that novelists and screenwriters and comic-book artists enjoy. (Not to mention avant-garde and post-modern artists, who’ve been presenting audiences with empty rooms and near-silent LPs for decades. Memo to DOOM’s management: someone’s got to know how to massage this sort of thing in the eyes of the press. Ask Yoko Ono.)
For now, DOOM seems to be done with dummies, at least until he finds a stand-in who’s more convincing than the last few. Something tells me that he’s too smart not to recognize the potential damage that more fake shows could do to his credibility. Whether that something is Dumile, DOOM or just a hunch, who’s to say? But I’ll bet The Shadow knows.
Read more including an email interview with DOOM at Eye Weekly.