Mask of Sorrow
The mask must be in the box – one of those black flight cases with reinforced metal corners. It's as long as a loaf of bread but wider and half as thick. The sturdy clasp and metal fittings suggest importance; the box itself looks like it could withstand severe interrogation without coughing up its secrets.
The first time I meet Daniel Dumile, there is no sign of the rapper MF Doom. Doom is known for two things: fantastically dense rhymes and an impassive silver mask that rarely leaves his face. Dumile is known for being Doom. The first time I meet Dumile, it is in the back of a club in Chicago, and the mask is in this box, clutched against his body. Headphones pinch his neck and his fingers grasp a bottle of Coke with barely one swig left. His perfectly round belly juts from under a shirt that, surprisingly, isn't baggy enough to obscure it. Everything about his physical presence – the way he stands; the way his glasses crookedly splay across his face; the gold fronts and the jagged, gummy smile; the random sprigs of cheek fuzz; the way he desperately hugs the box – is a bit off. It is loud in the back of the club, so we retreat to the truck his manager has rented for the next two days. The truck is in a back alleyway, beneath a thin membrane of snow.
The mask is on the floor. I know this because as I am climbing into the back row of the truck, I feel something underfoot – I look down and the mask is on the floor, face down, harmless. I softly boot it out of the way. As Dumile and his crew climb in, nobody seems to care. He picks the mask up off the floor, places it in his lap and continues protecting his box. He and a friend gossip about the rapper Viktor Vaughn – they wonder what Vaughn will do next, speculating as if he were a real person and not merely one of Dumile's many stage names. But then again, they are never real.
Dumile opens the box. It is filled with CDs. First mystery solved.
Daniel Dumile's artistic life consists of three movements. As a teenager, Dumile rapped under the name Zev Love X as part of KMD, a group he had started with his brother, Dingilizwe. Precocious and witty, KMD found middling success at the dawn of the 1990s as contemporaries of Brand Nubian and the Native Tongues collective. This is the first part. Dumile talks only sparingly about the second: the years between his brother's death in 1993 (and KMD's subsequent disbandment) and 1998, when he resurfaced, unannounced, at an open mic poetry session at New York's Nuyorican Poets' Cafe. It was the first time in years that he had appeared in public and he wore a stocking cap over his face. "I was like a new MC, " he remembers.
We are in the midst of the third movement, the one that began that night and has, you could say, redeemed Dumile. These are the years that allow him to look back at the first 25 or so and not feel persecuted by questons and memories. -s soo career has inspired a cult-like following. He rarely appears in public without a metal faceplate constructed out of a replica from the film Gladiator.
Since 1999, he has released six solo albums; collaborative projects with Madlib, MF Grimm and The Monster Island Czars; and at least six volumes of instrumentals. He currently records under the names King Geedorah (on Big Dada), Viktor Vaughn (on Sound-Ink) and MF Doom, and he is toying with the idea of bringing Zev back as well. He is best known for being Doom, the central character on two of his better albums, the disarming 1999 debut Operation: Doomsday (Fondle 'Em) and last year's celebrated Madvillainy (Stones Throw), recorded with fellow recluse Madlib under the name Madvillain. In the coming year, there are plans for a Madvillain follow-up, a new KMD album and possible collaborations with Wu-Tang Clansman and fellow associative thinker Ghostface Killah.
It is often difficult to parse where one of Dumile's character ends and another begins, because all of them are variations on the same theme. "The classic villain with a mask, Phantom Of The Opera-style," he explains. "There's a little Dr Doom in there, even a little Destro from GI Joe. It's an icon of American culture." The fact that all of his characters traffic from behind the same mask complicates matters, as does Dumile's tendency to conflate the details of each one's storyline. Each character's respective rhyme style doesn't betray identity either – they all speckle their hyper-imagist, first to third person raps with the same Old English chivalry and pop dustbin references. But Dumile relishes the instability: it makes for sharper twists and richer cliffhangers. "The villain," he eagerly adds, "always returns."
In 1990, Americans truly feared a black planet. According to a Gallup poll released that year, the 'average' American, no doubt influenced by the media and popular culture, estimated that about 30 per cent of the nation's population was black. Yet at the time black Americans constituted maybe half of that figure; even that estimate required context. The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan coincided with an overhaul of the longstanding war on drugs. The war became more than a legislative package: it was a mindstate, a way of recalibrating the idea of crime. Over the next 20 years, a drop in the crime rate (a dip social scientists argue would have happened regardless of Reagan) coincided with a rapid expansion of American prisons, and a feverish crusade to fill them as quickly and efficiently as possible. Currently, the Justice Department reports that one eighth of black Americans in their twenties and early thirties were incarcerated last year. A black man in the United States has a one in three chance of going to prison. A weird thing happened over those 20 years: people started disappearing.
Just as every assassin has grammar school classmates, every villain starts out a mere seed. Dumile was born in London in the early 70s and his family shuttled between New York's boroughs before settling in Long Island. Hip Hop was a constant for Daniel and Dingilizwe. They would preserve late night Hip Hop radio broadcasts by holding a tape recorder up to the old clock radio they shared. In 1985, the brothers had scraped together enough cash to buy some modest recording equipment. They gave themselves a name befitting two part-time graffitists: Kausin Much Damage, or KMD for short. Daniel renamed himself Zev Love X; Dingilizwe became Subroc.
It was an innocent time. De La Soul and JVC Force had secured Long Island's place in Hip Hop lore and Dumile grew up a half-generation behind Public Enemy, EPMD and De La, who he refers to as his "colleagues" . In neighbouring Far Rockaway, Queens, lived a young rapper named MC Serch. Serch and Dumile became fast friends, and when it came time for Serch and his group 3rd Bass to ink a deal with Def Jam, he asked Dumile if he wanted to take a guest verse on one of their singles.
The result was 1990's "Gas Face". Built on the prattling piano of Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and smart-alecky ribbing, the track was one of the best and most joyful singles of what has become enshrined as Hip Hop 's Golden Era. "I kinda came up with the concept," Dumile recalls. "We used to joke around a lot, so I came up with the term 'gas face' – it's just that face you make when you're shocked or surprised. Like when somebody catches you off-guard."
Soon after, KMD signed with Elektra Records and set to work on their debut, Mr Hood (1991). They'had rebranded their moniker – it now stood for " a positive Kause in a Much Damaged society" – and added a third member, Onyx The Birthstone Kid. Dumile and his brother were both in their teens and they would troop from Long Island to Manhattan's Chung King Studios every night. "We did that whole album at night. The whole album is exactly how it was: me in my mom's crib, doing beats, cuttin' hair for extra cash, trading records and whatnot. Fun times, you know? It was adolescence, that teenage time."
The Mr Hood sleeve features a black and white photograph of African-American children playing in the streets of New York. Taken by Arthur Leipzig in 1950, there is tranquillity to the scene, a concentrated stillness to the young boy leaping among chalk- outlined squares on the pavement, to the delight of hypnotised onlookers. Even though you shudder to think what might have been happening just beyond the frame, Leipzig's image fixes on something above politics. The boy is not yet a man. He is entitled to his unbridled joy, to bask in the eternal summer of youth. In the background – in screaming, dayglo colour – stand the members of KMD, but they might as well be part of the original photo. Mr Hood feels untouched. It is infected with the buoyancy and effervescence of puberty; it is fun. "Crackpot" details the evolution of a playground bully-turned-neighbourhood drifter with an almost do-gooder innocence, while the cork-pop fizz of "Peachfuzz" finds the trio eager to grow, counting their chin hairs and puffing their chests in the mirror. They sample liberally from Sesame Street. While the standout single "Who Me?" assails longstanding stereotypes of African-Americans – the song begins with an excerpt from a children's record about a character named Little Sambo – its slapstick funk backing douses some of its threat. Mr Hood has plenty of rage – against stereotypes, inequality and the not-yet-enlightened – but it is a manageable, pint- sized rage. In the top right corner of the album sleeve is the KMD 'Sambo' logo, a crossed out cartoon of a white man in blackface, but even this suggests a degree of playfulness.
The album was mildly successful. A video for "Peachfuzz" cracked MTV's rotation and the trio toured with the likes of Queen Latifah, Digital Underground, Big Daddy Kane and 3rd Bass. The brothers were working it out.
Their parents had separated and the two remaining men of the house leaned on Hip Hop to lift their mother and sister out of poverty. They reserved very modest hopes for themselves: "Get our own cribs and
"Crazy time right there," Dumile sighs slowly. "That's when we were growing up. During the album, I had my first son and my brother had his daughter – early manhood memories. Things was changing, shit was going crazy, both in the game and in life.
"The game was changing – gangsta rap took over the shit. Then, just being that age, a lot of stuff happens, too." He pauses, searching for the language to match the glaze overtaking his eyes. "Especially living in America, being brown people, or whatever you want to call it, that age is a very pivotal time. That's when you get hit with a lot of traps."
I HEAR VOICES
Dumile had crossed the line, the traps were set, he had turned 20. "In this country, being original people, a lot of things be happening at a certain age, right when you reach manhood. A lot of things start happening. Strange shit." Dumile's friends started disappearing – "murdered, jailed or whatever". One day, he looked around and everything had changed. He was no longer a precocious teen with a record deal and respectably fat pockets. He was a young man. "I'm just noticing my peoples disappearing – good people, not bad people. Now, I'm like the only one left from that era from my crew." With two songs left to record, Dumile's brother joined the missing. Subroc was killed in a freak car accident.
"How did I deal with it?" he asks. "I don't even know. I had to stay focused. I had to make sure we came up out of it. The goals that me and my brother set… they had to still be met. It was up to me. You know what it reminded me of? We was big Boogie Down Productions fans back in the days. When that thing happened to Scott LaRock [the BDP DJ was shot in the street in 1987] – God bless – it was kinda like.., a prerequisite to this, to what happened. When that happened and we both peeped it, automatically we thought of ourselves in those shoes. If the same thing was to happen to one of us – you know what I'm sayin' – what would we do?
"So we saw how Kris [KRS-One] handled that situation," he continues. "He could have quit. We didn't know what he was going to do. Was he going to come out with another album? Then he came with that shit – [1988's] By All Means Necessary. So that showed us what to do in that situation. You persevere, you keep going, you strive and you do it. So it made us ready for something to happen in life."
As a young teen, witnessing his hero KRS-One recover from the murder of his beloved partner LaRock had intellectually prepared Dumile for such a loss. He did his best to stow the pain away until later, soldiering ahead with Black Bastards and pouring himself into the album's dense funk and sharp polemics.
At times, Black Bastards is every bit as playful and supple as Mr. Hood. "Sweet Premium Wine" and the skirt-chasing "Plumskinzz" indulge harmless libertine urges, while the charmingly raffish "Contact Blitz" finds KMD graduating from mom's crib to a hot-boxed tour. But gone are the play-acted rage and wide-eyed boyishness. Instead of Sesame Street and children's records, there are vocal samples from Melvin Van Peebles's shockingly defiant Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song soundtrack and The Last Poets' Gylan Kain's browbeating Blue Guerrilla album. This, after all, was the anxious, brooding record Dumile played at Subroc's funeral, a scene 3rd Bass's Pete Nice described to Spin magazine as "just surreal".
One difference between KMD and other Hip Hop groups is contained in the difference between two epithets: 'nigga' and 'sambo'. After a stormy, much debated career, the former term has been reclaimed and rehabilitated by African-American culture, its demeaning sting metamorphosing into a term of wicked, macho endearment. The latter, though, remains an ugly term from a distant time; there is no way to flip or ironise a word designed to reduce African-American males to coy, easily terrified babies. As their peers perfected their lean, heartless glares and struts, KMD fretted about self-destruction. The Dumiles had been raised as part of the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the black Muslim faith that also counted Wu-Tang Clan, Brand Nubian and Rakim as adherents. They sought to reconstruct the "deaf, dumb and blind" heathen, but they wanted to do it in a sympathetic, playful way, as boys but not babies. At times, the album seems to laugh to keep from crying. The cover of Black Bastards featured a crude drawing of the half-grinning, half-exasperated Sambo being hung. Lynching the logo was meant to suggest the death of a stereotype.
In April 1994, one month before its slated release, a Billboard columnist named Tern Rossi came across the cover artwork. Rossi, who neither listened to the album nor understood KMD's ironic intentions, wrote a piece for the influential tabloid blasting Elektra. Jackie Martinez, head of KMD's Hit U Off Management, argued that it addressed "what [black] people were once portrayed as, nothing more than that. The artwork is just the opposite of what people interpreted it to be."
At the time, though, the recording industry found itself a tempting pawn in the culture wars. Only two years earlier, the furore around Ice-T's "Cop Killer" had led to high-profile boycotts, divestment campaigns and testy debates about public morality. The last thing KMD's label wanted was anything resembling controversy. Short of ditching the cover, there was no way to quell Rossi. Dumile, who had drawn the picture, would not relent. The album was pulled from production and KMD were released from their contract. (The complete version only appeared in 2000, on the Subverse label.)
"Can you imagine?" he asks, exasperated. "During a six month period, it was like, shit was changing so drastically fast, in all aspects. It was some hard shit. At the time it didn't seem so crazy but now when I think of it, it was some hard times."
So Dumile did what he had to: he disappeared, too.
A mess of bodies smear themselves against the glass-walled DJ booth, eager to see what is happening. Despite blizzard warnings, curious Chicagoans have shown up en masse to see a rare DJ appearance by MF Doom. Earlier that night, with no mask, Dumile roamed the club freely, clutching his box and soda. Now, hundreds of fans crane their necks, elbow for room and tiptoe on each other's toes, just to catch a spare glimpse of Doom's face, which is covered by a mask.
Hip Hop celebrity can be a curious thing. Hip Hop presents itself as a wholly literal music, concerned less with thems or symbols than reportage. It is judged by the quality of autobiographical minutiae and the gruesomeness of the first person and it becomes a given that, when Rapper X mutters that he committed Act Y, he is offering some approximation of the truth. These are the kinds of meta-issues Dumile ruminated on during his years away from Hip Hop 's machinery. Dumile rarely offers details about this unintended sabbatical. When nudged, he laughs, "I plead the fifth." He divided his time between Atlanta, where his family had relocated, and New York, where he still lived. Mostly, he was busy raising his son and piecing together a recording budget. He began dating the woman he would later marry. He poured himself into the songs that eventually became Operation: Doomsday. At the time, he was subsisting on the barest of necessities: a few old records, his faith and the occasional beer.
"At that time, I was damn near homeless, walking the streets of Manhattan, sleeping on benches and shit," he admits. He says that the next KMD album (tentative title: Mental Illness) will focus on these "lost years". "It was a really, really dark time. But I still thought I was gonna get mine, regardless." Dumile knew he was at least as good as the rappers who bubbled to the surface in the mid-1990s. He was lifetimes removed from being Zev Love X; whenever he heard songs like "Peachfuzz", he felt weird. He saw Hip Hop as a masquerade ball, and he needed a creative way to crash it. "In Hip Hop , we get kinda confused," he says. "I think we limit ourselves with the whole 'I'm the guy' kind of thing. Like, 'I this, you that'. In Hip Hop you're the guy, and it's too much responsibility – you don't want to be that guy. So I'm like, if Hip Hop is all about bragging and boasting, then I'm going to make the illest character who can brag about all kinds of shit. Like, why not? It's all your imagination – go as far as you want."
Dumile renamed himself MF Doom – ME stood for Metal Face, while Doom was both homage to consummate Marvel Comics villain Dr Doom and an adaptation of a childhood nickname. The more he thought about his creation, the more it intrigued him. "The way comics are written shows you the duality of things, how the bad guy ain't really a bad guy if you look at it from his perspective. Through that style of writing, I was kinda like, if I flip that into Hip Hop , that's something niggas ain't done yet. I was looking for an angle that would be brand new. That's when I came up with the character and worked out the kinks – that's the Villain."
The character gave a story arc to the mountain of tracks he had recorded since Black Bastards. In 1997 Bobbito Garcia, a friend from the "Gas Face" days, released some of the Doom material on his fledgling Fondle 'Em label, to delirious reviews. Dumile returned to the stage in 1998 and his debut album followed later that year. Musically, the album was highly unusual. Hijacking the soft sounds of 1980s soul and squeezing the last ounces of life from exhausted sample sources, Doomsday sounded like an eerie echo of days past. "That's the nature of the production style of Doom," he explains, "the obvious/not-obvious, the in-between. Using what you have to make something totally new. I had a limited number of [records] then. I was like, yo, there's something in-between that I have to get. There's infinite amounts of layers and dimensions, it's just, which one can you tap into?" Swearing vengeance on the industry that had disfigured him, Doom became one of Hip Hop 's most colourful folk heroes.
"I'm an author. It just so happens that what I write is in rhythmic form and it's over music. So for me to get different points across, just like an author would in a novel, I come with different characters." In 2003 he released Take Me To Your Leader as King Geedorah (inspired by Godzilla's peer, Gidra), and another, Vaudeville Villain, as Viktor Vaughn (adapted from Dr Doom's real name, Victor Von Doom). Dumile explains the method in his mitosis: "I can make multiple characters, and they can even have conflicting views. We're growing up as all this is going on – we're going to change our minds. The public looks at that and is like, oh, he's contradicting himself. When you got multiple characters you never contradict yourself. Have another character come with another point of view."
The most thrilling aspect of all this is that the rhymes rarely betray the identity of the narrator. Doom's characters pop up as guests on each other's albums; they help each other out with production duties; and Dumile looms above them, unafraid to lapse into second or third person. He is quick to point out that all of these characters are characters, not shades of his (or Doom's) personality. "I never interject," he claims. "I keep myself out of it – I feel I'm too corny, it's not going to be fun. It's gotta be those guys." There are subtle differences. Geedorah's Take Me To Your Leader assesses Earth matters from the perspective of a "space monster" – "King Geedorah, three-finger ring fever/Spring chicken eater/IDed as the ringleader, " he offers by way of introduction, before asking, "Who needs a heater?" The Geedorah disc makes its point by painting Earth racism, Earth hedonism and Earth corruption in the most outlandish terms possible – the truth is disguised in his science fictions. Vaughn is more of a straight shooter, a 1980s-obsessed thug with bloated self-esteem – "Viktor the director flip a script like Rob Reiner/The way a lotta dudes rhyme their names should be 'knob-shiner'. " "Vik is frustrated now," Dumile sighs.
Doom – "Bound to go three-plat/Came to destroy rap" – is the most interesting character, the misunderstood villain who loves humanity but hates humans. "From the point of view [of America], we're the villains. But I'm the super-villain." The point of the ruse is to find a different way to convey the same message from his KMD days. "Out here it's been so desensitised… I had to figure out a way to get the point across and still make it interesting, or make it seem like a race thing.
"Doom is about bringing people together," he continues. "I like to show different perspectives – put yourself in this guy's shoes for a second and this guy ain't so different from you. The Villain could be anybody. The character Doom is a brown person, but he could be anybody, any race." The mask reminds you to pay attention to the words, not the personality. Although Dumile uses his characters to talk about things that concern him, he maintains that they never betray his actual emotional make-up. This is hard to believe. Notable for droopy, downcast arrangements and Dumile's slurred verses, Doom's records can sound exceedingly sad. Sometimes it seems as though the characters are a way to distract from his melancholy, or at least disguise it as otherworldly fantasy. Sometimes they seem haunted by the memory of his brother, even as he resists recording a song that directly speaks to his feelings. On "Doomsday", he defuses that yearning with an aw- shucks concern over etchings: "Ever since the womb' till I'm back where my brother went/That's what my tomb will say/Right above my government, Dumile [Doom-will-I ay]/Either unmarked or engraved – hey, who's to say?" "Gas Drawls" finds him cracking a brew for Subroc – "I hit the brew up like.., nobody knows… how [Zev Love] X the unseen feels" – before veering way off-course, to ridicule rivals and then curse "the invisible bitch" from the Fantastic Four.
It's easy to dismiss Dumile when he raps that all he needs is a "metal-face mask with a built-in frown" ("It Ain't Nttin") and a steady supply of beers (nearly every other song) when the adjacent verse invokes space monsters or, on his latest disc, Mm… Food (Rhymesayers), meats and spices. Even when Dumile reminisces that he and Subroc "is like the brown Smothers Brothers" ("Kon Karne"), he maintains that this is actually Doom's voice. At the very least, it is Zev. But it is never Dumile. "All of them are characters," he insists, "they're never me." Perhaps. Sometimes, Dumile doesn't even seem like Dumile, as though he really doesn't feel himself without the mask. While those around him disappeared, he replicated himself, just to keep good company. His stable of characters continues to hint at the saddest story HipHop has ever told but, like some HipHop Charlie Kaufman, even Dumile himself doesn't claim to know what they will end up doing or saying. They are beyond his control, following their own arcs.
"Them dudes are crazy," he laughs. "They can do it. Doom is an ill character – he's going to be around forever. I look up to that dude."