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Remembering MF DOOM—Masked Visionary, Rhyme-Bending Supervillain, and Hip-Hop Legend

Daniel Dumile was once cast out by the rap industry. His revolutionary second act redefined the genre.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Few can do it, even fewer can sell it.” —MF DOOM, “One Beer”

One of the great scandals in underground hip-hop history also doubled as one of the finest pieces of performance art of the 21st century. In the mid-2000s, MF DOOM—the silver-tongued MC who dazzled listeners for decades and inspired cult-like devotion—began sending impostors to take his place at shows. He was able to do this because of his trademark mask—a hulking piece of metal that famed graffiti artist Lord Scotch designed by deconstructing a helmet used in the movie Gladiator. Fans would show up expecting DOOM and instead be greeted by a knockoff donning the headgear, rapping his songs. Early on, audiences couldn’t always tell they were watching a Fauxdeville Villain. But they caught on soon enough, showering boos on the stand-ins (and on the man himself on a few occasions, not realizing he had recently lost weight). DOOM, who understood the concept of kayfabe better than any of his peers, started incorporating the crowd’s disdain into his performances when he did show up.

It’s the work of a true supervillain—the most Andy Kaufman–esque move any musician has made over the past few decades, and certainly one of the most entertaining stories to emerge from rap’s subterranean. But in DOOM’s telling of the events, fans weren’t being cheated out of the true Metal Face experience. Rather, they were seeing what that experience was all about. “I’m a director as well as a writer,” the rapper/producer told HipHopDx in 2009. “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 impostor.”

DOOM found the outrage funny, and mused about sending out a white guy or the Blue Man Group to take his place. A decade later, he would still occasionally dispatch fugazis, including Hannibal Burress at Adult Swim Festival in 2019. Others may have viewed the mask as a crown, but for its owner, there was little precious about it.

The chance to embrace the absurdity on such a grand scale is something DOOM—who died on October 31 at age 49, though his wife, Jasmine, didn’t publicly reveal the news until Thursday—never thought he’d have the chance to do. Born Daniel Dumile in London to a Trinidadian mother and Zimbabwean father, he moved to New York while he was an infant, and seemed on the precipice of modest stardom in the early 1990s as his group KMD built a following through collaborations with 3rd Bass and a warmly received debut album. Within a few years, however, his hopes had been derailed by two devastating events: first, the death of his brother and collaborator, DJ Subroc; then, his exile from his controversy-fearing record label. He found himself “damn near homeless” and sleeping on benches. Legendary hip-hop producer Prince Paul once recalled that it was as if Dumile had “kinda disappeared,” but the reality is that few in the industry sought him out during this time. When they did rediscover him, he had remade himself as one of the most vivid stylists rap had ever seen—someone who reimagined how intricate rhyme schemes could be and made a string of non sequiturs sound like the most profound thing you’d ever heard.

He entered his second act dead bent on achieving success through anonymity. In the late ’90s, before he affixed metal to his face, he wore a stocking cap. Later, his famous mask would become a staple of merch and the artwork to classic albums like Madvillainy, plus inspire street art and Nikes that resell for thousands on the secondary market. It could be easy to write the mask off as a gimmick—according to DOOM, it was a counterreaction to the increasing commercialization of hip-hop, which had begun to value looks over sound—and the Doomposters he sent in his stead did little to dispel the notion. But for a man who had been pushed out by the industry while still grappling with grief, it became a necessity to conceal his true self. He reinvented himself as “the Supervillain” set on revenge, toiling in the shadows and refusing to let himself be photographed without his mask. So when the Doomposter controversy hit, DOOM wasn’t just surprised that anyone would be upset by the stunt—he was shocked that anybody would care about the man behind the mask at all.

“Only in America could you find a way to make a healthy buck / And still keep your attitude on self-destruct.” —MF DOOM, “Rhymes Like Dimes”

When Daniel Dumile first appeared on a major rap song, his face wasn’t hidden. He also wasn’t calling himself MF DOOM. In 1989, a teenager going by Zev Love X dropped the final verse on “The Gas Face,” a minor hit by white-rap pioneers 3rd Bass that helped push their debut, The Cactus Album, gold. Dumile was part of a group named KMD—at first short for “Kausin’ Much Damage,” but later for “Kause in a Much Damaged Society”—which included his brother Dingilizwe, who performed as DJ Subroc, and another MC, Onyx the Birthstone Kid. Daniel had yet to fully develop his trademark style, but the seeds of it were there: “I’m talkin’ coffee or cocoa, is you loco? / Cash or credit for unleaded at Sunoco,” he raps in the middle of his verse, which outshined 3rd Bass’s MC Serch and Pete Nice and stood out among the typical Yo! MTV Raps fare. It’s jarring to watch the “Gas Face” video now and see his pre-fame babyface mostly exposed, aside from a pair of giant bifocals. Here he is on The Arsenio Hall Show the next year, sans glasses—one of the clearest looks the public would ever get of his features:

The success of “The Gas Face” and a relationship with rising A&R representative Dante Ross helped Daniel and KMD land a deal with Elektra for their debut, 1991’s Mr. Hood. The album established the trio as an Afrocentric, jazz-minded outfit (think Brand Nubian or the Native Tongues) and scored a minor hit in “Peachfuzz.” The group addressed racial politics, but Mr. Hood could hardly be described as confrontational. That reflected the young group’s mindset at the time; in the second installment of Brian Coleman’s hip-hop oral history Check the Technique, Pete Nice recalls taking KMD on tour around the time of Mr. Hood and witnessing the devout Muslims abstaining from drugs and alcohol. “They were still kids,” Nice said. One image the group used in its artwork would portend a future controversy, however: a caricature of a Sambo figure drawn by Daniel.

By 1993, Onyx had exited the group, leaving KMD a duo. Daniel and Dingilizwe had begun to undergo radical changes, both musically and personally. The brothers now drank, and their outlook darkened. That seeped into their sophomore LP, Black Bastards. “There was some of the same subject matter on Black Bastards, but we went at it a bit more aggressively,” Dumile told Coleman. KMD tackled racial themes more directly and liberally sampled from ex–Last Poet Gylan Kain’s fiery pro-Black 1970 album The Blue Guerilla, crafting something that felt at once a continuation of Mr. Hood and a radical departure.

But as the brothers raced to finish the album, the unthinkable happened. On April 23, 1993, Dingilizwe was struck by a car and killed while attempting to cross the Long Island Expressway. He was 19 years old. Daniel was deeply wounded by his brother’s passing. Nice says Daniel “set up a boombox right next to the casket and played pretty much the whole Black Bastards album” at Dingilizwe’s wake. “I think some part of DOOM was gone when Sub died,” Dante Ross told Coleman.

Dumile turned the completed album into his label the next spring. A promotional single and video for “What a Niggy Know” were readied, copies were sent to the press, and features were lined up with magazines like The Source. But shortly before the planned release date, Elektra execs called Dumile into a meeting. They expressed concerns about the content of the music, but mainly they objected to the album cover, which featured a drawing of the Sambo character hung by a rope. Elektra, which had just witnessed its parent company, Warner Music, deal with public outcry following the release of “Cop Killer” by Ice-T’s band, Body Count, wanted no part of Black Bastards. “They said they weren’t going to put the album out,” Dumile told Coleman. “They didn’t even want us to change the cover.” Elektra released him from his contract and canceled the album’s impending release, handing him the masters and $20,000 for his troubles.

Daniel retreated from the music industry for a few years. He was briefly on the brink of homelessness before relocating from New York to Georgia. In the mid-’90s, he started making music under a new name: MF DOOM, a character modeled after Marvel Comics supervillain Doctor Doom, positioning himself as an enemy of the industry that cast him out. “He’s the typical villain that you have in any story where a lot of people misunderstand him,” DOOM said in 2011. “He’s always looked at as the bad guy but he’s really got a heart of gold.”

At first, he performed at open mic nights wearing women’s tights over his head. Later came the masks—first a plastic version made from an old Halloween costume and then the famous metal one designed by Lord Scotch. Reinvigorated, DOOM released a handful of singles on Bobbito Garcia’s ultra-indie label Fondle ’Em beginning in 1997. Two years later, he dropped his debut solo LP, Operation Doomsday, a mostly hookless mosaic of dense wordplay and easy-listening samples that established him as one of rap’s visionary auteurs.

One of the few truly great full-lengths of the late-1990s underground hip-hop boom, OD laid the blueprint for what would become DOOM’s genre-redefining style: His flow was loose and conversational, but delivered with technical precision; his rhyme schemes were more intricate than even those of rappers like Big Pun or Eminem, who were redefining lyrical dexterity on a mainstream level; his vocabulary as vast as any famous author (and likely honed by studying the likes of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions and Depraved and Insulting English, which he devoured). The album arrived at an odd time for hip-hop culture: The music had never been more popular, but beneath the surface an anti-commercial countermovement took root. The biggest name in indie rap was Rawkus Records, which boasted a roster that included El-P’s Company Flow and Mos Def, but Operation Doomsday may be the most-beloved album to come out of the era. Fans latched onto the music—largely handled by DOOM—and his oddball lyrics on songs such as “Rhymes Like Dimes” and “Gas Drawls.” Jay-Z and DMX may have crafted masterpieces the same year as DOOM, but they weren’t expanding the idea of what was possible in a rap verse by pairing phrases like “tally ho” and “Alamo” or saying things like “A pied piper holler a rhyme, a dollar and a dime / Do his thing, ring around the white-collar crime.” DOOM may not have had much cultural cachet, but discovering his songs opened a world of music for many—a rite of passage for anyone looking to dig beyond the dominant sounds of the day.

Operation Doomsday also kicked off one of the most prolific runs in rap history, as the rapper released classic after classic. A few came under aliases, like his twin 2003 releases Take Me to Your Leader (credited to King Geedorah) and Vaudeville Villain (an unrivaled lyrical exercise he released under the name Viktor Vaughn, an homage to Doctor Doom’s birth name). Others were insular and esoteric, like 2004’s MM.. Food, his largely self-produced loose concept album about cuisine. He also officially released Black Bastards during this period. This time, there were no suits around to object to the artwork.

But the crown jewel of his legendary run—of his discography as a whole, and arguably independent hip-hop in its entirety—came in Madvillain, his collaboration with Southern California producer Madlib. Released in March 2004 on Stones Throw Records, Madvillainy became an instant classic, adored by stoners, hip-hop purists, and dorm-room freestyle champions alike. Madlib’s backdrops—looped and chopped from jazz, psych, and library records buried deep within his crates—proved to be the perfect canvas for DOOM’s free-association meditations. Take “Meat Grinder,” a two-minute avalanche of internal rhymes laid over a slithering bassline. It’s the rapper at his most obtuse, but also his most spellbinding:

Knocking, no answer, slow dancer,
hopeless romancer, dopest flow stanzas
Yes, no? Villain, Metal face to Destro
Guess so, still incredible in escrow
Just say Ho! I’ll test the yayo
Wild West style fest, y’all best to lay low
Hey bro, Day Glo, set the bet, pay dough
Before the cheddar get away, best to get Maaco
The worst-hated God who perpetrated odd favors
Demonstrated in the perforated Rod Lavers
In all quad flavors, Lord save us

It’s hard to single out any one release as the tipping point for DOOM’s breakthrough, but things seemed to change for him after Madvillainy, which was lavishly praised by both rap and rock media and produced indelible classics like “Accordion” and “All Caps.” The year after its release, he appeared on the Gorillaz album Demon Days and teamed up with Danger Mouse, who was still riding high off The Grey Album, for the Adult Swim–sponsored The Mouse and the Mask. He also caught the attention of the Wu-Tang Clan, appearing on a compilation released by the collective and contributing beats to Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale. (A full-length collaboration between DOOM and the formerly masked Ghostface named Swift and Changeable was teased for years, but never released.) Radiohead’s Thom Yorke remixed several tracks for him and once called him his favorite MC. DOOM was still far from a household name, but suddenly he had become an avatar of authenticity for fellow musicians, and a cult hero to his fans. Sometimes it’s easier to root for the villain.

“On Doomsday! / 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?” —MF DOOM, “Doomsday”

DOOM’s pace slowed following that spectacular burst. After 2005, he’d release another solo album, 2009’s Born Like This, and a few collaborative albums, including Keys to the Kuffs with producers Jneiro Jarel and NehruvianDoom with Bishop Nehru. It was a far cry from the string of classics he released in the early 2000s, but it was still classic DOOM. One of his most-cited couplets comes from 2012’s Keys to the Kuffs: “Catch a throatful from the fire vocaled / With ash and molten glass like Eyjafjallajökull,” he raps on “Guv’nor,” quickly adding “the volcano out of Iceland” to save listeners the trouble of Googling.

Perhaps he released less music because he had accomplished everything he set out to do upon reinventing himself. Or perhaps he found peace in his new home: Following a 2010 tour, he was denied reentry into the U.S.—unbeknownst to him, he was never naturalized after his parents relocated to the States shortly after he was born—so he took up residence in England with Jasmine and his five children. This was not necessarily a bad thing for a man who thrived through clandestine activity. “I have no friends here apart from the dudes at my record label, and I didn’t go to school with no one,” he told The Guardian in 2012. “Nobody knows me—I’m incognito.”

In 2017, tragedy struck DOOM again: He announced on Instagram that his son, King Malachi Ezekiel Dumile, had died at age 14. A cause of death was never revealed. In the years after, DOOM mostly stayed out of the public sphere. He made stray guest appearances on songs by Badbadnotgood and Tuxedo and released one collaborative full-length with Czarface, a side project of Wu-Tang’s Inspectah Deck. Occasionally, he’d post a throwback picture or announce some new products on his social media accounts, but he avoided interviews and offered few updates.

As news trickled out on New Year’s Eve that the masked man had passed away on Halloween, a sentiment emerged among his fans and other artists: DOOM may not have topped most traditional best-MCs lists, but to many he was among the best to ever do it. (The phrase “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” gets thrown around a lot when discussing mostly any respected artist who doesn’t sell a ton, but when Q-Tip said it about DOOM on Thursday, it may have been true.) DOOM leaves a legacy that goes beyond the albums, or the punch lines, or even the mask. In a genre that doesn’t give out many mulligans, he had arguably the greatest second act of anyone. His music is embedded in the DNA of underground hip-hop, influencing artists like Odd Future, Griselda, and virtually every loquacious, left-of-center rapper from the past two decades. And because of his longevity, he had an impact on everyone from 51-year-old RZA to 24-year-old Playboi Carti, the latter of whom shouted DOOM out on a track released just last week. Daniel Dumile built his image on a comic book persona, but people connected with the man as much as they did the myth.

But the myth is what initially hooked fans, and that begins with the mask. To DOOM, it represented more than just his story. That piece of metal stood for the underdog, outcast, innovator, and misunderstood outlaw. It’s why the Doomposter controversy never bothered him. “The Villain represents anybody. Anybody in here could wear the mask,” he said in 2011. “Male, female, any race. It’s about where you’re coming from in your heart. What’s the message and what you got to say.”

Maybe someday, someone else will try the mask on and prove him right. But until then, the man who made it famous is the one who matters most, even if he transcended the need for it.