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The MF DOOM Syllabus

The masked hip-hop legend, whose death at age 49 was announced on New Year’s Eve, was never fully revealing, but he gave us a lot to work with. Our staff breaks down the essential pieces of the Daniel Dumile experience.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

MF DOOM—hip-hop legend, masked supervillain, and revered human—died last year, his wife, Jasmine, revealed in an Instagram post on New Year’s Eve. Our obituary looking back at his life and legacy ran late last week. Today, we celebrate all that made him special—from his early albums to his quietly revolutionary production to the Nike SB Dunks made in his honor.


KMD and Subroc

Before the mask, before the avalanche of supervillain aliases, before the intergalactic notoriety, he was a mere-mortal teenager in a rap crew with his brother. That was enough. Born in the U.K. and bred in seedy ’80s New York, young Daniel Dumile, then known as Zev Love X, parlayed a striking verse (and his titular coinage of a classic bit of rap lingo) on the 1989 3rd Bass hit “The Gas Face” into a record deal for KMD, his trio with his two-years-younger brother, Dingilizwe, a.k.a. DJ Subroc. They started as a graffiti trio, crucially. The name stood for “Kausin’ Much Damage” at first, but the way those three letters looked together was more important: As Dumile would explain much later, “It just looks ill when you write it.” Back then that was enough, too.

KMD, then rounded out by the rapper Onyx the Birthstone Kid, debuted with 1991’s Mr. Hood, a good record that portended great things: playful but dense, funky but ramshackle, lighthearted (see the minor giggling-girls hit “Peachfuzz”) but streetwise. Though Subroc gets a showcase or two, Zev Love X is the dominant emcee, and he sounds so young, so buoyant, an upstart rookie who’s nonetheless learning ugly lessons fast. On “Who Me?” he grapples with the ugliest of racial stereotypes: “Lips and eyes, dominant traits of our race / Does not take up 95 percent of one’s face / But still I see, in the back, two or three / Ignorant punks pointing at me.” So much of the world, it seemed, already saw him as a villain.

And then, unimaginable tragedy: On April 23, 1993, while crossing the Long Island Expressway on foot, Subroc was struck by a car and killed. A devastated Zev was left to finish KMD’s thornier second album, Black Bastards, himself, and then watch helplessly as the group’s label, Elektra, refused to release it, in large part due to the cover image of a Sambo figure in a noose, which represented Zev’s attempts to vanquish those ugly stereotypes once and for all. Black Bastards wasn’t widely heard until 2001, after Zev had donned the mask and started the supervillain era in earnest; it’s a rawer and more combative record, not unplayful exactly, but audibly darkened by its circumstances. It’s a complicated thrill now to hear Zev and Subroc trading verses on the swaggering and furious “What a Nigga Know?” They know what they’re up against; they have no idea how little time they have left.

De La Soul’s first two records followed a similar arc, the sunny skepticism of Three Feet High and Rising dead-ending into the stormy contempt of De La Soul Is Dead. But KMD were on their own wavelength, and haunted by their own demons. Subroc was Zev’s whole world, his “Siamese twin.” And going forward, the man reborn MF DOOM—for starters—just wanted to watch the world burn. —Rob Harvilla


DOOMStarks

The pairing of DOOM and Ghostface Killah seemed so natural in hindsight: Both rose to fame donning a mask, and both were obsessed with comics. (Ghostface, however, preferred the hero to DOOM’s villain.) But still, it was somewhat shocking when the pair actually linked on wax in 2005. DOOM was an underground hero who didn’t work outside of his clique much; Ghost was the most popular member of one of the biggest groups in rap history—and he was signed to Def Jam. It seemed like a backpack-rap fan’s fever dream. But it came to fruition in 2005, on The Mouse and the Mask, DOOM’s Adult Swim–sponsored collab with Danger Mouse. Appropriately, it was titled “The Mask.”


The next year, Ghostface used four DOOM-produced beats on his 2006 classic Fishscale, and then two more on its leftovers disc, More Fish. (The best DOOM-produced GFK song of the era, “Charlie Brown,” was sadly a sample-clearance casualty.)

The duo would team up many more times over the years—on DOOM’s Born Like This and Ghost’s album with Badbadnotgood, on J. Dilla beats and Grand Theft Auto tracks. All of it seemed to be leading up to a full-length collab—it even had a rumored name, Swift and Changeable. But sadly, it never came to pass, at least during DOOM’s lifetime. If we’re lucky, there’s more in the vaults. If there isn’t, however, fans should still be thankful that the pairing that made too much sense on paper also made sense on a song together. —Justin Sayles

Fondle ’Em Records and the Early DOOM Singles

Daniel Dumile was way ahead of the internet. After the tragic 1993 death of his brother and KMD coconspirator Dingilizwe “DJ Subroc” Dumile, the man who would be DOOM went into self-imposed exile. When he reemerged four years later, it was in disguise—he had assumed a new identity as MF DOOM, a masked, monstrous supervillain of the rap world. The erstwhile Zev Love X’s first release, a 12″ that featured future classics “Dead Bent,” “Gas Drawls,” and “Hey,” has virtually no precedent.


If Kool Keith carved a tunnel to the rap underground, DOOM crawled in and built a subterranean nation-state. Crude, strange, and seemingly wrongfooted, those early DOOM records subverted hip-hop’s contemporary vanguard with circadian wordplay and what would become known as a characteristic insolence. There was nothing shiny or lavish or indulgent about “Dead Bent,” with its submerged Isaac Hayes sample and Dumile’s subdued, bric-a-brac rhyme style—halting, funny, and unlike anything I’d ever heard. It was new and sounded as if it had been literally unearthed from the dirt or some sewer lair. In fact, the 12″ came courtesy of Fondle ’Em Records, a boutique label created by the New York radio host Bobbito Garcia and home to underexposed talents who appeared on their program, 89.9’s The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show.

The record was historic but not easy to find, at least not for 16-year-old me. I didn’t come upon DOOM’s music until 1999, in the early days of filesharing, and world wide web rap waystations like Sandbox Automatic and Hip-Hop Site. By then, I had learned about Dumile, KMD’s shelved Black Bastards album, and Subroc’s death less than 25 miles from my house on Long Island where I learned about most things: on message boards. Just as DOOM culled his identity and world-building ethos from comic books, his brand of hip-hop had a multiverse mentality. DOOM was anonymous and mischievous and he traded in rare goods that seemed illicit and outside the boundaries of the traditional music industry. Of course he was an internet favorite, a modest champion who emerged as the culture became more accessible online. “Dead Bent” ends with the ominous words “Stay tuned for more spine-tingling adventures of…” Didn’t have to tell me twice. —Sean Fennessey

The Easy-Listening Production

For a genre that broke all the rules, hip-hop was awfully prescriptive when it came to production in the late ’90s. Beatmakers dug deeper into their crates for samples, but mostly settled on the soul, jazz, and rock records that had defined the Golden Age. You could sample an ’80s record, but it would most likely be considered a sell-out move. After all, Puffy made David Bowie’s most commercial record somehow even more commercial-sounding. Independent hip-hop should’ve been freeing—the stakes were low, the label heads were the artists’ buddies in most cases—but most underground producers didn’t veer far from the Pete Rock or DJ Premier models. And then along came DOOM.


The brilliance of DOOM’s production is that he could recontextualize these glossy sounds and make them sound positively gutter. “Rhymes Like Dimes” turned a late Quincy Jones song inside out. “Gas Drawls” latched onto Steely Dan’s “you were very high” lyric. “Doomsday” sampled fucking Sade. None of this sounded glossy—in fact, with DOOM’s stuttering snares and snip-and-rearrange style, it sounded messy. Of course, it was beautiful as well—a collage of synths and slick bass that sounded like it had been buried under a mountain of dust and exhumed by some who didn’t care about your notions of “commercial” or “underground.” It matched his drunken, rhyme-twisting flow, but soon other artists wanted in, and he’d provide backdrops for a handful of other rappers

There’s a lot to dig through—here’s an 82-track collection of his production—and he had a tendency to recycle his best work. (The one disappointment of the early Ghostface collabs was that those beats had appeared elsewhere in DOOM’s catalog.) But there’s a lot of DOOM in modern hip-hop. When you hear ASAP Rocky flip an S.O.S. Band song into a cloud-rap anthem, that’s the spirit of the Villain. When you realize that Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees” is built on a Beach House sample, you should probably praise him. He may not be the most influential person to ever jump behind the boards, but in his own way, DOOM helped to loosen up the straps on the Jansport and make hip-hop production just a little less traditional. —Sayles


The SB Dunks

To this day, I still don’t know how I own a pair of MF DOOM Dunks. I copped a pair through some sketchy online retailer in high school, and the second they arrived, I scanned each and every single detail of the sneaker to make sure they weren’t fakes. By some miracle, they were real.

The almost-mythological sneaker was released in the summer of 2007. It was only the second hip-hop collaboration that Nike’s SB division had ever done. (The first was with De La Soul.) Everything about the sneaker perfectly encapsulated the energy and spirit of DOOM: The color is described as Black/Black-Midnight Fog, there’s a DOOM logo at the top of the tongue, each sole features an image of the supervillain, and the lace clip even spells out SPR-VLN. It has a dark, brooding, villainous vibe, just as the way DOOM did on mic.

As a high schooler who was freshly into the sneaker game and just starting to know about the Villain, I don’t think I truly appreciated the sneakers. I wore them nearly every day! It pains me now to look back at that naive time, because now I don’t touch them unless it’s to clean them or admire them. The MF DOOM dunks are currently priced on StockX for around $3,000, an absurd yet somehow fair price for these holy grails. My pair will never be sold, partially because of the wear and tear, but mainly because of what they mean to me. I was a wide-eyed kid when I bought them, unaware of the impact that MF DOOM brought to hip-hop and everything else he touched. Now I’m in a stage of reverence and appreciation for everything Daniel Dumile gave to us, and that same reverence applies to the sneakers that embody the spirit of the metal face villain. —Sean Yoo

Madvillain

The blunt-hazed partnership of DOOM and jazz-sample-flipping virtuoso Madlib only generated one proper album: 2004’s Madvillainy. A “sequel” came four years later, but it was a remix reinterpretation of its predecessor; despite reams of reports over the years, a proper follow-up remains elusive, like a backpacker’s Detox.

Good thing, then, that the lone LP remains such a rich and rewarding text—a 22-track hieroglyph coated with a thick layer of cosmic dust, crammed to the gills with crate-digging genius and DOOM’s inimitable brand of wordplay. (As legendary MC Mos Def once said, “He rhymes as weird as I feel.”) Nearly 20 years later, the record still sounds like two kindred spirits stepping out of time and space, creating a sound and a moment wholly their own.

Madlib’s voracious appetite for arcane loops and deft hand at the controls stitched together the fabric of a new reality; Madvillainy’s sample sources include ’60s jazz, ’70s soul, Frank Zappa, the soundtracks of Hawaii Five-0 and Ironside, and dialogue from Citizen Kane and Street Fighter II. DOOM melds heart-on-his-sleeve introspection with street-corner bravado, jam-packing every line with references, internal rhymes, and double entendres (a writing technique he once compared to hunting for triple word scores in Scrabble). He covers the whole thing in a supervillain’s cloak and somehow never comes off corny.

Some tracks, like “Operation Lifesaver,” produce laugh-out-loud punch lines. Others, like “Strange Ways,” make stirring statements about state-sponsored violence. It all sparkles, thanks to the technical prowess of one of the most gifted producers of the last quarter-century, and of a performer willing to cop to dressing bummy but unwilling to take a back seat to any rapper in the game: In “Figaro,” he’s “the clever nerd, the best MC with no chain that you ever heard.”

When I revisited Madvillainy this weekend, “Accordion” stuck with me most, partly because that Daedelus sample and the snap of the drums sounded just as futuristic to me as they did in March of 2004. Mostly, though, it’s how DOOM kicks it off knowing his day’s coming: “Living off borrowed time, the clock tick faster / That’ll be the hour they knock the slick blaster … I-C-E cold / Nice to be old.” He was 33 when Madvillainy came out; he was 49 when he died. That’s not old, even in the context of an art form where the influence of a 17-year-old record can reverberate through multiple generations of up-and-comers.

“I can see how [Madvillainy] may have influenced a lot of these artists, but I don’t hear it when I hear their songs,” DOOM told SPIN in 2019. “I haven’t heard anything that sounds like us.” Me neither. —Dan Devine

The “Figaro” Demo

The Madvillain demos appeared on the internet some time in 2003 after Madlib leaked them himself. They were raw and unpolished even by DOOM’s and Madlib’s standards, but fans devoured them, downloading copies off LimeWire, Soulseek, and every other since-forgotten file-sharing service. (DOOM referenced this slyly a year later on the full album when he rapped, “Had your fam saying, ‘Please make me a dub.’”)

The song titles are different, but most of what you get on the 12-track, 36-minute leak is what made it onto Madvillainy, aside from some different interludes or slightly altered lyrics. But one song feels radically different in its demo form.

That’s the original version of “Figaro.” It’s faster than the official one—the sample is at a higher pitch, and DOOM feels like he’s racing through his verse. It’s the version I fell in love with and the song I was most excited to hear when I ripped the plastic off the Madvillainy CD. The final song ended up being somewhat of a disappointment for me. Today, I’m not sure the OG is actually superior: DOOM sounds more villainous on the album, and the slower sample comes off as a bit more natural. But it’s worth revisiting in 2020 as a reminder of both the hype that preceded Madvillainy and the way superfans consumed music in the pre-streaming era. —Sayles

Danger Doom and Adult Swim

There’s very little about 2005’s The Mouse and the Mask that should’ve worked. Backed by Cartoon Network’s mature-programming block Adult Swim, the album partnered the enigmatic MF DOOM with Danger Mouse to make songs about mid-aughts stoner cartoon staples—Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Family Guy, Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law. DOOM was a year removed from the dour transcendence of his Madlib-produced masterpiece, Madvillainy. Danger Mouse was a year away from Gnarls Barkley infamy and still best known for the critic bait that was 2004’s Jay-Z and Beatles mash-up project, The Grey Album.

Absurdist, goofy, and a tad maniacal, The Mouse and the Mask is of a time when internet culture transitioned DOOM from cultural outlier to a few miles closer to the center. The man who created a personality based on a Fantastic Four villain was about to give rise to plenty of sons (Lil B, Odd Future, Joey Badass), and Danger DOOM was a chance to take a low-stakes victory lap. There are skits of anthropomorphic meatballs and soda cups, enough cartoon references to fill a Hanna-Barbera convention, and playfully kinetic beats. But at the center is DOOM, who basks in the nostalgia of years long gone. On album standout “The Mask” featuring Ghostface Killah, DOOM introduces himself to the world when that wasn’t even necessary. “Head on straight, mask on crooked / Exit stage left with the cash gone, took it,” he raps. In essence, that was always DOOM, moving too fast to fix the mask and forever disappearing before he could outstay his welcome. —Charles Holmes

MF Grimm

Grimm’s a forgotten figure in hip-hop history, but the artist formerly known as the Grimm Reaper is essential to the MF DOOM story. DOOM was living in Grimm’s basement when he recorded Operation: Doomsday; Grimm fed DOOM samples and executive produced the record. The duo would release a collaborative EP and a Grimm album produced by DOOM, and they were the central figures in the Monsta Island Czars (M.I.C.) collective. But Grimm produced some excellent music on his own. He also has one of the most fascinating backstories in the genre’s history.

In 1994, after recording the music for what would’ve been his debut album, Grimm was shot by rival drug dealers, leaving him in a coma. He wasn’t expected to survive, and much of his music was either lost or stolen. While he lived, he was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Shortly afterward, he began recording again, releasing music on Bobbito’s Fondle ’Em Records before founding his own label, Day by Day Entertainment. He’d eventually re-record those lost songs and release them on a 2005 compilation called Scars and Memories, which sounds like a great lost ’90s hip-hop record. The title track was written and recorded immediately after he emerged from the coma.


In the early 2000s, after experiencing modest indie-rap success, he was convicted on narcotics-conspiracy charges. While on bail before he began his sentence, he recorded an entire album in 24 hours. It was released in 2002 as The Downfall of Ibliys: A Ghetto Opera. He wouldn’t hear it until he was released from prison a few years later.

DOOM’s star rose considerably during Grimm’s incarceration. When Grimm came home, the two had a falling out—perhaps over some business dealings, perhaps, as some have suggested, DOOM’s subtle M.I.C. diss on 2005’s The Mouse and the Mask. (Our boy called them “midgets into crunk,” which wasn’t exactly scathing, but was still pretty damn disrespectful.) In 2006, Grimm released a 60-song (!!) triple album called American Hunger. The final song was aimed at his one-time partner. He called it “The Book of Daniel”—as in DOOM’s government name, Daniel Dumile. This diss wasn’t subtle. And it was, in fact, scathing.


DOOM and Grimm would quietly bury the hatchet in the years following American Hunger. And while they wouldn’t release any more music together during DOOM’s lifetime, Grimm would shout-out DOOM several times and speak freely about their relationship in a 2019 Reddit AMA. (His favorite sneakers: DOOM’s SB Dunks.) These days, Grimm—whose government name is Percy Carey—is an Eisner Award–nominated comic book writer. It seems appropriate that a figure instrumental in DOOM’s early success would choose that line of work. —Sayles

His “Rock Co.Kane Flow” Verses

“Rock Co.Kane Flow” is not technically an MF DOOM song but it is his, if that makes sense. Sandwiched a few months in between the release of his two artistic peaks, Madvillainy and MM.. Food, DOOM’s guest verse on the De La Soul track is an unrivaled display of his nefarious métier. “From the top of the key for 3—Villain!” he opens his first verse, and from there the lessons ensue. As with so many of his exploits, beneath each jab lies a trap door holding alternate truths. “And still owe bills, pay dues forever,” DOOM boasts, before slyly tying off the couplet with the perfectly imperfect “Slay youths when it comes to who’s more cleverer.” At 33, when the track dropped, he was in control, not just of his word choice or his rhyme structure but of language itself. Toward the end of each vocalist’s performance on the song, the operatic background and thumping drums that ground their displays are increasingly chopped until they form a rapid cadence. DOOM takes it all in stride: “For fam like the Partridges / Pardon him for the mix-up,” he croaks, then cuts “Battle for your Atari cartridges or put your kicks up / It’s a stickup.”

It had not always been like this. For as much as DOOM was a conduit of the trappings and cultural mythmaking of Golden Age hip-hop, his rise was equally tied to his initial expulsion from the genre. “Eat your teams for sure / The streets sure seem rude,” he is quick to remind us on “Rock Co.Kane Flow.” It’s how Zev Love X, whose sophomore album was shelved by Elektra a few months after his brother and rhyme-partner, DJ Subroc, perished in car crash; reverted to Daniel Dumile, and spent years in an exile spread between prison and his wife’s couch; and was then, finally, reborn as DOOM, destroyer of worlds. Caught between moments and ravaged by tragedy, there emerged a villain—a villain to root for, a villain to stand in awe of—cloaked in anonymity, metal faced. That was the real trick of MF DOOM; he made such beauty out of horror. —Lex Pryor

Viktor Vaughn and “Can I Watch?”

I was a kid who watched every superhero cartoon he could find growing up. So MF DOOM’s music was a match made in heaven for me—especially as I dug deeper into his discography while I was in college and learned of his different supervillain personas. The most interesting DOOM alter ego is Viktor Vaughn, a teenage mad scientist from another dimension with a more reckless mindset than the older and wiser DOOM.

Listening to DOOM’s first album as Viktor Vaughn, 2003’s Vaudeville Villain, for the first time was an overwhelming experience. Over futuristic, almost extraterrestrial-sounding beats produced by King Honey, Heat Sensor, and others, DOOM raps of wild experiences like time traveling to sell cocaine and uses enough double entendres to keep a rap nerd on Genius for days. And to make things even more complicated, he writes these stories in the third person, forcing the listener to interpret if the “he” the narrator speaks of is DOOM, Viktor Vaughn, or another character in the stories.

“Can I Watch?” is the first song on Vaudeville Villain that didn’t require a rewind and comb through of the lyrics word by word. There’s no time machine, no real ambiguity, or double entendres to decipher. The villainy of Vik is right in your face, and in an album that also features lyrics about talking to the streets while wearing a spacesuit, it’s surprisingly grounded in reality. On “Can I Watch?,” Vik is tryna get some, like many teenagers. In this rap duet, Vik and Apani B. (playing the role of Nikki) trade verses while telling the story of what could be a budding romance. The only problem is Vik grows impatient in his pursuit of sexual conquest.

If somethin’ don’t give, I’ll be forced to ignore her
Gettin’ on my last nerves, forget it
All this talking shiddit and V ain’t even hit it yet
It’s uncharacteristic of the vet

Vik fumbles at the 5-yard line when he calls Nikki a ho. All he had to do was shut up and get out his own way, but like many teenage boys, he put his foot in his mouth. The real villainy of it all comes in how he reacts to Nikki’s understandable rage toward him. When she says the unforgettable line “I’d rather masturbate than fuck with Vik Vaughn” doused in robotic effects, Vik responds “let me watch” like the truly toxic villain that teenaged boys filled with testosterone can be.

What makes this song special—like so much of DOOM’s discography, regardless of the persona he plays—is his ability to spread his characters’ personality across the page with such wit. DOOM lived in the shadows, pretending to be a supervillain, but he gave us a sense of who he was better than many of the rappers who hide in the spotlight. —Jonathan Kermah

The Masks

The original DOOM mask wasn’t even a mask. When he reemerged in the late ’90s following the death of Subroc and his exile from the industry, DOOM wore stockings over his head. Then came the interim masks, including one reappropriated from a Halloween costume. Eventually famed graffiti artist Lord Scotch would help him make one out of a prop from the movie Gladiator. And he wouldn’t take it off in public for anyone—even when he was eating chicken wings.

But while the mask became an essential part of his brand—his website carries a variety of them, all of which are now sold out—DOOM always claimed it represented more than just him. “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.” That may be true, but until someone proves that to be the case, there will only be one Villain. —Sayles