# 05/01/21 - The Genius of MF DOOM in 6 Tracks
After the unabated chaos of the previous year, many of us were hoping 2021 might provide a ceasefire of sorts, but if the Gods were trying to send me a message in the nascent hours of January 1st, it wasn't one of appeasement. I woke, hungover, on the floor of a friend's apartment to a crushing text from my brother that simply read "MF DOOM died andy". DOOM (real name Daniel Dumile) is often referred to as "your favourite rapper's favourite rapper" but he was also your favourite robot's favourite rapper.
Though we only found out on New Year's Day, British-born Dumile actually passed away in October at age 49. For the uninitiated, it might seem strange that the death of one of the most revered MCs in the world could be kept secret for 2 months, but DOOM was hardly typical. He was rarely photographed without a mask on, only did a handful of interviews, sometimes sent body doubles to perform in his place and had numerous monikers including:
- MF DOOM
- Viktor Vaughn
- King Geedorah
- Zev Love X
- Metal Fingers
- Madvillain (with Madlib)
- Danger Doom (with Danger Mouse)
- Doomstarks (with Ghostface Killah)
- JJ Doom (with Jneiro Jarel)
- NehruvianDoom (with Bishop Nehru)
In this article I will wax lyrical about the best lyricist on wax, and while it's impossible to capture the sprawling brilliance of DOOM in 6 tracks, these are some personal favourites and are a good place to start for new listeners.
# Figaro - Madvillain
The collaborative project Madvillain features hip-hop juggernauts MF DOOM and producer Madlib operating at their creative zeniths. Somehow Madvillainy, their only release, surpasses the sum of its substantial parts and is widely (and correctly) regarded as one of the greatest rap records of all time. As with most of DOOM's projects, Madvillainy is a concept album centred around a comic book villain and is bursting with kaleidoscopic samples, stoned erudition, off-kilter beats and labyrinthine lyricism. The sheer number of ideas here is staggering, but none of them overstays their welcome with the average track lasting only 2 minutes. I could really have chosen to feature any track from Madvillainy, but I went with Figaro on the strength of the following stanza:
It's too hot to handle, you got blue sandals
Who shot ya? Ooh got you new spots to vandal?
Do not stand still, boast yo' skills
Close but no krills, toast for po' nils, post no bills
Coast to coast Joe Shmoe's flows ill, go chill
Not supposed to overdose No-Doz pills
The effortless, almost stream-of-consciousness flow of this extract belies its dense technicality. There are references to Biggie Smalls, "Ooh! Media" billboards ripe for graffiti and No-Doz pills as well as riffs on the phrases "Close But No Cigar" and "Joe Shmoe". While most rappers are content to rhyme the last word of each line, DOOM somehow manages to rhyme almost every single syllable in this passage. The rest of the song is equally quotable with gems like "everything that glitter ain't fish scale" and "they don't know their neck shine from Shinola".
# All Outta Ale - MF DOOM
It can be difficult to articulate the genius of MF DOOM since at first glance his work can paradoxically overwhelm (lyrically) and underwhelm (in delivery). On the latter point, it wouldn't be accurate to describe his vocals as uncharismatic but they were often dry, unadorned and at times monotonal. He also tended to stick to a fairly simple rhyming scheme and rarely deviated from a laid-back cadence. The effect is that some of DOOM's best punchlines, wordplay and references can go unnoticed through multiple listens. All Outta Ale was like that for me. This track contains one of my favourite lines, but it was only after about a year that I realised what he was actually saying:
One for the money, two for the better green
DOOM had an incredible vocabulary and a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure pop culture which he referenced masterfully. I've never come across a rapper who found so much delight in putting words together in unorthodox ways and another notable example of his linguistic contortion is in the song Guv'nor by JJ DOOM, where he somehow works in a reference to an Icelandic volcano...
Catch a throatful from the fire vocal
Ash and molten glass like Eyjafjallajökull
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# Vaudeville Villain - Viktor Vaughn
While we are on the subject of esoteric references, in Vaudeville Villain DOOM (as Viktor Vaughn) name drops Dan Aykroyd and a Richard Wright book before finishing the song with this couplet:
Like a beef scene that leave the oo-ey smokin'
Or between Hoktuo Shinken and Nanto Suichō Ken
I had to Google it, but apparently, Hokuto Shinken and Nanto Suichō Ken are martial arts styles from the anime Fist of the North Star. The guy loved cartoons and most of his alter-egos were plays on comic book characters (e.g. Viktor Vaughn and MF DOOM are both derived from Marvel supervillain Doctor Victor von Doom). I've included this faux-autobiographical track to showcase DOOM's remarkable ability to build ineffaceable characters.
Viktor the director flip a script like Rob Reiner
The way a lotta dudes rhyme their name should be "knob shiner"
For a buck, they'd likely dance the Jig or do the Hucklebuck
To Vik it's no big deal, they're just a buncha knuckle-fucks
In interviews, DOOM often likened himself more to a writer than a rapper and I have always found this distinction illuminating. When I think of parallels between him and other artists, I do naturally gravitate towards authors rather than musicians and in particular, I see numerous analogues with one of my favourite writers, Thomas Pynchon. Both were intensely private people, were unfathomably well-read, blended high and low culture in their work and crafted language in singularly beautiful and ingenious ways.
# Monster Zero - King Geedorah
DOOM's talent on the microphone sometimes overshadowed his production work, but he was a formidable beat-maker in his own right. Aside from self-producing most of his tracks as MF DOOM, he also released 10 instrumental albums called "Special Herbs" under the alias Metal Fingers. Dumile was a crate-digging minimalist who focused on letting great samples soar and, in keeping with his enigmatic lyrics, was well-known for using obscure audio from sources such as old radio shows and Scooby-Doo VHS tapes. One beguiling instrumental named Arrow Root even sparked an online treasure hunt (opens new window) to track down the original audio.
Monster Zero is an intricate audio collage produced by DOOM as King Geedorah and tells the story of the arrival of a space monster (also called King Geedorah) on Earth. It's another example of DOOM's creative flair and world-building virtuosity.
# Crosshairs - DANGER DOOM
Did I mention the dude was goofy as hell? For all the playful braggadocio, DOOM was clearly a nerd at heart and could flit between gasconading and Star Trek references gracefully - a contradiction that overflowed into his signature look of reading glasses over the metal face mask. Crosshairs is from the record "THE MOUSE & THE MASK", a hilarious collaboration with Danger Mouse peppered with cameos from Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Yes really. Another example of DOOM operating in clown mode is his beloved album "MM FOOD" (an anagram of MF DOOM) which is a collection of tracks thematically linked by, you guessed it, food. Against the odds, these projects somehow avoid contrivance and contain some of DOOM's best material.
# Doomsday - MF DOOM
While it often comes filtered through cartoonish samples, dense double entendres and zany character studies, there is an undeniable emotional resonance to all of DOOM's work. The little we do know about his life is blemished by tragedy including the death of his brother DJ Subroc in 1993 (with whom he founded his first group KMD), his exclusion from the United States after a European tour (and multiple year separation from his family) and the passing of his son in 2017. Doomsday comes from DOOM's 1999 debut solo album "Operation: Doomsday" and finds the rapper at his most reflective. The chorus mentions his brother's death and even uses his real/government name:
On Doomsday, ever since the womb
‘Til 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?
Halfway through writing this article, I realised I was incorrectly using the present tense conjugation of several verbs and that was when the finality of DOOM's passing really hit me. He no longer raps, writes or produces; he rapped, wrote and produced. We have lost a riddle of an artist who traversed the dark and the light, who donned a mask, not as an attention-seeking gimmick but to focus the audience on his work, who weaved intricately crafted poetry through a blunted understated flow and who created whole worlds with little more than a microphone and a sampler. Daniel Dumile - purist, storyteller, punk, genius, supervillain.
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