Where to start with the prolific output of MF Doom
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek Obsession: MF Doom
Why it’s daunting: As with Madvillain partner (and fellow geek obsession) Madlib, the oeuvre of the rapper, producer, and all-around cult icon born Daniel Dumile but known to the world primarily as MF Doom (and now just plain Doom) can be daunting for newcomers, partially because of the sheer volume of his work, but also because of his propensity for releasing projects under so many different aliases that it can be hard for even die-hards to keep track of them all.
Over the course of his decades-long career as a rapper and producer, Doom has evolved so dramatically that fans of his MF Doom super-villain alter ego might not recognize his original incarnation as Zev Love X, the frontman for KMD, whose 1991 debut Mr. Hood spawned modest hits in “Who Me?” and “Peachfuzz.” As Zev Love X, Dumile was baby-faced and adorable, a skinny, boyish-looking kid who, in “Peachfuzz,” flirted sweetly with round-the-way girls who gave him the brush-off because he looked more like a boy than a man. Doom’s Afrocentrism and black nationalist convictions are at the core of Mr. Hood, but they’re expressed through D.A.I.S.Y. Age positivity and Day-Glo goofiness (in a foreshadowing of the pop-culture-crazed sampling that eventually dominated his production style, the album extensively quotes from Sesame Street and language-instruction tapes) rather than angry polemics.
Then a series of unfortunate events combined to transform the enigmatic rap icon from a fresh-faced, flirtatious, and guilelessly enthusiastic kid into a complicated, haunted adult. During the same week in 1993, Elektra Records dropped KMD and the rapper’s younger brother/groupmate DJ Subroc died after getting hit by a car. A grief-stricken, despondent Dumile entered a strange wilderness period—personally and professionally—and Elektra canceled the release of KMD’s follow-up album, Black Bastards. Hip-hop legend holds that the label was uncomfortable with its cover image of a racist “Sambo” caricature being hanged as well as its provocative title. Black Bastards went unreleased until 2000, by which point Doom was already well on his way to establishing himself as one of independent hip-hop’s most brilliant and iconoclastic forces.
Dumile all but disappeared from a hip-hop scene that had relegated him to the margins even before his curious disappearance. When the rapper-producer re-emerged at open-mic nights later in the decade, he wore a mask, called himself MF Doom (after the Marvel Comics super-villain Dr. Doom), and rapped in a raspy monotone that was a long way from the sing-song delivery he favored on KMD’s albums.
Also like Madlib, with whom he would make his magnum opus Madvillainy as the duo Madvillain, Doom has a sensibility that seems to encompass just about everything: old comedy albums, television shows, Shakespeare, Charles Bukowski, and just about anything else he comes across. (During one of his few vocal appearances on Take Me To Your Leader, which he released under the name King Geedorah, he raps of being a “sort of mellow type fellow / Who sometimes spazz on wife like Othello,” though his delivery is so speedy that it can be difficult to make out what he’s saying).
Doom’s vocabulary and wildly expansive frame of reference are particular marvels: He has a fondness for antiquated turns of phrase bound to have younger fans racing to the Internet to see just what the hell Doom is rapping about. (What other rapper would refer to his car as a “jalopy?”) That’s one of Doom’s great gifts: He’s never afraid to talk up to his audience, or risk losing them with references so obscure only a tiny fraction of his audience will catch them. Doom often seems to be making music primarily to amuse himself and his eternally restless intellect; that it also appeals to an increasingly large fan base is a nice bonus.
Possible gateway: Madvillain, Madvillainy (2004)
Why? MF Doom and Madlib arrived at similar places from opposite coasts and different backgrounds. KMD was sampling Melvin Van Peebles—who Madlib samples so extensively on his 2000 masterpiece The Unseen that the album is essentially a collaboration between the two men—all the way back on Black Bastards. But the commonalities between the two men go further than a shared appreciation for the godfather of both hip-hop and blaxploitation cinema. The two men are both unabashed hedonists with a pronounced affection for marijuana (on Madvillain’s “America’s Most Blunted,” Doom teams up with Madlib alter ego Quasimoto and issues one of rap’s most charming pro-legalization arguments when he raps, “Someday pray that he will grow a foreign barn full / Recent research shows it’s not so darn harmful”) and a wild sense of humor that leads them down some pretty demented paths.
Madvillainy captures MF Doom’s complicated, multifaceted personality in full, from the formative heartbreak of “Fancy Clown,” to the anti-war rhetoric of “Strange Ways,” with its psychedelic-rock hook. Doom and Madlib cavalierly disregard hip-hop orthodoxy: Their songs last only as long as they absolutely need to then Doom and Madlib are off to their next surreal tangent. Many of the album’s best songs (“Fancy Clown,” “Strange Ways,” “Curls,” and “Accordion) have running times of less than two minutes.
Madvillainy captures two gifted men operating at the apex of their abilities. Never one to leave one alone, Madlib re-mixed the entire album on 2008’s Madvillainy 2, but the endeavor was doomed from conception. With the exception of a few filler tracks highlighting other artists in Madlib’s orbit (Wildchild’s “Hardcore Hustle,” Stacy Epps’ “Eye”), Madvillainy is just about perfect; it’s both impossible and foolhardy to try to top perfection, though Madlib was certainly ambitious enough to try.
Next steps: 1999’s Operation: Doomsday was released on hip-hop tastemaker Bobbito Garcia’s tiny, influential independent label Fondle ’Em Records then quickly raced out of print, but it boasts an influence and importance that belies its modest sales. The album is a work of hip-hop necromancy that brought Doom back from the dead creatively and re-introduced him as a butter-smooth prankster poet spinning endlessly clever, dense, and pop-culture-filled rhymes over self-produced beats rooted in the plastic funk and R&B of the ’70s and ’80s.
With Operation: Doomsday, Doom didn’t just create a new persona accompanied by an irresistible new sound (though being a restless intellect, Doom’s sound has constantly evolved through the years), he created an endearingly homemade world stitched together from monster movies, comic books, cartoons, old records, and an imagination that knew no bounds. It was a profound creative rebirth whose constant highs (“Rhymes Like Dimes,” “Operation: Greenbacks,” “Who Do You Think I Am?”) laid down the blueprint for Doom’s creative revival.
Operation: Doomsday introduces MF Doom’s Monsta Island Czars posse and his attendant alter ego within the group, a flying three-headed monster modeled after King Ghidorah, a Japanese movie monster that tussled with Godzilla in B-movies, though Doom alternately spells the alter ego “King Ghidra” (on Operation: Doomsday) and “King Geedorah,” on his masterful and oft-overlooked 2003 album, Take Me To Your Leader. Even by Doom’s standards, Take Me To Your Leader is an odd project that examines the curious ways and customs of earthlings from the perspective of a supreme alien intelligence (or a demented trickster god). It’s a crazy sonic collage of an album that alternates between the comic and the tragic, and, in the case of the standout instrumental “One Smart Nigger,” radically re-conceives the tragedy that is our nation’s history of racism and genocide into button-pushing, nakedly provocative dark comedy. It’s like an alternate-dimension stand-up act in hip-hop form and a fascinating glimpse into its creator’s Technicolor, surround-sound id.
Take Me To Your Leader only appears to be random and tonally incoherent: Repeat listens reveal new layers of logic and cohesion each time. Doom doesn’t rap on many of the album’s tracks, leaving that duty to friends and affiliates like Hassan Chop (who unspools a harrowing autobiographical narrative rich in novelistic details in “I Wonder”), Lil’ Sci, ID 4 Winds & Stahhr (who contribute guest verses over the smoky candle-light jazz of “Next Levels”) and Trunks (who delivers ferocious battle raps over the science-fiction atmospherics of “Lockjaw.”) But every verse, bar, and thought reflects MF Doom’s vision.
If Take Me To Your Leader alternates between comedy and tragedy, MF Doom’s 2005 collaboration with Danger Mouse as Danger Doom (Doom’s creativity, alas, seldom extended to the bare-bones names he gave his many collaborations), The Mouse And The Mask is pure comedy. By this point, a certain level of commercial calculation had slipped into the rapper-producer’s career. The Mouse And The Mask represented a fusion of like-minded artists and entities: a rapper who named himself after a comic-book supervillain collaborating with an innovative super-producer who named himself after a British cartoon hero and an animation block revered by stoners, college kids, and the stoned at heart. But it also represented synergy between complementary brands. The Mouse And The Mask ushers Doom and Danger Mouse into Adult Swim’s absurdist universe, pairing the hip-hop supervillain with characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Space Ghost, and Sealab 2021.
Sometimes this synthesis is organic and awesome, as when the cast of Aqua Teen Hunger Force provides the hilariously irreverent (and gleefully offensive) chorus for the terrific “Sofa King,” and sometimes it’s clumsy. The album’s best tracks find Doom collaborating with peers instead of actual cartoon characters. The long-awaited pairing of MF Doom and Ghostface Killah (who have supposedly been working on a Madvillainy-style collaborative album for years now) lives up to sky-high expectations on “The Mask” while Cee-Lo adds a slinky hook to the sleek “Benzie Box” and Talib Kweli and Doom wax nostalgic over Saturday-morning-cartoon theme music on “Old School.” The Mouse And The Mask is a fun pop album, but some of the rapper’s anarchic wildness was lost in Doom’s unlikely transformation into a commercial force in underground hip-hop.
Where The Mouse And The Mask found Doom rhyming over Danger Mouse’s beats, 2004’s Mm..Food has Doom rhyming over his own beats in the first full-length album under the MF Doom moniker since 1999’s Operation: Doomsday. As the title conveys, it’s a loose concept album where all the song titles and many of the song concepts relate to culinary matters, but the loose concept is really just an excuse for some of Doom’s goofiest rhymes and trippiest sonic pastiches. Doom borrows extensively from his past for the production (some of the beats previously debuted in his multi-part Special Herbs series), but the disparate elements come together beautifully. Doom’s magpie aesthetic has always been rooted in his deep knowledge and understanding of the past. Why should Doom’s own gloriously spotted career be immune from his ingenious re-interpretation?
Where not to start: Even if Doom weren’t notorious for sending masked impersonators to perform shows for him (either a gleefully post-modern mind-fuck designed to explode conventional notions of authenticity or a phenomenal act of douchebaggery), the notion of a live album from him would seem a little suspect. In concerts, he has a tendency to perform songs along with a backing CD so that they are as close to the album versions as possible. Yet that somehow has not kept the masked man from releasing not one, but two ridiculously non-essential live albums: 2005’s Live From Planet X and 2010’s Expektoration, neither of which has much use beyond their status as de facto greatest-hits compilations that collect many of Doom’s best-loved songs.