There’s a moment in the 2003 film Bomb the System that perfectly captures the magic of rapper and producer MF DOOM. The scene begins with Blest, an insular graffiti writer, sitting on a couch in a posh Manhattan club and bobbing his head as the song “Money Folder” plays from speakers. The woozy, tinny track doesn’t lend itself to the acoustics or optics of a club, but Blest smiles from ear to ear, mouthing the lyrics. As the camera slowly pans out and shows other clubbers to be less enthused, Blest’s bliss feels deviant, like he’s hearing something inaccessible to everyone else.
MF DOOM, whose October 31 death was publicized on New Year’s Eve by his wife, Jasmine Dumile, had that effect on people. Born Daniel Dumile (pronounced doom-a-lay) in London and raised between New York City and Long Island, MF DOOM’s intricate and playful rhymes, delivered in a breathy huff, seemed like utterings from another dimension. His songs, colorful reams of samples and images and non sequiturs, seemed to be sourced directly from his synapses—jumping from the mundane to the absurd to the melancholy with the nimblest adjustments in cadence or pronunciation. A common response to his music, among listeners and fellow rappers, was awe.
MF DOOM made a conscious effort to make his skills the focal point of his music, donning a mask for music videos, performances, interviews, and photo shoots. “It’s music that we’re selling—not my face,” he said in a 1998 profile. The mask, initially a stocking cap he wore over his face at open mics, was a countercultural pose. As rap took a turn toward conspicuous consumption in the form of shiny suits, million-dollar music video budgets, and glossy production, Dumile went in the opposite direction. Instead of superstardom, he pursued supervillainy, warping the origin story of Marvel Comics’ Dr. Doom into a goofy and delirious persona that “came to destroy rap.”
His 1999 debut album, Operation: Doomsday, is a monumental act of mythmaking, combining R&B, autobiography, and pop culture in a fever dream of sounds and textures. Full of humor and melancholia, the record channels a turn-of-the-millennium obsession with apocalypse while also seeing past it: “Definition ‘supervillain’: a killer who love children / One who is well-skilled in destruction, as well as building.” Instead of the slick futurism favored by his peers, DOOM offered a grimy purity. His music didn’t require a club, a car, or a setting; ears alone sufficed. For listeners fatigued by radio fare or simply curious about rap’s possibilities, this masked weirdo became a beacon.
His motives for spurning rap’s commercial explosion were personal as well as artistic. Before he was MF DOOM, he was Zev Love X, member of the teenage rap group KMD, which he formed with his younger brother, DJ Subroc. Affiliated with the Native Tongues Collective (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Brand Nubian), KMD offered a playful take on adolescence and city life. “Peachfuzz,” their first single, remains one of the most joyous and innocent rap songs ever recorded. “By the hairs of my chinny chin chin, gots many plus plenty / String by string I think I counts like twenty,” he raps, examining his youth rather than rushing to outgrow it.
MF DOOM lost his innocence abruptly. During the recording of KMD’s second album, Bl_ck B_st_rds, DJ Subroc was struck by a car and killed. Dumile was so devastated that he reportedly played the album at his brother’s funeral. Soon after, Elektra, the label KMD was signed to, declined to release the album, fearing controversy because of the cover art’s image of a Sambo figure being hanged. At that point, two Billboard columnists who had seen the artwork had already condemned it and the album’s lead single, “What a Nigga Know.” “Regardless of what the group was attempting to achieve with this imagery and the term, many in the black community will find them offensive,” wrote Havelock Nelson.
The image had been drawn by Dumile and was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. “It’s an idea being executed,” he said at the time. But Elektra, a subsidiary of Time Warner, which had faced boycotts over the Body Count song “Cop Killer,” was risk-averse, and the decision was final. Dumile left the music industry. When he returned with a mask, the implication was that this kind of corporate finger-wagging and arbitrary power was what MF DOOM was made to counter.
Or at least that’s the legend. MF DOOM was always cagey about what drew him back to music. In various interviews, he’s said that he never gave it up, that he faced homelessness and depression, and that he was simply taking time off to raise his son and piece together a recording budget. All of these things could be true, or none of them. Records show he spent some time in jail at one point; the charges are unclear. Given these gaps, instead of a tale of revenge, his career is best understood as a lifelong commitment to the bit. In the shadows of his personal demons and a genre wedded to garish materialism, MF DOOM built an eccentric fortress of solitude.
As his open-mic performances garnered interest and he started to book shows, the mask and its meaning evolved. In a few years he went from the stocking to a spray-painted Darth Maul mask to a deconstruction of the spiked helmet worn by Russell Crowe in Gladiator—cementing his connection to the pop culture he was obsessed with. None of the masks completely obscured his face, nor were they meant to. Rather than erecting a strict barrier between his public and private lives, the masks seemed to send him deeper into himself.
The resulting music, the bulk of it recorded between 2001 and 2005, became a scattered exploration of the self and of form. MF DOOM began to rap slower and more deliberately, his free associative verses at once nonsensical and exquisitely structured. “Goony goo goo loony koo-koo / Like Gary Gnu of New Zoo Revue / But who knew the mask had a loose screw?” he raps on “Rhinestone Cowboy.” He relished the mouthfeel of rhymes, the way the perfect phrasing could elicit both pleasure and amazement.
He also seemed to find joy in the way a beautiful rhyme could smuggle an ugly or unseemly idea, as on “Deep Fried Frenz,” a song about intimacy and its attendant risks: “Close, but really don’t know me / Mom, dad, comrade, peeps, brothers, sisters, duns, dunnies / Some come around when they need some money / Others make us laugh like the Sunday funnies.” For a stretch, he was prolific, recording as MF DOOM, Viktor Vaughn, King Gheedorah, Madvillain, and DANGERDOOM. And he produced as Metal Fingers, releasing a series of instrumentals and supporting other artists. The personas, distinguished by content more than form or voice, helped him untether from rap’s obsession with authenticity and also, subtly, embrace it. “I can make multiple characters, and they can even have conflicting views,” he said in a 2005 Wire profile. “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.” In his odd way, splitting himself apart made his art more whole.
Madvillainy, DOOM’s freeform collaboration with equally uncouth producer Madlib, is decidedly his best work. The record is brooding, hilarious, bullish, and spacey, the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle moment every artist aspires for and every listener cherishes. But in the wake of his death I’ve found myself revisiting all of his music, all of the tributaries and currents he charted and gave life to. From Earl Sweatshirt to Playboi Carti to Open Mike Eagle to Westside Gunn to Run the Jewels, MF DOOM endures.
His output slowed as he aged, especially after he was unexpectedly denied entry into the United States in 2010 and had to settle in London. On record, he likened the resettlement to exile. Compared to his earlier work, his final verses and appearances could feel drab and a bit weary, like he was tired of rapping. Maybe he was. His life was so masked, so obscured, it’s impossible to contextualize what might have ailed him or which changes in his life drove shifts in his art. In fact, that veil continues to drape him in death: The cause of his death has not been disclosed. But that enduring opacity is what makes his influence so resonant. MF DOOM found a way to turn obscurity into a superpower, turning listeners away from his face and toward his ideas. At his best, he didn’t use that power to browbeat his more popular counterparts. Instead, he challenged them to be more daring, more weird, more comfortable. He might have come to destroy rap, but he leaves behind a legacy of enrichment. I never knew a doomsday could be so fruitful.