The most cult of all rappers is called DOOM now, not MF Doom, and despite his reputation, he does sometimes let that mask slip.
Words Cyrus Shahrad
Photography Kristina Hill
Any bona fide celebrity worth his or her salt tends to have at least one red button subject guaranteed to bring interviews to a less than amicable end. Jennifer Aniston, for example, refuses to talk about the fact that she’s a solitary waif who sacrificed motherhood for eternally youthful hair and nails; Mariah Carey apparently storms out on anyone who dares mention Glitter, the trashy biopic that sped on her equally unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Hip hop writers tend to have an easier time when it comes to treading on eggshells; until last week my only exception was an interview with Kool Keith in which I was under strict instruction not to mention his much-mythologised spell in a New York mental hospital. Yet it came as no surprise to learn from his people that DOOM may be less than happy elaborating on the wilderness years that constitute the most formative and fascinating period of his career. To be honest, I was kind of expecting it.
Daniel ‘DOOM’ Dumile and ‘Kool’ Keith Thornton actually have a lot in common. Both were founding members of successful eighties and early nineties New York hip hop outfits (KMD and Ultramagnetic MCs respectively); both dealt with the eventual commercial failure of their crews by beginning solo careers in the late nineties under surreal comic book pseudonyms (MF Doom and Dr Octagon), which over time fractured into whole strings of separate super-villainous identities (including Viktor Vaughan and King Geedorah for Dumile, and Matthew, Mr Nogatco and, wait for it, Dr Dooom for Thornton). On top of that, both are known for rapping in streams of nonsensical abstract imagery littered with sexual and scatological humour, something that has left many interviewers keen to play psychiatrist to the voices in their heads.
As promised, Kool Keith hung up from his New York hotel room when I raised the subject of his legendary Bellevue pit stop. Yet madness per se isn’t the issue most likely to rile DOOM (I’m told the capitals are also mandatory on the track names and title of his latest album, BORN LIKE THIS., which also demands a full stop at the end). Instead, he’s apparently loathe to discuss the period immediately following the death of his younger brother, the prodigiously talented DJ Subroc, who produced KMD’s debut LP Mr Hood, released on Elektra in 1991, and the lion’s share of their follow-up, Black Bastards, before being fatally hit by a car while trying to cross the Long Island Expressway in 1993.
There then followed a blow of insult to injury that most soap writers would struggle to dream up. DOOM, working under the name Zev Love X at the time, had found inspiration for dealing with his brother’s death through his idol KRS-One – who refused to fold following the fatal shooting of Boogie Down Productions’ DJ Scott La Rock in 1987, coming through with the seminal By All Means Necessary the following year – and so forged ahead with Black Bastards against all odds, eventually submitting a finished version of the album to Elektra in early 1994. That April, just one month before its scheduled release, a Billboard columnist named Terri Rossi picked up a promo copy and wrote a shockingly ill-informed piece about the cover – a deliberately jarring sketch, drawn by Dumile himself, of a stereotypical ‘sambo’ being lynched, a deranged grin frozen on his face. Rossi denounced as racist an image that was, even to a half-wit, completely the opposite; Black Bastards was a more polemic and political record than its summery predecessor, and in hanging a stereotypical sambo KMD were invoking the death of the stereotype itself.
The damage, however, had been done. Keen to avoid a repeat of the media-feeding frenzy surrounding the release of Ice T and Body Count’s ‘Cop Killer’ in 1992 (which had led to vocal condemnation from then president George Bush Senior, among others), Elektra shelved the record and released KMD from their contract.
We’re now well into the period that DOOM officially prefers not to talk about. Which is a shame, because the following years – in which a broke and basically homeless Dumile wandered the streets of New York – created a hip hop superhero (or villain, depending on your perspective) with all the literary gravity of the radioactive accidents that gave birth to the likes of Dr Manhattan or the Hulk. And when DOOM finally returned to the world of men, like the comic book legends that preceded him, he found it largely unprepared for the uncanny powers he had taken on in exile.
The story goes that these were first displayed during an open mic night at New York’s Nuyorican Poets Café in 1997, when Dumile took to the stage with a stocking on his head to mask his face, stunning the crowd and savaging contenders with his abstract rhymes and intellectual, unconventional flow. Thus was born DOOM (then MF or ‘Metal Face’ Doom), who quickly attracted the attention of critics and label bosses alike, cornering the underground hip hop scene in what felt like a heartbeat and in 1997 unleashing Operation Doomsday, an album now widely regarded as a hip hop classic (the original 3,000 copies are collectors’ items). There then followed experimental and much-admired collaborations with producers Madlib (Madvillain’s Madvillainy, 2004) and Danger Mouse (DangerDoom’s The Mouse And The Mask, 2005).
And all the while DOOM refused to appear without a metal mask to hide his face – something that only added to the mounting interest and internet-fuelled debate surrounding his return to the limelight. Rumours abounded that he had been facially disfigured, or that it was a cunning ploy that allowed him to sit at home watching cartoons while an army of DOOMalikes filled in at live shows, video shoots or in-store record signings. For most, however, it was simply a painfully acute metaphor; the years following Subroc’s death and the split with Elektra had left DOOM emotionally rather than physically scarred. As one commentator succinctly put it: “Swearing vengeance on the industry that disfigured him, DOOM became one of hip hop’s most colourful folk heroes.”
DOOM’s voice, when finally I get him on the phone, is surprisingly bright and breezy, light years from that of his alter ego, which seems gruffer and more aggressive with each passing release. BORN LIKE THIS. is no different; DOOM spits and fumes, he rants and rambles, yet at the heart of the record is a fiercely poetic sensibility. By way of example, the track ‘Cellz’ samples an apocalyptic-sounding Charles Bukowski, whose paranoid inventory of a fearful future also gives the album its title.
“I definitely have a lot of affection for literary work,” says DOOM, “especially Bukowski. I like the way he speaks through his characters, the way he roots his stories in reality but puts a fictional spin on them. I think that allows the writer and the reader to step outside the human experience, because there’s only so much that a person can experience as a human. Speaking in character allows us to put a supernatural or otherworldly twist on things. I always write from an imaginary point of view, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t rooted in reality. It just allows me to take things to another level.”
His conduit for the creative process is, not surprisingly, the mask – from the stocking that first shielded his face at his open mic homecoming in 1997, to the heavyweight metal replica of Maximus’s mask from the film Gladiator, which has over the last eight years become as commonly associated with the 21st Century’s most innovative rapper as Russell Crowe’s ancient Roman freedom fighter. He now has two – one in chrome, one in stainless steel – and both are heavy, forcing him to keep his head up and regulate his breathing in a way that he compares to an athlete training with arm and leg weights. But the advantages, when it comes to getting in character, are far heavier.
“I’m not one of those method actors that keeps accidentally slipping into character at the dinner table. Once I take the mask off, it’s off. But at the same time, when I put it on, it’s on, you know what I’m saying? At that point it’s showtime, and sometimes even I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s like my whole identity shifts, like a king putting his crown on. It’s a symbolic item as much as a physical one.”
He says he occasionally puts the mask on at home and chases his kids around the living room – needless to say they love it – but for most the mask is as much symbolic a barrier to the ‘real’ DOOM as it is a gateway for Dumile. Few of those snapping up more recent albums are old enough to remember KMD, let alone Zev Love X; for most, the only face they have to put to tracks like DangerDoom’s ‘El Chupa Nibre’, or Madvillain’s mighty ‘All Caps’, isn’t really a face at all.
Perhaps fuelled by bitterness that DOOM refuses to let them get closer, lapsed fans air their grievances in online forums: DOOM uses the mask because he lip synchs on stage, some say; others complain that the person they saw perform wasn’t really DOOM at all. Both are issues that blew up following a string of disastrous shows in the summer of 2007, which saw the performer (assuming it was actually him) the subject of boos and thrown bottles. DOOM isn’t oblivious to his critics, and he’s aware that coming up and shaking the hand of a man in a metal mask takes real conviction – something he says he’s always quick to reward.
“I’ve got a lot of love for the crowd, and I’ll always play to whoever is there – whether they’ve been following my stuff from the KMD days or know me only by my last album. And the vibe is friendly, no matter what people say: it sometimes feels like the venue is filled with more family than fans.”
YouTube footage of the alleged deceptions continues to divide audiences and inspire no end of DOOM-bashing, but it’s hard to imagine the man on the other end of the line capable of such tactics. Affable, articulate and perpetually self-effacing, DOOM is a million miles away from the charmless, self-obsessed rap superstar as embodied by Kool Keith (who hung up on me at the first hint of a question he found compromising; DOOM, by comparison, phones me back apologetically after his mobile runs out of batteries). He’s also humble, casually brushing off suggestions that he’s found lasting success and a core credibility that most rappers would kill for.
“As far as I’m concerned I’m still on the outside looking in. Maybe that will change with this record – maybe it’ll give people something to put my name to and remember me by. Maybe not. I just try to stay positive: my focus isn’t really on commercial success or acceptance. Right now, each new record feels like the first one – sometimes I think I won’t be happy until I’ve made so many that I can’t count them anymore. Either way, I certainly don’t think I’ve reached my goal yet. I’m not sure I’ll even know how to recognise it when I do.”
For all that, DOOM clearly believes in his formula. The arena in which he finds himself is as fraught with peril as the one that imprisoned his masked gladiatorial predecessor, and DOOM has no intention of giving the music industry that burned him a chance to disfigure him for a second time.
“The key is to stay true to yourself: that way you know that whatever you put out will make sense and sound unique. The longer you stay on that path, the sooner people realise that you’re forging something new, and the sooner they understand that something important is happening. My rule is to stick to the music side of things and let the suits and ties worry about the numbers. Because any rapper who gets too tied up in the financial side of music making ends up being little more than a poster boy.”
And hip hop, says DOOM, has more than enough poster boys. It’s an understandable statement from one of modern music’s most stubborn non-conformists; any artist enigmatic enough to have been remixed by the likes of Four Tet, Kode9 and Thom Yorke – the latter an ardent fan who was originally scheduled to write this article – is clearly going to rail against what he himself calls “the shit my kids listen to on MTV”. More surprising, perhaps, is to hear him reflect fondly on the low ride bicycles, block parties and bubblegum summers of 1980s New York – and in particular the soulful, blissfully innocent hip hop that first inspired him and his brother to pick up microphones.
“I remember the pair of us, aged maybe 10 or 11, staying up until 2am to record the late night radio shows and see how the beats were rocking. There wasn’t even much in the way of rhyming back then – shit was mostly breakbeats with the occasional lyric on top – but we learned so much because everything was so raw and the music was developing so rapidly. Every time the show would finish we’d be sat there stunned, wondering what could possibly come next. After a while, forming KMD became the obvious way to answer that question for ourselves.”
Music, he says, is memory, and his audio scrapbook of those days is more vivid than any photograph album.
“I listen to those records we made and everything comes flooding in, as though I’ve been transported straight back to those days. And sometimes that’s not the easiest thing, because of course there were tough times along the way. But it’s all part of becoming who you are, and it all makes sense when the curtain comes down. The title of the record is BORN LIKE THIS.: no matter what you do, you were born to do it. Every atom in or out of existence is either in or out of existence for a reason, and once you accept that, you see that everything happening has already happened. I just follow the path: ups and downs, rocky roads and all. Because what else can I do?”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line, as though DOOM is directing this last question more to himself than anyone else. And in that moment, it feels as though I’ve finally caught a glimpse of his true face.