The following years saw the group’s once bright fortunes turn drastically. In 1993, Subroc was hit by a car and killed. Taking a page from KRS-One and his reaction to Scott La Rock’s untimely death, DOOM completed their sophomore album and submitted it to the label.
In the early ’90s, the influence of the Parents Music Resource Center—the PMRC, the group responsible for introducing parental-advisory labeling on music product—and the controversy surrounding “Cop Killer,” the incendiary song released on Sire/Warner Bros. by Ice-T’s group Body Count, shook parent company Time Warner. When KMD’s satiric album title, Black Bastards, and DOOM’s cover art, a “Little Black Sambo” caricature hanging from a noose, drew the attention of Billboard magazine’s “Hot Rap Singles” chart manager Terri Rossi, things came to a boil. In a vitriolic essay, Rossi managed to invert the group’s pro-Black concept and find KMD and their label guilty of bigotry. Elektra dropped them like a hot bean pie, and Dumile soon found himself near homeless and broke on the streets of New York.
Creativity often blossoms in hard times, and, in these dark days, Dumile began creating a scheme that would eventually bring him worldwide attention. But first he had to get heard. On the advice of his old friend Jorge Alvarez, who had recorded as Kurious in the KMD days, Dumile contacted their old manager Bobbito Garcia and played him some music. “I had managed KMD, briefly, in 1993,” Garcia reveals. “I just tried getting them shows. It wasn’t like I was up at Elektra screaming on people.” When Garcia heard the MF DOOM tapes in 1997, he quickly came to a verbal agreement to release the material on his completely collaborative Fondle ’Em label, on which artists received a straight fifty percent of profits and kept their masters.
“DOOM and I put out four 12-inches together,” says Garcia, “and it culminated in the release of [Operation:] Doomsday, which, for the ’90s indie era, was conceivably a top five album on anybody’s chart, along with the Company Flow and the Juggaknots LPs. I had never done any type of artwork on any release, but I felt like Doomsday deserved it. So I got Lord Scotch, aka KEO, an old-school graffiti writer, to do graphics.
“All the stuff that was on Doomsday was very rough,” Garcia continues. “No forty-eight-track, no digitally mastered, none of that. DOOM gave me songs; I just put them out. It was that simple. I think three thousand copies were initially pressed [of Doomsday], which, for an indie album, was great. We had no radio, no press, no nothing.”
Since then, Dumile has ridden a much-deserved renaissance, becoming a prolific rapper and producer, known as much for his baroque, interlocking rhymes as for his sturdy beats. His numerous aliases and frequent forays with identity-obscuring collaborators like Madlib, Danger Mouse, and Ghostface have provided ample fodder for fans, as well as a burgeoning discography.
I spoke to him as he was in his studio finishing his latest solo release, Born into This.
Do you have people you can play stuff for, or is it you in the lab, and that’s it?
It’s me in the lab, pretty much. My engineer, Morgan Garcia, I got to shout him out. He is my other adult ears. Other than that, it’s my kids, my wife.
How do your kids influence you in terms of making music? Do they put you up on things they’re listening to?
That’s another good question. I got a son who’s in high school, I got a son who’s just going into kindergarten, and a daughter who’s just learning to walk. I get a wide range of reactions to gauge. They are always involved in it at some level, whether it’s my daughter—’cause if she’s going to sleep, there’s only certain kinds of music that I can play that will keep her calm. My son is the second in succession going up in age, five years old, and he loves music. When I’m programming, he’s always coming in the room; he wants to do my album. It’s to the point where I have to make him my assistant. So really, he’s my second set of ears, and he listens to it as it’s being made and sees the process. And I’ll just look over at him and gauge his reactions. Certain things, he’ll be like, “Turn it off, that’s wack.” And I’ll be like, “What do you know about ‘wack’?” I use the terminology without really hearing myself, and he’ll tap into it.
Then my oldest son, he’s in the eleventh grade. He was born around the time of Black Bastards. He’s been with me through the whole thing, seen all the records. He’s more laid-back; he’s not so up-front musically. He more draws and paints and stuff like that. But he enjoys music. Sometimes, I check his iPod out to see what he’s fucking with.
Between all three of the ages, that’s like my gauge, really, as well as my own ear.
When you’re not listening to your own stuff, what kind of music are you checking out?
To tell you the truth, I be immersed in making this shit, making my music. But making music entails listening to music. So you have to have a really good source of music to be inspired to make music. The direction I’m taking this DOOM stuff right now—and forever—is fueled by artists that came before us, something that definitely was changing part of the game.
My fuel is more like things that are reminiscent of my youth, like ’70s stuff, funk stuff. I look at what the year was, and then the shit might be right near my birthday or right near the time when my brother was born. It’s a time when you can remember what it felt like. If you listen to a record from back then, it still takes you right back. If I want to go to ’83, I’ll put on some Bambaataa shit. If I want to go to ’71, Gil Scott-Heron and those dudes back then. Really, for me, there’s no more after 1993. It seems like it all turns into pop or bubblegum shit. The last couple records I remember listening to before that was De La’s 3 Feet High and Rising and all that, Nas’s Illmatic kinda shit… If I went a little bit into more detail with that kind of feel—Gang Starr, Primo, and them. But around then, it seems like mass production turned into something else, on the mainstream tip. You had to go a little deeper to find anything. Bobbito with the Cenubites album, and Wu-Tang, they were breaking barriers, but I can’t really remember anything after that.
You’ve been in it for so long. Do you still have a passion for making music and being in the game?
Yeah, I would say about twenty years, professionally. It’s crazy how twenty years can pass like that! As far as passion for the game, there’s times when I don’t even feel like fucking with this music shit. I’ll leave my equipment alone for months. Mainly because there’s something going on, you know, regular-life shit. But it’s eternal. Something will trigger me to go back and hear something. I’ll go hear it, and it’ll open the Pandora’s box. Then I’m in it for another six months straight.
It’s something like breathing, like inhaling and exhaling. Time between pauses—while you’re inhaling, it’s like absorbing; exhaling is like putting shit out. It’s a process: you’ll have hiatuses, and then it all hits like, “Pow.” Plus, those [in between] times is like gathering info; the mind gets a chance to absorb things to express. People expect you to be expressing all the time, but life just don’t work like that. It’s like an inhaling and exhaling kind of thing. Everything breathes like that.
Is it frustrating to fit that life pattern into how the industry wants you to be? They want you to stay on a schedule, they want you to be in this type of persona…
I don’t really let it bother me. I look at it like this—them cats need us to make dough. If they come up to a nigga who make music that’s the only person who can make that music, that’s why they came up to that nigga to make the music. Anytime anybody complain, or are maybe rushing [me], I look at it like they just don’t know how the process works. To them, it must look like it’s some kind of magic. Why else would they be paying you to do something that we do naturally and so free-flowing? I almost don’t wanna sell it; I wanna give it away. But we in America: we gotta eat, so I’ll sell it.
I like to stick to the writing aspect of it and write these scripts, these screenplays. The character can do anything.
I’m wondering about the persona of DOOM as an entertainer or a performer, the mask and everything. Is that literally a way for you to put on your game face, to get in the zone for performing?
This is the fun part of the approach of the DOOM stuff. I’m not the dude at all, I am writing about a character. It’s a little bit based on my personality, but it’s definitely exaggerated. You know, if you gonna have a character, make him into his character. I made him into a super MC/supervillain. The MC side ain’t nothing but rhyming. I can do that all day. That part is super already.
There’s a whole bragging and boasting aspect to rhyming, like Busy Bee and all them. It’s really just talking shit. I look at it like, “Wow, who can be the most talk-shit nigga now?” I kept that aspect—I feel like it’s naturally in rhyming—and exaggerated it, made it into the illest dude, bragging about the illest shit. When you make a character, you can have the character be able to do or be able to say anything. A lot of artists do that for real, they have their name on it, and the bragging and the boasting pull a nigga in it for real. Now they have the mask of their own face on all day, every day, and have to keep that persona—you can never really grow out of it or change.
It starts getting weird. What would you trade for your own life experiences? How much money? Can they buy you? Could anybody buy you? Is your price a certain thing? I like to separate my situation—my home life and family life. I draw inspiration from it. But the people I know in the neighborhood don’t even know what I do. I’m just a dude who lives right there, or the dude down the street that comes into the store. I need my life. I’m not trying to change my life for this rap shit, for real. Definitely not. Come on, not when you can do both. I enjoy music, make music, I make money with this music, live off music, share music, but you still need to have your life.
People expect certain shit. That’s something you have to kinda consider in this entertainment field. You probably don’t realize it at first. When we first got into it, with KMD, that’s who we was, straight up. But then after that shit was over with, and KMD had no deal no more, and we’re walking the streets of Manhattan, it turns into a lot of pressure. So I figured out a way where, all right, this time, I’m doing it, but it’s going to be done like how they do it in the movies. They’ll have a character in it, but the character is spawned from imagination. As wild as it may be, if you’re a writer, you can go there and make it real.
I like to stick to the writing aspect of it and write these scripts, these screenplays. The character can do anything. Regular MCs can’t really do that. It’s, like, limitational. Them niggas good in their own right, but I’m just coming at it from a different angle.
The funny thing is, many people, from fans to press, et cetera, seem to have bought the story to the point where they forget you’re not actually a supervillain.
Oh yeah. They gotta remember, it’s a character. Characters do all that shit. The thing is, they’re speaking to me like they’re speaking to the character, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s almost like Stephen Colbert. This is a new example that I happened to come across. I used to watch that shit, and it damn near pissed me off, like, “How the fuck he gonna say that?” But he was in character. After I found out—I think I must have read an interview or seen him somewhere—I was like, “Oh, the nigga in character. Damn, that shit’s ill.” I think I may have seen him speaking about it, about himself, and his home life. Something where I was like, “Cool, I’m not the only one doing this.” For people who are attracted to hip-hop music, it’s our job to spark their thoughts, to make them say, “What the fuck is he saying that for? Why’s he doing that?” Then, when they find out it’s just a character, it’s a mind-opening thing.
Plus, it’s like, damn, the temptation to just fuck with people’s heads like that, I just can’t resist. It just goes to show, a lot of people need to be snapped out of it.
How much of the talk on the Internet are you aware of? People really get caught up in the DOOM character.
That’s crazy, B. That’s good. I guess the character is a success.
There are claims of imposter DOOMs wearing the mask and doing shows for you.
That’s interesting. I’ll say this: I’ve been rhyming on the microphone professionally for twenty years, out there when [Big Daddy] Kane was there. [I] was doing big-ass stadiums when Pac was in the Digital Underground—Latifah, 3rd Bass, De La, KMD. On the microphone, for hours every night, busting my ass since I was, like, eighteen. It never ended. If it wasn’t the stage, it was on the street, battling or whatever in the ’90s when there was no deals. And I’m still doin’ it, to the point where now I’m thirty-seven.
Last year, I did some show, wrecked it, girls climbing up onstage and shit—that was the first time that happened—but we was rocking, right? Somebody from the label was going to be there. I was like, “Cool, he saw the show, and it was wrecked.” Next couple days, I speak to him, and he was like, “Good show, but a lot of people are saying it wasn’t you!” I’m like, “All right, every show I do, motherfuckers start saying that: ‘Was it really him?’ ” I lost fifty-nine pounds last year on some healthy shit, and I’m out there busting my ass, and niggas is still saying that shit? Niggas is caught up in the character part. But—I will say this: you never know what to expect. I’ll fuck around and do some shit like that, just to fuck around with a nigga head.
’Cause I’m like this: it’s music; I’m doing the shows; the stage is my canvas; I’ll put whatever up there for the visible eye. But it’s music, for listening to. Looking at it has nothing to do with what it sounds like. A blind person could be at the show and feel it clearly, but don’t see nothing of it. Don’t matter what the shit look like. Look, was niggas rockin’ or was niggas rockin’? See, I’m snapping niggas out of it. I might change my mind and want to retire from that part. I’m not sweating my ass out onstage no more. I’ve spit hundreds of thousands of lyrics, time and time again. Maybe I’ll take a break, or maybe never come back. That’s my choosing as an artist. And it’s their choosing to criticize it too. But that’s my other job—to snap niggas out of it.