BEHIND THE MASK
A revealing look into the mind of MF DOOM
By Andrew Mason
You like movies? Name a few of your favorite screenwriters. If you’re grasping for names, you’ll appreciate that the talent for putting memorable words in the mouths of fictional characters is an under-acknowledged art form. These often unknown but prolific prose artists rarely emerge from the shadows of their famous creations. Welcome to the world of Daniel Dumile, whose youthful nickname of “Doom,” a phonetic abbreviation of his last name, has come to describe one of the most mysterious, misunderstood, and masterful rap artists of the last twenty years.
DOOM, as his moniker is officially written, is the latest and perhaps definitive manifestation of a multifaceted, mask-faced rapper and producer, whose previous aliases have included Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, Metal Fingers, and, originally, Zev Love X.
“I first met DOOM in 1989 on the set of ‘The Gas Face’ video,” remembers Bobbito Garcia, who would later play an important role in Dumile’s career. “The Gas Face” by 3rd Bass was the first appearance on wax for Dumile and his brother, Dingilizwe, aka Subroc. Along with third member Onyx, they formed KMD, and, with the group’s 1991 debut on Elektra, Mr. Hood, they became part of the last blooming of the golden era of hip-hop.
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.
MF DOOM, by Cara Pastore. As originally published in Issue 31
That’s a good question. I know when I’m done on the business side of it when someone checks in with me: “Is it done yet?” But it’s really never done. I turn in a version of it. The thing is, the music is always evolving.
If I have to answer that question with a straight answer, it’s when it feels like, “Okay, I got to let someone else hear it now. It’s just sounding too crazy.” It starts to bubble out, almost like a baby bird being hatched, and then it turns to a fledgling. And then it gets out and leaves the nest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
KMD for their 1991 release Mr. Hood. Photograph by Arthur Cohen.
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.
That’s crazy, B. That’s good. I guess the character is a success.
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.
Special Herbs - DOOM on Beats
Well, I got a bunch of different shit. I like the [Boss SP-]404. The 404 is a nice, flexible machine.
The 303 is what he was fucking with on the Madvillain shit. He put me up on it—the way it felt, and the way you can chop shit up and change it with the twist of a finger, without having to go too much into the parameters. You’re spending more time typing on some sequencing samplers than you are actually doing music. The 303 gives that hands-on feel, and, I guess, the 404 is the big brother to that one. They updated it, put some more stuff on it. It has the battery capacity, and that’s what I like. I can go anywhere. I could be in the middle of the woods somewhere. On the new record, there’s no one sequencer or one sampler that did everything, and there’s other producers on it too. But I used the 404 and the [Akai] MPC1000 with the JJ OS in it—that’s what makes the machine as versatile as I need it to be.
Well, from what I read, it’s these Japanese cats that started writing new operating systems for the MPCs. They made it so you could do certain things that you could only do on the 2000 before. Now you can do it on the 1000, like multilayering stuff or stacking sounds. You couldn’t do that with the original OS from Akai. Putting them snares together, so it just pops. That’s a must-know trick. I don’t even feel bad giving that out for free! I consider myself a drummer, if anything, out of all the instruments. Drums are the centerpiece of the whole song.
It depends on the beat that I’m doing. Most of the time on a regular loop, I turn the quantize off. Most of the time, I don’t even use the sequencer part at all. It gives a more hands-on feel to it when you listen back. You know, when you’re doing a beat, and you first loop it—you hit the sample, and then you ain’t looping it. You just hitting it. But you hit it a little different every time you hit it. When you capture that, that’s like a snapshot of the most rawest, your livest session right there.
Once you have the computer loop it, then you record it; now you’re going coproducer with the computer. It’s like, did you really do the beat then? It’s all right looping some shit, but at least put the swing to it. That’s how I feel—I just feel a little guilty sometimes using too much of the computer. Sometimes, it’s good though, for certain things.
But, really, I just do everything freehand or in Pro Tools now. Chop it up. In Pro Tools, you can loop shit. It took me a while to be able to do that, though. Pro Tools is kind of like a different language than how we do it. We do it by hand, without looking. Now there’s the visual aspect and not too much the hitting of a pad. It took me a while to translate myself to it. But it’s like a combination of those two. Pro Tools is something you can use to quickly execute certain aspects of the song, but then still I go in there and hit the drums live from the MPC, the stacking thing, without using the sequencer at all, or the quantize or nothing.
The computer makes it way easier. I can put something down for a few years, go back to it and listen to it, double-check it. Most of the time, I’ll do it, listen to it then, and then put it away, for, like, a year. Then I gotta go back to it. Everything has, like, a year gap there, or, like, a year latency. By the time it gets to the people, it’s two years of studying it and making sure it’s right. Going back to it, putting it away, coming back. Most of the time, I won’t touch it up again. Most things survive the journey. But then, there are those that just might need a little more; so, all right, I’ll put some drums to that. By the time it gets to the people, it’s all the most rawest shit.
There’s definitely an unlimited supply. [laughs]
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