MF DOOM, 1971 – 2020: world-building rap hero who styled himself as a supervillain

The iconoclastic music legend, whose persona was inspired by Marvel's Dr. Doom and so much more pop culture besides, has died at the age of 49. RIP

Never has the passing of a supervillain elicited more sorrow. Born Daniel Dumile on January 9th in London, 1971, later of Long Island, New York, masked rapper MF DOOM styled his hip-hop persona on Marvel Comics’ big bad Doctor Victor Von Doom. Dumile may no longer walk the Earth, but it’s unfeasible that his art and his ideas will ever leave it. 49 is no age to go, but he leaves behind a cosmos of creativity.

Dumile’s demise, announced on Instagram yesterday by his wife Jasmine, felt like 2020’s final insult. After a year that took so much, finally came Doomsday. This most wretched run of 12 months – one where illness and suffering reigned supreme – had taken many lives up to this point; household names, millions more anonymous, lost to a virus that ran roughshod. Even within such an onslaught, like the kick to the gut that punctuates the end of a mugging, the death of the rap genius hurt like a deep, uncauterised wound.

Flawless technique was a given, his voice – smoky, from the recesses of the throat, inherently cool – as unique as any of the greats to come before or after. Few who have picked up a microphone have had the confidence of flow or the flair for wordplay that Dumile exhibited. His run of four classic albums in two years (2003’s ‘Take Me To Your Leader’ and ‘Vaudeville Villain’ and 2004’s ‘Venomous Villain’ and ‘Mm…Food’) is one of rap’s greatest achievements. And yet genius doesn’t come from merely ticking boxes. DOOM’s brilliance lay in world-building.

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His records were melting pots of crate raiding kitsch – samples from Scooby-Doo cartoons, horror movies, Godzilla films. These were messy canvases strewn with concepts pilfered from pop culture – especially the geekier end. “Off pride, tykes, talk wide through scar-meat / Off sides, like how Worf ride with Star-Fleet” went ‘Figaro’ from 2004’s ‘Madvillany’.

Here was man striving to be a myth. Bowie had Ziggy; Dumile had DOOM. But he also had Zev Love X (his persona in his first group, KMD, with younger brother DJ Subroc) and the aliases King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn and Madvillain. His work on these projects was as director. An auteur.

“I’m more like a writer dude rather than a freestyler,” he told The Chicago Tribute in 2004. I like to design my stuff, and I consider myself an author.” A shrouded face leant itself to mirth. DOOM often sent friends out onstage under his mask to lip-sync to his rhymes. Sometimes he’d give his mask to a member of his crew and go watch his own show, anonymous, in the crowd. “I’m the director,” he told The New Yorker in 2009. “Whoever plays the character, plays the character…”

Last November, when Flying Lotus performed at the Adult Swim Festival in LA, the DJ announced that he would be joined onstage by DOOM. The masked figure who actually appeared on stage? Comedian Hannibal Buress. It sounds trite to say, yet too poignant not to: in a year where the selfish and the ignorant resisted the wearing of masks, MF DOOM never had a problem with it.

“I wanted to get onstage and orate, without people thinking about the normal things people think about,” he once said of the mask – formally styled like the aforementioned Doctor Doom, later modelled on that worn by Russell Crowe in 2000’s Gladiator. “Like girls being like, ‘Oh, he’s sexy,’ or ‘I don’t want him – he’s ugly’, and then other dudes sizing you up. A visual always brings a first impression. But if there’s going to be a first impression, I might as well use it to control the story. So why not do something like throw a mask on?”

How much of this was showmanship, and how much was creating a shield behind which to hide? Every supervillain needs an origin story, and DOOM’s life encountered more tragedy than a human should endure. In 2017, Dumile emerged on Instagram to share news – if not details – of the passing of his 14-year-old son King Malachi Ezekiel Dumile. “Thank you for allowing us to be your parents” he said. It was far from his first experience of great loss.

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KMD had ended after brother Subroc was hit by a car in 1993 while trying to cross New York’s Nassau Expressway. He died, aged just 19. With KMD’s second album primed for release, the group were dropped by label Elektra; they took offence to the cover art, an image of the racist ‘sambo’ character being hung. Depressed and disillusioned, Dumile retreated. He walked the streets of Manhattan, “damn near homeless, sleeping on benches,” he once said. He moved to Atlanta and, according to one biography, swore revenge “against the industry that so badly deformed him” (an echo of Dr. Doom’s origin story).

The rapper wouldn’t return until 1998, performing incognito, nylon tights stretched over his head, at open-mics in Manhattan. His classic debut, ‘Operation: Doomsday’, followed the subsequent year. He spat the following on the title track: “On Doomsday! Ever since the womb ‘til I’m back where my brother went, that’s what my tomb will say…’

United with his brother and his son once again, DOOM can feel no more pain. May he enjoy eternal rest and gratitude for his achievements and skill. Heroes never die, goes the old adage. If MF DOOM is anything to go by, supervillains may well possess immortality too.

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