The Identities of No One: MF DOOM

MF DOOM: The Identities of No One, read by Pale Sutler

‘The bar where he would perform that night was already open, and he walked around sipping a soda, unnoticed by everyone there; they would only recognize their hero when he was masked. After the show, we climbed into a van, and I accidentally stepped on his mask. But he didn’t mind. He picked it up, smiling, as though catching the glance of an old friend, and stowed it away.’

Hua Hsu, ‘The Wondrous Rhymes of MF DOOM,’ for The New Yorker

MF DOOM — all caps — was the essence of hip-hop for his entire life. He wrote, produced, and MC’d on nearly every track he put out. Boasting a true villain’s name and backstory, DOOM, in the end, proved to be anything but. Despite the decrepit social structure and grimy ecologies he found himself in, he prevailed as a beacon of inspiration to an entire generation of MC’s, producers, writers, and fans. He unfortunately passed away in October of last year, however, in a very DOOM-like fashion his death was not announced until New Year’s Eve. DOOM, it seems, left us all just as he initially came: soundless, save the weight of the Earth his music held — ‘Darker than the East River, larger than The Empire State…’ What’s more, DOOM has always proved to be an enigma to us all. Who he was, and how he came to be, are two unbearably opaque abstractions.

What has always fascinated me about DOOM is the liminal essence of his identity. Meaning, aside from ‘MF DOOM the rapper/producer and main voice for his several other rap aliases and countless nicknames,’ DOOM’s identity was almost tied up in not really having one. It is true that most other rappers do not use their real names, and some even dawn similar disguises as DOOM’s mask in order to obfuscate their own identities: consider how Grandmaster Flash’s outfits or even Young Thug’s Jeffery promised a degree of alterity not allowed by their bedrock personality. However, it seems that DOOM is a different experience, a different subjectivity entirely. It’s as if when DOOM put on the mask, a portion of the man behind it was noclipped into the backrooms of this physical world, leaving behind (‘…your host…’) the Supervillain — a being so ill he was more than capable of eviscerating his trauma as easily as his enemies, controlling his narrative, and making sense of a reality that seemed as unreal as the man behind that mask. 

‘The most thrilling aspect of all this is that the rhymes rarely betray the identity of the narrator,’ Hua Hsu wrote in his unmatched, forensically researched 2005 profile for The Wire. ‘Doom’s characters pop up as guests on each other’s albums; they help each other out with production duties; and Dumile looms above them, unafraid to lapse into second or third person.’

DOOM’s government name was Daniel Dumile. Born in London in July 1971, Dumile was brought up in Long Beach, New York. The son of a Trinidadian mother and a Zimbabwean father, Dumile never gained American citizenship. Here, we begin to see the initial whispers of what would become DOOM. He was a Black American, a New Yorker, born in London — memories he claims to have had no memory of — to parents of different ethnic origins and no ties to British cultural identity. Who was this kid?

Dumile had a younger brother, Dingilizwe Dumile. Better known as DJ Subroc, or simply, Subroc (‘…the hip hop Hendrix.’), the two formed a trio in the late 80s with another MC, calling themselves KMD. At the time, Dumile went by the alias Zev Love X. The group had one release, and shortly before they were due to drop their second, the highly controversial Black Bastards, in 1993, Subroc was struck by a car and tragically passed away. KMD was dropped from their label, the album was shelved, and along with Subroc’s physical death, Zev Love X, too, suffered a kind of quietus. He did not perform, collaborate, or work on music in any professional capacity. Dumile went silent. 

For the longest time, it was merely rumored that DOOM had been homeless once; condemned to the streets of the very world that so coldly turned its eternal back on him. A true villain’s backstory. ‘Dumile rarely offers details about this unintended sabbatical,’ Hsu recounts. ‘When nudged, he laughs, ‘l plead the fifth.’’ As it turns out, however, it was true. ‘‘At that time, I was damn near homeless, walking the streets of Manhattan, sleeping on benches and shit,’’ DOOM admits to Hsu.

It was not until the mid-90s that Dumile resurfaced. He gave himself the name MF DOOM, the ‘MF’ standing for ‘Metal Face,’ and ‘DOOM’ being a seace for an old childhood nickname. He began performing in clubs and open mics in Manhattan, dawning a ski mask and a (darker) twist to his already electrifying flow. 

‘’The way comics are written shows you the duality of things,’’ DOOM told Hsu, ‘‘how the bad guy ain’t really a bad guy if you look at it from his perspective. Through that style of writing, I was kinda like, if I flip that into HipHop, that’s something niggas ain’t done yet. I was looking for an angle that would be brand new. That’s when I came up with the character and worked out the kinks — that’s the Villain.’’  

What’s more, Dumile’s sense of identity becomes further fragmented, disarticulated from its source, liminal in its function; sentiments clearly expressed in the slapstick-hauntological comic book soundbite samples that have become the staple of DOOM’s sound. The most accelerated version of this is, of course, expertly employed on 2004’s Mm.. Food. In many ways, the album acts as a kind of sonic collage. DOOM maniacally copying and pasting, chopping and sampling, hijacking, sounds and voices from what can only be described as kid’s comic book TV shows, movies, and hokey advertisements, using this medium as a way to convey a certain meta-narrative about his identity through colorful, playfully humorous skits in a way that Dumile — the individual — was robbed of. In this way, DOOM’s soundbite skits and comic book TV samples serve as a kind of ontology, offering its listeners a diorama of the Supervillain himself, as Hsu poignantly summed up, without ‘betray(ing) the identity of the narrator.’ What is also a technique employed on DOOM’s debut album Operation Doomsday (1999) with skits like ‘The Time We Faced Doom’ — ‘Would you believe it, it’s Doom on the phone! … Hold your insulting tongue and mark my words well. I have plotted my revenge on you.’ Mm.. Food proves to be a kind of stylistic departure from the debut. As opposed to Doomsday, which exposes sonic tendencies more akin to the oneiric vaporwave beats of the mid-2010s more than anything hiphop was embarking on at that time, Mm.. Food explores a wider range of skits — more ontological exposition — while also focusing on a sound that hints of something one would expect to hear coming from some forgotten Manhattan open-mic club on a cold Winter night. 

What is shared between the two records, not to mention his entire discography, however, is that shrouded first-person account of the bedrock identity, which is always mediated, of course, by the adoption of his soundbite methodology. As immediate as a first-person narrative might appear on a track — ‘I dedicate this mix to Subroc, the hiphop Hendrix…’ — that element, which takes the form of the signifier ‘I,’ is just as immediately lapsed back into that witty narrative sarcasm of comic book lore and soundbites, like a man putting on a (sonic) mask. DOOM’s subjectivity is defined by this ontology of indifference, if you will, that he creates in his landscape of skits and samples; forms that have little to do with DOOM as a subject and yet define him. Hence, my employment of the incorrect use of the term indifference ahead of the word ontology — more of a neological puncept on my part than a concept. A terrific example of this can be found on the ‘The Hands of Doom’ skit off Operation Doomsday where two, (presumably) adolescent individuals, a woman and a man, are talking about a picture the man is drawing. She tells him, ‘At least tell me what that thing is, you’ve just done.’ To which he answers: ‘They’re like the hands of doom…and he’s like by himself, in his own world, and he don’t care about nobody around him.

Who is this guy, exactly?’ She then asks with a kind of renewed, cautious interest. ‘That’s you, huh?

He replies then, shocked. ‘Who gave you that idea?

Come on, man. I been knowin — I been knowin for a long time that was you.

What can be heard as just another innocuous, stylized trait of DOOM’s musical character is actually a vital component to the understanding of the Supervillain’s subjective experience. Moreover, adding to the liminality of the identity of the man behind the mask.

I have never spent time analyzing any quotations I choose to include at the beginning of my writings. I will with this one. Not because it is necessarily hard to understand my reasoning — I would think it might be quite obvious — but because I actually learned something from reading Hsu’s January tribute piece he wrote for The New Yorker. I learned who DOOM was. Or, rather, I learned who he wasn’t. DOOM wasn’t DOOM — he never was. It was Dumile the whole time. DOOM was simply the physical manifestation and vehicle for a pseudonym. DOOM was the mask that Dumile graciously let us all see. What at first might seem like a contradiction to everything I have just written, is, in fact, not. I never spent any time analyzing Dumile. I just wrote about DOOM, the theoretical, the abstraction. However, Dumile was, as I have understood from first person accounts and articles such as Hsu’s, a beautiful human being. DOOM is too, although in his own ironic, perennially humorous way. A fact apparent on tracks like my personal favorite, ‘Kon Karne,’ where Sade’s mellifluous voice cues in the Supervillain’s hidden heart: ‘My love is… Vaster than the Seven Seas, bigger than Mt. Kilimanjaro…’

In the Instagram post that broke the news of his passing, his wife Jasmine wrote: ‘Dumile, … Thank you for teaching me how to forgive beings and give another chance, not to be so quick to judge and write off.’ With my deepest sympathies and condolences, I wish you luck Out There, Dumile, wherever that might be. Until then, we’ll enjoy the Supervillain in all his glary, shimmering glory.

Published by Pale Sulter


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