Engraved, Not Unmarked: The Legacy of MF DOOM

On New Year’s Eve, hip-hop disciples around the world gathered to lay a super-villain to rest. I was in a Dollar Tree parking lot eating McDonald’s with my partner when we got the news; I thought the friend who hit my phone to tell me was joking. “Yo, have you heard this DOOM news?” I whipped out my phone to check his socials and there it was: MF DOOM—a man who remade himself from personal and professional tragedy into a living, breathing enigma—had passed away.

Rap is no stranger to death but rising stars and living legends have passed through the revolving door at an alarming speed over the last five years: Nipsey Hussle, Mac Miller, Juice WRLD, Sean Price, Prodigy, Bankroll Fresh, Jimmy Wopo, Chynna, King Von, Pop Smoke, the list never stops. Someone’s favorite artist seems to die every other day. DOOM was mine.

I’ve written at length about how the rapper/producer born Daniel Dumile changed my life, about how Madvillainy was my 36 Chambers, and about high school afternoons spent vamping at the food truck, trying to recreate his lyrical magic. Today, I just wanna talk about the music.

Like his well-documented persona, DOOM’s music is both blatant and mysterious. Surface-level readings of albums like Operation: Doomsday or MM…FOOD reveal his interests: comic books. old cartoons, Star Trek, beer. The references appealed to the nerd in me but the way he’d put words together kept me in his orbit. His lines could be felt like “the tinge in your ear from drinking ginger beer” and unfolded from compact pockets like a pizza roll dissolving in the mouth:

“Darker than the East river, larger than the Empire State / Where the beast who guard the barbed wire gate / is on the job—not my fate, tired of the wait / 'til the Villain bring deliverance from the dire straits / Fire at a higher rate why'd they make the liars? / Fliers scatter, buy a plate—isolate the wires” — MF DOOM, “Kon Karne

It’s easy to rhyme words for the sake of the scheme, but DOOM had a sixth sense for putting words together in a way that actually made sense. His command over words was alchemical, Edward Elric in a Fullmetal face mask. More than anything, listening to DOOM’s technique made it clear that music was fun to him. DOOM’s work flowed with the whimsy and wonder of a rearranged jigsaw puzzle, pieces originally meant to fit one way seamlessly slotting into another.

It tracks from his early days rapping as Zev Love X, a member of the short-lived Long Island rap group KMD—composed of Zev, brother Dingilizwe “DJ Subroc” Dumile, and Onyx the Birthstone Kid—, whose 1991 debut album Mr. Hood was built on winding wordplay and a breakdown of Black stereotypes by a sampled storybook narrator. It flowed into the concepts he would bat around at the peak of his second-act revival as the metal-faced magician. MM…FOOD is an examination of pain and pleasure cloaked with track titles named and arranged like a five-course meal. Madvillainy and The Mouse and The Mask, his much-heralded collabs with producers Madlib and Danger Mouse, respectively, are loose concept albums littered with songs about canceled Adult Swim shows and convincing dates to take breath mints.

What made DOOM most intriguing to me was seeing him balance his love for word games with the traumatic aspects of his life. For all the nerdy dressings of his music and the major co-signs his infamy wrought, the street-bred and politically-minded qualities of his songs are often glossed over. When Twitter kicked up a debate over whether DOOM or Indiana firebrand Freddie Gibbs was a better rapper in 2019, I was taken aback by how many people didn’t see the similarities in content. DOOM’s villainy was inspired by real-life crime and trauma, just like Gibbs’.

This is most explicit on Operation: Doomsday, which was created in the wake of losing his brother Subroc to a car crash in 1993. There’s plenty of lyrical gymnastics, but Doomsday is home to some of the most emotionally bare verses DOOM has ever spit on record, spinning tales of jail time in Baltimore (“Doomsday”) and fond remembrances of Subroc. On the final verse of “?,” DOOM tries to keep his composure while feeling his brother’s spirit around him: “You out your frame but still baggin’ ‘em, too.” The backend of “?” feels less like a verse than a séance.

DOOM’s bond with Subroc manifested in the musical adventurousness and Black pride dotting his music for the rest of his career. DOOM’s aesthetic grew into more than just being a nerd doubling as a leader “in the fight for equal rights for niggas.” It would resurface in the way DOOM gave up game on subverting the police on "Absolutely” from his final solo album Born Like This and how he addressed America spending billions on war crimes and military neglect on Madvillainy cut “Strange Ways.” It came through in all the personae he embraced, from silver-tongued stick-up kid Viktor Vaughn to appropriating the Godzilla aesthetic as the despot King Geedorah. Even when grounded to reality, there was no telling where he’d take you next. The only certainty was DOOM’s imagination steering the ship.

Regardless of what name he recorded under, the zeal of discovery colored everything DOOM touched. He’d openly relish every laser gun sound laid over lo-fi drums, every bar scraped together with a thesaurus and an Atlantean spellbook, if it wouldn’t cheapen his effortless image. No matter how weird or off-center an idea might be, DOOM tried. Finding a word that rhymes with Meatwad? No problem. Referencing BillaBong clothing on a Gorillaz song? Shoot for the stars. Mixing R&B and jazz staples with rips from old Marvel cartoons? Second nature. His brand of weird didn’t bridge gaps between subgenres of rap; it proved there were no gaps in the first place.

“[The villain] don’t care about the fame or none of that shit. That shit is of no consequence. It’s about the message and what’s being said. Villain represents anybody. Anybody here could be the villain.” — MF DOOM, Red Bull Music Academy interview, 2011

DOOM always presented himself as an idea so the news of his death—two months after it actually happened, no less— was a shock. I’d be lying if I didn’t initially think of the death announcement as just another trick, another Doomposter moment to keep the fans on their toes. How do you kill an idea? Short answer: you don’t. Daniel Dumile’s physical body may have expired but, in a long-term malevolent act, DOOM’s schematics have permanently bonded with hip-hop.

Rapping over selections from DOOM’s beat tape series Special Herbs & Spices is practically a rite of passage; just ask Joey Bada$$, Tyler, The Creator, and countless other rappers who have uploaded roughs to YouTube. His love for mystique manifests in every rapper who wears a mask, from Kanye West and RMR to Trippie Redd and Leikei47. The anonymity of the mask highlights one of the simplest and most accessible charms of DOOM’s music: anybody can be weird. The real and the surreal are only as different as you see them and, by mixing the traumatic with the supernatural under the veil of incredible skill, DOOM has given generations of rap fans the keys to create their own reality. That’s what his tomb’ll say.