On July 29, 2007, I attended the second day of Rock the Bells, an annual hip-hop festival, at Randall’s Island. The event was historic, headlined by Rage Against the Machine and Wu-Tang Clan, both reunited for the weekend. Other performers included hip hop icons like Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, Rakim and UGK, mere months before Pimp C passed. At the time, it was easily the greatest day of live music I;d ever seen.
Amongst all these legends, the artist I was most excited to see was an eccentric underground rapper named MF DOOM.
Daniel Dumile, better known as MF DOOM, among many other aliases, passed away on October 31 due to unannounced causes. His wife shared the news via social media on New Years Eve. His passing on Halloween was fitting. Shrouded in mystery, DOOM produced a catalogue of some of the best hip hop of the last 20 years, all while maintaining complete anonymity due to the metal mask he performed in. Dumile was described after his passing by Variety as one of underground hip hop's “most celebrated, unpredictable and enigmatic figures.” Another phrase people loved to use was “your favorite rapper's favorite rapper.”
Dumile, besides being a fantastic and revered musician, was also a fascinating character. He released two albums as Zev Love X while part of a group called KMD. Their second album, “Black Bastards” was mired in controversy and tragedy; Elektra objected to the album cover, which portrayed a sambo-like figure being lynched, as well as their Black nationalist, Five-Percenter lyrics. The group was dropped, and, as they prepared to reform, Dumile's fellow group member and brother, DJ Subroc, died at the age of 19 after being struck by a car.
Dumile, jaded by his experience within the industry and tortured by the death of his brother, disappeared from the music scene. When he emerged again, almost a decade later, he wore a metal mask, modeled after one Russell Crowe wore in “Gladiator,” and called himself MF (Metal Face) DOOM. He named himself after the Fantastic Four villain, Dr. Doom, whose mask was melded onto his face in an experiment gone wrong. DOOM was never photographed without his mask, and he used it to create a barrier from any unwanted attention. It was also his response to trauma; it’s not a coincidence that both of the characters who influenced his mask lost their entire families, causing them to see vengeance on those that inflicted these tragedies upon them. Dumile’s vengeance would come lyrically.
Upon his reemergence in the hip hop scene, DOOM crafted a legacy as one of the most unique and creative artists working in the genre. He released songs and albums under a variety of aliases, most prominently King Geedorah (named after the Godzilla villain) and Viktor Vaug (named after Victor Von Doom, Dr. Doom’s given name). Sometimes these characters would appear on his albums as “features” with different characteristics, often serving as antagonists to DOOM himself.
DOOM’s rhyme style was impossible to ape. It frequently used interior rhyme schemes, complex wordplay and obscure references to comic book characters and other pop culture figures. DOOM had a nasal drawl, making some of his lyrics hard to decipher without a physical copy of what he was saying, and making his references even harder to understand. In one of his most famous songs, “Doomsday,” he even raps about his inevitable death:
“On Doomsday, ever since the womb
‘Til I'm back where my brother went, that's what my tomb will say
Right above my government; Dumile
Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who's to say?”
DOOM plays with his own name in these rhymes; when rapped, it sounds like “Doom’ll lay.” He frequently employed double meanings and entendres that other rappers wouldn’t dare attempt. His music was built to be played again and again, with new meanings rewarding the astute listener.
Though initially more of a performance piece, DOOM eventually began to use the mask as a crutch. He became known for sending ‘“impostors,” or people with a similar build as him, to perform in his stead, donning the mask to appear as if he was performing. The mask allowed him to feign it was truly him onstage. He never outwardly confirmed these “impostors,” but it was an open secret in the hip hop community. He referenced it opaquely, frequently saying that whoever wore the mask became DOOM.
On that day in 2007, I knew in the back of my mind there was a good chance it wouldn’t be the man himself performing. DOOM had performed the previous day on the main stage; on the second, he was relegated to the “independent” stage. Perhaps he felt begrudged by his demotion, or perhaps he never intended to perform on the second day in the first place. Either way, it was clearly not Daniel Dumile under the mask. His songs played loudly over the sound system, and whoever it was wearing the mask made little attempt to hide the fact that they were lip-syncing. Occasionally, they would rap along to the chorus of one of his songs, sounding little to nothing like the recorded voice I had listened to so many times.
A buzz spread amongst the crowd, as more and more people realized what they were witnessing. Some booed and some just left. I remained for almost the entire set, fascinated by the gall Dumile had to send out an impostor when some of the genre’s foremost pioneers and legends performed 50 yards away. I also, despite myself, couldn’t take my eyes off of the mask. I enjoyed some schadenfreude watching the impostor suffer as more and more people began to leave or jeer.
Was DOOM right? Was it the man behind the mask that became DOOM? Knowing that the real man has now passed, and the masks remain to inevitably be purchased by rich superfans, I think Dumile underestimated himself.
Art by Ariana Milan