Interview with MF Doom: The Supervillain
New York, 1989. Once upon a time, in what would later be considered the golden age of hiphop, a teenager calling himself Zev Love X cowrote and rapped on the 3rd Bass hit "The Gas Face." At that time X, his brother DJ Subroc and Onyx were a hiphop group known as KMD. Moving back and forth between Manhattan and Long Beach, L.I., they went on to make two albums in the early 90s, Mr. Hood and Black Bastards. While the former was an underground success, very few people got to hear Black Bastards; Elektra decided not to release the record after it received a negative review from Billboard. Then they dropped KMD from their roster.
A great lost album of hiphop, with head-bobbing beats, terrific rhymes and masterful cuts and samples, Bastards was an angry album, in a very different vein from the gangsta and thug rap that followed upon its heels. Samples used included stereotypically white-sounding folks tossing out phrases like "you black bastard" and words like "nigger." Undoubtedly, what upset the execs as much or more than the LP's content was its cover: a cartoon game of Hangman, with a KO'd, lynched, Sambo-like figure dangling from the rope.
Just a few months before the label's decision, Subroc was killed in a car accident. And with this double whammy, Zev Love X went underground, all the way underground this time, away from New York and away from hiphop, too. To the pre-Dirty South, to greater Atlanta and the challenges of parenthood and life first in and then out of an Afrocentric religious community. X's mettle was being forged, you could say, in a unique kind of crucible, one he had made for himself as a verbally and musically gifted young black man with metaphysical leanings, coming of age in the 1990s. Eventually he was reborn as a hiphop performer with a new name, MF Doom. And as Doom says, or rather raps, on the track "Rhymes Like Dimes": "Only in America could you find a way to earn a healthy buck and still keep your attitude on self-destruct."
You probably think you know what the MF in Doom's name stands for. And you're right...but it stands for Metal Face, too. That's because Doom now performs wearing a chrome face mask that hides his identity from his fans. Even in the photos on his new CD, Operation: Doomsday (Sub Verse) and the long-awaited full-scale release of Black Bastards (also Sub Verse), his eyes are covered by black bars, like those sometimes used for crime victims...or accused perpetrators.
Doom says of the mask that "the whole fame thing, you know?I'm not too much into that. I was trying to figure out a way I could come out and still do it without really having to be involved with all that stuff, and at the same time keep it entertaining." Interviewed on a loading dock outside SubVerse's office before a recent well-attended gig at the Knitting Factory, Doom was without his newly "chromed out" mask and totally forthright, less the man of mystery than the take-no-prisoners MC apt to rhyme Lieutenant Uhura with Ferris Bueller.
First topic: the tortuous history of Operation: Doomsday, which originally appeared on Fondle 'Em, Bobbito Garcia's label, in late 1999. "I had the album kind of in mind, but as I was doing it I let Bob hear a couple of songs...he was really feeling the stuff and he wanted to put them out as singles before the album was even done." The final album combined the singles with additional tracks and was released on CD as well as LP. "That was like the first time Fondle 'Em ever did CDs. It's the epitome of underground labels, no promotion... The album did get to Germany, to certain select places in Cali, but it didn't get the widespread availability it could have had at the time. A lot of people couldn't get it." Doom had licensed 10,000 copies to Fondle 'Em; he also pressed 5000 copies of Black Bastards on his own label, Metal Face, last spring. The demand for both discs convinced him of the size of his audience even as Operation: Doomsday was all but ignored by the music press.
Scattered throughout the album are skits playing out the concept of Doom as a cartoon-like "supervillain," defined as someone who likes children and is skilled in destruction as well as building. If that doesn't sound especially villainous, maybe that's the point. Doom's values seem to be the inverse of prevailing ones, whether in hiphop or the larger culture. Villains are oppositional, heroes by definition are loved by all. Even Doom's production style is different. He explains that "'you had to be there'?that sound to me is what hiphop sounds like. So I try to catch it like, if you were there, in the party, how would the record sound. How would the beats sound, through the speaker, and how would the dude sound on the mic."
Of course, Doom's "party" includes bits like "Death I hear you calling/I accept collect/Human sacrifice must pay the spec." That's actually friend and frequent collaborator MF Grimm rhyming, on "Tick, Tick...," one of the CD's best tracks. Stuttering beats and scales speed up and slow down unpredictably, echoing ominously behind Grimm as he declares: "My mind is Heaven's Gate, so enter me/My mind's the gate to hell, so try to flee/both gates look the same, which will it be?" Most of Operation: Doomsday is not so esoteric. On the final track, "I Hear Voices," he spits lines like, "Anyhoo, how 'bout the Yankees/Once I leave the stage, the party people thank me/If I may speak freely/nasty like the freaky-deaky at your local sleazy speakeasy."
Deliberately rough and almost ragged-sounding, the album's production may be a bit jarring to listeners accustomed to today's mainstream hiphop sounds?even the psychedelic slop of OutKast is crystalline by comparison. Defiantly analog though they may be, Doom's sounds are sophisticated and funky, mining and reworking 70s-style mellow soul complete with female backing vocals. On "Rhymes Like Dimes," for example, insistent bleeps gradually develop into a full-scale porn-soundtrack background, and on "Hey," Doom samples the beginning of the theme from Scooby-Doo. "Red and Gold" sounds almost like Musak?until the sitars and the skittering sounds, like Elmer Fudd tiptoeing behind a tree, kick in.
As befits a supervillain, MF Doom isn't particularly interested in fitting into the current hiphop scene: "I try to take away a lot of the, how should I say it, the abrasiveness. Hiphop has started to get really abrasive, on the tip of even vocally, as well as what people are saying?screaming all in the mic. It's to the point now where it seems like the people who are making the records are actually dissing the consumer. You know, 'Y'all can't do this, I'm this, you're wack.'"
Operation: Doomsday is an intellectual disc, but Doom doesn't sacrifice his flow or beats to his wordplay. Citing Coltrane and Yusef Lateef as musical influences alongside old-school heroes like Kurtis Blow, KRS-One, Stetsasonic and Ultramagnetic, Doom now prefers writing to freestyling, though he's known for powerful live shows: "To me, in the lab, the writing, that's my love?because I can get really intricate and start researching something I never thought I'd be studying. I end up really delving into it."
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