By: Arya Afshar
The music world said goodbye to the man behind MF Doom as it said goodbye to 2020. In true MF Doom-ian fashion, he died on Halloween, and it was only announced last week by his spouse. MF Doom is undeniably one of the biggest Hip-Hop cult icons in history, an MC’s MC, and one of the best collaborators in the history of music. He left behind an immortal legacy: a catalogue of music that is diverse, intriguing, and unique while remaining just on the right side of accessible. His death inspired tributes from rappers and non-rappers alike. Everyone from El-P and Killer Mike, Danny Brown, Aesop Rock and Tyler the Creator to Thom Yorke, Danger Mouse, Jonny Greenwood, The Avalanches, and Busta Rhymes, to graffiti artists and comic book illustrators paid homage to a truly inspiring artist and collaborator. It’s a true testament to his transcendent status as a multi-disciplinary artist.
This post won’t be a comprehensive biography, though I’d recommend everyone read his story, how he lost his brother, how he came to adapt the persona of a villain, to how he was denied entry into the US after decades of living there. Nor will this post be able to hold a candle to emotional and raw eulogies that his peers gave in his honour. Instead I want to briefly talk about how MF Doom managed to influence a whole generation of rappers without ever becoming mainstream himself, and how the music industry tends to treat trail-blazers like MF Doom, exploiting their disregard for capitalist gains to keep them down while modelling their work without credit.
Daniel Dumile began his rap career as part of KMD, with his brother Subroc and Onyx. In his early days, he admits to seeing rapping as a side hobby, just something you would do because you liked to keep your mind fresh, and something he did because he enjoyed language, wordplay, and studying the roots of words and tracing them to other languages. After his brother passed, and by the time he adopted the MF Doom persona, rap had changed unrecognizably, becoming one of the most popular genres in America (and within a few years, the world) and inching its way into the mainstream. At a time where most rappers took to releasing glamorous videos and working at the biggest studios with the priciest producers, MF Doom took an anti-mainstream approach, donning the infamous mask and continuing to self-produce and collaborate. He, being Daniel, didn’t care about himself and receiving credit as the mind behind MF Doom, to an extent that he would send other rappers with the MF Doom mask to some of his shows. In fact, it can be said that MF Doom isn’t dead. His creator is. Dumile always saw MF Doom as a character, one that can be played interchangeably by anyone. Fans never quite responded to this. They had trouble separating the man from the character, and many of the other rappers donning the MF Doom mask were booed off-stage. Most people never really understood the point of the mask. It wasn’t part of his image. It was his attempt at cultivating an anti-image, of staying behind his music rather than in front of it wearing chains and dancing with models.
Business model aside, MF Doom created some of the best rap and hip-hop songs ever. His modern twist on classical sampling was paradigm-shifting early in his career. He would constantly sample music from various genres like Jazz and Classical, as well as West African music, but he would also sample films and cartoons and reiterations of comic books. He once mentioned in an interview how little he listens to hip-hop, instead opting to explore other genres, and fusing them into his visionary production. On the lyrical side, MF Doom wrote some of the best rhymes ever, some of the best wordplays, puns, and hidden messages in rap. His verses range from the absurd to the hilarious to the thought-provoking and everything in between.
In a way, MF Doom’s music has every characteristic of what could today be seen as mainstream rap: eccentric, niche, danceable, featuring beautiful, lush musical textures and a rich iconography behind the music, a conceptual coherence that glued his body of works together. On top of that, he collaborated with so many visionary artists, most of whom also on the sidelines of mainstream music. The reason he is not as well known as your average mainstream rap was that the industry didn’t like the way he played the game. The music industry, in a quest for profits, has a natural tendency to cultivate and perpetuate the fallacy that making it as a musician requires you do things a certain way, go through the appropriate channels, and cut in the appropriate people. It’s pointless to show the industry that there are people on the fringes who have a following and make a living, because the money they lose turning their backs to those folks pales in comparison with what they stand to gain from packaging the folks within the inner circle the way they do.
Dumile died in London, where he was born, but a place that wasn’t actually his home. He left at a young age and moved to America, and spent all his formative years there, grinding alongside other legendary MCs. He never bothered to secure his status as a US citizen, and once he was denied entry back into America, forcing him to spend time away from his family, before they would join him a few years later, he called London his headquarters and began a series of collaborations with British artists just as effortlessly as he once did with American artists. He said in interviews after that that he was done with America, but it’s still nothing short of injustice for the US to deny him entry back to the country he called home for nearly 40 years.
Many of the best artists in history never gained the fame, riches and recognition they were due in their living years, and Dumile is no exception, though he always said that he got everything he aimed for from his career. He got to have one. He got to touch lives and influence an entire generation of rappers, and he never once acted bitterly that some of them achieved fame and status, and he got to have a family and kid and care for them. If people truly understood MF Doom, he could live on, take many shapes and feature a variety of rappers behind the mask. There still may be time too. Regardless, MF Doom’s rich discography is timeless and mandatory homework for rappers and all musicians alike. MF Doom’s music displays encyclopedic knowledge of many styles of music and art, as well as vast knowledge of politics, philosophy and mythology, while really committing to none of them as an inseparable staple of his ever-evolving sound. MF Doom released what MF Doom liked, and every concern from reception to profits was an afterthought. As much as I aspire to make a living from music, it’s these philosophies and approaches that I hope to help guide me in my own journey in music, as do many of my contemporaries. This is why MF Doom, the villain, is a hero to so many.
Arya Afshar is a musician/film composer/Sound Designer and founder of IDDQD Sound. In his spare time he makes Youtube tutorials, occasionally does some standup comedy, and rants against the rise of fascism and terrible recycling habits.