Celebrating the life of British American rap icon MF DOOM, gone at 49
From its genesis in the burned-out, tagged-subway Bronx of the late seventies, hip-hop has been a landscape carved out by charisma and personality.
Verbal jabs and demands for respect are mutually volleyed, insistences on great prowess and acumen are baked into the very crust of the art, and somehow, decades before ‘branding’ became the buzzword of a still-fresh millennium, rappers replaced rockstars as the most glamorous of anti-heroes in our collective pop-culture consciousness. Coming with bars wasn’t enough, you had to be somebody, more menacing or beguiling or esoteric than the rest, a better storyteller, a better guru and sharer of wisdom. If the oppressive grids of bloodstained streets and sidewalks these young men and women navigated were a tenth as twilit and cutthroat as their words portrayed, then swagger and braggadocio was a mandatory survival trait.
So what then to make of one of the only notable rappers to don a mask in service of their identity? Masks as a concept have been around for nearly as long as civilization itself, meant to conceal features or exaggerate them, to assume a different identity to subvert or confuse expectations. In a genre brimming with eager faces spitting lyrical fire towards cameras (and later phone screens), Daniel Dumile coldly assembled his own persona of steel-cold superhero dominance and let his intricate wordplay do the talking. It worked. As its been said many times before, DOOM was likely to be ‘your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper’, shunning the mantle of cultural powerhouse so many of his peers clamored for, choosing instead to linger in the game’s margins like a mysterious and malevolent phantom. It was part of what made him one of the all-time greats. He’d record and perform under many aliases, but he was always DOOM , a force of nature behind a mask and a mic.
A struggle for identity and narrative has always been a crucial element of DOOM ’s story. He was born in the UK but raised on Long Island, first tasting hip-hop success as part of KMD alongside his brother DJ Subroc. With Subroc’s untimely passing in 1993, KMD disbanded and Dumile briefly retreated into obscurity. Though his eventual comeback would prove earth-shaking in hip-hop circles, this would not be the first untimely tragedy that would haunt DOOM, lending an inscrutable weight to his heaviest verses, the turns of phrase that stopped the heart before the next sharp verbal uppercut.
In a late 90s NYC scene still reeling from the East Coast/West Coast strife that cost the game two of its towering icons, Dumile returned, masked and hungry to stake his claim. Through his boundless passion for collaboration as much as his own solo discs, he’d grab serious critical attention throughout the first decade of the 2000s. He traded bars and beats with the well-matched likes of Danger Mouse, Bishop Nehru, and kindred spirit Ghostface Killah, but it was his collaboration with Madlib, 2004’s Madvilliany, that would yield his groundbreaking masterpiece, an album still spoken of with hushed reverence by most of those who have encountered its spectral, spellbinding wonders. Never one to court the attention of the media, Dumile was soon notorious for his use of live stand-ins, but the hype machine plowed on relentless. DOOM’s place in the canon of rap greats was official.
Sadly, much of what would come was of a darker shade. Having never gained U.S. citizenship, he was denied re-entry to the United States in 2010. He lived the rest of his life in the England of his birth, telling the press he was ‘done with the United States’. And though he took part in many memorable collaborations until his passing, his solo career ended with Born Like This in 2009. In 2017, tragedy would again darken his door with the loss of a fourteen-year-old son. An enigmatic masked man caught between two continents and cultures, DOOM seemed to have shunned the spotlight for good.
And then, last Thursday, as many of us were preparing to put the crushing entropy of 2020 behind us forever, one last blow went out over the wire: Dumile’s wife Jasmine shared on social media that he’d ‘transitioned’ this past Halloween. He was 49, and no cause of death was provided. It was a death date befitting of a man who built his empire around a fierce mask, an eerie, shadowy presence.
Though always big on the grandiose and melodramatic, DOOM was not a rapper for those who sought cults of personality. His work, which could be scathing one minute and insightful the next, downright funny as often as it was skillfully-woven, seemed earmarked for those who appreciated his raw gift for wordplay, the construction of his rhymes and their inherent rhythms. He was the epitome of a ‘rapper’s rapper’, and perhaps that’s the most fitting way to close a eulogy for this singular, game-changing artist: in an era of huge characters, DOOM lurked behind a mask but outshone them all.