In a video shot at Reading Festival in 2012, two young hip-hop stars — Grammy Award-winning Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt — stand at the side of the stage transfixed by a metal-mask-wearing MC who tells the crowd to “remember all caps when you spell the man’s name”. After the show, they chase after the rapper for a photo opportunity, giggling like two giddy teenagers who have just met their celebrity crush. The enigmatic MC obliges, but barely says a word.
MF DOOM, who died on Halloween at 49 but whose death was announced on New Year’s Day, was known as the “rapper’s rapper”. Despite little mainstream success, over his 32-year career the British-American’s idiosyncratic flow and eschewing of hip-hop trends influenced an entire generation of artists in hip-hop and beyond, from Drake to Mos Def to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who described his rhyming style as “shocking in its genius”.
Born in London while his mother was visiting family friends, Daniel Dumile spent his formative years in New York, first emerging on the Long Island hip-hop scene in 1988 as one-third of the group KMD alongside his brother Dingilizwe (aka DJ Subroc). The band’s 1991 debut record, Mr Hood, garnered some attention but the trio’s career was tragically cut short after Dingilizwe, 19, was killed crossing the Nassau Expressway in 1993. Shortly afterwards, their second album was shelved. Dumile, by all accounts, disappeared from the scene, later telling Wire Magazine he spent the next few years “near homeless”.
In 1997, Dumile reappeared at local hip-hop nights in Atlanta. Yet something had changed. During his performances the lights were dimmed, and his face was covered by a stocking like an amateur bank robber. A year later, he switched to a metal mask in homage to the Marvel Comics arch-villain Dr Doom, and MF DOOM was born — a self-styled anti-hero hell-bent on global domination.
Released in 1999, MF DOOM’s debut Operation Doomsday was a landmark in independent hip-hop. Also produced by Dumile, the record introduced his signature refractive rhyming style (“A pied piper holler a rhyme, a dollar and a dime/ Do his thing, ring around the white-collar crime”) and instrumentals that drew from superhero cartoons, jazz standards and The Beatles.
The mask was a way of shifting the conversation away from what Dumile saw as a trend in hip-hop towards, as he put it in a 2015 interview, “what things look like opposed to what they sound like”. For the next two decades, he was rarely seen in public without his metal face.
Anonymity also provided Dumile with the space to switch voices and perspectives, and he followed up Operation Doomsday with two critically acclaimed releases in 2003 under the aliases King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughan. Yet it wasn’t until the following year that Dumile’s loquacious flow became cemented in hip-hop legend.
Recorded over a tortuous two years, Madvillainy, a collaboration with crate-digging producer Madlib, is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of the past two decades. Spanning 22 brisk tracks that draw on samples from the likes of Sun Ra, Stevie Wonder and Steve Reich, Madvillainy finds MF DOOM at his zenith: at once quizzical, confounding and comical.
From opener Accordion (“Slip like Freudian/ the first and last step to playing yourself like accordion”) to closer Rhinestone Cowboy (“Got more sole than a sock with a hole”), Dumile’s elastic flow stretched the genre into shapes it didn’t know it could form. The album’s centrepiece, Figaro, contains some of the densest verses ever committed to tape, with Dumile’s syrupy baritone belying layers of interlocking rhyme schemes, double entendres and abstract imagery.
Riding a wave of critical acclaim, later in 2004 MF DOOM released MM . . Food, a collection of songs riffing on culinary metaphors which ranged from the ridiculousness of rap feuds (Beef Rapp) to his brother’s death (Kon Karne). Dumile was now in demand. In 2005 he teamed up with musician and producer Danger Mouse (formerly of Gnarls Barkley) to release The Mouse & The Mask, and produced tracks on former Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah’s record Fishscale. He even contributed verses to Gorillaz’ sophomore record, Demon Days.
MF DOOM’s last solo release, 2009’s Born Like This, was met with praise but marked the beginning of a slow retreat from music. After being refused entry to the US in 2010, Dumile moved to the UK and his output became limited to guest appearances, collaborations and mooted records with famous rappers that were never released.
Dumile’s legacy, however, was already secured. To aspiring hip-hop artists in the noughties watching Kanye West and 50 Cent compete over who could sell the most albums, MF DOOM’s singular dedication to the craft of rap showed another way. For many fans and artists of this generation, the self-proclaimed “best MC with no chain you ever heard” will be remembered as just that.