Interview with MF Doom: The Supervillain

Written by Eva Neuberg on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


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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