MF DOOM: 1971 – 2020

Equally beguiling and virtuosic, the MC was among the most unforgettable forces in hip-hop history.

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MF DOOM performs in London in 2011. Credit: Jim Dyson/Redferns.

When MF DOOM’s widow, Jasmine Dumile, broke the news via Instagram yesterday afternoon that her husband had passed away on October 31 at the age of 49, the mourning from peers, fans and critics across the web was staggering. The passion and pain from a wide swath of the hip-hop community made clear that he had a singular impact on rap music, from the underground and experimental to the mainstream.

A sentiment that popped up more than once was a line from his 1999 classic “Doomsday.” He raps, “On Doomsday!, ever since the womb/’til I’m back where my brother went, that’s what my tomb will say/Right above my government; Dumile/Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who’s to say?” One bar, ’til I’m back where my brother went, hit particularly hard: In so many ways, DOOM’s career was shaped by the reverence he held for his brother as an artist, and by the heartbreak that fueled him after his brother was tragically killed, at age 19, in 1993.

DOOM, born Daniel Dumile in London in 1971 and raised on Long Island, first emerged on the scene as Zev Love X, and alongside his younger brother, DJ Subroc, he formed the group KMD in the late 1980s. They signed to Elektra Records, and just before they were set to release their second album, Black Bastards, Subroc was hit by a car and died. The album was shelved, and DOOM disappeared into the shadows, privately railing against the label that betrayed him and the world that took his brother away. It was the beginning of a new origin story for DOOM, of a man forged in both grief and escapism. In Atlanta and New York, he invented and refined his beguiling persona as a masked villain, broken and reassembled in the tragedy of his loss. Soon enough DOOM arrived as a metal-faced outlaw, born of the comic history of Doctor Doom.

His debut solo LP, Operation: Doomsday, was released in 1999 on Bobbito’s label, Fondle ’Em Records. DOOM handled the production throughout under the moniker Metal Fingers, save for “The Hands of Doom,” which featured a beat his brother made before his passing. The album is a stellar encapsulation of DOOM’s beautifully revolutionary approach to language, showcasing a preternatural ability to find rhymes the rest of us would never dream of pairing together. Though DOOM’s is now an unimpeachable, household name, it took a few years for the scene to recognize his all-time talent.

After releasing his second LP under the King Geedorah billing, DOOM’s first true breakthrough came in 2004, when he teamed up with the producer Madlib for the classic Madvillainy LP, without a doubt one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. On it, DOOM creates a new way of rapping, where songs aren’t dominated by a verse-chorus structure but by how individual bars interact with one another. It’s a style that worked particularly well with Madlib’s dusty, heavily sampled beats, and while DOOM reached many other artistic highs in his career, Madvillainy remains a standout amongst a discography full of brilliance. Released months before his staggering solo LP Mm..Food, it’s hard to fathom a better year than the one MF DOOM had in 2004.

DOOM took a cue from the album’s success and released another collaborative LP the next year, dropping The Mouse and the Mask with Dangermouse. It showcases DOOM at his most playful, smiling through the tedious task of proving his legendary status. The Mouse and the Mask was his most acclaimed LP from 2005 until 2009, when he dropped Born Like This, less a return to form than one final validation of his superiority. Though it was DOOM’s last solo LP, his presence continued to loom large over the rap community as a whole. We knew he probably wasn’t truly coming back, but the allure of a second Madvillain LP or just one more solo album kept us excited.

He was the rare MC who was beyond reproach, his impact on rap impossible to accurately state. And now he’s gone, with the rest of us carrying on for two months before knowing that the music world has been irrevocably lessened. It’s one last gut punch from 2020, but we can celebrate the impossibly rich perspective he left us, knowing he’s back where his brother went, making one more KMD album he’s been waiting to begin for 30 years.

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