RIP Daniel Dumile
(July 13, 1971 – October 31, 2020)
GENG PTP aka King Vision Ultra memorializes the legacy of the late MF DOOM, who died on Halloween day 2020. GENG shares some memories about NYC hip hop in the 90s, muses on the similarities between KMD and De La, and praises the enduring influence of one of hip hop’s greatest artists.
Episode 21: FOOD + MUSIC [MF DOOM tribute]
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Interview recorded between Montreal and Queens, January 2021
Produced and mixed in Montreal, October 2021
Earlier this year, I profiled GENG and his label Purple Tape Pedigree in the episode Before the Internet. We spoke first in May 2020, just after the murder of George Floyd. We spoke again in January, to catch up on the wave of protests that had begun since last we spoke, and also to discuss the excellent LP An Unknown Infinite, which he produced under the name King Vision Ultra in collaboration with the young MC, Amani. But so much of that second conversation ended up being about the influence of MF DOOM that I knew right then I’d have to do a second episode, and here we are, on the one year anniversary of his passing.
News broke of the death of Daniel Dumile on New Year’s Eve, though it was announced with no further explanation that he had passed two months earlier, on Halloween. Fitting on so many levels, a twisted bit of reality and fiction right out of the man’s rhyme book. The significance of MF DOOM leaving this planet on Halloween during the pandemic was lost on neither of us. As GENG says in this episode, “the irony of DOOM passing on Halloween, a day where masks are, you know, a regular thing, in the year that the mask became a daily accessory for everyone.” A poetic ending for one of hip hop’s great poets.
GENG’s roots in NYC hip hop run deep; as a member of the Atoms Family crew, he witnessed the formative years of underground hip hop, including the making of Cannibal Ox‘s landmark debut The Cold Vein. He was a regular at the Nuyorican and Wetlands, and recorded many shows during the peak years of the underground, including early, maskless MF DOOM performances. DOOM is far from the only legend the culture has lost in recent years, and the importance of having archivists like GENG who were there documenting these formative moments is hard to overstate.
GENG’s already paid tribute to the legacy of the Supervillain in the most appropriate way possible; with music. Each tribue is unique. GENG produced a mix for NY’s Montez Radio that intersperses Dumile’s musics and verse with original music he sampled to make his beats. But before that Geng also circulated a revised version of Dumile’s second solo album, King Geedorah‘s Take Me To Your Leader (2003). King Geedorah and the Monsta Island Czars (MIC) had already been named dropped on DOOM’s comeback LP, the classic Operation: Doomsday (1999), where “King Ghidra” is credited as a guest MC on two tracks. But his second LP furthered the lyricist’s utilization of alter-egos. Where the MF DOOM persona draws on Marvel Comic’s Doctor Doom (and Dumile’s own nickname derived from his surname), King Geedorah makes reference to Godzilla’s archenemy. Perhaps fittingly, given that the kaiju is a three-headed monster from outer space, Dumile rounded out his stable of characters with a third, Viktor Vaughn. A play on Victor Von Doom, the real name of the Marvel villain, Viktor Vaughn’s debut, Vaudeville Villain was released later the same year as Take Me To Your Leader.
Operation: Doomsday was produced entirely by MF DOOM himself, but the spectacle DOOM’s persona, and his skills as a witty and biting lyricist who would bend and twist language to his desires, often overshadowed what a gifted beat maker he was. That pair of LPs from 2003 already showed the tension at play in his work, which could vary in quality. King Geedorah’s debut was produced by DOOM (credited as the Metal Fingered Villain), while the beats on Vaudeville Villain, all from that label’s stable, are often subpar. GENG remarks that this too was the beauty of DOOM; King Geedorah allowed the lyricist to take a view from above, as the alien space monster come to destroy, while Viktor Vaughn could take the fall for the transparent cash grab. For instance, on “The Drop,” he repeatedly calls himself out, taking barbs usually aimed at other rappers and aiming them at himself (“They out of place, beats sounds like outer space/ With no time to waste he was Audi without a trace”). Yet even when he wasn’t operating at his highest level, he still graced listeners with vicious punchlines and an acrobatic flow (“You saw his face? so who next to get they neck chopped/ Or popped like a Beck’s top, respect the drop.”) He calls out the quality of the beats (“The beat sound like they underwater, make it fun to slaughter”; “Even if you hear some wack shit you never give a chance/ Some shit sound like all you could do off it is river-dance”) while also imploring himself to do better (“It’s not a hobby, don’t be sloppy/ Doing deals with these labels is likened to a botched robbery”).
So GENG put together a “revised version” of Take Me To Your Leader to address some of the insufficiencies. Explaining why he made this new version, GENG writes,
For me, [Take Me To Your Leader] always felt more like a compilation than an album – and maybe even a ploy to get a quick payout with a new release at half the effort by the supervillain himself (see the sheer amount of songs sans DOOM). I say the latter bit with utmost respect for and actual proximity to him (via other members of CM/Bobbito’s Fondle Em Records, SD50’s, and the Monsta Island click), knowing that he didn’t leave the house as DOOM without some bread attached to it. Those tales of DOOM soaking in the hip hop energy at open mic nights in the LES are fraudulent internet-based mythologies, and frankly, they miss the point of how real his living situation was back then… he didn’t know/care that much about the underground hip hop scene as he was on self preservation time.
That tension, DOOM as both a great artist and a capitalist, reflects the reality of Dumile’s daily struggles during the 1990s. Of course when he found fame in the 2000s he milked those opportunities for whatever they were worth, from oddball collaborations to working with Adult Swim (a playbook followed by many other rappers since). Dumile’s career began with the founding of KMD in 1988, alongside his younger brother, DJ Subrock. Known at that time as Zev Love X, he made his recording debut on 3rd Bass‘s single, “The Gas Face” (1989). Produced by Prince Paul, a maskless Dumile appears in the video, thin and smiling. While that 3rd Bass verse helped KMD get a record deal with Elektra, Dumile also quickly learned that fame could be a double-edged sword. The day before performing the song on the Arsenio Hall show, Dumile was jumped in his neighborhood of Long Beach; if you look carefully, you can see his left arm is in a cast during the performance.
KMD’s debut, Mr. Hood, was released in 1991, and the single “Peachfuzz” quickly became a local hit. Associated with the Long Island crew Native Tongues, which included the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, KMD stood out as just a bit darker and with rhymes that addressed racism more explicitly. But just before finishing their sophomore LP, Black Bastards, Dumile’s younger brother Subroc was tragically killed at the age of only 19, struck by a car while attempting to cross the Long Island Expressway. To compound the tragedy, Elektra refused to released Black Bastards, fearing controversy after Terri Grossi, a white woman, complained about the cover art. The image, drawn by Dumile, depicts a stereotypical cartoon Sambo figure being lynched. Obvious to context, the critic found the image racist, and the label dropped KMD, leaving Dumile with the masters and 20 Gs in severance. Black Bastards circulated in widespread bootlets, but didn’t receive an official release until 2000, after Zev Love X reemerged as MF DOOM.
In the intervening years, the man retreated from public view, until appearing unannounced in 1998 at a show at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side, a spot that incubated many great talents. Earlier in 1997 and 1998, with the encouragement of Bobbito Garcia (of the legendary radio show Stretch & Bobbito), Dumile had already broken his silence with several singles released on Garcia’s fledging label Fondle ‘Em. These singles, including “Hey!” and “Greenbacks,” were hits with the heads, and inaugurated the MF DOOM persona. He didn’t have the mask yet, which would eventually settle on a variation of the mask worn by Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator (2000), but listening to a live tape recorded that night, it’s clear that many in the crowd already knew all the lyrics. A villain is born.
The release of Operation: Doomsday, which many still regard as his finest work, in 1999 announced the arrival of underground hip hop. Hip hop had entered an era in which the genre had transcended into mainstream pop, shiny outfits, and braggadocious materialism. Rap had largely moved away from sampling by this time (lawyered out of existence), and the role of the lyricist was fading in favor of a culture of celebrity and image. In contrast, the Villain exploded on the scene, face covered, beats comprised mainly of ’80s music that most producers wouldn’t touch. Despite the steady stream of punchlines that make DOOM a comedic legend in addition to being a poet, there is a pervasive sadness in this music. But that just adds to the music’s power, and hey, the sad clown is a trope for a reason. The loss of Subroc is rarely addressed directly, but features prominently in two singles, including “?” and the eponymous “Doomsday.” On that track, surely one of DOOM’s finest, he flips a sample from Sade‘s “Kiss of Life,” transforming it into one of popular music’s greatest statements of brotherly love (“When I was led to you/ I knew you were the one for me.”) Love songs abound, and unrequited love is a common theme, but I can count on one hand earnest examples of songs about the love between siblings. “?” is an elegy for his lost brother, the last full track on the album. “Doomsday” is a re-introduction, a statement of purpose (“Of the fly brown 6-0 sicko psycho who throws his dick around/ Bound to go three-plat, came to destroy rap”) but also a direct reference to the loss of his brother (“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?”).
His second LP as DOOM, 2004’s MM..FOOD (an anagram of MF DOOM) comes close to matching the genius of its predecessor. It also helps to unlock a prominent theme in Dumile’s catalogue: food. DOOM was out to make money, to provide for himself and his family, but he was also out here providing nourishment for the culture. Released in multiple versions between 2001 and 2005, the ten-volume Special Herbs collected instrumental beats made for himself and others, including frequent collaborator MF Grimm (who appeared on Sesame Street as a child, which somehow makes perfect sense given Dumile’s penchant for sampling such children’s shows). Released under the moniker Metal Fingers, Special Herbs demonstrates Dumile’s skills as a producer. His beats often deploy simple techniques (speeding and slowing the beat, as on “Tick, Tick…”) or combine recognizable samples and breaks. But this is a testament to the man’s skills, working with a limited palette, making those constraints into a virtue. The instrumentals range from the funky disco edits and hard hitting boom bap beats. The psychedelic tinge, exaggerated by the use of noise, texture, and samples taken from cartoon records, seems to anticipate the beat scene that would emerge later in the decade. And that’s no surprise. Given how many MCs learned to rhyme over these beats, just as many beatmakers learned how to spice up their own compositions with these special herbs.
DOOM would famously collaborate with Madlib for 2004’s Madvillain, probably the work both artists are most widely recognized for. That record certainly made an impact on me, whose hip hop knowledge was mostly limited to Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and Mos Def at the time. Perhaps this contributes to DOOM’s productions being given short shrift, given Madlib’s reputation as the Beat Konducta. But it was partly DOOM’s skills as a beat maker that fostered their relationship, and the work of both producers helped me take hip hop more seriously as music that could be electronic and experimental. In our little world of “experimental and electronic music,” Black music is often left out of the conversation. This is flagrant anti-Blackness, and is directly the result of colorblind constructions of the avant-garde canon underhandedly pursuing a narrative of white cultural nationalism. How much virtual ink has been spilled on the Hauntology discourse in the last decade with no mention of the pioneering role played by dub and hip hop producers? DOOM’s compositions are instructive, as he totally broke the mold, sampling music and tv shows from the 80s, largely music that was considered too contemporary for hip hop to sample at the time, too new sounding. Instead of mining his elder’s record collections, he excavated his own childhood. But that combination of nostalgic recognition, retooled and transformed, is hiding behind all of DOOM’s productions. Remember, this was a man who understood grief. It was Subrock who produced the KMD material, and one might hear in his samples from the 80s the persistent nagging of the memory of what has been lost.
Retooling and transformation is at the core of DOOM’s rhymes as well as his beats, it’s the propulsion that drives him forward. Words don’t just have one meaning, but many simultaneously, a flowering of significance that allows for polysemous interpretation (“Amen, It’s funny how significance make a difference/ Notice parables of three in every other inference”). KMD initially stood for Kausin’ Much Damage, but was later explained to mean Kause (in a) Much Damaged (Society). And while MF out of context most commonly signifies motherfucker (or motherfucking), at various points DOOM refers to himself as Metal Face or Metal Fingers, while Metal Fang and Metal Fist each appear in “Doomsday.” But we could spin out multiple meanings from literally any bars or beats in the man’s catalogue.
For that reason, MF DOOM was truly a rapper’s rapper; his influence is immense. Mainstream stars like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke was quick to pay his respects when news of Dumile’s passing broke, but GENG points out just how wide that influence is even within hip hop. There’s nothing surprising about Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator being superfans, each deadly lyricists and producers in their own right. But tributes to DOOM also poured in from artists like Plaboy Carti, whose aesthetic seems quite removed from the cunning linguistic play and sample-heavy productions of an earlier era. The list of MCs influenced by DOOM could fill a whole article. One can draw a line directly from DOOM’s mathematical word transformations to AKAI SOLO‘s oulipo-esque techniques. Or to billy woods’ refusal to show his face in photographs. Whereas DOOM refocused attention on his words by putting up the mask as the center of attention, woods gives the audience a negative, as if to say, focus on what counts. DOOM is ALLCAPS and woods is lowercase. For sure this is conceptually distinct move, but I can’t help but see them as reacting to similar stimuli. The two lyricists also shared a similar lineage, with Caribbean mothers and Zimbabwean fathers.
This coincidence draws our attention to an important facet of Dumile’s story that is left out in the relentless focus on the mask and the DOOM character. There was a real person behind the art, dealing with real world problems. Branding himself the Supervillain, evoking the likeness of a comic book villain (the leader of the rogue nation of Latveria), wearing a metal mask, all this takes on additional significance when we remember this was all taking shape mostly post-9/11, post-“War on Terror.” Dumile, who was raised in Long Island, happened to be born in London while his mother was visiting there. So despite spending his entire life in the US, and having no ties to the UK, Dumile was thus was denied US citizenship. Raised in the Five-Percent Nation, and later a one-time adherent of the controversial cult Nuwaubian Nation, afrocentric Black muslim ideology played very differently in a post 9/11 America. Dumile was refused re-entry to the USA in 2010, after what was only his second international tour. The Villain had his wings clipped.
From lyrics to image, there are of course many references to Doctor Doom, from the mask to the villain’s origin story to the moniker Viktor. And then we have the Doombots, who would infamously show up in Dumile’s stead for many shows. DOOM started sending impersonators around 2007, during the peak of his post-Madvillainy/DANGERDOOM fame, in which he was playing for mostly white audiences who didn’t appreciate being “duped.” DOOM of course was unperturbed by the negative reactions: “Everything we do is Villain style.” But when we bear in mind his precarious “immigration” status, we are left with a very different interpretation. The man understood the risks of traveling. After 2010 he was based in London, and separated from his family for two years. He rarely performed after this, aside from once in Houston and some festivals in the UK and continental Europe. He largely retreated from public view following the tragic death of his young son in 2014.
A hardcore band I played guitar in broke up in 2003, and I found myself drawn to electronic music and working with DAWs to compensate for the lack of bandmates. Early in 2004, I recorded and mixed some songs for three MC friends from Fordham Road in the Bronx. We all worked together at a Starbucks, and those guys often shared music they were listening to, including the then-little known Kanye West. Working with those guys really helped open me up to hip hop and electronic music more broadly, just in time for the release of Madvillain. This story is probably a complete cliche, but for good reason.
It was also around this time that I really got into De La Soul, still one of my favorite groups. In my conversation with GENG, we couldn’t help but consider the relationship between KMD and De La. They had the Long Island / Native Tongues connection. “Gas Face” was produced by Prince Paul, who produced the first three De La albums. Both groups were trios. But KMD was cut short by the death of Subrock, whereas De La continues with there original line up to this day. But beyond that, the two groups shared a similar admixture of humor, scathing commentary, and gritty reality. De La got pigeon holed by their label’s “Daisy Age” Black hippy marketing, and are still remembered for their day glo image. But they laid that image to waste with De La Soul Is Dead (1991) and Buhloone Mindstate (1993). When we compare Mr. Hood and Black Bastards to these contemporaneous records, the comparison is much clearer.
It’s been a pleasure to be able to speak with GENG, and an honor to contribute to memorializing the late great MF DOOM. “Everything is going according to plan man.”
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
King Geedorah – “Voices Pt. 0 feat. MF GRIMM” (Take Me To Your Leader, Geng’s Mecha-King Ghidorah Deluxe Edition, 2021)
MF DOOM – “The Mystery of Doom (Skit)” (Operation: Doomsday, Fondle ‘Em, 1999)
Metal Fingers – “Peach Extract” (Special Herbs, Vol. 9-0, Shaman Work, 2005)
MF DOOM & Nujabes – “The Mask (Interlude)” (Metaphorical Villainy, Altered Crates, 2020)
Metal Fingers – “Orris Root Powder” (Special Herbs, Vol. 9-0, Shaman Work, 2005)
Viktor Vaughn – “The Drop” (Vaudeville Villain, Sound-Ink, 2003)
Metal Fingers – “Nettle Leaves” (Special Herbs, Vol. 1-2, High Times, 2002)
King Geedorah – “Foolish” (Take Me To Your Leader, Geng’s Mecha-King Ghidorah Deluxe Edition, 2021)
Metal Fingers – “Dragon’s Blood” (Special Herbs, Vol. 5-6, Nature Sounds, 2004)
AMANI + KING VISION ULTRA – “Water” (An Unknown Infinite, PTP, 2020)
Geng – “Hand of Doom (Chopped _ Slowed by Geng)” (Screwing Yourself to Live, PTP, 2012)
MF DOOM – “? (feat. Kurious)” (Operation: Doomsday, Fondle ‘Em, 1999)
Metal Fingers – “Arabic Gum” (Special Herbs, Vol. 3-4, Nature Sounds, 2003)
Playboi Carti – “Stop Breathing” (Whole Lotta Read, Interscope, 2020)
MF DOOM – “Kon Queso” (MM..FOOD, Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2004)
Armand Hammer – “Parables (ft AKAI SOLO, prod. Navy Blue)” (Shrines, Backwoodz, 2020)
MF DOOM – “Operation: Greenbacks” (Operation: Doomsday, Fondle ‘Em, 1999)
Madvillain – “Accordion (instrumental)” (Four Tet Remixes, Stones Throw, 2005)
De La Soul – “I Am I Be” (Buhloone Mindstate, Tommy Boy, 1993)
KMD – “Get-U-Now (instrumental)” (Black Bastards Ruff + Rares, Fondle ‘Em, 1998)
KMD – “Get-U-Now” (Black Bastards, Sub Verse Music, 2001)
Madvillain – “Supervillain Theme (Instrumental)” (Madvillainy, Stones Throw, 2004)
Metal Fingers – “Mullien” (Special Herbs, Vol. 1-2, High Times, 2002)
MF DOOM – “Tick, Tick…(Feat. MF GRIMM) (Operation: Doomsday, Fondle ‘Em, 1999)
Metal Fingers – “Emblica Officinalis” (Special Herbs, Vol. 7-8, 2004)
billy woods – “Borrowed Time” (Today, I Wrote Nothing, Backwoodz, 2015)
Madvillain – “ALL CAPS” (Madvillainy, Stones Throw, 2004)
Ghostface Killah x MF DOOM – “Money Folder” (Operation: Ironman, 2000)
MF DOOM – “Hero vs. Villain (Epilogue)” (Operation: Doomsday, Fondle ‘Em, 1999)
MF DOOM – “Doomsday” (Live at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC, 1998)
MF DOOM – “Doomsday” (Operation: Doomsday, Fondle ‘Em, 1999)
Ras G – “Find Ya Self (ANU Wrld)” (Back On the Planet, Brainfeeder, 2013)
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro. We’ll be back with season three early in 2022.