MF DOOM is one of hip-hop’s greatest (and most complicated) anomalies.
The weeks following the announcement of his departure have seen an outpouring of reverence from peers, pedestrians, and disciples alike. Not just for his monotone self-mythologizing or for his singular ability to avert and subvert public life and norms or even for the DIY ethos he brought to every session and instilled into the broader M.O. of indie rap. But, perhaps, most endearingly, for how he built a world as expansive as it was hidden from the common gaze beneath the sheen of mainstream hip-hop. And how everyone felt welcomed in it regardless of what brought them.
That last part hits the hardest for this particular fan. As I spoke with friends and artists in and outside of music about the projects that pulled them in, it seemed everyone was drawn from a distinct vantage, and for disparate reasons, to a different facet of DOOM’s artistry. Some loved the “lo-fi” aesthetic he damn-near singlehandedly developed as a bedroom producer (long before it was the standard.) Others came for the one-liners or the impossible consistency of his pen. But no matter how you landed in DOOM’s world, it was the perfect point of entry.
There are still so many aspects of DOOM’s impact on music and art at large left to examine; the contentious rivalry between his alter-egos, the very logical adoption into the Adult Swim family, the knack for sampling some of the most ubiquitous and accessible R&B ever recorded. And after a few more laps around the sun, it’s entirely likely a few more remaining angles will surface.
But until then, we’ve collected the varying testimonies of 10 writers, rappers, producers, and curators, each sharing their earliest memories of The Villain’s music and why those introductions led to lifelong infatuations.
When I was in high school, my senior year during Turkey Day, we went up to Chicago. My sister was going to school up there and her roommate was a family friend. He was working on making a beat and said it reminded him of MF DOOM and I was like, “Who??”
And he laced me. He gave me an MP3 CD that had four or five albums on there. I got Vaudeville Villain, Operation: Doomsday, Venomous Villain, Madvillainy, and some Special Herbs were on there. The fact that I knew he was making most of the beats blew my mind. It really made me want to rap and produce and record and have aims over how I present regardless of the circumstances. I’ve tried to do that since.
I remember there was this website where you could download underground rap music videos (the name completely escapes me though). This was when there was nowhere else to watch them – MTV or BET definitely wasn’t giving them any airplay. This was also the era where it’d take hours to download a movie file on dial-up internet, so anything I had to wait that long for, had better been worth it.
Anyway, I was going through what they had on there, which was only maybe 10 to 20 videos, tops. I had been seeing the MF DOOM name around online and in Elemental Magazine at the time. I checked out the video for “I Hear Voices Pt. 1” and was blown away. Just the raw energy and originality of it, I’d never heard anything like that. I must’ve watched it like 10 times that first day. I bought Operation: Doomsday on CD soon after that and have been a fan ever since.
I got into DOOM when I was in high school in San Diego. Hip-hip didn’t have a huge footprint in my town — house music was more so the musical driver in SD — so we’d drive up to LA, two hours away, for shows and DOOM was one of my first real backpacker experiences.
His energy was so authentic and honest and the crowds at his shows reflected that. Moving through the sea of people, pushing your way to the front was more of a simple and fluid movement of shared appreciation for the musical experience vs. the elbow sharpening you might experience at a more straightforward rap show. Oh and clouds of smoke. Like so much weed, that even if you didn’t smoke, you were high as fuck.
Madvillainy was actually the CD that played when my alarm went off for school in the morning, back when CD players ran our lives and apparently had built-in alarm clocks. Particularly the song “Meat Grinder,” would wake me up – what a time. I’m sure my mom loved that. Madvillainy is such a musically daring album – each song really tells a story on its own and somehow the entire body of work maintains a thoughtful consistency that very few artists have been able to achieve in hip-hop. The song “Accordion” always gets me lyrically – somehow DOOM magically tells years of lived experience, layering concepts of ego, pop culture, and intellectual references in a single line: “Slip like Freudian/Your first and last step to playin’ yourself like accordion.”
The way the song starts, “livin’ off borrowed time, the clock tick faster,” is forever burned into my mind because the concept of time was never something I really thought about until I heard this lyric and now the concept of time being borrowed, hearing it as an adult, feels too real. Now that I am thinking about it more deeply, DOOM was a big inspiration for my early career as a journalist. He was such a stoic and truthful storyteller that made you listen – a skill very few possess and have the ability to uphold over time.
[I got into DOOM] during the P2P file sharing Kazaa era. I remember being mind-blown that you could get instrumentals to rap songs — or that they were even for sale somewhere. Back then I cared a lot more about the beats than the raps (got me in a lot less trouble with my parents) and I believe one of the Special Herbs was my very first intro to DOOM.
I stuck to the instrumentals for a minute before the kids in my band class at school were like, “Yo you need to hear MF DOOM.” I was into comics as a kid, so it was almost like I had always known he existed but never fully processed who he was or what he was doing. I think it was when I discovered that he had alter-egos that I became obsessed. Victor Vaughn, King Geedorah, Madvillain. It was amazing to be able to discover this whole world almost at once.
I will say that none of that matters without some of the best witty bars and amazing samples flipped into iconic beats. But the fact that you could tell he was sampling old movies or cartoons in addition to Sade and shit like that was amazing to me. It made me an immediate fan. He was fearless and didn’t care what people thought and that energy is really important to young listeners. I think a lot of artists attempt to create a world for the listener to step into but nobody has matched DOOM on the level of intricacy and depth to what he created. Others have tried since and it almost always feels like an homage or parody of DOOM. That speaks to the level of Dumile’s genius.
I got into MF DOOM in 2005. My older brother Zach is responsible for putting me on to a lot of music growing up and would read Pitchfork, Stylus, PopMatters, and others often. I think Madvillainy was on a lot of year-end 2004 lists and prompted Zach to buy the record. I was definitely more into hip-hop than him at the time but hadn’t heard much of DOOM yet. When [Madvilliany] hit us it blew our minds. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. I went as deep as I could into the DOOM world after that.
It’s still arguably my favorite album of all time. The record was always so cinematic to me and innovative in ways that really expanded my view of what music could be. The “Bistro” interlude has always been so funny to me: “Live on the beats, we have the one and only Madlib. We also have King Geedorah on the mix. Yesterday’s New Quintet’s here. Viktor Vaughn, Quasimoto. And I’m your host, The Supervillain.” He just shouted himself, Madlib, and then two alter egos for each of them. It’s performance art. I’ll never get over “Fancy Clown,” a diss track from one alter-ego to the other, calling himself out for sleeping with his girl. “Now you apologize, that’s what they all say. You wasn’t sorry when you sucked him off in the hallway. But have it your way, raw — no foreplay. That’s you if you want a dude who wear a mask all day.” What rapper is going to write a song dissing himself? It’s brilliant.
Of course I was captivated by the technicality of his rhymes and his unmatched ability to weave through a beat, but it’s the characters and the plots that really pulled me in. I took a class my senior year of high school with an English teacher called “Jazz to Hip-Hop” and the final assignment was to write about your favorite record. It was super open-ended and I decided to essentially write Madvilliany fanfiction — Madvillainy: The Music —imagining a gritty, empty off-broadway theater where DOOM and Madlib were performing the record. I was really in awe of the world DOOM built. I still am.
Maaaannnn, I got into DOOM like sophomore year — english class messy ass binder. Started writing poetry as well at that time and my nigga Conquest put me on to Madvillainy. Life Changing. I had already heard of Madlib and heard a few beats, but this was my first time playing a full album he was part of as well. Bro just said how he felt and what we all thought of on some insecurity but laughing-off-your-pain type shit. It’s like a comedian making a comic book in front of you in the studio but that nigga can also produce. So getting into Special Herbs, MM..Food, Operation: Doomsday, Dangerdoom, and JJ DOOM made everything else make sense. To me, at least, as a kid.
I got into MF DOOM around my freshman year of college. I had heard his name in my peripheral for a while but never dove in. I was just getting my feet wet with rapping seriously and someone compared me to him. That was the final straw that penetrated my bastion of neglect. The first album I listened to was MM.. FOOD. I fell asleep to that album, woke up and started my morning with it. The entire experience blew my mind because for the first time since Kid Cudi I had found another rapper that felt as strange and alone as I feel to this day. His approach to rap in my opinion represented a nearly perfect balance of world-building, wordplay, metaphoric potency, sincere weight. He had a wonderful vocabulary but he did not need to be overbearing with verbiage to showcase skill. He showed me what controlling one’s chaos can look like even up until the very end. Even when I found out we have the same name, it was a pleasant surprise, seeing as I usually come across bums with it. DOOM was a true anomaly that I will continue to sharpen my sword against for eternity.
My memory is super fuzzy on the exact age I was but I know I was in like seventh or eighth grade. I just remember I was super young, and I saw The Cool Kids do an interview where, I believe, Mikey [Rocks] told the interviewer Chuck [Inglish] had put him onto MF DOOM and he’d been bumping it heavy. Those guys are two more idols of mine so when I knew they were amazed by this guy, too, I’m like, “man he’s really like your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper.” I know some of the first songs I recorded in high school were inspired by DOOM. Even the beats. I used a few DOOM beats on my first tape. The Supervillain has been my teacher for as long as I can remember and still is. The reclusiveness man, the story, the bars especially. I was like the biggest nerd about it too and I don’t care.
I think Doomsday and “One Beer” probably the first joints I heard. I loved MM.. FOOD and Doomsday, but Madvillainy changed my whole shit. I used to play that album on repeat on my stepdad’s loud ass crib sound system all day. I would stop songs midway through and go to the computer, look up the instrumental to a joint on the album and then write to it. I wrote this song called “The Claw” over the “All Caps” beat. I was smitten, bro. I wanted to be the rapper that made Madvillainy. [I] just couldn’t fathom being that talented, weird, and yourself all at once. More than the music, though, was the fact that my homies didn’t really listen to him. It’s my own secret healing potion, man. DOOM was that Lil evil smirk you get when you feel like being mischievous. Just so clever.
The Villain origin story was so wild to me that when I first heard it I didn’t really even believe it. And also the mask. It was all so bizarre but cool. I was a little kid so this not just a rapper to me this is a living, breathing comic book anti-hero. He was also never in the public eye like that, so it’s like, “damn what’s he doing right now?” You imagine him in an evil lair plotting. That’s so dope to me. Even when I heard about his passing, I was like, “nah, he’s in a cave right now with a hologram globe spinning and he’s watching us all cry with a malicious grin.”
My younger brother Théo Mode introduced me to MF DOOM in 2004. I remember him having Mm..Food and Madvilliany on his old not-an-iPod-ass MP3 player with those horrible wire headphones that broke every two seconds. Even with that sound quality, he pulled me in. DOOM could convey that he didn’t take himself too seriously but was easily the best. His talent seemed like water to him and he was always spilling it everywhere. DOOM made cohesive art pieces with his music, soundscapes that really brought you into his world and made you stay there for the whole album.
I first got into MF DOOM after watching The Boondocks. They used Madvillainy as the soundtrack for the entire episode. When I heard those beats and that monotone ass voice I was baffled. How do I not know who this person is already? I love this. I spent weeks trying to track all these songs down.
When I heard the piano roll at the beginning of “Raid,” everything that happened after it was like a shotgun to the heart, man. I knew I just discovered gold. Once I finally did track down the album, I studied it like the Bible. I never heard anyone rap like that. I didn’t even know it was possible. Hearing DOOM rap was like when Galileo [Galilei] was trying to tell everyone about the earth revolving around the sun. I was in disbelief.
The introduction was so intense for me because I had been hearing about DOOM for years. The name always intrigued me, and how I heard people talk about him, he really was a folklore legend. And it being a random song on The Boondocks was an unbiased introduction to it. No one raps like DOOM, so the moment you hear it, whether you like it or not, you’re like, “What the fuck is that?”
Illustration by @popephoenix for Okayplayer
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