Without Stan Lee MF DOOM — One of the Greatest Rappers of All Time — Wouldn't Exist
Stan Lee’s Dr. Doom was an integral part to Daniel Dumile’s return to rap. Dumile blended rap and comic book culture in a way that was ahead of its time.
Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics icon who redefined and revolutionized comics culture — transforming superheroes into complex and flawed characters that grounded their superhuman abilities and made them more relatable — died at the age of 95. Iron Man, X-Men, Spider-Man — Lee built an intricate universe that entertained and informed, providing a commentary on real issues America and the rest of the world continue to deal with.
Lee’s influence has extended beyond the pages of the comics he helped create. His presence can be felt especially in rap: Jean Grae taking on the name of X-Men’s telepathic mutant Jean Grey; Ghostface Killah calling his debut album Ironman after the fictional genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist; and the many variant comic covers Marvel has made honoring rap album art from the past and present. Marvel and rap’s relationship reached new heights this year when Kendrick Lamar was enlisted to create the soundtrack for Black Panther.
But Lee also indirectly helped birth one of rap’s most enigmatic and fascinating artists — MF DOOM.
Daniel Dumile wasn’t always MF DOOM. The London-born, New York-raised Dumile made his introduction as a rapper under the name Zev Love X alongside his brother DJ Subroc (Dingilizwe Dumile) in the group KMD in 1988. KMD released Mr. Hood, their debut album, in 1991, which became a minor hit thanks to singles “Peachfuzz” and “Who Me?” In 1993, Black Bastards, the group’s second album, should’ve been released. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the case. Subroc was struck by a car and killed while trying to cross a New York state highway. That same week the group had been dropped from Elektra Records and Black Bastards had been shelved for its controversial cover art, which depicted an image of a sambo character being hanged.
Dumile took a hiatus from rapping from 1994 to 1997 and went back and forth from Atlanta — where his family was residing — and New York where he was “damn near homeless, walking the streets of Manhattan, sleeping on benches and shit,” according to an interview with The Wire magazine in 2005. In 1998 he resurfaced at an open mic poetry session at New York’s Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe as MF DOOM.
DOOM was a response to rap’s braggadocio, a persona that allowed Dumile to subvert a characteristic so ingrained in the genre. The moniker wasn’t just an adaptation of a childhood nickname but a homage to Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom.
“The way comics are written shows you the duality of things, how the bad guy ain’t really a bad guy if you look at it from his perspective. Through that style of writing, I was kinda like, if I flip that into hip-hop, that’s something niggas ain’t done yet,” Dumile told The Wire. “I was looking for an angle that would be brand new. That’s when I came up with the character and worked out the kinks — that’s the villain.”
The Fantastic Four started the Marvel Age of comics in the 1960s, with Dr. Doom making his introduction in The Fantastic Four #5. Dr. Doom served as Lee and artist Jack Kirby‘s take on the grim reaper.
“It was the reason for the armor and the hood,” Kirby said in The Silver Age of Comic Book Art, a book released in 2003. “Death is connected with armor and the inhuman-like steel. Death is something without mercy, and human flesh contains that mercy.”
In The Silver Age, Kirby described Dr. Doom as “paranoid” adding that he “is an evil person, but he’s not always been evil,” likely referencing his origins as Victor Von Doom, a college student whose face was left severely disfigured after failing to create a machine that allowed him to talk to the dead.
Dumile reworked Dr. Doom’s story to introduce his return as DOOM and birth his mythos, saying he went underground for five years, “recovering from his wounds” and swearing revenge “against the industry that so badly deformed him.”
Rap’s proper introduction to DOOM came in 1999 when he released Operation: Doomsday, with the original album art giving Dr. Doom a hip-hop makeover — he still had the steel armor but in place of a green cloak was a green pullover along with a microphone. Dumile isn’t even the first thing listeners hear on Doomsday — instead, it’s a sample from the 1960s Fantastic Four cartoon series, setting up DOOM’s folklore.
“Doom hates us all and in his warped mind he has a personal score to settle with me,” Reed Richards, better known as Fantastic Four founding member Mr. Fantastic, says on the album-opening skit “The Time We Faced Doom.” The skit not only sets up DOOM as a rap persona but foreshadowed the comical, refreshing, and strange approach to rap that made DOOM such a revered rapper.
“Gas Drawls,” one of the standouts of Doomsday, finds DOOM blending humor and wit in a way that pokes fun at rap boasting, where one moment he’ll declare he chooses rhymes like the weapons of war and the next complaining about fighting the Fantastic Four (“Fed up from fightin’ secret war wit’ them Fantastic Four.”) When contextualized in rap, the latter remark is essentially a humble brag — not only can DOOM outrap one’s favorite rapper he also battles superheroes from time to time too.
Succeeding Doomsday was 2004’s Mm..Food. DOOM continued to build off the mythos created in the former but it became apparent that he wasn’t relying on Dr. Doom as much. The album art depicted a cartoonish drawing of the DOOM rap fans know today, showing him wearing his distinguishable Gladiator mask. The skits were gone too, DOOM incorporating samples from the 1970s Fantastic Four series into songs like “Beef Rap,” “One Beer” and “Kon Queso.” The album even featured an appearance from a rapper known as Mr. Fantastik — a reference to the Marvel superhero — on the standout song “Rap Snitch Knishes.”
Here, it’s indicative that DOOM isn’t as reliant on Dr. Doom anymore. The skits from Doomsday offered a separation of sorts which helped to craft the story of the rap persona. On Mm..Food they’re more intertwined, the allusions to the Marvel villain more subtle.
But before Mm..Food‘s release, DOOM had worked with producer Madlib to create Madvillainy. Considered DOOM’s magnum opus, the collaborative album between him and Madlib was a commercial and critical success that found the rapper fully embodying the rap persona he created. As the “Villain,” DOOM was still making a subtle nod to Dr. Doom while exploring the rap universe he had created for himself. The album even features a track titled “Fancy Clown,” where Dumile, as Viktor Vaughn (one of his other aliases, as well as another reference to the Marvel character) calls out a girl for cheating on him with DOOM. The song is a moment of meta brilliance — the type of plot twist one could expect to find in a comic book.
Madvillainy even felt like a revamping of DOOM, similar to when comic book writers retell or add on to the stories of superheroes, with its album art reminiscent of comic book artist John Byrne‘s cover art for Fantastic Four #268.
If Lee hadn’t created Dr. Doom, Dumile’s return to rapping would’ve been drastically different. Through the Marvel villain, Dumile was able to reinvent himself and create something that resonated with everyone from Yasiin Bey and Nas to Bishop Nehru and Earl Sweatshirt. But he also showed just how interconnected rap culture and comic book culture is, creating a character that is essentially an extension from the many alternate universes that exist in Marvel.