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Behind the mask
Up close and personal with MFDoom

"Ithink hip-hop is in a transitional phase, " hip-hop icon MF Doom, the self-proclaimed "supervillain," recently told an Italian journalist. "I think people are starting to realize, you know, what lasts longer, whatís the real quality music. People not being blinded by propaganda and big ads that promote groups that arenít really that musical at all, but might wear a lot of jewelry. But I think itís definitely changing back ó a lot of people is waking up now."

The story behind legendary underground rhymer Metal Face Doom travels well beyond the transcendental personas he drops on wax or the cult following and support from hip-hop legends old and new ó all for a guy who wears a metal mask while rocking the microphone. The triumphant story of MF Doom features a lyricist who, in the wake of a few life-altering experiences, re-emerged after five years and took over a fervent indie/underground rap scene. But todayís younger attention-deficit demographic, long spoon-fed pre-packaged radio-friendly hooks, may not be willing to digest and decipher a back-to-the-future flow from a guy who wears a metal mask, dreams up retaliation against fictional foes and biters, rarely curses, and speaks exclusively in the third person.

MF Doom, aka Daniel Dumile, entered the rap world in 1989 as Zev Luv X on the 3rd Bass single "The Gas Face," produced by Prince Paul. 3rd Bassí The Cactus Album went gold, as did the 1991 follow-up, Derelicts of Dialect, which featured Zev on "Ace In the Hole." That same year MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice helped Zev and younger brother DJ Subroc land a deal with Elektra and released Mr. Hood under the moniker KMD. Using a cartoon Sambo-like character as the official logo and filled with odd skits featuring Ernie and Bert, the group enjoyed video rotation on Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City, and toured nationally with Brand Nubian, De La Soul, and Leaders of the New School. Elektra refused to release the second album, Black Bastards, mainly because of the cover art featuring the Sambo character being lynched and some decidedly left-wing lyrical content, sidestepping the preconceived labeling after the abstract innocence behind Mr. Hood. (It was finally released by Sub Verse in 2001.) Things broke down completely when Subroc died in a freak car accident, and reports of alcohol abuse surfaced while Dumile went into hiding.

Fast-forward five years later to a rapper named Viktor Vaughn, after Marvel Comics villain Victor Von Doom (aka Doctor Doom), sporting a metal mask to conceal his identity, simply "looking for a fresh start," as Doom has repeatedly noted. Close friend and cultural figurehead Bobbito Garcia released the first Doom single in 1999 on his Fondle Em label. Vaughn dropped the critically acclaimed Operation: Doomsday (Sub Verse) in 2001, encapsulating all things Doom ó the rapid-fire braggadocio, jazzy beats and big bass, ol-skool scratches, and plenty of Fantastic Four cartoon samples.

"He is one of my favorite if not my favorite MC to date," declared Prince Paul via e-mail. Doom was among the all-stars chipping in on Paulís acclaimed Politics of the Business. Prince Paul recalled the first time he was introduced to Operation Doomsday: "I was in a car heading south to a gig and we had it playing ó it amazed me."

The off-kilter flow was prevalent on his first full-length in four years, under the moniker King Geedorah, this time named after the three-headed dragon known for his encounters with Godzilla. Take Me to Your Leader (Big Dada) looped everything from í50s monster movies to Hall and Oates to Foghorn Leghorn and Cloud City landlord Lando Calrissian. Doom addressed subjects such as child literacy and the futile war on terror, but was at his sharpest when ego-tripping on "Anti-Matter," unraveling lines like "Getting paid like a biker with the best crank/Spray like a high-rank sniper in the West Bank" and "V. Vaughn the traveling vaudeville villain/who donít give a flying fuck who ainít not feelin him."

The critics who couldnít get the gist of Geedorah hailed Vaudeville Villain (Traffic) as an underground masterpiece four months later, chock-full of stoned-yet-slick stanzas that required a few dozen listens to absorb ridiculously brilliant references such as "He hit íem straight to the head like Reggie Denny" and "Call him back when you need some more yack Horshack/Doing 80 down the Van Wyck ó on horseback." Sparse drums and looming violin decorate "The Drop," where Vaughn claims to "rock mics like the weapon on Krull," and gets burned on a drug deal in "Lactose and Lecithin," but the crushing rhythms provided by RJD2 on "Saliva" steal the show.

With a barrage of modern-era classics already crowding the shelves (including a series of instrumental albums), Doom has at least five more on deck, ready to follow the just-released Madvillainy (Stones Throw), the highly anticipated, bicoastal collaboration with producer (and jazz and weed fiend) Madlib. And the word is out on the disc ó itís pure stoned genius laced with intricate wordplay, inside jokes, and ill pop culture references. The gravelly and half-awake monotone flow of Doom provides the perfect complement to Madlibís multi-faceted beats.

"Accordion" finds Doom skimming over the sad clown squeezebox, while "Meat Grinder" incorporates a sinister walking bassline tailor-made for his sandpapered esophagus. The instant classics "Americaís Most Blunted" and "Money Folder" need no introduction, and the second single "All Caps" is just another sub-two minutes of esoteric brilliance. But the opening line of "Figaro" might sum it up best: "The rest is empty with no brain but the clever nerd/The best emcee with no chain you ever heard."

When I recently spoke with MF Doom, I had no idea what to expect, having heard that he never breaks character. When a reporter from a newspaper in Phoenix called Doom and inquired about the Viktor Vaughn project, he made the reporter hang up, call back, and ask for Viktor. But during close to an hour of chatting about all things hip-hop, Doom was genuinely approachable, laid-back, and down to earth, the irony not lost on a guy with a space age vernacular projected through a metal mask.

"Iím an author, Iím writing a story, like a science-fiction writer working on a novel," he said, brimming with confidence. "I donít sit down and say, ĎOkay, today youíre gonna be King Geedorahí ó it ainít like that. All it takes is one word or phrase to spark an idea, like, ĎDamn, that sounds like something Viktor would say,í and then build upon that inspiration."

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Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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