Tracking down the elusive Doom
This definitely isn’t the first time Crack has tried to interview Doom. Past attempts at tracking down the notoriously elusive, unpredictable alt-rap icon have proved fruitless, numerous sketchy interview plans have been scrapped earlier this week, and even though we’re waiting in the lounge of a London studio where we’re told he’s recording, his patient PR warns us not to hold our breath.
But he’s here, and we recognise him before we make eye contact. His speaking voice sounds identical to one we’ve heard deliver the countless multi-layered rhymes, double entendres, surreal references and witty wisecracks that have entered the rap canon. He’ll later tell me that his cover is occasionally blown when fans hear the voice while he’s unmasked. He’s on a buzz, bouncing in and out of the studio booth excitedly, showing off his custom-made Clarks Wallabees to his entourage, and firing ideas at the 17-year-old NY rapper Bishop Nehru, here to record their forthcoming collaborative album. Verifying rumours of eccentricity, his camouflage bucket hat appears to have artificial leaves attached to it.
"'Friends' is a term some people use loosely/I'm real choosy on what I choose to let crews see" - Deep Fried Friendz
So as an artist whose music has never looked backwards, and whose legendary status has surely acquired him a star-studded list of contacts, what’s inspired him to work so closely with Nehru, a relatively unknown 90s archeologist 26 years his junior?
“I don’t really base [collaborations] on whether the person is well known, or whether they have a lot of money. If the music don’t sound right, then it just don’t feel right. It’s about something else, there has to be chemistry there, it needs to be organic”, Doom insists, while Nehru nods along by his side. “I mean, with anything that’s going to be mainstream, it’s going to become the monster it becomes. But there’s always going to be the hardcore, the so-called underground. Which is really just another way of talking about the rawness and the original texture of how it started. I try to preserve that side of the music.”
“The rest is empty with no brain, but the clever nerd/The best emcee with no chain ya ever heard” - Figaro
He’s not wearing the mask. It feels strange, because although his beer gut has swollen over the years, his face barely looks different to how it did in the few bits of footage you can find of him unmasked – those videos from the early 90s when he was rapping as Zev Love X in the group KMD. Of course it doesn’t. This is, after all, the same individual we’re talking about. But then again, Zev Love X isn’t really the same person as Metal Face Doom, and Doom isn’t really the same person as Daniel Dumile.
Although he was born in London in 1971, Daniel Dumile was later raised in New York, where he and his brother Dingilizwe, aka DJ Subroc, formed Kausin Much Damage with MC Rodan, later replaced by Onyx the Birthstone Kid. As enlightened members of Nation of Islam offshoot the Five Percent Nation rapping just before gangsta rap secured its cultural stronghold, their ’91 debut Mr. Hood is a politically potent but playful document of golden age hip-hop, all crackly soul samples, goofy skits and adolescent energy.
“It was just something that you was paying attention to, what’s going on in the world. So at the time, maybe we were like 18 or something, we were just aware of what was going on, and the people who were around were aware. It was normal”, Doom says, reminiscing on an era which also spawned the positive-minded Native Tongues collective, who counted De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes’ group Leaders Of The New School as members.
But for KMD, darkness soon crept in. Subroc was killed in a freak car accident, leaving Dumile to finish their second album Black Bastards in his brother’s absence. More aggressive in tone, Dumile’s controversial artwork for the album featured the old fashioned, deeply racist Sambo character hanging from a noose. A journalist, who was unfamiliar with KMD’s music and had no knowledge of the context, deemed the image offensive, and used his influence to publicly kick up a stink. Submitting to the pressure, Elektra Records ditched the album one month before its scheduled release, and it wouldn’t see the light of day until an independent label put it out in 2001.
“He wears a mask just to cover the raw flesh, a rather ugly brother with flows that’s gorgeous” - Beef Rap
This would be the end of Zev Lov X, and Daniel Dumile spent the new next few years in exile, roaming the streets of New York and occasionally sleeping on park benches. But Dumile was determined, and he eventually re-emerged, rhyming with a coarser voice and his face obscured, at open mic nights in Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The location played host to a scene that merged literature with street culture, the perfect launch pad for a rapper who approaches lyrics like a poet obsesses over verse: “I see them in the same vein”, he nods. “But the author doesn’t usually recite his work unless he’s asked to for a special occasion. When we write what we write, it’s a standalone good piece, just if you was to read it. And with hip-hop there’s another dimension to it. We also orate.”
And it was Dumile’s new method of delivery – through the mask – that would go on to become alternative hip-hop’s most distinctive style. Aware of hip-hop’s dependency on facades, Dumile realised that if he were to create a fictional alter-ego, his capacity for braggadocio and storytelling would be limitless. And so he created Metal Face, the darkly humorous, misunderstood super-villain partly inspired by the Fantastic Four’s arch-nemesis Dr. Doom. And after sourcing adventurous samples from his modest record collection, in 1999 he released the cult classic Operation: Doomsday.
“The supervillain get kicked out your country/And said the Pledge of Allegiance six times monthly” - Borin Convo
Dumile would go on to spawn more characters, all of whom he refers to in the third person, and who have occasionally been credited as appearing on each other’s tracks. When cooking up beats behind the desk he’d be Metal Fingers, and he went on to release albums as the dastardly Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah, the extraterrestrial three-headed monster with an alien’s perspective on the human race. And as an MC known to truly absorb a producer’s sound palette, his collaborative projects are given new names too: there was Dangerdroom, his sole flirtation with more commercial sounding rap; Madvillain, the taskforce behind the album widely considered to be his masterpiece; and JJ DOOM, created with Dangermouse, Madlib and Jneiro Jarel respectively. There’s also the perpetually postponed DoomStarks project with the Wu-Tang Clan’s sharp-tongued criminologist Ghostface Killah. While it’s possible that the record might never surface, his voice glows with respect when he speaks of the Staten Island collective: “It’s that New York thing, storytelling is involved. We come from the same era. So we have similar stories, similar ideas. All of them my brothers, my peers, my colleagues, you know what I’m saying? Got a lot of respect for all of ‘em, they all good people.”
But despite all the aliases and masquerading, once in a while the mask slips. Just as Operation: Doomsday allowed the occasional reference to Zev Lov X and his brother’s death to slip through the cartoon menace, his most recent album, JJ DOOM’s Keys To The Kuffs, also documented a very real situation: the fact he’d been refused re-entry into the country he lived in for decades.
Lyrically, the album directed rage toward US customs, tenderly expressed his cravings for physical union with his wife (who still lives in the States, as do his kids), played around with cockney slang and even referenced My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. “My last record was influenced by my experience of when I first got here,” he says. “It’s like I was a baby, was learning the culture and everything for the first time, taking notes of things that were interesting to me. I thought I’d make the best of this time since I was here, and document this slice of time.”
So is he still legally bound to the UK? “I mean I’m here, you know what I’m saying? And I’m here of my own free will, I could leave here and go anywhere, besides the United States,” he says in a slightly defensive tone. “I’m everywhere really, but yeah, right now I’m in London. Everything leads to something … and for some reason I was born here.” It’s a sensitive subject.
“He’s the villain with the million dollar voice-throat trick/He’s like a ventriloquist, with his fist in the speaker’s back/Couldn’t think of no uniquer track, nope, sneak attack” - Red and Gold
While we’re sure many a hip-hop forum has entertained the conspiracies that Doom could be stuck here because of a criminal record, the truth seems more simple: he was born in London and never got around to legally establishing his US citizenship. I saw him during his first visit here as an artist, when he performed a show at Camden’s Roundhouse in 2010. Although various recordings had proved that Doom could be an energetic performer, his reputation as a showman was (and admittedly, still is) wobbly, following his controversial, much-publicised habit of occasionally sending impostors to the stage to lip-synch his lyrics behind the mask. After keeping a dubious and anxious crowd waiting for around 50 minutes, a conspicuously slim-figured impersonator arrived onstage to the Madvillain anthem Accordion. Once booed off, the real Doom appeared, triumphantly waving his British passport in the air, presumably unaware that very passport would keep him marooned on this island right up to the present day.
20 minutes into our chat, we sense Doom’s attention is wavering, and it’s time to slip off the Dictaphone. He firmly shakes our hands, then turns to his manager and mutters “well, that was painless”. I guess that could be perceived as a compliment. He puts on a brown leather jacket with a sheepskin collar, and pulls a mask out from his rucksack. It’s golden, a new one. The photographer glances at the red back drop. Looks like we’ve got our cover feature. Once the shoot is done, Doom gets changed for the third time during our encounter. It’s a Friday night, and he looks totally unassuming with his huge headphones and a flat peak cap pulled to the side. He leaves the studio, walking out onto London’s busy streets, smug in the knowledge that the unmasked Daniel Dumile is the best disguise he’s got.