There’s Rules to This Shit: On MF DOOM’s Early Singles, 20 Years Later

Ben Grenrock takes a look at MF DOOM's early singles, twenty years later.
By    October 17, 2017

Art by Wells Dunbar

Introducing Ben Grenrock, unmasked.

If you look at the Billboard charts from 1997, you may feel as if you’re staring through a wormhole into another dimension. What seems a quaint alternate reality sits before you—one in which clutters of prepubescent onomatopoeia punctuated by a Hanson’s shrill, “Yeeeeyuh, yeah,” could break the top ten, and where a song about being a vapid, plastic facsimile of a female human was delivered from the perspective of a Barbie doll living in her “Barbie world,” rather than from that of a Kardashian living inside a reality show. Twenty-years feels like a portal-gun facilitated leap and a Santa-is-real level of innocence removed from the world of today.

Peep the back catalog of indie record label Fondle ‘Em from that very same year and you’ll find something different, evidence that 1997 is indeed attached to the continuum of our current musical landscape. It was in ’97 that Fondle ‘Em released Daniel Dumile’s first two singles, recorded and produced under his new identity. Unlike the playful boom-bap bounce of his previous moniker, Zev Love X, the new rapper Dumile had become spat verses from behind a now-iconic metal mask with a mix of city slicker deadpan and the effortless aplomb of Don Corleone. He built beats out of Scooby Doo sound effects, Steely Dan snippets, and Isaac Hayes chords that could instantly transport listeners to Technicolor realms where melody dictated physics and, by some trick of the drums, depth was conveyed in the lush two dimensions of Saturday morning escapism.

Those first records, “Dead Bent” and “Greenbacks,” feel just a coefficient of sound quality away from the best of today’s underground hip-hop. This isn’t because hip-hop hasn’t evolved at the same rate as pop, but because rappers of the last two decades have been studying, replicating, and paying homage to what Dumile had begun crafting here: the unmistakable style of the MC known as MF DOOM.

Dumile’s evolution from Zev Love X to MF DOOM is nothing short of factual legend. It’s an origin story befitting the comic book sensibilities he so deftly wove into both his music and his reforged identity: the death of his brother and partner-in-rap, Subroc; the dissolution of their group, KMD’s, major label contract; his disappearance and subsequent emergence at Lower Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets Café; rapping through a nylon stocking that would in time harden, glint, and hemorrhage into a metallic totem that would become a synecdoche for an entire genre. Dumile had seen his world crumble. 1997 marked his official emergence from the wreckage.

Tracing the promulgation of pseudonyms and projects that followed those first singles on Fondle ‘Em is an exercise as exhausting as it is rewarding. MF DOOM. Viktor Vaughn. Madvillain Metal Fingers. Danger Doom. DOOM. JJ Doom. King Geedorah. You could fill a codex with the slick-witted artisan’s alter egos and still have plenty of permutations left over for further volumes. But to trace the collective influence of Dumile’s fractal personae on the hip-hop underground of today would require algorithms at least another two decades in the making.

Prior to the recent renaissance in beatmaking spearheaded by Flying Lotus, and aside from his contemporaries J Dilla and Madlib, few have displayed the same deft musicianship in the use and selection of samples as DOOM. Not since William Shakespeare has a writer done so much to develop the simple art of the couplet. There’s good reason why years before Madvillainy began to gestate, a young Peanut Butter Wolf and a young Madlib would bicker over whose turn it was to spin an early MF DOOM cut at the parties they would co-DJ. It was, and still is, that fly.

New York rhymers, a diverse group, featuring Mos Def, Joey Bada$$, and Wiki owe much to the self-styled super villain. Yet miles away from his home base of the Empire State, Dumile’s influence remained undiluted. Earl Sweatshirt of Los Angeles, Danny Brown out of Detroit, an entire cadre of British rappers like Jehst—or more recently MADLean—can trace the lineage of their observational wit and conversational delivery to what began with the release of those singles in ’97.

Today, as everything becomes digitized and decentralized, a rapper’s city of origin holds far less sway on his or her sound than it once did. DOOM was one of the first MC’s to inadvertently model this. Born in London, the rapper is still officially a British citizen. At the height of his career he left his adopted home of New York City and made Atlanta the temporary chrysalis for his identities to gestate. Though clearly rooted in the concrete and steel of the five boroughs, his sound has always been universal.

Today, that sound comes through the Fondle ‘Em singles crackly, dusted with age, but every bit as special as it was in ‘97. Over the years, that dusty, DIY tone would grow into something crisper. DOOM’s drums would loosen up a bit, never quite developing a true swing, remaining the firm bedrock for him to build his fluid verses atop. His characters would develop and promulgate, flitting at times closer to, and at others farther from, the Marvel villain of his namesake. But the almost savant-like ear for samples and the boundless creativity pregnant in his every bar on Dead Bent and Greenbacks would remain virtually unchanged.

As ridiculous as some of 1997 may seem from where we stand, 2017 has its own breed of the bizarre, much of which is flummoxing at best even without the distance of twenty years. For all his enduring brilliance, DOOM hasn’t escaped one of modernity’s common scourges: the commodification of anything with merit. Even during an artistic drought that has left his fans willing to grasp at any rerelease or remix in their hunger for a return to the greatness he once reliably provided, the acid of capitalism has been voraciously devouring Dumile’s armor.

And so it has come to pass that in the wake of a slew of discontinued projects and unfulfilled collaborations, more iterations of t-shirts, sneakers, and artisanal socks emblazoned with the MF DOOM mask have been produced over the last few years than actual music. In a complete inversion of the original intention behind the heavy headgear, the silhouette of DOOM’s mask has become its own sort of brand—a transformation made even more unsavory as year after year it seems less likely that DOOM will resurface as an active rapper instead of remaining a recycled product.

While watching this happen to one of the underground’s most creative and humble pioneers is disillusioning, an anniversary listen to those Fondle ‘Em singles provides an instant reminder of why that mask and the rapper who wore it became such a potent symbol in the first place. It’s hard to say whether or not looking into the past should give us hope for his musical future, but at the very least, these first cuts from DOOM stand the test of time. And maybe, if you have some precious reserve of optimism squirreled away, you can view Dead Bent and Greenbacks as a template for the dauntless reinvention of self Dumile showed himself capable of twenty years ago. Let’s hope it’s not too late for that piece of hip-hop history to repeat itself.

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