Solid Gold Telephone: An Interview With MF DOOM

Around the time of the release of "Born Like This," David Ma spoke with the supervillain about his iconic mask, his salad days in KMD, and being inspired by Ghostface Killah and Charles Bukowski.
By    January 9, 2019

Art by Kmeron

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Picture a killer who loves children; one who’s equally skilled in destruction as well as building. He holds his heart when he tells a rhyme. This is DOOM — or more precisely, one of the most wildly entertaining and reclusive creatives of the last few decades, of any genre.

Daniel Dumile’s gift is the ability to be totally engrossed in and devoted to whatever his character does. He flouts criticism — at times, even from his own fans — which is how he’s able to teeter between mainstream accolades and inde-rap reverence since the late ’80s. As a rapper, as an interview subject, DOOM’s been notoriously elusive, often silent come promotion time. Antics (and DOOM-posters) aside, he remains totally uncompromising, standing tall on rap’s shortlist of all-time consistent MC/producers — a rare double threat that evenhandedly delivers.

As unapproachable as he’s been with journalists, the guy behind the persona is anything but. He starts our long-scheduled interview with: “Sorry it took this long man! Not trying to discriminate! How you doing today? What’s your name?” Hardly villainous, definitely a normal guy, Dumile details with candor, humor, and insight to all my questions on all things DOOM. His history runs deep and rather than jam it into this introduction, we let Dumile detail DOOM’s incredible run, one that is defined by an exhaustingly uncanny output. Here’s one of the most extensive interviews ever done with one of my all time favorites.  —  David Ma

Let’s start with the mask. Why wear one?

MF DOOM: It’s really just another character. Zev Love X was a character too, most people think that’s me but he wasn’t. They’ve all been characters. The DOOM thing is to be able to come at things with a different point of view. I decided the mask would just add to the mystique of the character as well as make DOOM stand out. I though it’d be an easy way for people to see and differentiate between characters, sorta like when an actor gains weight for a role. Throwing on the mask was just a good way to switch it up. King Geedorah and Vik are characters too for example.

So Zev Love was also a character? I always figured it was just a handle.

MF DOOM: Yeah. Just ’cause he didn’t wear a mask doesn’t mean the stuff I said was all comin’ from me. DOOM is actually more like an older, super-villain version of Zev in a mask.

Where do you get the actual mask? Do you have one specially made?

MF DOOM: You know the movie Gladiator? Well around that time, they started selling these “gladiator masks” that were replicas from the movie. So what it was is that a friend of mine told me he saw this mask that would be perfect for the DOOM character. I trusted him, even though it was kinda expensive [laughs].

So he went and bought the mask, which was this collector’s item thing that came on a wooden stand and all that. It was a total replica that came on a stick with a stand for displaying and shit. There was this top piece on it too that my friend just tore off [laughs]. He took off the stick and everything else and just kept the faceplate. You know how construction hats have a plastic thing on the inside that you can tighten? Well, he just took one of those and fastened it to the mask. So he rigged it up for me. Since then, I chromed it out, added a ruby to it too. That’s how the mask came about.

You just have one or do you have many that you rotate?

MF DOOM: I got a few different ones that are slightly different. After a while you need a few. I can’t perform without the mask or be seen without it on stage or else it’ll distract from the whole persona.

Why haven’t you done an entire project as Daniel Dumile? Why all the personas? Better yet, what do these personas allow you to do?

MF DOOM: Hip-hop is so saturated with the same old same old that people always expect the guy to actually be the guy. They want you to be real and straight from the streets and all that. I make hip-hop, but use DOOM as a character to convey stories that a normal dude can’t. You have writers that write about crazy characters but that doesn’t mean the writer himself is crazy. DOOM is evil, let’s not forget that, but that doesn’t mean I’m evil [laughs].

Speaking of hip-hop; when were you first exposed to it? I know you weren’t born here in the states.

MF DOOM: I came to America when I was like 6-months old, so I pretty much grew up here. Kurtis Blow is probably the first major emcee I can remember. I came out to America when hip-hop was just poppin’ off so I got involved right away.

Who started KMD?

MF DOOM: I did.

Talk about the day you formed KMD.

MF DOOM: I was actually walking down the street and looking at graffiti. Actually, we were trying to start a graffiti crew at the time and that’s how the name KMD got started. So our first thing was to pick some letters that sounded good together. Then we picked what each individual letters stood for. That’s how KMD came about.

For cats who are unfamiliar, what do you want to say about Subroc [late DJ/producer of KMD, Dumile’s younger brother]?

MF DOOM: [laughs] He was an ill ass nigga. I’m sure he’d just agree with that. What can I say? Ill producer, ill artist with cutting edge ideas. He was my partner. Still is my partner is how I see it.

It has been reported that you were basically homeless after KMD disbanded with label troubles and all that. Do you think that time affected or added to your MF Doom character?

MF DOOM: Good question; I’m not sure really. When you’re broke you ain’t doing music though so it wasn’t like I was making music on a park bench somewhere. But I do think it sticks to the music a little bit. When I write from a broke-ass point of view I’ve actually been there. When I spoke as MF Doom, I spoke from those dark point-of-views in some ways I guess.

So why did you drop the MF and just go by DOOM?

MF DOOM: I’m trying to figure that out too [laughs]. I haven’t officially done anything to the MF. I was on Wikipedia recently and read that I had changed my name. People have started to ask me that too. It’s not really accurate.

The bio that they sent out for BORN LIKE THIS stipulated that you’re now DOOM, that it is to be written in all caps, and that you’re not to be called “MF” Doom. Not true?

MF DOOM: Well I have to get on them for that [laughs]! Naw, I’m just DOOM for this album and who knows whatever albums after. This record is DOOM’s most personal record. This is where you get to the center of this character, so I decided to drop the MF for this album only. I didn’t think it’d be a big deal or nothing. Then everyone’s asking me why I changed my name [laughs]. After [Operation] Doomsday and MM… Food, I don’t think DOOM would call himself MF DOOM anymore. He just says DOOM when referring to himself. It’s like if I’m talking to you and after knowing you for a while, I might start calling you Dave instead of your full name. It’s kinda like that. This is more personal because we’ve experience the character for a while now. I just wanted to switch up the presentation.

The presentation relies a bit on Bukowski. What made you get into the whole thing about Bukowski?

MF DOOM: I’m totally inspired by that dude. Him as a writer blows me away. He has such a wide range. At the time, every writer was trying to be some sort of a renaissance writer from the ’60s and ’70s. They all had tricky angles and used weird words and stuff. There were a lot of hippie writers, but Bukowski had these short stories that didn’t care about what others did. He was born a writer so he wrote what he was thinking at the time. It didn’t have to be influenced by what others at the time were doing — which is in essence what we writers actually are.

If truly good writers weren’t being themselves, it wouldn’t be interesting. His writing style would always catch me off guard. I’d be reading and think I know where he’s going and he’ll just pull a left and spin everything up. Time after time, each story was so different in its own right. Even now, when I feel stuck and wanna relax, I’ll pick up Bukowski and read a short story. His stuff can be so weird it makes me feel normal. I can’t be weirder than this guy [laughs], which is cool because once you realize what the extremes are, you can do anything.

So what’s your writing process like? Analyze that a bit for us.

MF DOOM: Usually I’ll keep a pen and a pad and to jot stuff down for when it comes. I always have a pen on me, sometimes a napkin too. When an idea comes, I write it down. These writings pile up and when they pile up big enough [laughs], they become songs. If I have a beat that I just made and I need to spit something over it real quick or try something, I’ll refer to these notes. I’ll flip through them all to see what fits with what, or just if the track fits with the styles of the writing.

On the album you share a track with Ghostface. Talk about Ghost as a writer and a contemporary.

MF DOOM: Ghost comes with some shit you don’t expect. He makes things relatable by being vivid and honest and real. His stories are just so damn interesting. Like Bukowski, he’s one of those dudes that just has a natural knack for this. It’s like he speaks in color.

Why did you decide to re-record “Angelz” for the album?

MF DOOM: It’s funny [laughs], really, it’s like this: my songs are always like sketches that are in the making until I finalize them. So that particular one was a sketch. The cats who put it out apparently couldn’t wait and just went ahead and released it knowing that it was an unfinished track. I have mad different sketches of me and Starks doing different takes and stuff. So the first version everyone heard was an unfinished version. The version on BORN LIKE THIS is the final version.

Oh, okay. Because the original sounded like you decided to just do a track with no drums.

MF DOOM: I gave it to Starks without the drums, and he’s one of those rappers that can just spit over it without hearing drums. Certain niggas is nice like that. So the first version is actually unfinished because I didn’t get to put the drums on it [laughs]. So I just released this version as “the album version”. People tend to lean toward the first version because that’s the first one they heard and they’re used to it. I hear people be like “why’d he changed it?” but they don’t realize that it was just a sketch that they happen to catch a glimpse of.

Will that Ghostface collab ever come out? Is it finished?

MF DOOM: Pretty sure it’s gonna come out. We wanna find a right home for it. It’s pretty much finished and sitting in my studio. I mean, I think it’s pretty crazy and I definitely want the public’s ears to hear it. But I wanna make sure we come correct because I don’t want people hearing a rough sketch of this album like they did with “Angelz”.

All together, how long did it take you to make BORN LIKE THIS?

MF DOOM: It was an off and on kind of thing. I can’t work constantly on nothing. Lots of times, I have to put things down and go back to it. So with this one, it took about 3-years. I put a lot of overtime into this sucka.

You flipped that Galt MacDermot sample for “That’s That”. Do you go record shopping often? Where do you get some of the stuff you’ve sampled?

MF DOOM: Here and there I get a chance to browse. I actually get out less and less these days. I used to hunt for records a lot. But now I’m lucky to have a network of people who get out and bring back stuff for me [laughs]. Like a lot of those Stones Throw cats; Egon’s a crate-dude and he’s one of my sources. Egon actually hip me to that Galt sample. J Rocc and Madlib work with me too. As I got older, I’ve fallen off a bit [laughs] in terms of my collecting, but I’m lucky to have these dudes give me stuff to supplement my own stuff. Count Bass D is another one of my sources. He gets out all the time and I don’t know how he does it; we trade music all the time. It’s all trading with friends.

A lot of people have said that, “Batty Boyz”, another song off the album, is homophobic and offensive. Can you address that a bit?

MF DOOM: Well if people are pissed it means that they’re really into the character; maybe too into the character. Look, as an artist, if you have a character that can make people mad, that’s a good thing. DOOM’s a villain. Phobia means that I’m scared of something, like arachnophobia means I’m scared of spiders. So homophobia means that I’m scared of homos? Me myself as a writer, I’m not scared of gay people or spiders! I don’t give a shit. I’m a writer, I touch on all topics. DOOM happens to talk shit about everyone; regular street niggas, punks, fat niggas, queens and kings. I talk shit about every facet of life. This is just one thing that DOOM talks about on this particular record.

DOOM’s a super-villain so he’s just calling his enemies gay — talking shit. Matter of fact, there’s a song on Madvillian where the character talks about beastiality even. So you’re telling me people who indulge in beastiality are gonna get mad at me now too [laughs]? It’s a character. People who don’t get it, I don’t know what’s wrong with them. Just go to the movies. It’s easy. It’s like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. I loved him in that movie, but that doesn’t mean I agree with murder though. We all know John Travolta isn’t a murderer don’t we? It’s a character. I don’t know what else to say to people who don’t get that.

Last question: Will DOOM ever put down the mask?

MF DOOM: The character himself, DOOM, will always have the mask. No one will ever see him without the mask; maybe in his own private quarters [laughs]. It’s important to remember that I’m not DOOM. I just write as this evil super-villain rapper named DOOM. Zev didn’t rock a mask and I have other characters that don’t wear masks too — and they all have their own thing that makes them stand out. My albums are all characters and together they’re part of this lineage of stories and albums written by me. I’m a writer. It just depends on the type of shit I wanna continue to come forth with.

This article originally ran for around the release date of Born Like This.

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