Hero vs. Villain: “Dead Bent”

As our MF DOOM tribute continues, the rapper/producer, Grip Grand, reminisces hearing the 1997 single on a grey day in Portland.
By    January 11, 2021

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Grip Grand once took his fronts out and lost them shits.

I first heard MF DOOM’s “Dead Bent”—the 12-inch version, the good one—on a gray Oregon day in 1997 shortly after its initial release. I was in college, walking across campus, when my friend and fellow aspiring rapper/producer Seprock called me over and said he had a record to play me.

Sep was a year behind me in school but several years ahead in terms of making music. He was the first cat I ever met who owned his own sampler, drum machine, and 4-track tape deck. He had a crew of friends who’d come up together on a military base in Japan, and they’d been making beats and rapping for a while. At the time I was already in my crate-digging bag, and I was writing raps every day, but so far I’d never been able to hold any equipment. Seprock let me borrow his stuff and taught me how to use it; I made the first Grip Grand demos on his gear. He was my earliest production mentor, and I owe him my career. 

I say all that to say this: when Sep had a record to play me, I listened.

The vinyl he pulled out in his dorm room upstairs was fairly unassuming. Plain white sleeve, plain white label, plain black text in some odd font—pretty much the cheapest 12-inch you can press. Not the kind of thing you’d cop just off the cover art. There was none.

Still, at $4.99, which is how much I paid for it the next day in Portland’s 2nd Avenue Records when I ran to buy what felt like, and perhaps was, the only other copy for immediate sale in all of Oregon—the record was an exceptional value: three full songs, plus the three instrumentals, and all of them would eventually go on to enter the underground-rap-single hall of fame. Go check Discogs if you don’t believe me. But at the time, all Sep said was “This is the new Zev Love X.”

Which was saying a lot. As far as I knew, Zev had been MIA since the Black Bastards fiasco at Elektra Records—as well as an unexpected family tragedy—had left his former group KMD broken and without a record deal, their sophomore album shelved indefinitely. The Elektra situation was deeply disappointing to the group but also to their fans. Coming off the stellar debut Mr. Hood—a still-slept on gem that remains one of hip-hop’s funniest, most feel-good records—few acts were more promising. 

Like a cross between De La Soul and Brand Nubian, the three members of KMD were wise beyond their years but overflowing with youthful energy, equally versed in the Nation of Islam’s Supreme Mathmatics and street-corner, barbershop snaps (“Pull your waist up or the shirt down, ‘cuz the shirt is too small!”). But Elektra had prematurely shut down their next record and unceremoniously dropped them from the label—over the cover art, of all things—so now KMD had an axe to grind. 

Everyone in my hip-hop circle breathlessly followed this saga in The Source, crying foul (along with the magazine’s editors) at the group’s mistreatment by corporate execs and industry rule #4080. When Zev’s brother and bandmate Subroc was killed by a car before the album was finally completed, a dark shadow fell on KMD’s legacy. And then silence. 

So here, several years later, was this record, like a phoenix from the ashes, featuring—in the wake of Sub’s death—an entirely self-produced set of new Zev Love X songs. But his name had been changed. We all know the story. Foiled by the industry, and felled by tragedy, now he was become DOOM, the destroyer of worlds.

By any name, MF DOOM is a brilliant rapper. Even as Zev Love X, he was a dexterous lyricist, coolly juggling densely layered imagery and punchlines with street-smart wit and Five-Percent wisdom. When I went to The Wherehouse in 1995 with just enough saved-up cash to cop one new release, I was met with a rap Sophie’s Choice between Mr. Hood and The Source’s fifth-ever recipient of five mics, De La Soul is Dead. I chose Mr. Hood, and I have never regretted it.

Besides, my best friend MPE got the other one. Dubbed copies may have been exchanged. But I digress.

A largely self-produced effort, Mr. Hood is one of the warmest, weirdest gems of its era—upbeat, oddball samples and snapping drums; smartly observed storytelling and teenage swagger; comedic interstitials painstakingly collaged from old language-learning LPs (“your/mother likes to visit the old churches!” says the titular Mr. Hood); in sum, to quote Zev himself, “love, hugs, and hip-hop soul.”

So in 1997, I was already a huge fan of the former Zev Love X’s beats and rhymes. But I didn’t know what to expect from this MF DOOM record. Rumor had it that Black Bastards was much darker than its predecessor, both musically and lyrically, but I hadn’t heard anything from that album—originally slated for 1993—and wouldn’t until the release of Black Bastards: Ruffs and Rares in 1998. The Dead Bent 12-inch single was the opening salvo in a barrage of songs I’d one day attempt to collect every one of. 

In my opinion, “Dead Bent” is the greatest underground hip-hop song of that indie-rap golden age, or maybe ever—a perfect thing representing the best of what anyone was doing at the time. You could write about the impact of each tune on the 12-inch, including the instrumentals, but there’s a reason Sep played me this one first on that dim day in ‘97. And from the opening needle drop, the shit hit me like a ton of bricks. Not just because it’s a fantastic song, but because as soon as it stuttered out of the speakers, two concepts crystallized around it in my mind—ideas I’d grasped on some fundamental level but hadn’t been able to articulate clearly—and they have informed my work ever since.

Definition “supervillain”: a killer who love children/
One who is well-skilled in destruction as well as buildin’…
— “Doomsday”

The beat for “Dead Bent” is a masterclass in tension and release. Very little is left of Mr. Hood’s lighthearted, loping grooves. Most of the song is basically two chords, one minor, one augmented; two repeating bars of never-resolved unease from Issac Hayes’ seminal version of “Walk On By.” But DOOM teases you with resolution early on in the song—both in the bouncing A major that begins it and, especially, with his incredible use of Atlantic Starr’s “Always.” DOOM punctures the moody, cinematic dread of his main chord progression with sporadic bits of 80’s Soul Glo sheen, snatches of pop balladry bursting through—discordant with the Issac Hayes strings—like he was randomly sweeping across the radio dial. 

The result makes the song even more menacing, like when you hear a happy tune whistled slowly in a horror flick. And then, with this dark storm swirling around you, DOOM parts the clouds on the last two bars of the intro—he drops the Issac Hayes sample out altogether and lets the soaring, cheese-ball, major-chord resolution of Atlantic Starr’s chorus rock right over the bare drums. The result is a swell in your heart that’s hard to explain, except to say that this is how chord changes work.

Most Western music is built on a limited set of chord changes, and if you grew up with it you’ve been hearing them all your life. When your ears/heart/brain hear these chordal patterns, they also yearn to hear them resolve—to finish the musical thought—in a certain way. That’s why old-timey showtunes end with that big, major-chord, two-punch “BUM-BUM!!” It ties a neat bow on everything musically, it makes mathematical sense to your subconscious. 

The power of so many hip-hop records is built on never resolving the chords, or at least never resolving the source material’s original musical thought. This is the driving force of a song like Cypress Hill’s “Hand on the Pump,” for example. It works because you never hear the word “Earl.” That, in turn, makes your brain want to punch through a wall. In a good way. 

But the thing so well-illustrated by a song like “Dead Bent” is how it creates the fight-or-flight dis-ease that “hardcore” hip-hop is known for—sonically, the “most grimy suggestions”—and then, in the midst of that tension, how DOOM resolves it when least expected. He gives you the sunshine chord, the rush of release you’ve been subconsciously yearning for. And there in that moment all primal things meet: hard and soft, chaos and order, darkness and light; the child prodigy Zev Love X and the scorned supervillain DOOM, pulling fraud’s files from out in front of them while quiet-storm classics play in the background. 

To put a finer point on that last bit, every song sampled here is actually a love song. “Always” is about love eternal; “Walk On By” is about love lost; and BDP’s “Super Hoe,” which provides both the drums and the oft-sung “he’s a super” refrain, is about how much KRS-One loves Scott La Rock’s remarkable sexual prowess. DOOM took these disparate love letters and cut them up into an audio ransom note, a brash, dusted record about bumrushing the fraudulent and giving girls your beeper number. Hate and love, tension and release.

“Dead Bent” only resolves three times, and just once during the vocals. The Atlantic Starr turnaround at the start is a trick that lulls your ear into thinking this is a standard song, with more comforting resolution to come; but then DOOM lets the tense dread build up again for fully half of the song’s runtime, hitting us over and over with that eerie two-chord chill. Really all we’ve heard since “Always” poked holes in the intro is those two ominous chords, the pattern itself a well-worn musical shorthand for “spooky” used in a thousand B-movies and radio plays. 

And then, suddenly, when the pure audio menace is almost suffocating and our ears have nearyly forgotten that these chords might ever resolve, DOOM drops in that big, bright major A chord for two full bars at 1:38, closing out the progression exactly the way your Western-music-baked brain wants to hear it. The result is literal fucking chills, musically-induced goosebumps; an autonomic response that makes overcharging chumps and not feeling remorse for shit (the thing he’s rapping about when the chords change) sound like the most triumphant shit EVER. Fuck a remorse. That chord change makes you wanna slap the shit outta someone and smile at the same time.

And this is the power of a well-placed chord. It alters the emotional feel of the lyrics underneath it, almost regardless of what’s being said. So, as a producer, this is a transformative tool, one that potentially can be overused. But with “Dead Bent,” in which the fully resolving chord progression only ever plays twice, DOOM shows us the equally potent power of restraint, of knowing when to hold your cards and when to go all in—tension and release.   

Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, who’s that/
Who cats who do magic be like ‘Tell me how you do’s that”
—“I Hear Voices, Pt. 1”

If “Dead Bent” is a masterclass, it might also offer a second semester on one of hip-hop’s fundamental principles, which is, simply put: It’s not what you have, it’s what you make of it. Can’t afford instruments? Mom’s turntable is the band now. Or a cracked copy of FruityLoops you got from a homie is the band now. Or a free drum machine app on your phone is. Same difference. Hip-hop is the great American democratizer. It ain’t where you’re from, its where you’re at. 

Another aspect of this is the old adage “It’s not the tools, it’s the carpenter.” You could buy the exact same records and equipment as your favorite producer, but you won’t get the same results, since you are not them. And that’s the other idea “Dead Bent” so brilliantly exemplifies. Because as soon as I heard its soundscape, from the BDP drums to the Isaac Hayes strings to the Atlantic Starr vocals, I knew I ALREADY HAD ALL THESE RECORDS. Any self-respecting crate-digger type at the time would have had them. Shit, your moms had them, that’s where you usually got ‘em in the first place. “Walk On By” and “Always” are on LP’s that were still dollar-bin deals in those days, and BDP was, well, BDP. If you were serious about “real” rap music in the 90’s and hadn’t heard Boogie Down Production’s first record Criminal Minded, then…were you, really? 

We all had, or at least had heard, these records. In fact, they’d already been sampled, famously! Many times. Biggie and Tupac had both rapped over “Walk On By” at this point (and, notably, MC Eiht too—“Hood Took Me Under” is forever gold and fully deserves its own parenthetical). The tools were in our hands. Yet none of us had made “Dead Bent.” It was just sitting there. 

Still, a moral remained for the lay-producer like me. It’s not the record, it’s what you do with it. DOOM picked isolated bits of “Walk On By” and made them into something new and beautiful. This is what all great sampling does, and it’s possible with even the most common records—from Just Blaze building “Kingdom Come” out of “Super Freak” to Muggs simply refusing to let “Duke of Earl” play through. If you put Dilla in a room with a stack of the corniest, commonest records available, he would still come out with something utterly transformed, like lead into gold. That’s the evergreen lesson of “Dead Bent,” and of numerous DOOM songs after it. I mean, “Doomsday” is “just” a Sade record you literally own right now plus different drums from Criminal Minded. You do not need that $300 dollar Turkish psych import, my G. You need to work on your craft. 

“Dead Bent” is like a trick performed by the world’s greatest illusionist, an artist of such towering genius that he can show you every moving part, all of the mechanics, and you still can’t replicate it. But this wasn’t an illusion—DOOM could do actual magic. This is the function of genius, to make magic real. “Dead Bent” is inimitable, and for that reason it will always be a vital, fundamental, essential song in the hip-hop canon. All hail DOOM.

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