Safe Travels Villain: A Tribute to MF DOOM


Jonathan Tenenbaum, Managing Editor

Picture this: an underground British-American rapper rises to fame for his unique production style, unparalleled storytelling capabilities, zany rhyme schemes, and bold personality. Imagine what this rapper may look like: how he dresses, how he carries himself, how he’s viewed by the public. Would it be surprising that the artist who fits this description, one of the most enigmatic and charismatic figures in hip hop history, led the entirety of his public life donning a mask? His face never revealed? This rapper is the legendary and recently-announced late Daniel Dumile, or MF DOOM, also known by his other performing aliases, including Madvillain, King Geedorah, DANGERDOOM, Nehruviandoom, JJ DOOM, and Viktor Vaughn.

Today, I hope to display why the death of this self-proclaimed supervillain—endlessly innovative, prolfic, and genius—is not only a tremendous cultural loss and highlight an artist whose discography and legacy is beyond worth honoring and commemorating, but to provide a listening guide of sorts to DOOM’s expansive work for rap superfans and skeptics alike. I truly believe there’s something for everyone and an artistic marvel worth experiencing in DOOM’s fictional universe.

Dumile moved from London to Long Island, New York at a young age. DOOM, then Zev Love X, began his rap career in 1988 as a core member of KMD, a notable and beloved rap collective. I would recommend listening to the following KMD tracks: “Peachfuzz,” “It Sounded Like a Roc!,” and “Sweet Premium Wine” for those intending to begin their DOOM journeys at his musical roots. The relatively brief discography of KMD, though nowhere near as special to me as DOOM’s later works, certainly set the stage for Dumile’s later work, featuring clever production, charming delivery, and a palpable sense of humor that would only increase in acuity over DOOM’s career. This group eventually disbanded in 1993 upon the death of Dumile’s brother, DJ Subroc, a member of the rap troupe. 

After a measurable hiatus, Dumile reemerged sporting a metal mask reminiscent of that of Marvel supervillain Doctor Doom, performing at open mic events. Doctor Doom is pictured on the cover of his 1999 debut solo album, Operation: Doomsday, gripping a microphone. From this great project, I implore you to check out the following tracks: “Doomsday,” “Rhymes Like Dimes,” “Operation: Greenbacks,” “Gas Drawls,” and “?” although I enjoy nearly every track on this project. 70s rock fans should recognize DOOM’s sample choice on the track “Gas Drawls,” I won’t spoil it, but think Aja. Whie Operation: Doomsday is a great introduction to DOOM’s persona and clever, tongue-in-cheek lyricism, unlike many artists who peak at their debut or fizzle shortly following, DOOM would go on to only further refine his craft and hone his skills in future releases. Following the release of Operation: Doomsday, DOOM rarely appeared publicly without his now-signature mask. Among the collaborators on the album were fellow members of the Monsta Island Czars collective. As part of the Monsta Island Czars collective, each member assumed the persona of a monster from the Godzilla films. Dumile became King Geedorah, a three-headed golden dragon space monster, a reference to Godzilla character King Ghidorah. DOOM’s delivery and tone had changed measurably since his KMD days, no longer lively and spry, now muddier and more sinister, his sense of humor still intact though. Operation: Doomsday would age to become a wholly defining document for late 90’s rap and the popularity of independent rap defining that era of hip hop. As he produces nearly all the instrumentation on his solo releases, following the release of Operation: Doomsday, Dumile began releasing his Special Herbs instrumentals series under the pseudonym Metal Fingers, the box set of which is available on most music streaming services, compiling all 9 volumes into one package of sheer creativity. I consider Metal Fingers Presents: Special Herbs, The Box Set Vol. 0-9 a must-listen for those interested in experiencing DOOM’s genius but find themselves to generally not enjoy rap music, but 0. In fact, I’m listening to the box set as I write this very article.

The following era of DOOM’s discography and career, from 2002 to 2004, is undoubtedly my personal favorite. This era began in early 2003 as DOOM released the often overlooked and, in my opinion, criminally underrated King Geedorah album Take Me to Your Leader. Geedorah, the aforementioned space monster, is credited as producer and as an MC on four tracks. This album is feature-heavy, the majority of vocal tracks featuring performances from guest rappers such as the elusive Mr. Fantastik. The album also features several montages of sampled vocals from dated films and television shows, a recognizable technique that DOOM would perfect in shortly following releases. From this memorable yet perhaps less significant album from a discography perspective I strongly recommend the following tracks: “Fazers,” “Krazy World,” “Next Levels,” “Anti-Matter,” and “The Fine Print.”

Later in 2003, DOOM went on to release the LP Vaudeville Villain under the moniker Viktor Vaughn, yet another reference to Doctor Doom whose full name is Victor von Doom. This album, a joint project with Sound-Ink, is a lesser-known DOOM masterpiece. On its surface its classic DOOM– gravelly, gruff delivery, obscure pop culture references, sneaky metaphors, and piercing idioms. However, a closer look reveals a project more structurally coherent than its predecessors and almost uncharastically pertinent and focused in its subject matter. Many tracks on ths project are self-contained stories surrounding the life of Viktor Vaughn, whose outlook tiptoes between painfully indifferent and ruthlessly critical. From Vik’s unsuccessful attempts at courtship to a failed drug deal to bickering with a Chinese restaurant owner, the listener is truly offered a lens into another world, a demonstration of DOOM’s creative genius and foreshadowing for projects to come. My only criticism of this ingenious project is that the beats occasionally tread on less than stellar and often don’t keep up with DOOM’s relentless flow as well as his own instrumentals or that of producer Madlib’s do. This could be attributed to DOOM’s enlisting of relatively unknown producers on this project like King Honey, Max Bill, and Heat Sensor. While Dumile’s creative vision truly knows no bounds, searching high and low, near and far for inspiration, much of his strength lies in the cohesion between unique beat and zany delivery which I find to be lacking here. Nonetheless, I adore Vaudevile Villain. Songs I’d recommend from Vaudeville Villain are “Vaudeville Villain,” “Lickupon,” “The Drop,” “Raedawn,” “Can I Watch?,” and “Saliva.”

The second MF DOOM album MM…FOOD, an anagram for MF DOOM, was released in 2004. I love this album. MM…FOOD is wholly entertaining, relentlessly clever, and, for those cautious to dive into an abstract or more experimental rap project, surprisingly digestible. MM…FOOD is true to its name, an album all about food. Yes, each track, my favorites being “Hoe Cakes,” “One Beer,” “Deep Fried Frenz,” “Kon Karne,” “Guinesses,” “Rap Snitch Knishes,” and “Vomitspit” hold names reminiscent of food and beverages and are chock full of references to edible treats. Don’t worry though, as much as I am a passionate foodie I wouldn’t hold this album in such high regard for this reason alone. MM…FOOD features DOOM’s own ridiculously inventive instrumentals and some of DOOM’s most memorable lines and sampling to date. I have literally laughed out loud in my listening of this album, which I often listen to in its entirety due to digestability. DOOM’s clever vocal sampling from dated movies and shows outline the narrative of this album, for example, scrapping bits and pieces from old Fantastic Four episdoes, this album, beyond a crisp display of DOOM’s tongue-in-cheek lyricicism and imaginative production style, plays somethrough like a auditory scrapbook leafed through by the world’s greatest narrator. While this is certainly not DOOM’s best project, I would consider it to be his easiest and arguably most enjoyable listening experience. It’s fun. It’s uncompromisingly DOOM. It’s most definitely worth checking out for rap-lovers and skeptics alike. I frequently revisit this album and consider several tracks to be near-perfect, perhaps the album lacks from a cohesivity perspective or misses the incisive edge characteristic to the next album I will discuss, but it is a bonafide classic and, in my opinion, to nobody’s surprise, another masterpiece.

Next comes one of my favorite albums of all time from any genre, DOOM’s first commercial breakthrough, Madvillainy, a collaboration with legendary producer Madlib under the name Madvillain. After meeting at the Stones Throw Records headquarters, the two recorded the album in a series of sessions and locations over the span of two years. Madvillainy is widely recognized as Dumile’s magnum opus and one of the greatest experimental rap albums of all time. In my humble opinion, this album is perfect. I would truly struggle to find any issues with the tracklist, production style, sample choice, storytelling, or even the Madlib-DOOM dynamic, because, frankly, I don’t think any exist. Madvillainy ranges from digestible to rhyme-dense and challenging, from abstract to universal, from grimy and gritty to peachy and polished. While I would recommend specific tracks to listen to from this project, ones that I find especially memorable, I implore listeners to experience this project in its entirety. While there are certainly standout songs, I encourage you to find them on your own as no tracks on this album miss, all villainous gems in their own regard. I think Rollie Pemberton & Nick Sylvester of Pitchfork describe the genius of this project best in their review of the album, writing, “Madvillainy is inexhaustibly brilliant, with layer-upon-layer of carefully considered yet immediate hip-hop, forward-thinking but always close to its roots. Madlib and Doom are individually at their most refined here, and together, they’ve created one of the most exciting blockbuster alliances in the underground to date. Good luck finding a better hip-hop album this year, mainstream, undie, or otherwise.” Madvillainy became a well-deserved critical and commercial success. If I’d recommend one DOOM album for those interested in a culturally significant and sonically impeccable project, this would be it

Still maintaining his independence, but simultaneously venturing further into the mainstream, DOOM collaborated with in-demand producer DJ Danger Mouse in 2005 under the group name DANGERDOOM. A fun fact about this project, that I feel is aging exceptionally well and is increasing in popularity as more listeners explore DOOMl, is that it was made in collaboration with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. The album goes as far to feature voice-actors and characters from Adult Swim shows, especially Aqua Teen Hunger Force. This album, The Mouse and the Mask even managed to reach #41 on the Billboard 200 upon its release. I find this album to be immensely enjoyable and holding widespread, quirky appeal. A true cultural time capsule, this album is nothing but kooky yet tidy production, unforgettable flows, and DOOM being especially hilarious at the helm of a purely lovable project. It should be noted that this album is bolstered by some pretty stellar features, notable appearances including Ghostface Killah, Talib Kwell, and even CeeLo Green. From this album I’d recommend “Benzi Box,” “Crosshairs,” “Sofa King,” “The Mask,” “Space Hos,” and “El Chupa Nibre.” I’d like to put special emphasis on “Crosshairs,” my top song in the last 365 days. Maybe it’s DOOM’s slick and nonchalant delivery, his zany wordplay, or the simple yet tremendously effective instrumental. Whatever it may be, I can’t get enough of it.

Finally, as the last album I’ll highlight in this article, DOOM dropped Born Like This in 2009, his first solo album to chart in the United States, likely a product of its high quality following a period of limited output. Certainly not my favorite project by DOOM but one I respect tremendously. Considerably darker and more rugged in tone, Born Like This is tremendously precise, less rough around the edges than previous albums, but still carrying a sharp edge and notably sinister delivery. This album features some outstanding production by legendary producer J.Dilla and an impressive feature by Raekwon. My favorite tracks off this album are “GAZILLION EAR,” “YESSIR!,” “ABSOLUTELY,” “LIGHTWORKS,” “THAT’S THAT,” and  “CELLZ.” Pay special attention to “THAT’S THAT,” a track featuring arguably the most complex rhyme scheme ever utilized by DOOM and by any other rapper I know. Internet scholars far and wide have analyzed this song’s structure and rhymes, stacking up assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme to create a cacophanic rap anomaly. Absolutely worth checking out.

So while DOOM will certainly be missed, his music will carry on his legacy as a true creative genius and unmatched storyteller and lyricist. With this guide to his discography, I hope I’ve opened the doors to a wildly beautiful rabbit hole of underground rap.