The Mask

The secret lives of hip-hop supervillain MF Doom

If Marvel Comics taught MF Doom anything, it was this: Every supervillain has his origins. Maybe it all begins with an accident, or an experiment gone wrong, or an act of injustice.

In Doom's case, it began with a bit of all three. Known to friends as "Doom" since he was a kid, Daniel Dumile was going by Zev Love X when he was called into Elektra's offices in 1994. Still busy mastering his second album with his crew KMD, Dumile assumed that the higher-ups at the label wanted to discuss how best to make the record go platinum.

Everyone knew Dumile had suffered a daunting loss the year before with the death of his kid brother, DJ Subroc, in a car crash. But things were going well now: The Dumiles had set to tape what's now considered one of the last classics of the Native Tongues era, a lo-fi hip-hop Black Album that forced listeners to confront the pathology of racism, while lamenting liquor and drug abuse from inside the bottle and the bong. Now the suits had to break the bad news that KMD was to be dropped, the record shelved.

One of those present at the label meeting was producer Dante Ross, an A&R man who had, under the name "Don Newkirk," introduced Dumile's crisp nasal sonorousness to the masses on 3rd Bass's "The Gas Face" in 1989. Today Ross says the label never even listened to Black Bastards. Merger-minded Time Warner was still on needles over the furor sparked by Ice T's "Cop Killer" single, and executives flipped when they saw Dumile's cover art, which depicted a Sambo dangling from a noose in a game of hangman.

"Bob Krasnow, my boss at the time, was on the run," says Ross. "He said, 'I just can't fight this fight right now,' and he was right. But that was the beginning of me realizing I could never work at a major label again."

Flash forward to 1998. The MC known as Zev Love X has disappeared. Bootlegged vinyl copies of Black Bastards have surfaced to secure KMD's place in underground mythology. Dumile's crew has become a symbol for everything lost in the mercenary calculations of big-money hip hop. Rumor had it he was living in Long Island seclusion, resurfacing only on the occasional late-night Manhattan park bench. Or perhaps Zev Love X was dead.

Yet from Manhattan's Nuyorican Poets Café stage, a familiar, conversational voice was spitting melancholy verses over mellow disco loops. "Watch your own back/Come in and go out alone, black..." the unknown MC rapped. "Ever since the womb, 'til I'm back where my brother went/That's what my tomb will say."

His name was Metal Face Doom and he wore a stocking on his face to conceal his identity, having modeled himself on Dr. Doom of Fantastic Four comics. Only later would the rapper acquire the metallic faceplate that he'll wear on Sunday during his first local performance at First Avenue.

Few could have guessed that Doom was Dumile. In place of the tightly wound but sprightly Koran thumper was a heavier-set, more emotionally direct storyteller. His husky flow seemed to wander indifferently over the beat, then seize the groove like a drunk grabbing your shoulder in a moment of clarity.

Doom's album Operation: Doomsday soon got a limited 1999 pressing on Fondle 'Em Records and has just received a wider rerelease this month, along with Black Bastards, on New York's Sub Verse label. Heard today, it stands as one of indie rap's weirdest concoctions: sleep-inducing Eighties quiet-storm soul samples set to Doom's mournful, discombobulated rhymes. He sounds like a member of the Wu-Tang cornered in the elevator by his shrink.

Five years in the making, Doomsday was supposedly the supervillain's plot to "destroy" the hip-hop industry that deformed him. Perhaps becoming a fictional character also allowed Dumile the creative leeway to write more intimately. Certainly, Dr. Doom's story resonates with his own. A London-born, Long Island-reared son of a South African teacher and Trinidadian nurse, Dumile came across the iron visage of Victor Von Doom well before he started rhyming. The character was like a humanized version of James Bond's Blofeld, a soulful granddaddy of Darth Vader who told himself that the world really would be a better place under his rule.

Conceived in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Dr. Doom taught a generation of Fantastic Four fans that villains are made, not born. (This is not just a comic-book plot: Wasn't Timothy McVeigh trained by the same Sergeant Furys who had Bob Kerrey clear-cut the Mekong delta?) Von Doom had blown his face off in a college lab experiment while trying to contact his dead mother, and he blamed Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, for sabotaging his research.

Retelling this tale with dialogue from Saturday-morning cartoons, Doomsday lets the informed hip-hop fan draw the parallels between Stan Lee's arch criminal and Dumile's alter ego: All it took was one accident, one experiment, and one injustice for our KMD hero to go MF Doom bad.

Still, the unmasked Dumile sounds wised up rather than cracked up. "The whole way the shit is run, corporatewise, America, it's like some eat-its-own-young shit for real," he says over the phone from his new hometown, Atlanta. "The next KMD album is going to outline the way these structures eat themselves." Tentative title: America's Hunger.

By all accounts, the seven years since KMD evaporated have been no kinder to Dumile. He raps about writing lyrics on the underside of a cell bunk. "I barely beat a 25-to-life bid before the Doomsday album," he remarks without elaborating. KMD collaborator MF Grimm is now doing time. It all gives a lifelong student of villainy more to mull over. (Name another MC who took the trouble to rhyme anything with "Slobodan Milosevic.")

"The whole comic-book era when I was growing up taught us a lot," Dumile says. "The way Stan Lee presented it, he showed both sides of it. It's like you see the villain's plight. Doom is the villain, but why is he the villain? He had his own little struggles that he's trying to combat."

And now, in classic Marvel style, MF Doom can switch back and forth between supervillain and mere mortal. "I was doing a show on Saturday, and I'm standing with a security guy," he says. "Somebody recognized my security from some TV show that we did a couple of days before, so they come to ask him a question about the show that particular night. Like, Yo, is Doom gonna perform 'Greenbacks'? They're asking him, but I'm standing right next to him. So you see the benefits. Like, I can be myself."

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