Most of his followers have never seen his face. A distinctive metal mask always covers it. Fans can buy plastic replicas, hawked by opportunists while he plays. But dig back to the early nineties and his first rap manifestation as Zev Love X, one third of K.M.D, and you’ll see his face exposed in the group’s videos. Here, there is ample evidence of the humour, sampling and lyricism that will win critical and popular acclaim in the following decades.
This is DOOM, MF Doom, Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, Metal Fingers, The Prof – all pseudonyms of Daniel Dumile, a London-born, New York-raised hip hop master. Legend’s an overused hyperbole, but in this instance it’s fitting. Both by his own design and the online hype of speculative forums, a compelling mystique has grown around DOOM. There’s his brother’s tragic death, Elektra Record's controversial canning of K.M.D, the feud with one-time collaborator MF Grimm, the DOOM impersonators he sends to cover for him at his gigs, and the detailed personas that accompany each of his projects. In 2014 DOOM even turned mentor, taking New York teen rapper Bishop Nehru under his metal wing.
At the close of the eighties, Daniel Dumile formed a band, KMD, with his brother Dingilizwe ‘DJ Subroc’ Dumile and their pal Rodan in Long Beach, New York. Part of the Five Percenter scene, along with Brand Nubian, they made buoyant, afrobeat rap with challenging lyrics. By 1991, Onyx the Birthstone Kid had replaced Rodan and Elektra Records released Mr. Hood, an album that merged Sesame Street with issues of race and poverty. But then things went wrong. In quick succession: brother and lifelong collaborator DJ Subroc was killed in a car accident and - as Elektra freaked out about the racially controversial artwork and lyric - K.M.D’s second album Black Bastards was shelved. Then Dumile disappeared.
Four years later some guy with a sock over his face started rapping at open mic nights in Nuyorican Poets Café. Dumile was making music again, but, perhaps scarred by his treatment at Elektra and the loss of Subroc, he wanted his new work to belong to a new self. His graffiti artist friend Blake ‘Keo’ Letham crafted Dumile’s first disguise from a plastic Darth Maul mask: see it in action here.
Dumile donned the mask for good and, inspired by Marvel’s super villain Dr Doom, took on a new persona – MF Doom. Doom and Keo created the artwork for his first LP Operation Doomsday in 1999. Around this time Doom was also collaborating with fellow metal-faced rapper MF Grimm on projects like MIC (Monster Island Czars) and in 2000 they released the MF EP together. Special Herbs and Spices Volume One followed in 2004, but by 2006 the pair were feuding hard, fuelled by online gossip and more concrete smackdowns like Grimm’s 2006 track Book of Daniel. MF Grimm claimed the rift was over money when confusion arose over where Doom had sent Grimm’s profit share while Grimm was in prison. Apparently they’re all cool now, although it doesn’t seem like they’ll be working together any time soon.
In the meantime, Doom was flitting between personalities on his solo projects. In 2003 he released two albums. The darkly hilarious Vaudeville Villain came courtesy of Viktor Vaughn, Doom’s alter-ego (the full name of Marvel’s Dr Doom is Victor von Doom). Doom also released Take Me To Your Leader as three-headed intergalactic lizard King Geedorah. In the guise of this space monster, he worked on the MIC LP Escape From Monsta Island!, which also released in 2003.
The following year was stuffed full of records too. A beautiful meeting of twisted minds, Madvillainy happened when Doom teamed up with Madlib. Released on Stones Throw, the Madvillain project raised Doom’s profile and alerted a new audience to his distinctive style, as music magazines in the US and UK praised the record. It’s now considered a full-blown masterpiece.
DOOM aficionados will remember 2004 also brought us the anagrammatically-named MM.. FOOD. He called in artist Jason Jägel to create another comic-inspired album cover. Doom smashed out samples with more humour than ever and elevated his complex rhyme schemes to new levels, raising awareness for carpal tunnel syndrome along the way. Taken as a whole, the album has a smooth narrative, woven together with Dr Doom cartoon clips, while individual tracks are lyrically dense, with new wordplay revealed on every listen. This would also be the last record released as MF DOOM. From then on, he’d be known simply as DOOM.
The success of Madvillainy and MM.. FOOD brought about another, even bigger, collaboration with Danger Mouse in 2005. Aqua Teen Hunger Force (an Adult Swim cartoon starring a box of fries, a shake and a soppy little meatball) was sampled heavily by the duo on The Mouse and the Mask, setting the scene for an irreverent LP.
Staying true to his elusive nature, just as DOOM’s popularity surged, he stepped out of the limelight. Rumours of new projects filled the void, and he gained a reputation for sending imposters to gigs to mime his biggest hits from behind a mask. But four years later, two albums appeared at once. Born Like This, although only 40 minutes long, was a classically intelligent offering, but the beats were pared back and the lyrics noticeably darker. It also spawned some high profile remixes, including Thom Yorke’s excellent reworking of Gazillion Ear.
A couple of years later, DOOM, allegedly banned from the US, was ensconced in London. He told The Guardian: “I have no friends here… Nobody knows me – I'm incognito. It's all new, all fun.” A new collaboration with Jneiro Jarel appeared in summer 2012, with lyrics reflecting his banishment, his new London life and, uncharacteristically, some soppier bars on his first love song.
DOOM’s time in London led him to embracing a new role as mentor of 18-year-old Markel Scott, otherwise known as Bishop Nehru. Eventually their collaborative album NehruvianDOOM album was released on Lex Records in 2014.
Since then, DOOM has gone on to collaborate with Flying Lotus and recently appeared on The Avalanches' single Frankie Sinatra. Most exciting though, is DOOM's long-awaited collaboration with another rap legend, Ghostface Killah. The album has allegedly been in the works for years, but in 2015 Ghostface confirmed that the album was on the way and would be released in February 2016. In classic DOOM fashion it still hasn't arrived, and there have been few updates since. Just adds to his mystery, doesn’t it?