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"What's the last good joke I heard?" There's a long pause, and then DOOM—a/k/a Daniel Dumile, a/k/a nefarious rapper MF Doom, who's graced himself with a shorter, all-caps moniker for his new record Born Like This, though he still orchestrates his comic-book antihero persona from behind a metal mask—tilts back his faceplate, sips from his pint of Black & Tan while lounging in a downtown Atlanta bar, and says, "I would say the one in the New York Post, about the monkey with the stimulus plan."
Yes, that cartoon, the one Al Sharpton is quite possibly still protesting as we speak. Another lift of the mask, another gulp, and Dumile flows on: "It was one of those edgy jokes. It was kinda a bad joke, but a good joke if you look at it as, How popular was the joke? It's the President of the United States—a figure of the utmost authority—in a high-profile publication like a newspaper, and they try to make fun of it. All presidents get made fun of. But the vein of it, the strain of it, the tying-in-to-the-monkey part of it, it's kinda funny. To me, it was like, 'Oh, they said it like that?' In that essence, that was the last good joke I heard—it was kinda in bad taste, but it's still a good nigger joke."
This isn't the first time Dumile has found himself holding court at the juncture where racially provocative imagery inches out into the mainstream. Back in 1994—then going by the moniker Zev Love X as part of the rap group KMD (think DayGlo-and-daisies-era De La Soul laced with Nation of Islam teachings)—his self-sketched "Little Sambo" figure, whom he'd intended to depict being lynched for the cover of the group's second album, Bl_ck B_st_rds, ruffled the suits at Warner Bros.–owned Elektra Records after a Billboard writer criticized the image. In spite of the illustration's intent (a "hanging of stereotypes" according to then–Elektra A&R VP Dante Ross), the argument came in the wake of Ice-T's "Cop Killer," a song that outraged both George Bush I and Warner Bros. shareholders. KMD found themselves dropped. Soon thereafter, Dumile's brother and KMD cohort, Subroc, was hit by a car and killed. Cue Zev's disappearing act, until he re-cast himself as MF Doom, announcing his return to public life at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1998, rapping with a stocking pulled over his face ("I couldn't get a mask made in time, so I figured I could use a stocking," he recalls).
Since then, he's established himself as hip-hop's premier cult figure, clocking up Adult Swim endorsements, his own Nike Dunk sneaker, and an imminent Thom Yorke remix, all sparked by his solo debut, 1999's Operation: Doomsday. It was the most perplexingly brilliant rap record of that year: With the Neptunes' futuristic, super-sharp sound dominating the radio, DOOM seemed to be broadcasting from a freshly soiled bathroom and was content to sample the warm grooves of '80s r&b hits. His slurry verbals reveled in tricky phrasing ("With more rhymes than there's ways to skin cats/As a matter of fact, let me re-rephrase/With more rhymes than ways to fillet felines these days"), he sketched an alter ego while dropping autobiographical clues ("Remember when you went and got the dark-blue Ballys?" he reminisces to Subroc) and used vocal samples from a Doctor Doom cartoon to stitch it all together. To this day, it's his most revealing work.
Then came a five-year flurry of product: sets as the triple-headed monster King Geedorah and the time-traveling Viktor Vaughn; separate hookups with Danger Mouse and Madlib; one-offs with indie labels Rhymesayers (MM . . . Food, an album of songs with food-pun titles) and Nature Sounds (a live recording). It was Dumile in all-out money-making mode—even the most dedicated disciple might've balked at the set of 10 instrumental Special Herbs albums. But with overkill looming, things went quiet for a couple of years, and Born Like This sounds like a re-introduction. There's not much science behind the gestation period ("I was just taking my time," he says nonchalantly), but with the album title inspired by a line from Bukowski's dystopia-conjuring poem "Dinosauria, We"—the set's centerpiece, "Cellz," samples Bukowski himself reading it—this is Dumile's most openly political moment.
He cites "Absolutely," a song speculating on a strategic reaction to police-against-citizen violence, as his album highlight: "That's me asking, 'What happens if we take up arms, and we have a whole planet, and we have rules to this, and we're out to get them?' It's fiction, but it's based on what could happen based on reality. It's like Bukowski has that post-apocalyptic, worst-case scenario, walking-through-these-wastes angle—a lot of the things he said we ain't reached yet, but some of the things we've reached after the shit was written. It's like a glimpse into the future if it keeps going that way. That's this album."
His pint now heartily refreshed, Dumile delves back to his earlier musings: "There was some ill cracker jokes back in the day. Or the Polish jokes: 'How many Polacks does it take to screw in a lightbulb?' I forget the answer, but it was something retarded. That was always the funniest joke to me." From there, he swings back to Born Like This: "I got jokes on my album about niggers, I got jokes about crackers—and I think those jokes that make humor of somebody else's culture, in a way, they bring us together. At least it's some kind of dialogue. Even though the cartoon does show the monkey with two holes in his chest like they killed him—it's kinda bad, but at least they're joking. The newspaper apologized for the joke, so now they know how serious it's taken, and it starts a dialogue. It's better than somebody actually getting shot in the street, and then we got to talk about it."
And then, the big finish: "Laughter brings people together. When you can laugh at someone else, that's bringing everyone together." Dumile slugs the last of his pint, shrugs, and adds, "Anyone who's salty at that needs to get their sense of humor intact. Go meditate or something—or drink a Black & Tan."