The Nerd Behind the Mask


Ever wonder why rappers change their names so much? They’re growing up. Cocky bastards that they are, the Jiggas and P-Diddys update their handles every so often to let the world in on even the minutest personal development. Fine, if it helps them cope. But don’t expect Slim’s or Marshall’s or whoever’s next LP to be any grand departure from the Eminem album that Jimmy Iovine paid for. MCs with nothing to lose, on the other hand—ones who, as De La Soul put it, “fell the fugghhh off” long before gold was the lowest acceptable sales standard—experience much more dynamic character arcs, emerging as if from behind Ricki Lake’s curtains, wholly made over. When Kool Keith morphed into Dr. Octagon, he grew into his dirty old manhood. As Deltron 3030, Del came out of a drug-and-freestyle-induced haze an aging hippie, brooding over our planet’s future. Now, hidden behind the Metal Face of Doom, a hip-hop Michael Stipe finds a new religion in rocking the mic.

From the beginning, MF Doom was heavily at risk for an identity crisis. In 1989 he debuted as Zev Love X, the token black guy on 3rd Bass’s “Gas Face,” a song that featured two white rappers criticizing white people for demonizing black culture. Zev’s cleanup verse was mostly meaningless, but his anxious release and quirky wordplay (“Cash or credit for unleaded at Sunoco”) were enough to set off the “yo, who’s that?” ripple that had launched so many rap careers before him. Wigger sponsorship aside, Zev and crew KMD came out preaching to the gods and earths alongside Five-Percent nationalists like Brand Nubian. Their first album, Mr. Hood, was a primer for Islamic teens cast in beats, rhymes, and cartoons. (Remember “Peach Fuzz,” rap’s only ode to adolescent stubble?) But “pro-blackness,” arguably the first mass-marketed hip-hop trend, faded fast, and by 1993 KMD were ejected from Elektra ostensibly because the cover art for their on-deck second album, Blck Bstrds, was too inflammatory. No more than a year later, Zev Love X shipwrecked on rocks way sharper than his professional ones: His brother and musical partner Subroc was hit and killed by a car.

Zev resurfaced—sort of—in 1999 wearing a Marvel Comics Halloween mask and calling himself MF Doom. His Operation: Doomsday buzzed underground but was hard to come by. Old schoolers being all the rage on small labels these days (the Large Professor is on Matador and Oh, how the mighty—KRS-One, Grand Puba, and even RZA—have signed to Koch). Sub Verse rereleased both Doomsday and Blck Bstrds this May. As promised, the album jacket for Blck Bstrds—a lynched Sambo—smokes, but there’s no fire within. The lyrics, when decipherable, are limited to weed and women. There’s no well-intentioned anti-pork propaganda, just signs of boys turning to men and handling it poorly: “Who said I drink? I don’t drink. I guzzle. . . . I got stress, I sip booze to heal it.” Without Allah, KMD were like the Leaders of the New School sans Busta, rushing garbled rhymes over muddy, indistinguishable two-bar loops. Were it not for Zev Love X’s current incarnation, KMD might eventually wind up in the next ego trip Book of Lists, stuck between the UMCs and Fu-Schnickens under Whatever Happened To . . . ?

So: “Why don’t you tell him about the time we faced Doom?” Sound bites nabbed from episodes of The Fantastic Four and the movie Wildstyle clue us in: Our hero has been resurrected as a “super villain,” a tortured personality who shies from the spotlight while at the same time plotting world domination yada, yada, yada. The shtick is beside the point; Doom is a purist now. The anxious, mumble-mouthed lyrics filled with “knowledge of self” rhetoric have calmed into a casual stream of confident, clever self-promotion. Fortunately, Doom rhymes with tongue in cheek as well as dick in hand, frequently slipping off the inflated ego and revealing the cynical, self-deprecating nerd behind the iron mask, admitting, “I only play the games that I win at.” In fact, if there is anything truly villainous about Doom, it’s that he subverts hip-hop’s foundation of taking oneself way too seriously by acknowledging that it’s all just tall tales: “Me, sci-fly, whole style stuck-up/Used to talk to myself, I told him, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ” Imagine Wu-Tang unclenched; Doom often likes to knowingly suspend disbelief, kick back with us and watch his own fantastic exploits from the safety of third-person: “He’s like a ventriloquist with his hand in the speaker’s back.” And even then, he never seems too excited to see himself, always rhyming as if in repose and simply exchanging pleasantries. (Sometimes he is: “Anyhoo, how ’bout them Yankees?”) When Doom is actually ready to accept his own praise, he does so with such humility and finesse that it’s pointless to argue: “This fly flow takes practice like Tae Bo with Billy Blanks/Oh, you’re too kind. Really, thanks.”

Doom also likes to name-drop archvillain Slobodan Milosevic, but the worst of his own crimes amounts to sampling without a license. Everyone from Steely Dan to Sade gets gouged, the latter losing several bars and the chorus of her “Kiss of Life” to “Doomsday.” It’s all fun and games until someone loses a lawsuit, but our (anti)hero doesn’t seem worried. He acknowledges his sources with winks in lieu of payment, like the last line of the Scooby-scooping “Hey”: “to all my other brothers who is doing unsettling bids, you could have gotten away if was not for those meddling kids.” And when he pulls from James Ingram or Atlantic Starr, he strips the polish off, dicing their smooth r&b and crumbling it over jagged drums straight out of the RZA’s missing chamber.

And samples aren’t all that MF Doom won’t credit—he won’t give Elektra credit for derailing his career eight years ago, either. Even the adverse effect of his brother’s death gets only a passing nod on “Red and Gold”: “I been bent back since my physical went back.” Other than that, MF Doom seems to have settled with his past and put aside all his childhood pursuits . . . well, all except one. “As the life cycle goes on,” he rhymes on “The Finest,” “you learn to hold on to things like the mic.” But unlike most guys still struggling to check one-two in their twilight years, Doom somehow managed to fall completely off and come back, not just older, not just more genuine, but a hell of a lot cooler the second time around.

MF Doom will perform at S.O.B.’s August 15.