Daniel Dumile had lost everything. In the early ’90s, he found success as a rapper under the name Zev Love X, but in 1993, Daniel’s brother and musical partner Dingilizwe (aka DJ Subroc) passed away in a car accident shortly before the two were set to release their second album together. Dumile would eventually complete the album by himself, but before it was released, he was dropped from his label due to the album’s controversial artwork, and the release was canceled. Dumile spent the next several years of his life struggling and at times homeless in both New York and Atlanta. As New York’s hip-hop scene exploded in popularity in the ’90s and elevated countless homegrown rappers from inner-city struggles to unprecedented levels of fame, Dumile, once on the verge of becoming rap’s next hometown hero, was relegated to a supporting role. He was towered over by the heroes of New York hip-hop who climbed the mountain before Dumile had even put his climbing boots on.
The only thing Dumile had left to lose was his identity … but he lost that too. Zev Love X was dead. When Dumile eventually returned to hip-hop in the late ’90s, he permanently dropped the moniker and wore a mask, seldom showing his face again. As a child, Dumile, interested in comic books and DJing, earned the nickname “Doom,” a play on his last name and an homage to the comic book character Dr. Doom. Doom was dead, too. After years of real-life struggles, Dumile’s childlike innocence was gone. He had been beaten down relentlessly by a merciless world. He no longer believed in comic book tales of good triumphing over evil. He searched his past for a positive outlook on the world, but he found nothing. He still wanted to rap, but deep down, he also wanted revenge on the music industry. Daniel Dumile had nothing to identify with except evil itself, so he created a character for himself that would become a real-life hip-hop supervillain. Daniel Dumile became MF Doom.
Stage names have always been commonplace in hip-hop, but few pushed the boundaries of their persona as a medium of expression as much as Dumile did with MF Doom. While many hip-hop artists at the time found success by being transparent with their audiences and embracing their histories, MF Doom shrouded himself in mystery. In addition to directly hiding his identity by wearing a mask and rarely doing interviews, Dumile also maintained a significant level of separation between himself and MF Doom. Daniel Dumile was not MF Doom himself as much as he was to MF Doom who Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were to Dr. Doom: a writer who created a character to express his worldview abstractly. Dumile was merely one of several people who played the role of MF Doom, and MF Doom was only one of several characters created by Dumile, as he would also release albums under the names King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn.
While MF Doom was compelling as a character, his music is what would distinguish him as one of hip-hop’s greatest artists. Before Kanye West rode soul samples to superstardom on The College Dropout, MF Doom created complex lo-fi soundscapes that mixed soul and hip-hop samples on his debut, Operation: Doomsday. Lyrically, MF Doom complemented his virtuosic flow and brilliant wordplay with samples of cartoon characters like Dr. Doom and Scooby-Doo, establishing himself as a unique villain character compared to his gangsta rap contemporaries. This style was consistent throughout MF Doom’s career, but it also afforded MF Doom flexibility, contributing to an overarching conceptual theme on his 2003 album Mm..Food or a more varied and fragmented project like Madvillainy.
Although MF Doom’s unique style kept him from becoming a mainstream artist, his impact was nevertheless felt across music, from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. In a hip-hop landscape dominated by individualism and conflict between artists, MF Doom gained the admiration of fans and fellow musicians by turning his own conflicts with the world into some of rap’s most innovative music. During his career, MF Doom was truly one-of-a-kind; no rapper could match his combination of technical ability, musicianship and stage presence.
Just as mysteriously as MF Doom entered this world, he departed it. On Dec. 31, 2020, Daniel Dumile’s wife announced that he had passed away two months prior on Oct. 31. In a year in which the deaths of our heroes were constantly at the forefront of our public conscience, one of our greatest villains slipped away unnoticed on a day meant to celebrate evil. Even one year later, Dumile’s death at age 49 is tragic, but in his short life, Daniel Dumile overcame everything that stood in his way to become a hip-hop legend. In an era that saw both rappers and comic book franchises sacrifice originality to fit bland, commercially viable molds, and in a post-9/11 society that unquestioningly embraced heroism, MF Doom stood in defiance, embraced cartoonish villainy and changed music forever.
Daily Arts Contributor Jack Moeser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.