Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Mask

“Told ya, on some get rich shit. As he gets older he gets colder than a witch tit. This is it, make no mistakes, where my nigga go?”

Figaro - Madvillain

The quote above comes from the mini masterpiece “Figaro” off Madvillainy, a collaboration with Lootpack producer/MC Madlib in addition to the culmination of the second movement in the career of Daniel Dumille, also known as Zev Love X, Viktor Vaughn and MF Doom among other aliases. The song is arguably the best on an album packed with snippets of rap, instrumental breaks, grainy PSAs and Saturday morning relics, a fever dream in a weed nap. “Figaro” is powered by a murky, water-marked, wavering melody blanketed in rattling tambourines, hand claps and a simple drum break. Then Doom goes nuts. He’s in no hurry to deliver a dense, random, relentless tirade of boasts and brags that merely serve as a vehicle for his heavily referential, tongue twisting wordplay. It’s the realization of the persona we’d met five years earlier, and free association rap at its finest.

Dumille broke in on the 3rd Bass classic “The Gas Face”, which proved to be a fitting introduction. The Gas Face as defined by 3rd Bass and Zev is a grimace typically attributed to flatulence. As understood in the song it serves as a facial “Negro Please”, a response to ignorance and bullshit. This is early Dumille in his essence. In 1991, KMD’s Mr. Hood was more focused on a Much Damaged society than a positive Kause. While often garnering unfair comparisons to 3 Feet High & Rising and One for All due to sharing Prince Paul’s sampling tastes and themes of 5% afrocentricity, KMD’s message contained a jaded pessimism and disillusioned humor that was light years ahead of its time, in fact one would be hard pressed to find a comparable level of sophistication in today’s Hip Hop market.

Constipated Monkey - KMD

Understanding this is important to understanding Zev Love because two years later, DJ Subroc, Dumille’s collaborator in KMD as well as his brother, would be tragically killed trying to cross the Long Island Expressway. This, coupled with Columbia shelving KMD’s sophomore effort Black Bastards due to controversial cover art and eventually releasing the group from the label lead to Dumille’s disappearance from the mid 90s Hip Hop scene. He would famously reemerge in 1999 as MF Doom, a Metal Faced super villain who had allegedly given up his conscious message, Plugish delivery, and native Long Beach, Long Island for a nihilist paper chase from the confines of a mansion in Atlanta.

While Dumille patterned his metamorphosis after the mortal nemesis of the Fantastic Four, the God John Coltrane makes for a more fitting analogy. Trane was frustrated with a Jazz market that had been co-opted by the mainstream, most successful and popular musicians earning their acclaim off soulful re-workings of Broadway hits and pop songs. He took his art away from the popular, choosing an amelodic direction, discarding soft palatable melodies and taking his cues from African and Eastern chant music, lulling his listeners into a trance through recurring patterns in walls of sound. In Doom’s newly found, scatter brained, mush mouthed, slurring style he uses his instrument similarly, never straying far from the rhyming sound a series of bars are wrapped around. I find at times it’s easy to allow the voice to wash over you and get lost in his intricate, breathless wall of cascading words.

Rhymes Like Dimes - MF Doom

If his first contribution as Doom is any indication, Dumille was thrilled by his liberation. Operation Doomsday has a feel and tone of absolute giddiness, a conscience free, subversive studio party, its participants having a ball with their irreverent experimentation. It takes continuous shots at a materialist mainstream he sets himself up as the opposition to, a staple in Dumille’s work from the beginning. What’s interesting is how the style itself, a convention eschewing insular world of heavily layered reference could be the biggest “fuck off” of all. More than the physical critiques of an uninspired Hip Hop offered, the effortless and alluring bending of the English language serves as his ultimate defiance.

Space Hoes - Danger Doom

Perhaps, dismissed by many as a gimmicky attempt at speaking to the ever-present white collegiate fan base, Dumille may have found his ideal muse in the Danger Doom project. In many senses Doom’s product has been the hip hop equivalent of a twisted race cartoon such as The Boondocks (the animated comic Dumille does voice over work for) since the KMD days. The Adult Swim lineup provides a wealth of perverted, hilarious snippets to sprinkle over Dangermouse’s whimsical Saturday morning score pitching directly to Dumille’s wheel house. He’s in his comfort zone as never before, firmly entrenched in a farcical universe, rapping with cartoon characters, keeping the light references regular and never showing so much as a glimpse under the mask.

I first began to suspect Doom’s persona went further than edifice after reading a harrowing account of the fate of MF Grimm in the Village Voice two years ago. While Grimm made several fairly grizzly accusations at Doom’s callousness to his plight, what was most alarming was Dumille’s Borat like devotion to staying in character, confirming and completely comfortable with his actions toward his unfortunate former Monster Island collaborator. If you were into narratives, you could argue that Daniel Dumille internalized his personal tragedy and professional strife and reemerged with a new name, face and technique, everything in his being standing in opposition to the world and industry that shunned him. Though fascinating, it’s almost sad to watch as this brilliant, wounded artist continues to fade into an inscrutable, nostalgic, fanboy fantasy of comic books and cartoons.

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