Few artists have inspired as much myth-making as MF DOOM, hip hop’s most fearsome villain. His prodigious beginnings gave way to music industry treachery, and his masked return gave way to tales as inventive as the comics from which he pulled, but there’s truth in every telling.
Pulling from almost three decades of interviews, art and asides, we’ve pieced together an authoritative chronicle of DOOM’s origins, pulling from the words of those who knew him best: his friends, his mentors, his peers and the villain himself. In honour of the late MF DOOM, we’re publishing the piece in five serialized installments over the next two weeks.
Part I: MF DOOM and the KMD Origin Story
Part II: Positive Kauses and Constipated Monkeys
Part III: Long Live Kingilizwe
Part IV: Ice-T, KMD and Hip-Hop Cops
Part V: Zev Love X-ile & MF, the Supervillain
Origin stories are tried and true, but as we push into a new decade, they’re also a little tired.
We’ve watched Batman take up the cape time and time again, and Peter Parker’s unassuming beginnings are a curiously cross-generational tale, enshrined by a handful of rehashes and reiterations. More often than not, these arcs involve an unassuming somebody – usually the pure of heart, attuned to morality and social responsibility – coming into some wild and unexpected abilities, allowing them to action their convictions and make change. In many a Marvel blockbuster, the making of a menacing megalomaniac is relegated to the background, communicated through a handful of dramatic monologues and interwoven with their dastardly plots for world domination. Only infrequently are their motivations as sympathetic as the hero’s, and less frequently still are their plans fully realised.
If any villain has managed to mould the world in his image, it’s MF DOOM, the metal-faced adversary who broke out of NYC’s underground and achieved a kind of subterranean domination. In the early-to-mid 2000s, the ever-prolific DOOM became the hottest underground hip-hop figure of the millennium, linking together a decisive combo of releases including 2004’s Madvillainy and MM.. FOOD, and 2005’s The Mouse & The Mask. Take Me To Your Leader, released in 2003, was the work of his Monsta Island Czars alter-ego King Geedorah, and Vaudeville Villain, also 2003, was penned by his mad dimension-hopping scientist Viktor Vaughn.
DOOM’s domination wasn’t entirely without warning, but those who saw the signs – 1999’s Operation: Doomsday and 2000’s lowkey Monsta Island Czars mixtape Escape from Monsta Island! – could hardly predict the ensuing devastation. Those records represented the arrival of the metal-faced terrorist, but the villain’s origin story traces back to the late 1980s, when a troupe of Long Island graffiti artists took to the mic. Daniel Dumile was once a teenaged jazz rap purveyor, though his evolution into a silver-tongued firebrand made him a renegade in a cutthroat industry, setting the scene for a vicious disavowal and a mythical return.
GYP, KMD, repping LB, NYC
Long Island, 1985: Hurricane Gloria had just battered the region, causing much chaos and destruction, and local talents such as Biz Markie, Erick Sermon, Chuck D, De La Soul and Rakim stood on the brink of their own borough-rattling come ups. Hip hop was an ever-expanding artform, capturing imaginations and pushing up against perceived boundaries and barriers with the help of a rapidly growing audience. Innovation was constant, commercial endorsements were growing and radio stations were increasingly disseminating hip-hop tracks.
In Long Beach, a council defined by “a history of apathy and greed,” a couple of young siblings were caught up in that captivating rise. Daniel and Dingilizwe Dumile, brothers who’d spent their youth bouncing about the boroughs, had settled in the city by the sea a few years earlier, and hip hop was their ever-present passion. They’d stay up late, tape recorder at the ready, just to catch grainy copies of new tracks off their clock radio. In the mid-’80s, the brothers invested some money into modest recording equipment, pivoting from their usual graffiti fare to making their own music. Christening themselves Kausing Much Destruction, or KMD, the pair linked up with a neighborhood friend and immersed themselves in Long Island’s greater Get Yours Posse. It was there that the fledgling emcees met two dancers for 3rd Bass, an up-and-coming group out of neighboring Far Rockaway.
If 3rd Bass and KMD now seem dramatically different, they certainly had their commonalities at the time. They moved in the same circles, lived not far from each other, channeled a mutual love for hip hop, and counted three members apiece. In KMD, those members were taking up their own mantles: the mysterious friend landed on Rodan; the younger Dumile brother, Dingilizwe, went by Subroc; and Daniel, the man who would be DOOM, picked the singular title of Zev Love X. It was Zev who first met with MC Serch of 3rd Bass, and the pair hit it off immediately. Zev and Subroc spent a lot of time with 3rd Bass as they recorded their 1989 Def Jam debut, The Cactus Album, with Zev working his way onto their breakout single, “The Gas Face.”
A 3rd Bass hit though it was, “The Gas Face” grew from one of Zev’s ideas, a fact that 3rd Bass member Pete Nice alludes to at the open of his verse. “We were taking the Long Island Railroad out to see Prince Paul to work with him on The Cactus Album and DOOM was coming out with us,” Pete Nice told Ryan Proctor in 2013. “DOOM had been using the term ‘Gas Face’ relentlessly at the time and Serch said, ‘Let’s do a record called “The Gas Face.”’ So we literally wrote that record on the train to the studio and while we were actually in the studio.”
It was there that Zev met producer Prince Paul, frequent collaborator with his De La idols. “I was in the studio recording ‘Gas Face,’” recalled Paul in his podcast with Open Mike Eagle. “It might’ve been Pete Nice, he was like ‘yo Paul, I wanna introduce you to, uh, we’re gonna have him rhyme on the record, this is DOOM.’” Though he recorded as Zev, Daniel Dumile was already DOOM to those who knew him well, owing to his mother’s enduring pet name. “I still have it to this day, when he wrote his number down in the studio,” tells Paul, “it was DOOM.”
If his star turn wasn’t impressive enough, Zev reportedly produced the drums for the tune, a contribution for which he’s rarely credited. The defining single was but the apex of the strong creative relationship between the trios: KMD also featured on the outro of album track “Product Of The Environment,” and appeared in the music video for The Cactus Album single “Steppin’ To The A.M.,” a track MC Serch reportedly wrote for Eric B. & Rakim at the request of Lyor Cohen.
The simple, disapproving grimace that inspired “The Gas Face” became the bedrock upon which 3rd Bass made their name as irreverent, tongue-in-cheek and seemingly wise to both industry trappings and Afrocentrism. In actual fact, 3rd Bass’ progressive creed was seen by some as another form of appropriation, and though their feuds with the Beastie Boys and MC Hammer found them policing hip hop, there’s no denying the sharpness of MC Serch’s bars on the cut:
Black cat is bad luck, bad guys wear black
Musta been a white guy who started all that…”
In their brief moment of fame, 3rd Bass embarked on a national tour alongside rap game lothario Big Daddy Kane, and Zev joined them, busting out his “Gas Face” feature night-in, night-out. “It’s a small verse, but when I come out on stage it was a famous song so people would be hyped,” he explained to Earthquake in 2004, remembering meeting Tupac (then on the road with Digital Underground) and learning about hip-hop realities from veterans and newcomers alike. “That time was fun,” DOOM reminisced. “Talk to Kane, see how his show was, get advice from those types of dudes. All those people were good back then… it was a peaceful experience learning and everything.” The teen even hit Arsenio in 1990 to spit his verse.
“The Gas Face” cast Zev as the central figure in his own three-man outfit, more verbose and commanding than his younger offsiders. In the beginning, Subroc largely focused on beats, and when Rodan left the group to finish high school – “I actually went away to school upstate,” Rodan told journalist Brolin Winning years later, “I had got kicked out of school in Long Island” – he was replaced by Alonzo Hodge, who went by Onyx the Birthstone Kid. This fresh trio were suddenly thrust to the forefront of hip hop, making them something of a hot property in the culture’s expanding commercial sphere. In the moments before “The Gas Face,” Zev met Dante Ross, a mentee of Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons and one of the industry’s most experienced A&Rs. A peer of the Beasties, former road manager for Eric B. & Rakim, onetime A&R for De La Soul, and former Tommy Boy scout who signed Queen Latifah and Digital Underground, Dante was already well versed in the game when he took up a job at Elektra Records.
“I don’t want to throw dirt on people, but it was a questionable deal the way it was structured with Pete and Serch,” said Dante of KMD’s initial deal in 2014. “When we made the second record, I had basically cut all that out.” His rapport with Zev debuted alongside the emcee himself, who shot him a joking gas face on the track’s outro, to which Serch replied, “yo, stop dissin’ Dante on records, y’all!” You best believe they didn’t. The teens signed with Elektra and began recording their own debut, frequenting Calliope Studios and Chung King. Onyx later joined Zev Love X on another 3rd Bass cut, the similarly Zev-inspired “Ace In The Hole,” in 1991.
In the weeks leading up to their long-awaited LP, Zev and Onyx testified before a Senate committee for the Rock The Vote initiative, lobbying for the Motor Voter Bill in order to raise political involvement by increasing the accessibility of voter registration resources. KMD’s case unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears, and the bill was vetoed by then-President George H.W. Bush, only to be subsequently signed into law by Bill Clinton. Unsuccessful though the bill may have been, that hearing spoke to the group’s political convictions: while young, even for emcees, the duo substantiated their peppy music with a fierce critical gaze, taking their fight for enfranchisement to the floor of the United States Senate.
Kausing Much Destruction
KMD’s Mr. Hood, released in May of 1991, dropped alongside Ice-T’s OG: Original Gangster and De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead. That’s stiff competition, with Ice-T a respected West Coast pioneer and De La the beloved East Coast alternative troupe. Both of those records are among their best, and as Ice perfected his brand of gangsta storytelling and De La buried their hippie image, KMD asserted themselves as fresh-faced jazz rap posse with a childish streak and a wisdom beyond their years.
“My mother raised us with Islam, and then my father, being a teacher, always taught us about our people, about Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” explained DOOM to Alex Pappademas of Spin in 2004. “But when I started junior high school, I realized motherfuckers didn’t know about these people! So I was like, ‘Let’s spread the word.’ We were straight-up teachers.”
“We based the album on the Sesame Street concept,” explained Zev to Hip Hop Connection in 1991, “incorporating loads of puppets and learning, which will get the kids into it. So we incorporated that humour with education, with confrontation, with touchy subjects that people DON’T want to hear about.” The presence of Bert, Ernie and Big Bird on certain tracks, along with the musings of Mr. Hood, “the ignorant kid from around the way” voiced by a language learning CD, certainly bring vim and vigour to discussions of self-esteem, knowledge, truth and even interracial relationships.
“He’s like a stiff, sounds like a corny old dude, but he’s [a] real thug, hood dude,” DOOM said of the titular character in his RBMA lecture. “So the whole record was based around us schooling him from being a drug dealer type, just dropping little jewels on him, schooling him, bringing him into the crew kinda thing. But by the end of the record, he gets it into his skull, he starts being more aware, more conscious of what’s going on.”
Lead single “Peachfuzz” found Zev and Onyx laying claim to the smoothness of Pete Nice, the charm of Heavy D and the appeal of LL Cool J, all qualities undercut by their youth, manifest as the “peachfuzz” of their juvenile beards. It’s a lighthearted take on their fusion of youthful fun and religious reason, with Onyx invoking Five-Percenter tenets such as the Supreme Alphabet. “A man I am in the body of a youth, so don’t play me like I’m Born Universe Truth Truth,” he raps, later name-checking the Nation of Islam’s ever-important “Knowledge of Self.” Zev avoids those references, though he does wax poetic about his sobriety, a belief he collates with his Nuwaubian theology on the third and final single, “Nitty Gritty.” “They were both devout Muslims back then, in 1991,” remembered Pete Nice. “They were still kids. We would go on the road and they would have their prayer rugs during Ramadan. They didn’t drink or do any drugs.”
As adherents of the Nuwaubian Nation, also known as Ansaar, KMD were peers of many up-and-coming Islamic emcees. “The only difference between the Five Percent Nation muslim and the Ansaar is that Five Percenters believe that they are the creator and we believe that there is one creator that created everything in existence but the Blackman is God,” explained Zev in The Source. “It’s not that hard to break into the white-owned music industry and still call them devils on wax,” he added later in the interview. “You gotta sneak up in shit, make ‘em think you down and sneak up and snuff ‘em!
If their religious convictions aligned them with Five-Percenters Brand Nubian, mentioned on “Peachfuzz” and featured on “Nitty Gritty,” their sound indebted them to the blossoming Native Tongues movement. Founded by The Jungle Brothers and exemplified by De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Queen Latifah, the Native Tongues collective was a burgeoning scene in the early-’90s, marrying sample-laden compositions with upbeat irreverence and palpable joy. In pairing these lighthearted arrangements with a subtly seething and acerbic wit, KMD flipped an esoteric perspective into an enjoyable listen.
KMD’s instrumentals, credited to the trio, were oft-simpler than those of their more technically advanced peers, though they lacked none of the inventive edge. “Me and Sub would do whatever we could do,” said DOOM of the production duties credited to the group name. “It wasn’t necessarily sectioned off… I would dig in the crates, find the loops, and come up with a concept. Then, I’d usually get close to finishing it, but I’d be too lazy. I never liked messing with computers or programming drum machines and samplers. I left a lot of beats half-done. And Sub would come in and finish a lot of them.” An undefined process though it was, Subroc’s production credit on “Hard Wit No Hoe” – the sole beat credited to a single producer – spoke to his ever-increasing technical talents. “He was just quieter than me, I guess,” reflected DOOM in 2014. “He’d get it tight and set the pace. He was my partner in crime.”
“On the mic, he started coming with his MC shit right around the time of the first album,” said DOOM, though Subroc was still the quietest of the trio: “Subroc’s Mission” proved his only solo jam, and verses on “Humrush,” “Nitty Gritty” and “Soulflexin’,” along with starring roles on skits “Mr. Hood Gets A Haircut” and “Preacher Porkchop,” rounded out his microphone presence. “Boogie Man!” found Onyx on his lonesome, whilst a swathe of wordy jams – “Mr. Hood at Piocalles Jewelry/Crackpot,” “Who Me?,” ”Figure of Speech,” “Bananapeel Blues,” “Trial N’ Error,” “808 Man” and “Boy Who Cried Wolf” – attested to Zev’s lyrical leadership. He certainly seemed the sagest of the three, setting the tone with both his energy and his ever-captivating presence.
“We speak of serious issues in a way that you won’t get offended – black and white issues – cos living in an African-American neighborhood, we became victims of society in different ways that people outside just can’t see,” elaborated Onyx in that Hip Hop Connection piece. “We wanted to bring that to the attention of everybody, but in a humorous way so you won’t be offended – so you WON’T go out and cause any damage.” The audience becomes wise in much the same way as Mr. Hood himself, though from an entirely different angle: Mr. Hood is a street-corner drug peddler, a hustler at home on the block, but much of the audience came from a background far removed. KMD were “straight up teachers,” not only to their titular subject, but to any willing to truly hear their message.
That’s not to say that everybody found that message affecting. Robert Christgau, the self-anointed ‘Dean of American Rock Critics,’ called “Mr. Hood at Piocalle’s Jewelry/Crackpot” and “Mr. Hood Gets a Haircut” choice cuts, “good song[s] on an album that isn’t worth your time or money.” Christgau wasn’t against the movement: he’d called Brand Nubian’s One For All “Five Percenter daisy-age… warm, good-humored, intricately interactive,” and regarded Tribe’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm as having “more good songs on it than any neutral observer will believe without trying,” but Mr. Hood – an hour-long exhibition of upbeat Afrocentricity and lighthearted Nuwaubian Nation teachings – chased some of the movement’s most acclaimed entries with an inspired-if-understated style. It wasn’t all bad news: Chris Wilder of The Source called it “one of the most original and innovative albums since People’s Instinctive Travels…,” praising the radical sense of self that breaks through in their identity-affirming sermons. “I feel good every time I listen to [“Nitty Gritty”],” he wrote, “I feel good because I’m a Blackman and Black people is what the song is all about… that’s what KMD is all about.”
The essence of KMD – revolutionary politics defined by the Asiastic Blackman and racial upheaval – was seemingly lost on Elektra Records, who had a far different conception of the trio. The label pushed “Peachfuzz,” complete with a music video, to sell the group as a Native Tongues equivalent, branding them with a successful single that ultimately betrayed their greater mission. “I can’t fuck with all that image shit, being under-somebody’s-coattails bullshit,” a tired Zev told The Source in 1994, claiming the label also under-promoted the record amongst the African-American community. Mr. Hood peaked at #67 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums Chart, a modest placement, and quickly slid off the chart altogether.
KMD would never get a second chance at the charts. Zev would one day return, but when that time came, he’d do so as an artist reformed.
This is part one of a five-part series in memoriam to Daniel Dumile, aka Zev Love X, aka King Gheedorah, aka Viktor Vaughn, aka The Villain, aka MF DOOM.
Check back on Thursday for part two. Subscribe to our newsletter with the box below to be sure you don’t miss an installment!