In the third installment of our KMD retrospective, we look back at Subroc’s tragic death through the words of his friends and collaborators, and explore Zev’s resolve to finish Black Bastards.
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
Long Live Kingilizwe
The recording of Black Bastards proved a stark artistic break from the days of Mr. Hood, but even more importantly, it showed two brothers going through changes. Zev was less of a leader to an assured Subroc, who’d embraced a newfound confidence and quickly became a captivating presence. He devised the record’s opening skit, comprising sampled dialogue fragments, and took to the mic with a startling passion. It was Sub’s time to shine, but in a cruel twist of fate, a tragic accident would take him far too soon.
The lessons imparted on the yet-unreleased Black Bastards – the refutation of stereotypes, evisceration of racism, and tales of pot-smoking, beer-swilling refuge – were ones that the Dumile brothers were themselves learning. DOOM, speaking in retrospect, has long framed his sudden and passionate love of liquor and lye as a response to stress, and his coming-of-age introduced no shortage of such angst. “Just being that age, a lot of stuff happens, too,” he told Wire in 2004. “Especially living in America, being brown people, or whatever you want to call it, that age is a very pivotal time. That’s when you get hit with a lot of traps.”
The record was almost completed – just two songs out, according to DOOM – when tragedy struck. Dingilizwe ‘Subroc’ Dumile, less than four months out from his 20th birthday, was hit by a car while trying to cross the Long Island Expressway. He spent the night in the hospital, as per Cage’s recollection, but didn’t make it through. As KMD were grappling with a world so hostile and a system so indifferent to black life, it was an accident that took Subroc; a simple twist of fate that pulled a father from his child, a brother from his sibling, and a man from his own limitless potential.
Cage, the underground emcee who was with Sub the night before his death, has never been so sold on the accident. “I know he died because of injuries because he was hit by cars, and I remember hearing he had contusions of the brain which were caused by the accident,” he recalled, the last person to see Sub before his death. “Some people said they saw him running into traffic, others say he was chased into traffic. And [the cops] never investigated it. They just closed the case. It was sad. I don’t like to open up old wounds. That was a fucked up time.”
Dante Ross has long speculated that Subroc’s death was related to his drug use, specifically his use of psychedelics. “[Lord Sear, Kurious, MF Grimm and Zev Love X] were all very heavily into psychedelic drugs, and… I dunno, some of that shit might have contributed to Sub’s death,” he told Check The Technique’s Brian Coleman. “Sub had a bad acid trip a few months before he died, and was pretty spaced out at that time.” Pete Nice recalls the Constipated Monkeys crew “hanging out in the city a lot… experimenting with a lot of mind-altering drugs. Like, a lot of them.” Nice remembers having “Subroc come to [his] office several times with a machete in his coat,” an object that became something of a totem for his older brother, who would “keep a flick of [Sub] with the machete sword in [his] hand” up until at least 2000, when the same blade appeared in MF DOOM’s “?” music video.
There’s no saying how that drug use factored into the freak accident, though there’s no doubt the time spent alongside Constipated Monkeys Crew helped Sub come into his own. “Aw man, that dude was incredible! He was brilliant,” waxed Kurious of Subroc in 2007. “He used to come through…we used to kick it, man. He’d come through with DOOM – he was real funny, very energetic…always. He just had a high energy, man.” He put his memories into verse on “Leave Ya’ With This,” a Dante-produced track from his debut, A Constipated Monkey:
… the joint is dedicated
To my man up top, none other than Subroc
Taking time machine trips, go back and correct shit
Roughed up a beat, I freestyle on some next shit
You’re back to the essence we will always miss your presence
See you later in bliss, for now I leave ya with this…”
– Kurious, “Leave Ya’ With This” (1994)
Dingilizwe’s death robbed him of a life filled with promise, with his adolescent art already a thing of profound, outspoken beauty. His beats burst with energy, elevated by his kaleidoscopic techniques, and his emerging personality laced his oft-pithy bars with new life. If Dingilizwe’s future was stolen from him, so too was Daniel’s, visions of which had always included his younger brother. “Each man feels his feelings on the inside, the way he does, but all I can say – just from being around DOOM – I’m sure that’s something very strong to go through, but he handled it like a man, like really cool,” said Kurious 15 years on. “He just seemed very strong about it.”
Tight-knit though the Constipated Monkeys crew were, that’s not the way everyone remembers it. “DOOM really took that super duper hard,” recalled Del the Funky Homosapien. “I was with him one night, and he was just buggin’ out. We was trying to get a cab, and I think the cab was trying to not pick us up, so DOOM just started beating on the window of the cab, you know, trying to break the window.” Dante, one of Zev’s oldest industry champions, saw yet another change in the formerly pious Long Island teen. “I think some part of DOOM was gone when Sub died,” he told Brian Coleman decades on. “Sub’s death, understandably, made DOOM a very angry person.”
“In this country, being original people, a lot of things be happening at a certain age, right when you reach manhood,” DOOM told Hua Hsu in 2005. “I’m just noticing my peoples disappearing – good people, not bad people.” Subroc died on the cusp of the record, but as DOOM remembers it, folding on the project was never an option. “I had to stay focused,” he reminisced. “I had to make sure we came up out of it. The goals that me and my brother set… they had to still be met. It was up to me.”
Zev took that responsibility seriously, and in the wake of Sub’s death, the record became an even more important statement. “I remember that at Subroc’s wake, DOOM set up a boombox right next to the casket and played pretty much the whole Black Bastards album,” said Pete Nice in 2015. “It was intense to hear it in that context.” He called the experience “just surreal” in an MM.. FOOD interview, and talking with Brian Coleman, he told how the debut of “Suspended Animation” – Sub’s first entirely solo track – “moved [him] more than anything else.”
In death, as in life, the Dumile brothers were an unabashed artistic force. If Subroc’s sudden death left Zev with indescribable grief, it galvanized his resolve, and the young emcee all but swore to see the project through.
Industry Rule Number 4080…
One popular telling suggests that KMD was dropped by Elektra less than a week after Subroc’s sudden death. There’s no denying that Elektra were callous in their treatment of Zev, particularly considering the tragedy that befell him, but the one-man KMD endured for more than a year. Admittedly, the former outfit was in shambles: Onyx had left, Subroc had died, and Zev Love X was emotionally scarred and stranded in an ever-complicating music industry.
As sudden as Subroc’s death had been, it was an eventuality the pair had considered. The brothers, ever wise to the ways of the world, were fans of hip hop’s Bronx-Born teacher, KRS-One, who lost his Boogie Down Productions offsider Scott La Rock to gun violence just six years earlier. “When that happened and we both peeped it, automatically we thought of ourselves in those shoes,” said DOOM. “If the same thing was to happen to one of us – you know what I’m sayin’ – what would we do?”
Zev answered that question by adding the finishing touches to their passion project. “We saw how Kris [KRS-One] handled that situation,” he told Hua Hsu on the Madvillany press junket. “He could have quit. We didn’t know what he was going to do. Was he going to come out with another album? Then he came with that shit – By All Means Necessary. So that showed us what to do in that situation. You persevere, you keep going, you strive and you do it.”
“That’s the last song I laid down vocals for on the album, after Subroc was killed,” he said of “Constipated Monkey,” the drums for which were sourced by their younger brother Dim. It’s not immediately obvious that the track is posthumous, given the typical blend of humor, drug references and socio-political defiance. In fact, the track contains perhaps the record’s most outright contention, with Zev spitting:
Zev Love X-Lax, a brown man, not a black bastard
I’m stringin’ ’em, up stringin’ ’em up higher
Than the ’86 Nikes on the wire…”
Subroc enters in the second verse, only to deliver a single bar – an in-studio request, more than anything – before the track fizzles out in a haze of refrains and asides. There’s something a little prophetic about that request, which hints at one of Zev’s later stylistic pivots: “What, is you stupid? Make my voice deeper…”
Plugging the gaps and patching the voids left by Subroc was, in a way, the easy part. Black Bastards was a project far removed from Mr. Hood, and the record would have to move through the Elektra system before it could be set loose into the world. In order to understand just why that would prove difficult, we need to take a little detour, switching coasts, genres and generations…
This is part three 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 Monday for part four.
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