In the fifth and final installment of our KMD retrospective, we explore the ‘lost years’ that saw Zev Love X take up the mask, look back at Daniel Dumile’s own reflections on DOOM’s origins, consider the lessons the mask aimed to impart, and hail the legend of a metal-faced terrorist gone far too soon.
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
Zev Love X-ile
Daniel Dumile was untethered.
Betrayed by his record label and cast out into the industry wilderness, the man once known as Zev Love X moved without guise or guidance. KMD was history, their sophomore record little more than the unreleased master tapes cradled under his arm as he stepped from Elektra Records and into independence. The man, committed to finishing the record for his late brother Subroc, was in possession of a mixed and mastered project, but no amount of polish could lift the stains of Elektra’s cowardly decision to drop the 22-year-old emcee over his striking album cover.
He tried to sell Black Bastards to other labels, many of whom with which he had existing connections, but the contrived controversy had itself become a burden. “It was a dead album, everybody was scared of it,” DOOM told Brian Coleman. “We shopped it and everybody shot it down. Believe me, I would have wanted something to do with the business if the business wanted anything to do with me back then. It just seemed that, all of a sudden, motherfuckers didn’t want to fuck with me anymore.” Elektra’s aversion had proven industry kryptonite and, masters totally unsellable, Dumile went quiet.
“At that time, I was damn near homeless, walking the streets of Manhattan, sleeping on benches and shit,” DOOM later admitted in an uncommonly soul-bearing interview. “It was a really, really dark time.” A father in his early twenties, and an uncle to his late brother’s child, Dumile kept a low profile, splitting his time between NYC and Atlanta, where he had family. He explained the day-to-day of his ‘lost years’ in a 2004 interview, claiming that “each day was basically the same. I’d put my son on the bus in the morning, send him off to school. I might have 50 cents to get a beer, a can of O.E.. If I had a dollar, I might get two. At the time, my wife, we were just startin’ to date, so she’d come on her lunch break, bring me a sandwich, cheer me up. Most of the time, I was sticking to the crib, broker than a motherfucker, listening to jazz and just writing.”
“Mostly, he was busy raising his son and piecing together a recording budget,” penned another journalist in a similar mid-2000s deep dive on DOOM. “He poured himself into the songs that eventually became Operation: Doomsday. At the time, he was subsisting on the barest of necessities: a few old records, his faith and the occasional beer.” In that same 2005 Wire cover story, Mask of Sorrow, he looked back on the industry fallout with bewilderment. “During a six month period, it was like, shit was changing so drastically fast, in all aspects. It was some hard shit. At the time it didn’t seem so crazy but now when I think of it, it was some hard times.” If Zev had been unable to deal with the death of his brother, it seemed that Daniel, distant from the industry landscape he once called home, was having more luck.
In the morose Source interview with Ronin Ro, Zev spoke to the nature of radical change. “It seems like I’m listening to two different people, to tell you the truth,” he said of the then-impending Black Bastards. “I’m not even that motherfucker from before. I don’t know. Different times.” He floated the idea of continuing KMD with The Grimm Reaper – later known as MF Grimm – with whom he planned to release some tracks in the summer of ‘94, though those lofty plans were all but foiled by the weeks that followed. When Daniel went missing, so too did Zev Love X, and though Daniel would one day reemerge from the concrete jungle of New York City, Zev would remain lost, a stranger to the very man he’d become.
Zev and Subroc had always toyed with multiple names and creative aliases, but Daniel’s interest in identity took on a whole new dimension during the “lost years.” “In hip hop, we get kinda confused,” he told Hsu Hua of Wire in 2005. “I think we limit ourselves with the whole ‘I’m the guy’ kind of thing… in hip hop you’re the guy, and it’s too much responsibility – you don’t want to be that guy. So I’m like, if hip hop is all about bragging and boasting, then I’m going to make the illest character who can brag about all kinds of shit. Like, why not? It’s all your imagination – go as far as you want.” If his years in the game had left him intrigued by the artifice of hip hop, it was his upbringing that gave him the impetus for his return: ‘DOOM,’ a nickname coined by his mother, had long been in use by friends and family, and he invoked it repeatedly back on Mr. Hood.
Sounds are boomin, emcees shouts
‘Doom is in the house!’ after one, two’in…”
– Zev Love X, “Figure Of Speech” (1991)
His interest in villainy made a passing appearance in the opening of “Sweet Premium Wine,” then little more than an unremarkable aside, but in the years following the disbanding of KMD, Dumile continued to explore his comic book interests. “The way comics are written shows you the duality of things, how the bad guy ain’t really a bad guy if you look at it from his perspective,” he mused in Wire. “Through that style of writing, I was kinda like, if I flip that into hip hop, that’s something n***s ain’t done yet. I was looking for an angle that would be brand new. That’s when I came up with the character and worked out the kinks – that’s the Villain.” It only makes sense that Dumile, called DOOM since he was a child, would don the mask of Marvel’s most menacing monarch.
Still, the choice to don a mask and step into a comic book persona was wilder then than it is now: in a world where image was everything, from shiny suits to designer chains, DOOM’s self-imposed anonymity proved both an undeniable aesthetic marker and a powerful rebuke of commercial trends. “He had some measure of celebrity as a child,” posed Lord Scotch, the artist who handled non-cover art on Black Bastards and later personalised the original DOOM mask. “He’s tasted all that – what it feels like to go to school and have motherfuckers treat you differently. Like, ‘Oh, you think you’re all that?’” There’s certainly a reflection of Daniel’s past in the metal face, and the rationale might be best distilled by Zev himself, who put it simply in that 1994 Source interview: “I can’t fuck with all that image shit, being under-somebody’s-coattails bullshit.” It’s worth noting that DOOM’s own justification runs with his trademark sense of humour, with the emcee riffing that “the real reason is, I’m so ugly, I don’t wanna distract the crowd when I go out onstage… I don’t know if I’d even get a song done—motherfuckers would be throwin’ tomatoes.”
In 1997, MF DOOM released his debut single on Bobbito Garcia’s Fondle ‘Em Records. “Greenbacks / Go With The Flow” was steeped in the Monsta Island Czars collective. The four tracks included the two instrumentals, both credited to MF DOOM (or Metalfingerz, his production moniker), whilst the tracks were cut by MF DOOM and King Ghidora – Dumile’s Monsta Island Czars mantle – with assists from Megalon, aka. Tommy Gunn, and Sci.Fly, another Dumile alias. He chased that with his second single, “Dead Bent / Gas Drawls / Hey!,” credited solely to MF DOOM and partially dating back to his KMD days. Hype was beginning to build, and MF DOOM made his debut, with a stocking in lieu of a mask, at a Nuyorican Poets Café open mic night in 1998. “I was like a new MC,” he said in Wire.
His ideas crystallizing and his return unfolding, Dumile started to open up to his onetime friends and long-lost collaborators. “Somehow, we had got back in contact,” recalled Del the Funky Homosapien in 2016. “He was in Atlanta, I think, and we was talking a little bit, just choppin’, and he told me the whole thing about MF DOOM, his whole plan, how he’s gonna do it, everything! Everything, exactly as he came out, it all was planned!”
Dumile knew a thing or two about plans going astray, but this time, everything went accordingly. Operation: Doomsday arrived on September 22, 1999 via Bobbito’s Fondle ‘Em Records. The only external production, “The Hands of Doom,” came from the hands of Subroc himself, but the most beautiful dedication was spat through the steely mask:
Like my twin brother, we did everything together
From hundred raka’at salats to copping butter leathers
Remember when you went and got the dark blue Ballys
I had all the different color Cazals and Gazelles
The “SUBROC” three-finger ring with the ruby in the “O”, ock
Truly the illest dynamic duo on the whole block
I keep a flick of you with the machete sword in your hand
Everything is going according to plan, man…”
– MF DOOM, “?” (1999)
It was a curiously soft-spoken record, particularly from the formerly-incensed Zev and newly-minted supervillain, whose tastes would only become more aggressive as time went on. Nonetheless, Operation: Doomsday exploded out of the underground, and hip-hop would never again forget the time it faced DOOM.
It’s A Word! No, A Name! MF: The Supervillain!
Why do we tell stories?
In the most general sense, I guess it’s to parse events in sequence, link cause and effect, and imbue progression with emotion. Narrative helps orient the chaotic mishmash of everyday life towards some endpoint; it serves to instill goals and foster reflection, establishing identity by way of some self-evaluated journey.
The superhero genre, riding out the last swells of a decade-spanning wave, runs with these fundamentals of storytelling. Those stories imbue the ordinary with the supernatural; the fortunate with the vigilant; the offsiders with invigorating agency and the public with views and values. Origin stories offer us a bridge between modern monotony and supernatural heroism, the kind of wistful daydream we’re happy to indulge on-screen, far from the high-stakes world of reality.
Zev Love X lived his own supervillain origin story, one that grew from a childhood nickname to a career as a celebrated hip-hop pioneer. The story we’ve told isn’t the story he lived, one defined by asides and minutiae that we could never know, but his testimony, complemented by that of his friends and collaborators, is as close as we could get. There’s promise, talent, loss, grief and betrayal, but none of those moments worked to derail the passions of the man himself. In fact, in retrospect, the once-morose Zev had a new lease on how everything went down.
“I don’t think it’s a sad story at all – it’s really a story of success,” DOOM told The Guardian on the release of 2012’s Keys To The Kuffs. “You can come from the bottom and be raised to the highest levels you can imagine.” It’s a generous telling, one that does away with the disillusionment and strife of Zev Love X, but that’s the very nature of stories: they rise and fall, ebbing and flowing with the tides of fortune. “I went from real pain to being ultra-broke, and then back up,” he told Brian Coleman a few years after that Guardian piece. “The way things go is the way things are supposed to go… I try and go with the flow and see what’s good with it.” Dumile appreciated a good narrative more than most, and whilst he was never too vocal about the fact, the idea that MF DOOM was concocted as a means of music industry revenge is little more than a myth.
“DOOM is a classic supervillain, akin to the Phantom of the Opera… It’s not about revenge so much as like: ‘I’m back – now watch this!’ It all boils down to the music. The mask is a slight theme, for people to enjoy, and it adds mystery.” Mystery is a powerful force, and masks have been the source of many a myth. If Dumile’s mask-laden persona exists to cultivate intrigue, the music aims to dispel it, working on the same principle as the work of the distant Zev Love X.
On the junket for MM.. FOOD, the supervillain betrayed his moniker, telling one reporter that the project was about “showing respect for human life.” It’s a record parsed through DOOM’s defining passions, food and drink, but it’s an album about the commonalities that link each and every one of us.
Let’s talk about having children… as opposed to killing people’s children. Like, why say, ‘Yeah, if you don’t bust ya gun, you’re a pussy!’? You know how easy it is to bust a gun? You might as well pick something more interesting, like – jump in a pool! That’s about as easy as bustin’ a gun, but you ain’t hurtin’ nobody! Let’s all go swimming! If you ain’t swimming, you wack!” – MF DOOM for Spin Magazine (2004)
Hsu Hua of Wire Magazine saw DOOM’s veiled persona as “a different way to convey the same message from his KMD days,” a take with which the supervillain seemed to agree. “From the point of view [of America], we’re the villains, but I’m the super-villain,” he told him in 2005. “Out here it’s been so desensitised… I had to figure out a way to get the point across and still make it interesting, or make it seem like a race thing.”
“DOOM is about bringing people together,” he elaborated. “I like to show different perspectives – put yourself in this guy’s shoes for a second and this guy ain’t so different from you. The Villain could be anybody. The character DOOM is a brown person, but he could be anybody, any race.” It echoes the comments that Onyx the Birthstone Kid had made a whole decade earlier: “we speak of serious issues in a way that you won’t get offended… living in an African-American neighbourhood, we became victims of society in different ways that people outside just can’t see.”
DOOM retained KMD’s intentions, but while he flirted with the idea over the 25 years that followed, KMD never truly reconvened. In the moments before his industry exile, Zev floated the idea of reigniting the outfit alongside MF Grimm, though those singles – due out in mid-’94 – never surfaced.
“I’m working on the new KMD album,” DOOM told Earthquake in 2004. In another ‘04 interview, he hinted that the KMD record, tentatively titled Mental Illness, would detail the “lost years.” For whatever reason, the project never eventuated. DOOM’s 2016 single, “True Lightyears,” saw him revive KMD alongside Jay Electronica: he announced yet another new KMD album, Crack In Time, but the mysterious revival came and went without as much as a confirmed lineup. It seems that, in spite of an enduring interest, DOOM’s KMD revival never quite came together.
That might just be for the best. I’m not saying I don’t want to see what DOOM would have done with a new KMD, but Black Bastards might just be their perfect send-off. “Black Bastards was a dope album and it feels right that it finally came out, no matter how that happened,” he told Coleman in 2015. “I look at it now and say, ‘OK, I definitely see what we was trying to do.’ I just wish more people would have seen the same thing back then.”
Dante and Pete Nice agree that KMD were stopped in their prime, and though they ponder over what might have been – “I think it would have been a huge underground classic,” said Nice, adding that “KMD always had the potential to hit the level of A Tribe Called Quest” – they all seem happy that the record they so loved finally saw a release in 2001. It didn’t please everyone, least of all an indifferent Danyel Smith and a harsh Cheo Choker, but even Mr. Hood skeptic Robert Christagau called it “the rare great lost album that justifies its legend.”
Aside from Large Professor’s record, Black Bastards is probably the greatest lost hip-hop record of all time.” – Dante Ross, Check The Technique (2015)
“When I listen to Black Bastards today, I think it’s amazing: insightful, expressive and just great,” said Dante, an unsurprising take from the record’s longtime industry champion. “It’s very complicated, too, since the frustration of DOOM’s life is on that record. In a lot of ways, his innocence was gone. But it was the shining moment of KMD.”
A decade on, in the midst of MF DOOM’s own shining moment, the memory of Subroc persisted, present in the bars shaped by years spent rhyming alongside his younger sibling. MM.. FOOD cut “Kon Karne,” which characterises the Dumile brothers as “the brown Smothers Brothers / Vaster than the seven seas, bigger than Mount Kilimanjaro,” acts as a tribute to Sub:
Dog-gone it, do the statistics
How he bust lyrics, it’s too futuristic for ballistics
And far too eccentric for forensics
I dedicate this mix to Subroc, the hip-hop Hendrix…”
Sub memorably reappeared on DANGERDOOM’s “Old School Rules,” a mainstay in DOOM’s wistful memories of distant Saturdays spent breaking in Long Beach. Tinged by recollection and nostalgia though the track was, Subroc was never that distant from his older brother. It was Sub who focused on production, and his work with Zev – dating back before the pair had even signed on the dotted line – helped make MF DOOM as prodigious a producer as he was an accomplished emcee. It was Sub who stepped to the mic to revitalise KMD, his witty references and astute quips the fresh presence that helped push the duo to brave new heights.
KMD were betrayed by an industry that favoured caution over creation and bourgeois agreeability over unbridled articulation, but in the wake of that betrayal came one of the millennium’s most essential emcees. It was a trying time – a test I’d wish on nobody – but Dumile’s resolve, as steely as the mask that cloaked him, turned tragedy to triumph. Journalistic fiction though his industry vengeance may be, the juvenile origins of DOOM are as integral to his musical and cultural identity as his fiercely abstract rhymes or oft-untraceable samples, hardening the man behind the mask to the callous ways of the rap game.
Subroc should’ve been here to see it, but unlike superhero stories, reality moves with a cruel and senseless indifference. DOOM believed in fate – that “the way things go is the way things are supposed to go” – and his was to return to the essence, joining his brother once more. It’s in his death that we witnessed his true power, present in the grief that came pouring from all corners of the culture. Only rarely does the antagonist become as sympathetic as a hero, their ploys filtered through the gaze of the good, but DOOM took his monologue to millions, pouring joy, anguish and humour into the mic. A villain may unveil his plan, but a supervillain convinces you of it, and through his rhymes, Daniel Dumile turned the metal mask to a first-class supervillain – and the man behind it to a hip-hop hero.
It’s nice to think he’s somewhere out there now, drinking Sweet Premium from the bottle and regaling Sub with tales of his exploits.
In spite of it all, he must’ve been right: everything went according to plan.