I just read that MF DOOM died. I can't process this. People are talking about it like it's a hoax. Why are we just now finding out two months after his passing? Take a breath. Take a beat.
I am not entitled to witness nor manage nor comprehend death. I don't get to decide how or when or why the people who survive a passed friend choose to tell that friend's story. These are lessons I had to take to heart last year, when another great rapper, Curan Cottman (Ronnie Vega) died. Ron was without a doubt the best rapper I've ever known personally.
DOOM is my favorite rapper, and he has been since 2005 when I got introduced to him. I appreciate the flavor and techniques of a ton of different rappers, but DOOM just seemed on another planet with his rhymes. Immediately I became voracious for DOOM, insatiable for DOOM. I looked up all his old stuff, torrented a crazy huge discography with all the mixtapes I could find, downloaded obscure mixtapes off mediafire & megaupload, trawled and dredged the corners of the internet for his words.
I love and loved his words. I analyzed his songs line by line, counted out the scansion and tried to puzzle out his stylistics, tried to catch his references, tried to sniff out his samples. He was a rapper that I loved as a fan of rap (back then I probably would've told you DOOM was hip-hop not rap bc he was underground, today the distinction seems fussy and punctilious) but also as a poet, as a writer, as a fan of oration and rhetoric. As a keen listener, I felt consistently, richly rewarded when I listened to DOOM. His verses went extremely deep, they were so so clever, and his mind was broad, his horizons were vivid. The payoff to his one liners and the way he resolved rhyme schemes then complicated them with imaginative inversions and diversions and interpolations and interrhyme and pararhyme and slant rhyme and a million other stylistic choices I probably can't comprehend that don't even have names...it was intricate, maybe rococo, maybe just ill tbh. Whatever it was, he did it in a way that felt to me to be completely unique to him.
Were, was, did, past-tense. Fuck. I feel like have no right to mourn him...I'm just a fan, I never knew him. Except I feel like I knew him, I loved him, I loved the way he loved words, what he could do with them. I mean I also felt this same way after Ron died, and I did know him. Death for me makes me question myself, makes me wonder if I am even present in the lives of others, makes me doubt I have the capacity to connect. Doom sampled it and put it in the chorus: "Friends--How many of us have them? Friends--the ones we can depend on..."
He inspired me because he was old and playful and funny and raw. He's the reason I know what holorhyme is, which is when you rhyme one entire line with another entire line, not just the last word. And I mean a lot of his songs were like hyperholorhyme, he could maintain holorhyme for most or all of a song--Great Day Today is a perfect example. I am kind of muddled in my mind, I can't think straight, I don't think I need to be coherent right now, I just feel like talking about my dead friend and how it was for me to have his art in my life.
I love words too, like DOOM did. I want to write, I want to be a writer. When my mind comes up with shit that seems appropriate to share, I try to put it out there when I can. But I write a bunch of shit I never share that is completely texture-based writing, writing for the purpose of how it sounds, writing without coherence or meaning, that is made just to rhyme with itself, to repeat and vary, text for text's sake. And listening to DOOM made me feel like that's something maybe he did, or at least I like to think he did. And for me there's some arcane mystic connection between the written word and rap, I'm sure Derrida and Socrates have it summed up nicely in a treatise somewhere, all I'm saying is that what I write, I hear it in my head first, if that makes sense. The texture of text is its sound, for me.
I used to want to be a rapper, I used to freestyle, and I can tell you I am awful at it and that i love it, that it's fun to do and cringe to hear, and more generally that I son't believe I possess the talent, discipline, intellect, heart or soul to make raps anything like DOOM did. Right now it feels comforting to look for similarities between me and DOOM, ao i want to do that for a second.
DOOM of course wore the mask, his Metal Face. I thought there was some badass humility in that. "Listen to the words don't worry about who's speaking them," maybe. I hide, I avoid, I dodge, I withdraw, probably not for the same reasons, but I still did it. For a long time I was unwilling to show my face anywhere on social media. So that's a similarity.
His name is Daniel, my name is Daniel, but we both had better plans. He was Zev Love X, Metal Fingers, MF DOOM, Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, and a bunch of album-specific collab names too. My assumed names aren't as vivid or as wide but they matter and are a part of me, a part of my fractured identity, my oxymoronic compulsion to be known and to be anonymous, my opaque desire to be masculine and feminine and/or neither, little salvos of my contradictory identity. For years now I've gone by aliases, either Grey or Nebraska, when it comes to meeting people.
When it comes to creative output I'm resistant to using my own name: my poetry zines were by Daniel McNugget, my DJ names were Negative Infinity and Counterfeit (insightful meta-commentary on my own inability to be authentic, as evidenced through having many aliases), I tried to brand myself as Sightforms as a graphic designer. I had a graffiti name, allegedly, that got dissed into oblivion due to its shittyness aesthetically and also because its author made poor decisions that earned enemies even among taggers. (But hey, like DOOM says: "It don't make no sense, what happened to the loyalty?/Honor amongst crooks/Truth amongst royalty...")
All these these names have faded more or less, and I currently feel on a trajectory away from Nebraska and toward Daniel, 'back to my government' as DOOM would say. So I rename myself, and the wages of my many names is a sort of internal incoherence and inconsistency in identity. But the fade and contradiction and especially the fickleness are all true: I am a self-interested person concerned with how I appear and obsessed with managing the way people see me.
And even if I wasn't writing under a proper pseudonym, almost all my stories are told using borrowed (or stolen) voices, usually playing off my capacity to sound authoritative and then trying to subvert that authroity through untrustworthiness. And for a long time I labored under the notion that I was an 'empty vessel,' someone whose blandness and lack of personality could maybe be redeemed by my capacity to carry the personality and flavor of others. Early on there was some hope in this notion, later I learned to name it as appropriation, the imperative of the colonizer, co-opting culture, and had to concede that much of my creative output was built on the backs of colonized and enslaved people, especially black people. So I try to sit with that violence and understand my relation to naming, words, and identity. Maybe there's a redeemable practice somewhere in there, maybe I can excavate a method, who knows. All I know is that having a new name and no face makes the page in front of me feel absolutely electric with possibility. Each new name a home to inhabit, an opportunity for a fresh start, an opportunity to connect, to be read, to be known, even if all that's known is the words, not the author. I wonder if DOOM would relate.
I'm talking a lot about myself and I don't know why. DOOM does something to me that makes me feel more in touch with who I am. That's a quality as an artist I hope I could achieve. I fear I am doomed to not achieve it. I feel doomed a lot. Doomed as in 'a predetermined fate or fortune' (in my case, to fail), 'an irrevocable destiny,' yes. But also, doomed as in 'a decree, a judgment, to pass judgment on' which I am doing internally constantly. Mine is a fervid doom, one that feeds on itself, multiplies itself through me. Somebody pass Borges the mic.
More persistent than the any of the identities above, I have identified with doom. I am and have been obsessed with the notion of doom since I was 15. I have an extremely vivid memory of working as a bagger at Food Lion and for the first time having an invasive thought that has not left me since: "doom to the opposition." It is meaningless I think, I can't control it, it happens all the time, less now than it used to, but it's in me. There's doom in me.
When I was 20 I got a custom engraved cigarette case that said DOOM in big Old English Letters. That same year I used to write 'DOOM' in sharpie on the patch with the Levi's logo on my jeans. To this very day I sing myself a song when I am alone in my apartment, it is a meaningless song that rhymes, it goes: "Doom to the oppa-/death to the 'sition/the opposition stoppa/that's just my position" and I don't know why but I do and DOOM is an everyday part of my life and MF DOOM is dead and I am feeling sorrow that I have not felt for a celebrity since Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Both these men had their struggles with alcoholism and addiction, we know PSH died from an OD that involved Fentanyl; I don't know that DOOM ever fucked with hard drugs but his alcohol use was evident in a lot of his songs. Again, in Great Day Today: 'Hey you, got a light? Nah a Bud Light/Early in the morning face crud from like a mud fight." And this song in particular was one of my favorites when I was drinking secretly around the clock. The feeling of drinking early in the morning and listening to DOOM is still enchanting to me, there's a sickly sweetness to some of his songs, a kind of melancholy resigned-ness to the bottle, which when I am deep in my cups is what I wanted to hear more than anything. He captured that perfectly, he captivated me.
At various times in my life I have tried to keep notebooks to record important words and phrases, to try to be an artist sure, but also to kind of have a place for my friends, the words, to live. The words are my friends the way DOOM is my friend, I guess, which is to say, they are imaginary friends. Still, they're real to me. One time in one of those notebooks I had cut my finger and wrote the words 'TOO THICK' in the notebook, then went back with a pen and wrote 'on second thought it's' before 'TOO THICK' and outlined the blood in pen like graffiti bubble letters. No one ever saw this but me. That's because it was an inside joke between me, my friends the letters, and my friend DOOM. The reason it's a joke between us three is because what I wrote is a fragment of a line from, once again, 'Great Day Today,' the line is: 'Couldn't find a pen, had to think of a new trick/This one he wrote in cold blood with a toothpick/On second thought it's too thick...'
And that reminds me of another time I was posessed or compelled or whatever to put a DOOM lyric out into the physical world: one time when I was living in Philly it was a hot summer day and I was walking the streets near Eastern State Penitentiary. I don't know what exactly had happened but what I remember was that I had stolen some opiate pills from somewhere, gotten high the night before, not left myself any leftovers, and so I was just left with the weird springy hypersensative feeling in my knees and neck that used to always accompany the guilt and shame of both getting high and stealing and keeping my addiction a secret and most of all the sorrow for not having enough to get high again right away. So all that was going through my head, and I walked down this street and saw a long metal handrail and spent like 5 minutes writing 'Livin off borrowed time/the clock ticks faster' using a white-out pen (which for those of you that don't know makes for a pretty effective and weatherfast graffiti implement). I wrote it in these long, distended, goudy, almost whimsical letters, and in my heart I remember having a feeling of deep despair. The feeling was the feeling of doom. I was feeling doom and I was hearing DOOM in my head and I was writing his lyrics on the street and I was alone except for my two imaginary friends who never left me behind: the text and DOOM. Because I was stealing, I had a sick sense that I wouldn't stop stealing until/unless I got caught, and that I was taking pills to borrow time against the inevitable crisis that I wasn't able to bear looking at.
That crisis did come to pass a year or so later, when destroyed my romantic relationship, detonated my friendships with cruel and inconsiderate behavior, and fell conchordantly deeper into the depths of my addiction than I ever had before, ultimately leading to me running away from Philly and going home to lick my wounds. Whatever the cause of my addiction, it always felt internal, like a personal failing, like a weakness. So reflecting on the damage I did, it's that much harder to bear: no external trauma befell me against which I instinctively lashed out, I wasn't wreckless to avenge a wrong or to challenge an injustice, the only injustice I experienced was not liking the way I felt, and so I bought or stole my own justice a bottle or a pill or a bag at a time. All of this is about me, I made my own problems. DOOM said it better: "Your first and last step to playin' yourself like accordion.'
I'm not trying to make points or do research or prove anything or have a thesis with this. I feel compelled to balance what I'm saying with 'facts' whatever that means, and also I feel like I'm talking about myself too much when DOOM deserves the veneration of a fucking hero and a veteran, because that's what he is to me anyways. And no doubt there will be appropriately rigorous monographs written on Daniel Dumile, and it's actually lovely to think about how carefully and beautifully his memory will be treated by those who survive him. DOOM has been called 'Your favorite rapper's favorite rapper' and I think that will mean the brilliant lyricists and raw rappers and everyone in between will decorate his grave with garlands of flow, with bouquets of spit, arranged gingerly and made fragrant with sincerity.
You want to talk about a rapper who's fragrant, Metal Fingers put spices on the map in my life. Before I ever worked as a chef, Metal Fingers put me on to Galangal, Zatar, Fenugreek, Charnsuka, Dragon's Blood Resin, Monosodium Glutamate, and Sumac Berries. Before crusty primitivist anarchists were singing their homeopathic praises in my ear, Metal Fingers introduced me to Valerian, Nettle Leaves, Mullein, Mugwort, Pennyroyal, Kava Kava Root, Horehound, and Patchouly Leaves. And there's still some track titles whose names I don't know but which fit perfectly into my deep affinity for words-for-the-sake-of-their-sounds: Hyssop, Cinquefoil, Emblica Officinalis, Four Thieves Vinegar, Syrax Gum, Agrimony. And pound-for-pound I'm not sure if there's any rap instrumental that puts me more at ease than Saffron. For that matter, I'm not sure if there's any tincture that does, either. Each of Metal Finger's Special Herbs is like a sonic botanica, a free library of aural balm, with unlimited stock and preserved in wax. Those albums are also so versatile: for me they played just as well while I studied or in the background at a party, or on my car stereo to get me through long drives, and occasionally serving as instrumentals to my freestyles if I was alone.
Not to go too deep, but MF DOOM is the reason I started paying to attention and really caring about Steely Dan. If you asked me my favorite band from like 2015 - 2019 I would have probably told you Steely Dan, but I didn't really start fucking with them until I learned that 'Black Cow' was sampled on 'Gas Drawls.' Compare Gas Drawls to other rappers who sampled Black Cow (like Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz' 'Uptown Baby') and the genius of the super villian shines through. The choices he makes, the verve and wisdom and style of his curation, for me it just sets him apart in his own galaxy.
DOOM, Daniel Dumile (pronounced Doom-Will-Lay), has already weighed in on his own death. He did it in his debut solo full-lenght, Doomsday, in the eponymous track:
Ever since the womb ‘til I'm back where my brother went
That's what my tomb will say
Right above my government; Dumile
Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who's to say?
Ever since the womb ‘til I'm back to the essence
Read it off the tomb
Either engraved or unmarked grave, who's to say?
DOOM will lay in the ground, but only his physical body will remain here. Daniel Dumile is going back where his brother, Subroc went, after he died in 1993. I have no right to presume on the internal life of DOOM, but it seemed evident to me through his lyrics that the loss of his brother made rapping that much more consequential, that the loss made rapping a refuge, maybe a safe place to go to, maybe a vessel for grief. Maybe DOOM's rapping was a monument to his brother, a tomb of tunes. In my heart I try to imagine if God's infinite grace is at work here, in the fervor that DOOM kept in the cavity left by his brother. I can't say...DOOM might permit me my ignorance (hey, who's to say?). From the womb to the tomb, DOOM did his own thing, he did it to death, and I know the world felt it. As always, DOOM said it better himself than I ever could, this time, with the flip he did of Sade's 'Kiss of Life' that he used for the outro on the track Doomsday: "When I was led to you/I knew you were the one for me/I swear the whole world/could feel you MC."