SEP 2012: If you see a masked man out talking to kids on the street this autumn, don’t worry: it’s just Daniel Dumile doing his homework.
“Children are funny to me,” says the 42-year-old mysterioso and brains behind rap supervillain DOOM, in a studio on London's South Bank. His eyes dart mischievously from beneath the polished chrome helmet that’s become his trademark. “Definitely, they’re a huge fuckin’ source of, ‘What?! What did you just say?’ You can put yourself in their shoes and look at the world through them.
“Sometimes I’ll be talking to other people’s children, like there was this little girl at a video shoot, with someone who was working there. Must have been about eight years old. I had a bike in the video, she was like ‘Is that your bike, DOOM?’ And I was like ‘yeah’. She says, ‘My brother has a BMX. But I’ve got a mountain bike.’ Like that was better! There’s an innocence there, it’s like gender doesn’t matter. You’re speaking to another human being, there’s no pre-conceived ideas. It’s the same with my children. I draw a lot from that.”
Cribbing ideas off kids might seem like weird behaviour from your regular rhymeslinging Joe. But DOOM is not like other rappers. The normally New York-based artist (currently exiled in London after being turned away at US customs) comes equipped with a backstory that’s dark and twisty enough to rival anything from the mind of his childhood hero, Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee, plus a prodigious flow that’s made him beloved of Britpop royalty like Radiohead, Damon Albarn and Portishead.
Born in London to Rhodesian and Trinidadian parents, Dumile moved with his family to New York from a very early age, though he was never made a natural citizen of the US. As a teen growing up in Long Island, he scored minor success with brother Dingilizwe aka DJ Subroc and Rodan in the group KMD. But tragedy struck when Subroc was killed while crossing an expressway in 1993, and the group’s second album, the politically conscious Black Bastards, was shelved after an ill-informed opinion piece about its golliwog cover art gave label Elektra the jitters.
There followed a shadowy three-year spell in which Dumile, reeling from the death of his brother, spent a lot of time sleeping rough (one early feature described him as “depressed, likely an alcoholic, and very dissociative”). It was also during this period that Dumile hit upon the idea for MF DOOM (the ‘MF’ stood for Metal Face), drawing on his childhood nickname and Marvel’s Dr Doom, arch enemy of the Fantastic Four, for inspiration. “My name is Dumile so everybody called me Doom from when I was little,” he says. “At the same time though, weird coincidence, we used to collect comics and there was this guy, Dr Doom, and it was like, ‘Oh snap, he’s like me.’”
The characters were distinct, Dumile adds, though the villain thing stuck: “Dr Doom’s plight was the plight of any villain. They’re perceived as the bad guys, but they always have their own reasons for what they’re doing. It’s a matter of perspective. Plus the villain’s unpredictable, you never know what he’s gonna do.”
Swearing revenge on the music industry that wronged him, DOOM began performing shows with a stocking over his face, which later evolved into the idea of the mask.
“It gives you the power of anonymity,” says Dumile, rarely seen in public without his shiny garb. Before our interview, we catch a brief glimpse of his face before he dons the mask to walk five yards through the studio foyer and out for a spot of lunch. Sneaking out after him, we’re disappointed to see it’s vanished by the time he’s hit the street. What price a helmet-clad DOOM failing to scan a BLT in Tesco’s self-checkout area?
Anyway, the mask: “It gives you the power to do your craft without being prejudged. The mask is actually a mirror — there’s a shine on this motherfucker, you know. So [when they look at it] people are really seeing themselves, you’re looking deeper into yourself, while you’re hearing the ideas of the character.” But the mask has also attracted controversy, when fans began questioning if the rapper was even turning up to some of his own stage shows, or if he was fobbing them off with ‘decoy’ DOOMs instead.
Dumile is testy on the subject. “A stage is a theatre,” he says. “I don’t actually have to be standing on it to do a show. There’s a lotta technology now you can use to bring across the same effect, and it’ll still be live.” But wouldn’t you be, erm, miffed if you went to see your favourite rapper back in the day and he didn’t show? “It goes to the question of who are you? Are we this body? The mind? We read books by people who aren’t here anymore physically, you know? I want people to use their brains a bit more. I got a few robots, but they’re in the box — I haven’t used no robots in the UK or the EU yet. But I may. I may use a fuckin’ blow-up doll, I don’t know. But you gonna hear some dope-ass shit.”
Despite the chequered live history, DOOM’s legend grew with a rash of quality releases from around the turn of the millennium, from cult-fave debut ‘Operation: Doomsday’ to collaborations with Danger Mouse (‘The Mouse And The Mask’) and Madlib (2004’s eccentric masterpiece ‘Madvillainy’). Mixing kids’ TV samples, stoner humour and a darkly surrealistic flow, Dumile came off as a sideways genius; a visionary who never quite got round to figuring what it was he wanted to say.
Now he’s back with another LP, ‘Key To The Kuffs’, with Lex Records producer Jneiro Jarel. Sonically unexpected as ever, the record makes DOOM perhaps the first MC to venture a pronunciation of the Icelandic volcano ‘Eyjafjallajökull’. “I definitely picked the strangest beats,” Dumile says, “the stuff you wouldn’t normally hear on a DOOM record.”
As well as boasting guest spots from British pals including Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and Damon Albarn (whose Gorillaz album ‘Demon Days’ Dumile showed up on), ‘Key To The Kuffs’ packs references to his temporary UK address, with Cockney samples and lyrical shots at ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ both making cameos. Speaking of which, Dumile’s clearly sore about his current inability to return home, but says he’s making the most of his time in Britain: “I don’t care, I’m a citizen of the UK. I think somehow as human beings, physiologically, where we touch down on the planet has something to do with who you are. You get a different perspective [on the US] being here. The grass is always greener but you know, sometimes the grass is always browner. I been in New York the majority of my life, so something new is definitely welcome. Might as well visit this side of earth and get busy.
“Long as I’m here breathing, there’s gonna be music.”