MF DOOM in Paradiso, Amsterdam, on Mar. 4, 2010

MF DOOM in Paradiso, Amsterdam, on Mar. 4, 2010

Not to be troublesome

But I could sure use a quick shot of double rum

No stick of bubblegum – MF DOOM (Figaro)

I remember driving in my old Infiniti G35 in thick traffic on Government Street sometime in my junior year of high school and hearing MF DOOM for the first time. The song was “Figaro,” one which I still consider to be one of the best songs from one of the best albums by one of the most inventive and inspiring artists of all time.

And I’ve found nearly anyone who appreciates hip hop will share my awe. But a particular feeling crops up when speaking to artists, rappers in particular, about the masked villain—a feeling of significance, some strange and unquestionably real sense of knowing that DOOM meant something.

The consensus among the four artists I spoke to was that DOOM opened the box—each one of them used some variation of that phrase. But I can think of no better way to put it. He opened the box of self-aggrandizing and show-boating and manufactured tough-guy personas to which so many emcees had been so stiflingly confined before he entered the game.

And he didn’t accomplish that by denouncing any particular artist or style; he was never political like that. Rather, he showed what could be accomplished when ego takes a back seat to art.

“He showed that if you just do you, you’re going to get the credit you deserve in the end,” said Baton Rouge Rapper Josh Simmons.

Simmons grew up on DOOM. He remembers when the iconic mask first caught his eye in fourth grade. That mask. It’s almost baffling how a such simple prop can be at the same time so campy and so bad ass—and so oddly appropriate. It’s an unspoken repudiation of the ego-mania that plagues the rap game. It’s a character. It’s an essence. It’s DOOM.

Simmons said that for him, the mask is an odd sort of window into DOOM’s world. It’s at the same time cold and unfeeling, and revealing, honest.

“Even though he had that mystique,” he said, “I still felt like I knew him.”

That sense of familiarity is a large part of what makes DOOM so special to so many people. Despite his enigmatic public persona, his lyrics were so unusual and provocative and so unmistakably his that they reveal far more about his personality than his face ever could. It’s appropriate, then, that so many artists would feel such a personal connection to the supervillain and be so inspired by him to develop their own unique sonic personalities.  

Joshua Henderson, whom you likely know as _thesmoothcat, as another such artist.

“I remember listening to [DOOM’s song ‘One Beer’] and feeling like I couldn’t compare that to anything else,” Henderson said. He called that song “intoxicating.”

Henderson said listening to DOOM reshaped how he looked at his own art. He first delved into DOOM’s music around the time he was starting to get serious about his own career as a rapper, and in fact considered wearing a mask when he first began performing live as a way to cope with his stage fright. Though he didn’t end up following through with the mask—probably a good idea— Henderson nonetheless learned from DOOM that people like him, people who weren’t necessarily inclined to chains and cars and bodacious, look-at-me personas, could still carve out their own space in hip hop.

The realm of possibility DOOM opened invited countless young emcees to explore their own sonic idiosyncrasies. Nye Moody of New Orleans-based rap trio OFFRIP has a particularly intimate relationship with DOOM in that capacity.

“He unlocked such a cornerstone of my artistry,” Moody said. “Such a big part of my process as a writer came from the things I learned listening to him growing up.”

Moody was somewhat fated to develop such a bond with the masked emcee, whom he proudly claims as his favorite rapper of all time. He told me they were both born in similar regions of London and then both moved to similar regions of Brooklyn within similar spans of time following their births. It verges on uncanny, no doubt. But personal history aside, Moody said DOOM taught him what he considers the most valuable lesson of his rap education—not to judge his ideas.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re saying ‘tweetle dee and tweetle dumb’ or ‘aye aye cap’n’ or whatever. If it fits in the rhyme, it fits in the rhyme,” Moody said. “It doesn’t always need to be about being the dude with the biggest d--k in the room.”

Baton Rouge rapper Austin Johnson, a.k.a. Wakai, said he was first introduced to DOOM through the work of producer Madlib, DOOM’s counterpart in the “Madvillain” duo. The first beats Johnson ever freestyled over were Madlib’s, but when he heard those same beats paired with the deft and peculiar flow of the masked villain, he discovered a whole new realm of lyrical possibility.

“[MF DOOM] makes me look at my art and say: ‘why was I confining myself to a box that I wasn’t in?’” Johnson said. “When you get out of that box, you can open up a box for somebody else.”

Johnson said one of his greatest aspirations is for his music to be as enthralling and inspiring for his listeners as DOOM’s is for him. And it has nothing to do with being as famous or critically acclaimed or commercially successful as him. That would be nice, obviously, but these concerns are so fleeting and superficial that it feels like an affront to mention them in the same conversation as MF DOOM.

There’s just a certain spark in DOOM’s work that compels one to abandon ego and to focus relentlessly on artistry and expression. From behind that metal-faced façade, DOOM spoke so profoundly to so many and in such an original and inventive fashion that his godlike status as one of the most skilled and influential emcees of all time is a matter simply not up for debate.   

That’s what my tomb will say

Right above my government, Dumille

Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who’s to say? – MF DOOM (Doomsday)

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