DOOM: How A British Supervillain Has Dominated The Underground For Decades

MF DOOM has ruled the underground for over 20 years. How does he do it?
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MF DOOM has ruled the underground for over 20 years. How does he do it?

Hip-hop has a storied past within the superhero mythos. Rappers like Ghostface Killah (aka Tony Starks), Jean Grae, David Banner, and Method Man (aka Johnny Blaze) have all helped to keep comic book culture relevant in the world of hip-hop, but the man who’s inarguably melded superhero mythology and hip-hop better than anyone else is a man named Daniel Dumile...and he’s actually a supervillain.

For literally as long as I've been alive, MF DOOM has managed to stay relevant, whether it be in the underground or in more mainstream incarnations. He has reinvented himself countless times, has an alias list that rivals that of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and is also likely in your favorite indie rapper’s top 10. In a young man’s game like hip-hop, staying talked about for five years is an accomplishment, let alone nearly 30 -- it’s time we reflect on and makes sense DOOM’s insane career.

Let’s first examine DOOM’s entrance into the world of hip-hop, which is extremely fascinating and a microcosm of his success to come. At the time - which was 1988, mind you - DOOM was rapping under the name Zev Love X, one third of the group KMD which he founded with his brother, DJ Subroc. His debut into recorded hip-hop was on the hit single “The Gas Face,” taken from 3rd Bass’ Gold-certified album The Cactus Album. While it’s not uncommon for an artist to be thrown into success seemingly overnight, it’s pretty damn impressive this was literally the first thing he released.

KMD itself enjoyed modest success, and the label-ordered shelving and eventual bootlegging of their controversial second album Black Bastards can actually be seen as largely responsible for DOOM’s initial underground buzz.

Now, here’s where things start to get supervillain-y. Just before the release of KMD’s second album, DOOM’s brother was hit by a car and killed. In a cruel twist of fate KMD was dropped by their label the very same week, and DOOM went into retreat, spending the next four years wandering the streets of NYC bordering homelessness. It wasn’t until 1997, when the MF DOOM we now know arrived, appearing at open mic nights with his face obscured by a stocking, and then eventually, the mask.

For the last 19 years, MF DOOM has existed and excelled in various forms (King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn, Metal Fingers, DOOM), building one of the most interesting and exciting legacies in hip-hop history along the way. He’s amassed a cult fanbase, dropped multiple classic projects, influenced countless contemporaries, and has somehow left us wanting more the entire time.

But how?

His mastery of branding, mystique, and the concept of supply and demand are unmatched to this day. Hell, the guy has been caught multiple times sending impostors to do shows for him, and not only do his fans still love him, we almost love him more for it, as it lends itself so perfectly to the supervillain character he’s developed. The legacy he’s built around the infamous mask also lends itself to a supervillain character, sure, but it’s also one of the most powerful visual branding maneuvers in hip-hop.

If an underground hip-hop fan like myself sees that mask on damn near anything, we’re buying it -- and DOOM knows that. He has carefully balanced the blind willingness of his fans to support him monetarily with the fervency that a sporadic-at-best supply can create, both with his music and his many merch collaborations. Now that is a major key.

It’s now 2016, but DOOM doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. His fan base is still as hungry as ever, and features from the masked villain still carry an almost Jay Electronica-esque weight about them, albeit only a bit more frequently than ol’ Jay Elec. His unorthodox rhymes are still beloved far and wide, and we’re still anxiously awaiting a collaborative album with Ghostface that may or may not ever actually surface. How many artists who started their career in 1988, have a highly-anticipated album in waiting? 

As other aging artists struggle to maintain relevance amid an ever-changing musical and cultural landscape, DOOM does so effortlessly with a nonchalance that’s almost frustrating. All hail the metal faced villain.

By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.

Art Credit: Bio Twist