Mask Off with MF DOOM: A 2004 Face-to-Face Interview

An unearthed conversation about making 'Madvillainy,' meeting 2Pac, and why "it don't matter what you look like — your race, your style, if you're cute or fucking ugly"
Mask Off with MF DOOM: A 2004 Face-to-Face Interview
You wouldn't immediately recognize him on that spring afternoon in 2004. And if it weren't for his metallic disguise sitting on the table beside his highball, you might never pick him out in the buzzing downtown Toronto hotel bar.

The mask — the identity — rests on the table face-up as MF DOOM enjoys a late lunch and a few stiff adult beverages before this evening's show, a celebration of his freshest project, Madvillainy, a bold and whirling collaboration with Stones Throw producer Madlib. Tonight, Daniel Dumile will don his steel shield, hurl a few dozen metaphors you wish you could dream up, and again become familiarly faceless.

But, at this moment, I am one of the privileged. I am watching Clark Kent file a story for The Daily Planet. I am witnessing Peter Parker halt a speeding train without a red nylon sack over his grill. Days before meeting the artist, MF DOOM's publicist insists that the rapper/graffiti artist/producer not be photographed or filmed sans mask, and I agree. Yet the mask remains within arm's reach, ready to be slipped on at the mere sight of a Nikon — or a rhyme cipher in need of DOOM's genius.

So, what does Metal Face Doom look like without the MF? What does the Headless Horseman look like from the neck up? Tempting as it is to de-mask our subject like the climax of a Scooby-Doo episode, to describe Dumile would be to miss the point.

"It don't matter what you look like — your race, your style, if you're cute or fucking ugly. None of that shit matter when it comes down to the music," Dumile explains. "It's all about the skills, so it don't matter what he look like. He could be you. He could be me."

Dumile died this past Halloween, and his wife Jasmine announced the sad news on New Year's Eve. He was 49. The cause of his death, like so many details of his life, is unknown.

But over the course of a couple rounds of doubles and couple rounds of questions, we got a glimpse into the thoughtful mind of musical master. Here, for the first time, is our conversation.

What's the best show you've done, either solo as DOOM or back in the day with KMD?

Man, some of my best shows are small shows. The biggest shows that was ill back in the day was on the road with [Big Daddy] Kane, 3rd Bass, and Digital Underground with 2Pac [as their guest]. [Queen] Latifah was on the road with us, too. Those shows were fuckin' crazy, man. Coliseums in North Carolina type shit —10,000 people. At that time, I was just doing my verse from "Gas Face" for 3rd Bass, so I'm only onstage for 16 bars. One minute. Nervous as hell, though. Every time. But as soon as I get offstage, it goes away, and the crowd is spinning like, "Ohhhhh!" So those times kinda set it off. In my mind, those were the best times.

Was there much interaction between all those legendary groups on tour?

Yeah. I would say more back then compared to now. On the mainstream level back then, it seemed like more camaraderie. Now it's getting crazy. People talking about shooting each other and all this dumb shit. It don't make no sense. There's too much money floating around; nobody has to be worried about that shit. Everybody can rule their own slot. I think it's like an ego thing nowadays. Everybody feel like they gotta overthrow the next king. We're all kings of our own rep — and if we can understand that, it'll get a lot better. Back then, Kane would come over and we'd kick it with him sometimes. I used to talk to Pac a lot. We used to be like the two extra guys going onstage. So we'd be talking backstage and at the hotel about working on our [solo] shit. It was real bugged to look back, man. After everyone blew to see Pac on top of the world. Big. Just to see the progression of everybody, it's amazing.

What struck you about Pac the first time you met him?

Cool as hell. He was just a regular dude. He'd be like, "Yo, what you wanna do later? Let's chill." Just joking around. He was always talking about his music, too. I remember he was telling be about his 2Pacalypse Now joint. I was telling him what I was trying to do with the Sambo character [on the cover of 1991's controversial Mr. Hood album] and the whole first KMD thing, and he'd talk about that. I was like, "Yeah, that sounds alright." And he was the one that blew! [laughs] Caught me by surprise! 'Cause he was just this cool, down-to-earth dude.

Even after I hadn't seen him in a year or two, I ran into him after Juice at a Def Jam barbecue or something where celebrities just gathering around. I saw him and said, "Yo, what up, kid?" Just regular. And dude's just regular. The first thing he asked me was, "Yo, you got a Philly? Got a Philly?" I happened to have a Philly. So we twistin' up, blazing right there, joking around: "What you been up to?" Next thing I know, there is a line forming of people waiting to take pictures with this guy. A line of 20 people, all different ages and races. It was like, "Get out the frame, kid." That was the last time I seen him, yo. Word. My nigga.

What's the strangest encounter you've had with a fan?

One time I was in Boston, I think. We was doing shows in little bars and shit. This one bar held, like, 350 people — and it was packed. I'm doing the show. Sometimes I don't really feel like doing a show, y'know? One of those bad days or whatever. But I still gotta do it, so I try to give it my all. I'm up there doing my thing, and the crowd is giving me feedback that's bringing me out of it, but I get to rockin'. Afterwards, I'm walking out, and this one dude — he looked like he'd be more of a punk rock fan — grabs me and says, "Yo! You the man!" Right in my face, so that I knew what he was talkin' about. "Keep doing it!" I'm like, "Oh, word." That was the strangest thing.

Were you ever that passionate about a rap artist when you were younger? Did you ever meet someone you looked up to?

The person I'd say is KRS-One. The whole BDP crew, he and Scott La Rock, influenced me the most, being there was two of them. Like me and my brother [the late Subroc]. My brother was the DJ and I'm the emcee, so we always looked up to them and followed their career. One time we was outside of some club in Manhattan handing out flyers for our stuff, and we saw KRS going into the club. We were like, "Oh, shit!" Went up to him: "What's up, yo. This is our group, KMD." Talked to him, gave him a flyer. Then we asked him for an autograph. He said, "No. Give me your autograph." We signed the flyer and gave it to him. And I thought that was so ill. I always wonder to this day if he still has it or if he still remembers. BDP — the professionalism of their performances, the way they produced their records — we took a lot of notes from groups like them and Stetsasonic and Ultramagnetic.

What percentage of MF DOOM fans do you think were originally KMD fans?

A lot of KMD fans still don't really know about DOOM yet, but they're coming around — and vice versa. A lot of the new DOOM fans were babies when KMD came out, little kids. Gradually the sides are starting to meld.

Describe the typical MF DOOM fan.

A lot of down-to-earth cats. A lot of younger cats between the ages of 16 and 20 and even older. It goes up to 45, 50 with the KMD record involved. The DOOM fans? A lot of male adolescents are attracted to it. And that's really the angle I feel like I'm writing it from, when I was 18. I'm still getting that out of me anyway, so I can see how they can relate. And now I'm noticing more females starting to get into it, which is good. It's more for the musical content and lyrical wordplay than anything. I'd rather it be that than them thinking DOOM is a sex symbol, which I know they don't think that [laughs]. It shows diversity. Shit. Women can appreciate good music, too.

Do you ever surprise yourself lyrically with some of the lines you come up with?

All the time. It happens a lot. Especially on this particular album [Madvillainy]. The spontaneity and the way we did it facilitated a lot of that. Things were just popping out of nowhere. Even now when I listen to the album, I'm like, "Yeah, that shit's crazy, yo."

Describe the Madvillain recording process. Did Madlib send you beats, or were you in the studio together?

He flew me out to L.A. and shit. He had all the beats already made. Man, this dude, I don't know how he do it. I can't figure it out. He's got the crazy work ethic. You notice he's not here now doing media. He's out chilling, doing his thing. But he gets his work done, musically. So I was out there, and he gave me mad beats to choose from. Like, he'll send me 100 beats at a time. Just the first batch was 100. I had maybe chose six out of those 100. There was too many ill shits on there, I'm still trying to pick when he hits me with another 100. I'm like, "Word? I better get on the case." Half of it was done in L.A., at the spot, at the moment. The first one we did was "America's Most Blunted," and it was supposed to be just a single. But we connected so good on it — we did that shit in, like, a day — after that, we was like, "No. We should just take this shit and do a whole album." I'm out in L.A., and we've got four or five songs done. Then I did a lot back home, then finished up in L.A. towards the end and did a couple more joints.

Considering you're a producer yourself, how much input did you have on the beats? Conversely, he rhymes. Did he want input on the lyrics?

A little input into the other person's side. A little bit. [Madlib] told me: "Make it as street as you want. Let's take it to the street level. Let's get ill with it. Let's bring it to the edge of gangster, but still it's going to be artistic, of course, dealing with us." Cool. My input on the beat level was more structure and arrangements. He'd give me a CD with 100 beats, and each beat would be a minute long. So I'd take the ones I wanted and extend the loop and make them longer so I could [record raps] over them. Also, the intros and little skits and stuff — I had a lot of input on that. The whole intro ["The Illest Villains"], he did the beat and I planned the talk. We work good together.

Was it a conscious plan to avoid hooks on this record?

I like to do what other people are not doing, so what I do stands out a little more. I cut out all the unnecessary shit. Hooks is good, y'know, for certain motherfuckers who need 'em. To me, when I write, every lyric is as strong as the hook would be. So, why? The reason people will use a hook is to keep the people interested or give them something to do so they don't get bored with the verse. I'm like: just don't bore 'em with the verse. Kill 'em with the verse, and you won't need a hook. It makes a more intense experience. You feel it. The hook thing is standardized — 16 bars and a hook. The listener is expecting it to come, so I catch them off guard: "What? No hook? This is the end? Rewind that!" But they were able to listen to the whole song.

How did you and Madlib first meet?

From working on this project. I got contacted by Stones Throw to do this joint. I really wasn't familiar with his music. Stones Throw sent me package of all his stuff, and I started to listen to everything. Damn. Shit was so raw, I called him: "Yo, let's do this." When I flew out there to start the project, I met him at airport for the first time. Felt like I knew him all my life, though. That's my brother, yo. Long-lost brother.

Besides music, what do you two have in common?

I would say broads [laughs]. Girls, we talk about that a lot, joking around. Music is such a big part of our lives — that's the main thing. We talk about children. He has a daughter, so we talk about children. Mad don't speak much. I thought I didn't speak much, but this dude, he says only what he needs to say. He'll give you sign language first before speaking. So we don't speak that much, but everything seeps in and we know what we gotta do.

Will there be a second Madvillain project?

Yep. It's already in works, right now. Like I said, he gave be so many dope beats that I ain't even used yet. I got enough beats to do a whole bunch more. Like, 10 albums type shit.

And you're working with Rhymesayers as well.

I got a whole album I produced for them. The Rhymesayers Metal Face album was done a year ago. It's just been sitting and marinating. It's tight as hell. It's called MM… FOOD — all capitals. I took MF DOOM with the letters switched around. Each song is titled after a food. It's all analogies between food and life. I'll give you an example. "Cookies" is ill, totally on some Internet porn type shit. I don't know if you're fuckin' with the web, but if you do, you gotta go see what's going on with that shit. I notice when you online on some porn shit, the word cookies comes up. Oh, I guess that's the picture as it saves to your hard drive. They call those cookies. So, I got a fever for them cookies. I'm a cookie monster, trying to go into the cookie jar. So, on the surface the song sounds like I'm talking about regular cookies, but there's little innuendos that'll let you know. There's 15 songs on there with food-life references.

With all your different characters and aliases, how much of your true self comes through? How much is imaginary?

Hmmm. All me. But ever since I was a kid, I draw influences from all around — anything I see, I use. Even the news. That's the main reason why I use different characters, to get different points across. I don't really use my opinion. So it might seem like my opinion is switching if I kept one character. Say, Viktor Vaughn, his opinion might be different from DOOM. Or he might not care about a particular topic. This way, I cover different angles. Everybody's opinion deserves to be heard. There are different ways of looking at things. Nobody has to be wrong.

Do you think of song concepts and then apply them to the character that fits, or do you zero in on one persona at a time and write a bunch from that perspective?

Usually the idea comes first, then I'll apply it to whatever character it happens to fit. I could be trying to finish a project for DOOM when — pow! — I get a Vik idea out the blue. It comes in different patterns. Sometimes I just get on a DOOM roll, though, and I'm just rollin'.

Your indie records have been critically praised, and rightfully so. But do you think you could release these types of projects if you were signed to a major?

[Orders one more double] No. It's like this with majors: they only want you to do what's proven to sell. Which makes sense. This is a business. So they don't want you to take those risks. On [Madvilliany] we took a risk. Yo, gimme a beat, whatever I feel about it, that's what I'm gonna say on it. Done and out the way. Straight from the heart. No real long process. I think we would have to do it on this [independent] level first, so the [majors] can recognize, "Oh, it does work." A major wouldn't let you do it like this. Or if they did let you do it, when you turn it in, they'd say, "Can you give us something more like…" and they'd reference some artist who's out selling well at the time. They want you to fit a mold, like, "We like a JAY-Z type of vibe." If they're looking for that, it's hard to give them you. Stones Throw or Metal Face or Rhymesayers, we have the creative control. We run our own business, so nobody can tell us what to do. We get to do what we want to.

Would you ever sign with a major again?

I would if everything was right, but at this point, there's no need to. We all run our own labels — I have Metal Face Records — and I'm also an artist who will do stuff on Rhymesayers, Stones Throw, Metal Face. So there's no need to even involve anybody else with shit poppin' right now. The only reason to even involve a major would be for distribution or to promote. I don't think it'd be worth it. It's not really about the money like that. I wouldn't trade what I'm doing for $5 million right now. I wouldn't do it. I'll make it gradual.

Do you hear any similarities between your KMD work and your DOOM work?

I see similarities only because I know the gradual progression. KMD was when I was like 18, 20, so my life changes are there. And I can hear them in the record. That's when DOOM came into the whole thing, based on the struggle [after KMD got dropped from Elektra]. Now I'm not on a major. Now I'm back to a low level, damn near broke, damn near homeless type shit. DOOM was birthed out of that experience. It's all connected. The time we were out of the public eye is when DOOM took form. To the public, when DOOM arrived, it was like, "Oh, wow, this sounds real different."

Did you always know you'd come back?

Yeah. Even when we was doing KMD, the second album especially, me and Subroc both spoke about doing solo projects. It was always in the works.

Why the mask?

It don't matter what you look like — your race, your style, if you're cute or fucking ugly. None of that shit matter when it comes down to the music. In jazz, that's what it used to be like. But with hip-hop, it's such a new form of music that it got exploited to the point where what you look like and what you're wearing and how big your chain is matters first. Then people check out the album and see how wack it is. So, DOOM is just your average Joe, understand? It's all about the skills, so it don't matter what he look like. He could be you. He could be me.

Where did you get this mask?

That mask was fashioned by a friend of mine in New York City. He's a real artistic dude, a graffiti artist out there named Lord Scott 79. A good friend of mine. He rhymes too. He's known as a graffiti artist first and foremost, but this cat, his rhymes is ill too. We kinda be throwing it back and forth. Y'know, I do my graf stuff, too. I'm foremost known as a rhymer, I guess, but we trade back and forth. So, he came to me and said, "Yo, DOOM, if you get a mask, it's gotta be an ill mask. Don't get some plastic and spray-paint it silver. I'm-a get you a real mask." I'm like, "Alright, we only got a week, so do your thing." I didn't even think he would come up with anything. But he had it in a shoebox, and when he opened that shit up, yo, chrome faceplate! Shit was dope. What he did was, he went and bought a real gladiator's mask, real metal shit with the spikes, and the faceplate was screwed onto it. So, he took the headpiece off and just had the faceplate and connected it with an adjustable thing that they hold construction helmets on with. He took that and put it on the faceplate, so I can adjust it perfect.

As a music lover, who would make up your dream collaboration?

Good question. It don't matter what genre?

It's your dream.

I would like to hear Kurt Elling, the jazz singer, and Madlib. That'd be some shit. Or Madlib and Dianne Reeves, one of those real jazz singers. Yeah. That'd be bonkers. It's the equivalent of like a Mary J. Blige and rapper. Like R&B meets hip-hop but on a jazz tip. Nothing has been done yet like that.

What would you like to do that you haven't done yet?

[long pause] Good question, yo. There's not one thing I can pick.

Say a few, then.

I feel like I'm wishing for my three wishes here. I don't want to fuck 'em up. I would like to be on Dave Chappelle's show as DOOM. That's one. I want to see Japan, see the world, see Egypt. Get a chance to study other languages, other cultures, more than I do now. Really get a chance to do that. I don't get a chance to read or travel as much now that my work is increasing. I would like to get a chance to delve back into my studies. That'd be cool.

Anything you'd like to add before we go?

Thanks to the people for all of the support. I'm doing it for them, so that's what keeps me going. Big up.