Image via: Eric Coleman
It’s lunchtime on a surprisingly hot August Friday afternoon in central London.
I’m sitting in the lobby of Red Bull Studios, having been drafted in at the last minute to cover FACT’s interview slot with larger than life hip-hop legend DOOM, a.k.a Daniel Dumile, and formerly MF DOOM (he dropped the MF in 2009). Chalk it up to brand awareness perhaps. After all, the man is entering his third decade of activity as a producer and MC, a remarkable feat considering he never broke into the mainstream as others did, singling him out in hip-hop’s modern pantheon as uniquely as the mask that identifies him.
Despite the promise that I would be on shortly after making it to the studios, 10 minutes of sitting around with no PR or DOOM make it clear that the rapper isn’t here yet. It was never going to be a straight forward press day – this is, after all, a man who has been accused of sending masked substitutes to his own gigs. As I sit looking at a giant TV screening the Olympics I wonder if the allure of London’s 2012 sports extravaganza got the best of the masked super villain. Maybe he’s really into rowing and decided to sack it all off.
With my laptop battery dying on its (non-Mac) backside, I scramble around the net for research and ideas beyond my own nerdish desires to question him on random things I care about. DOOM’s here to promote Key To The Kuffs, his latest release on Lex Records and an album entirely produced by label mate Jneiro Jarel. It’s his second full-length of 2012 following Son of Yvonne, a collaboration with Masta Ace, released in June and on which Dumile handled production duties by digging around his cabinet of Special Herbs (again). JJ DOOM is the real 2012 attraction for this fan though, not least because Jarel’s production skills are among the best in the new school instrumental hip-hop game. Sonically, Key To The Kuffs neatly fits alongside the classic Madvillainy and Vaudeville Villain as one of DOOM’s more interesting projects, with the added bonus that it’s no longer weird or uncool to rock those sort of non-standard hip-hop productions in 2012.
Staring out the studios’ big window I see a figure walk past that seems familiar. Moving my gaze down the lobby to the door I see that same figure walk in, face down. As he looks up he plunges his hand into a bag, drags out a familiar looking mask, dons it and then turns to the bar and grabs a beer before remembering to ask the staff if it’s okay to do so. Dumile’s arrived, and has transformed into DOOM. As he walks to the interview room I try and think of a way to flip the MF into a relevant joke/pun about my waiting around. I fail miserably.
Two and something hours after arriving I’m let in to speak with the newly London-based DOOM. Originally born in the capital before moving to the US as a child, he’s a little like Slick Rick in a way: a bonafide US rap legend which the English can sort of lay claim to. If there was a rap Olympics I’m sure they would. I’d heard rumours that DOOM had been living here since a mix up at customs after his first European shows in 2010 had left him stranded, away from his life and family. The album’s lyrical content and its promotion, including this press day, confirmed that these rumours were in fact true.
As DOOM requests another beer I sit down, hoping my last minute filling in won’t lead to a boring convo. That’s when I realise that having got carried away looking at old stories for info I forgot to even check the press release for the album before my laptop died. I’m sure someone else will cover the important bits, I just want to know how many copies of the mask exist. I press record and we start, my inner rap nerd excitement increasing as the familiar tone of voice emerges out from under the mask. Dumile is an amiable character despite the multiple personas he’s cultivated over the years, his answers delivered with the same mix of excitement and nonchalant manner that characterise his best raps.
How did the JJ DOOM project come about? How did you guys link together?
“We both do work for the same label. It was the label putting it together. They sent me beats from Jneiro Jarel as part of just sending me beats from different people. The way it started I think is back when he had Shape of Broad Minds out [Jneiro Jarel’s project for Lex], well when he was working on that project. He requested a guest appearance from me through the label. I said ‘ok well, first of all how much…’ [laughs] nah I said ‘where’s the beat?’ and that was my first experience with JJ in terms of musically hooking up.
“After that I met him out in L.A., I was working on the Madvillain record and he was out there working on something too, so we would be bumping into each other. We lived close by, so we would kick it, talk about music. We had mutual interests, equipment, shit like that. At that time we wasn’t really doing no work together, more like ‘yo you heard this?’, ‘where you get that from?’, ‘how you make that sound?’, ‘you got an 808 I can borrow?’ shit like that, you know. And then I moved here and it was the label’s idea to do a song with JJ, do a song for this compilation which then snowballed into an album. It wasn’t expected to be an album at first, but I ended up choosing a lot of JJ’s beats and he ended up being the main producer on it, actually the only producer on it. “
I was going to say all the beats are his…
“Yeah he got a wide variety. He got a lot of styles…”
He’s one of the more slept on producers among the new school of hip-hop producers who came up in the last decade I think. He’s got a real ear for flipping stuff in new ways.
“Yeah he’s definitely pushing boundaries. Some of the beats I was listening to, I don’t even know how he did that! I’d be like ‘what?’ And then it changes, and I’m like ‘is it live?’ When a producer can’t figure out what another producer did, that’s a good sign.”
Did that help for you getting hyped about the project then?
“Yeah we had a good variety of beats and they were different. I was looking for the most different sounding, you know… something that people wouldn’t expect to hear me on.”
How did you work on the project? Over a distance or did you actually spend time in the studio together?
“Well he sent the beats, I’d choose them and record in Pro Tools and I’d mix it. Sometimes send them back. He came out here for a short period of time too and we kinda pow-wow’ed for a second, after we had recorded everything. We also did a lot over the phone, like ‘yo what do you think about this? How about one less db? OK’, so I’d turn it down, send it back to him. It’s almost like we were working together in the same space but, you know, through the phone and just knowing our equipment. So we still did it together while being totally apart.”
The way the sampling works on the album, specifically the intro, skits and the use of vocal snippets throughout, that really reminds me of you. It reminds me of the King Geedorah project for example. Was that part of the album something you looked after?
“Yeah I definitely… well you know we spoke about it like ‘it definitely needs to have skits on it’ and JJ would be like ‘yo DOOM you need to put some skits on there’ and I was like ‘yeah I got some stuff, I got some stuff’. But I had to wait until the last minute because collecting these voices is not as easy as it sounds [laughs]. I gotta watch hours and hours of old vintage footage, listen to hours and hours of lectures. I’m sleeping while playing this shit, listening, and then in the third hour of some long lecture it’ll say the right word. So then it’s like ‘oh shit there it is!’ Wake up and look at the timer, note the time when it happened and go back to sleep. When I wake up I’ll find it again and chop it and put it in. It’s a real tedious process, but as I’m writing songs I’m collecting pieces, and I’m collecting pieces that pertain to the songs, and then I condense them and make the story. I like to put an intro so people get a feel for what’s going on. It sets the tone, almost like scenery.”
I remember reading in a previous interview that you’d spent hours collecting stuff, I think you were talking about King Geedorah again. So despite having done that for years, and I’m assuming collecting a fairly sizeable library of samples, you’re still at it?
“Yup, yup. It’s entertaining, you know? I don’t watch TV but I do that all day. I be cleaning the house and playing some obscure, weird shit. And it’ll be fun stuff, I bump into some interesting things.”
Well on the subject of skits, who’s your favourite skits producer in hip hop?
“[Ponders silently] …It has to be myself. I think I’m the best [laughs].”
OK, apart from yourself then?
“OK, let me see who else be messing with the skits pretty ill? [pauses] Well Prince Paul of course, nah’m sayin…”
Yeah he took that shit out there.
“He pretty much started that whole thing, he started the whole bulk of it. People was doing it before, little things, little scenarios. Even when you think of how Dre and Snoop, when they had their little talking skits describing scenarios at a party or what’s going on, you know?”
Did that era of skits in hip-hop influence your own work with the skit format?
“Well it made me say ‘oh shit! We can do this’ but we was doing it before. Ever since young, like Saturday Night Live, I’m like 12 years old, we would pretend to be Eddy Murphy and record it, you know? Double tape deck kinda thing, so we were doing skits… let me think about it… Black Bastards, or even Mr. Hood, that shit was 1991, and we was doing it before then. It didn’t necessarily influence me but it made me say ‘Oh snap! We’re not the only ones, we can do it, sell records, let’s do this!’. It motivated me.”
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Going back to the JJ DOOM album, the press release hints at – and so does the music – an English, even London, influence.
Did that in turn impact your writing for the album? Were you purposefully writing something that reflected your time out of the US?
“Not really. I was just like ‘OK how quick can I finish this song? I need information… what’s going on?’ and I’d look for anything. ‘What’s the most recent word I heard?’, as a writer you sometimes gotta go for yours, clear your mind. So somebody walking past might be speaking in that London accent and say a word and I’d be like ‘oh shit, what’s that?’ and I’d write it down. Or watch a little bit of… when I first got here I was watching regular TV, not cable, the free TV shit, so I’m catching a lot of old cop shows and shit like that and the way they flippin’ it is funny to me. ‘What did he say? What did he do?’, sometimes there’d be some serious shit going on but in their way of saying it that was my exposure to the culture here, how people speak and how they communicate with each other. It’s almost like… I only been here for like two years, so it’s like I’m a two year old child just learning to speak really, from the things around me and that’s reflected in the rhymes and in the skits.”
So you don’t have any early memories or anything from being born here?
“Nah… maybe if they hypnotise me one day I might be like ‘the Queen!’… I don’t know.”
This album is almost like a return to your roots then to a degree. How does that feel?
“Feels excellent. It feels great. Come back to a place where you were born but you don’t remember it and it’s a fucking excellent place though? It exceeds my expectations by far. I love it. The people are friendly. I’m learning how things work here, I’ve not had any bad experiences out here.”
So you’d give London…
“I’d give it a good rep, it definitely gets a good rep. It’s like my favourite place.”
What do you miss most from NYC that you can’t get here?
“…No comment! [laughs] Nah, that I can’t get here? Let me think… New York got a certain feel to it. Harlem. Harlem had a certain feel, at that time it was different, now Harlem has changed you know? Gentrification, it’s not the same Harlem as when we used to be able to sell oil and incense and little jewellery on the streets, with a table. And we really did that. So now, you can’t do that, they made it against the law. Come on, what’s Harlem without being able to go buy a book from a brother and your favourite fragrance, real quick. There’s a certain commerce feeling and a community feeling that’s changed, you know what I mean? It’s always there in time and in memory you know, so that’s my memory of New York. Lower East Side, Downtown, you know? It just had a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’… is that how I say it?”
“A certain feeling to it that was unique at that time and it’s changed but it’s still there, you know?”
You’re living in South London right?
“[awkward silence, then in a funny robotic voice] I can’t reveal it.”
Ha not to reveal it or anything but to pinpoint the area you spend time in, it’s a big city don’t worry.
“Yeah I think that’s where it is… they just kinda threw me out there. So I’m like ‘ok where is this? London?’ everything is London to me, North, South, East, whatever.”
Do you travel much around the city?
“Sometimes I’m in Camden, I don’t know if that’s South London though.”
Nah that’s North.
“So London’s kinda small…”
Compared to NYC it feels smaller I guess. The difference between what would be the equivalent of New York’s five boroughs isn’t as obvious at first as it is in NYC when you travel between them. It takes time to clock it.
“Right, right. It’s little more busy and touristy. Short cab ride I’m there, you know? I travel around for sure, it just depends where I need to go.”
You’ve got quite a lot of personas by now. How much of it is DOOM and how much of it is you playing on a repertoire of characters? I’m thinking that with this JJ DOOM album I heard hints of Vaughn, hints of what you did in Madvillain… do you have different suits you put on when you rhyme?
“Well I flip it a little bit in a style that might be similar to Vik’s style for example. But you know…”
There’s a track on the album, I can’t remember which exactly right now as I had to rush here to do this but when I heard it, it made me think of Vik Vaughn straight away.
“I might have taken a cheap shot at Vik.”
Do you find yourself doing that often?
“I try to keep it straight forward to where each character is its own distinct character. JJ DOOM is just DOOM, unless it specifies, like Vik is on this song. But their styles tend to be similar, people might say ‘damn Vik you sound like DOOM’ and Vik don’t like that so he’s like ‘fuck DOOM!’ you know? DOOM is getting more attention or whatever. But that’s something I’m also playing on, they got little rivalries going on. It’s going to come out later on a little more. I try to keep them pretty much straight forward, this way each album, each character, is its own experience.”
Do you find that all these characters allow you to be more creative in a sense? With lyrics, with flow, with the pictures you paint?
“Yeah it’s just open. Everything is open. It’s not pigeonholed where I’m this guy and I gotta be the tough guy everyday, you know? Like some of these cats are pigeonholed into characters, like they have to be that dude everyday. No matter if they’re happy that morning or they sad, or they might lose or gain weight, but they have to be that character. You might change your mind, change your view about things but you can’t do that and it so limits it. Unless they come out with a new character that allows them to express something different, or just totally change their mind and decide to rename themselves and be like ‘I’m coming like this now’, which is the same thing as changing characters, so you might as well have a variety of avenues.”
The characters allow you to not reinvent yourself all the time. You can still be DOOM but do it differently through a different character.
What about the artwork on this new album? Did you have a hand in it, or was it a case of Steve Powers doing his thing and you approving it?
“Well I was sending him music and he’ll come up with a sketch. I’d be like ‘oh that’s pretty ill, can you change that though?’ or suggest a change and he’ll do it. I let him do his thing, his art, and his perception of how the music sounded. I just OK’ed it or made a little change here and there.”
I was watching the video that went up recently about how your mask was designed, with KEO telling the story…
“Word they got a video? Interview?”
Yeah it’s a short interview where he explains how the idea for the mask came up.
“Word that’s my man. He had a lot to do with that shit. Cos I was like ‘damn I don’t know’ and he was telling me ‘no trust me, trust me yo, I gots the ill mask, watch, tomorrow’ and he went and got it. I went to his crib, I seen that shit and it was… it’s when we first got this one (grabs side of his mask and points it towards me). The idea was crazy and we hooked it up in time for the show and we came out with this shit which was legendary.”
How many copies of the mask exist?
“Yo no se.”
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JJ DOOM is what, your fourth collaborative album? There was Madvillain, Dangerdoom, Vik Vaughn – though that was with a bunch of producers – and there was the short-lived Ghostface collabo too. Is that even still happening?
“Yeah definitely. I was speaking to Starks the other day, we working on that. It’s gonna be out.”
You’ve had this process for a while now of working with other producers on an entire project, or mixing the idea up with producers and MCs. Do you find it gets easier? What’s the most enjoyable about it?
“It just makes it fun cos there’s another person there with another artistic point of view. If it’s a producer it makes my job easier, I don’t have to think about the beat and the rhyme which is kinda tricky. I can let them have their vision with the beat and then do my rhyme. Let them mix the song, see it how they see it and maybe change one or two things, but it makes it good. I love collaborating, I’m a team player. I love it when I’m working with other artists and see how they get down and exchanging ideas, it’s fun.”
Who has been the most bugged out to work with?
“Me… I’m sure everybody would agree too trust me. I wouldn’t say, I’d point the finger at myself, they all would agree, so. [laughs]”
You’ve lasted across different eras of rap. You were there in the 90s, there in the 2000s, you’re still here. How do you see rap nowadays with this perspective of the last 20+ years.
“It’s very interesting. I don’t really listen to the shit though.”
OK, but you’re still almost like an elder in the game now…
“It’s interesting how it’s evolved, it’s cool. I wouldn’t say good or bad, it is what it is. I just try to add on where I feel like it might need something. Like ‘oh everybody forgot about rhyming and catching real wreck? Well ok I’ll do that while they do the bullshit’. I wouldn’t necessarily say bullshit, but you know. They doing that, so Imma keep the other part up while they make the new one. It’s like a big conversation, everybody adds to it.”
Is there anybody that catches your ears these days?
“Well not really cos I don’t really listen to rap these days. If I listen to shit it’s Ultramagnetic. The first album, Critical Beatdown. Or Criminal Minded. Or Just Ice’s Back to the Old School. When I really need to hear something real quick, I put on the headphones and that’s what I listen to, walking down the street or whatever. Everything else… there’s other stuff from that time, I was young at that time, I was growing up so it’s memories connected to nostalgia, there’s a feeling to those songs, it reminds me of a time. So anything from that time, that’s what I would listen to. Erik B and Rakim, EPMD shit, you know?”
What would be considered the classic shit today?
“Yeah but I can listen to it anytime and I still get… I still get ideas from it, it’s still amazing to me. The way you bring bangin’ stuff today is different, it has to be new but it’s linked.”
You have to evolve it…
“You can’t always be like an old man trying to bring back the past, you got to keep it fresh.”
So in 1998 when you spoke to Ego Trip you said ‘it’s music we’re selling, not my face’. Is that still the case?
“Yeah of course. You can’t see my face can you? [laughs]”
Ha ha true. But I was also thinking in the way you’re not all over the internet, all over social media, or trying to push shit onto people.
“I mean they got the Facebook site, but it’s more like a fan site. I never looked at this shit. I’m not on Twitter. I’m trying to get a old beeper matter of fact, a sky pager. I’m trying to go back to that, do the upside down texting. I’m old school, so I keep it to the way it was. I like to stay… it keeps me focused. I think a lot of that stuff over sensitises everything. You get lost. It’s noise, like ‘ka ka ka ka ka’. I would never even know if a motherfucker was talking shit until the damn internet. We had to go through the grapevine, ‘yo what’s his face cousin’s said…’, you’d hear about that shit later. It’s not instant. Now you’re reading about yourself, but it’s kinda weird. People get caught up in what other people think about them, so much. But what do you think about yourself? Do you think about yourself as much as what you think other people are thinking about you? So… that’s something that should be…
“I wanna make a point here. Back when we was growing up, we were able to inflect more. There was more thinking about what you wanted to do. You got your local friends, that’s cool. Maybe go to summer camp or see your cousins. But mainly you were able to grow up and know yourself first. These kids now. This whole Facebook shit, it’s cool but I think it’s over sensitising a lot of these children and they don’t have a sense of theyselves. They looking for theyselves all day long on Facebook, or on Twitter. Who they wanna be like? They wanna be like… they looking on YouTube for role models, the identity gets lost nah’m sayin? So you know, I’d like to encourage children to read more books.”
“Real paper, not a Kindle.”
Wrapping things up then. What are some of your favourite masks in the history of super villains?
What about the Bane one from the new Batman?
“I ain’t seen that one yet. I’m sure it’s ill. To me the Phantom of the Opera is always the one, the old one though. That shit looked crazy, it was scary. Then there is… of course… Anonymous, the one with the moustache.”
Oh the V for Vendetta mask?
“Yeah, it’s spooky but friendly. What does he mean, what’s his intention? It has a certain feel to it.”
Dr. Doom’s has been perhaps the most classic in terms of US Comics, in a way.
“Yeah Doom, he had the illest mask always. That was his whole shit, the mask. His face being deformed.”
The mask became an icon for Marvel.
“Yeah and for the record I didn’t get the idea from that [laughs]. I been Doom ever since I was born, my momma call me Doom so…”
It’s the same thing as Roc Raida and his crew calling themselves the X-Men back when they started.
“Right! We were all influenced by that shit, but we still kept it where we were our individual selves.”
You were using it as a way to catch attention almost…
“Yeah for sure, like ‘this reminds you of anything? He’s back!’ It’s almost like manifesting what we got from the influence of comics. Manifesting it in our own way.”
So I guess the last question would be: what does great googly moogly mean to you?
“Oh… that’s like… to me… (pauses) It’s like ‘holy motherfuckin shit did you see…’ but without cursing though. It’s something you’d say if the children were around. You know? You wanna keep it censored a little bit. It’s a funny word though. If it is a word? I guess it is a word…”
It is now.
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