Paul Laurence Dunbar ’s poem ‘We Wear the Mask’ was published in 1895.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, –
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
Dunbar pulls off something complicated here: he captures Black Americans’ rejection of what Thomas Jefferson called ‘that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions’ while also articulating the reason some of us embraced the idea of a mask in the first place. Unlike the fabric cover-ups we wear today, which do more to protect others from coronavirus particles than they do the wearer, Dunbar’s mask – a face to meet the faces that we meet – allowed us to protect ourselves from inevitable mistreatment and wilful misunderstanding.
The rapper MF Doom, who died last year, wore the mask in more than one sense. He was a paragon of international Blackness, a poster boy of postmodern Negritude. As the music writer and DJ Lynnée Denise put it on Twitter, Doom was a ‘Black universal citizen’, ‘the story of Diaspora’. Born in London to a Trinidadian mother and Zimbabwean father, he grew up in New York, but never became a US citizen. His influence reverberates through a class of indie rappers and producers – Earl Sweatshirt, Bishop Nehru, Tierra Whack – who work outside the big label system. Doom was a desperado, a dastardly fellow, a self-proclaimed ‘bastard’ who rapped with an incredible urgency and a laconic lilt. He could sound like an album of Mitch Hedberg one-liners played at double speed. He was both ‘out of pocket’ (unhinged and wild) and ‘in the pocket’ (totally cool and steady). The metal mask he wore in public was beautiful but utilitarian, like a silk handkerchief. His lyrics have the same mutability: I have laughed and wept at his music in equal measure. He was a singular star, a wily figure who understood the power in being both elusive and vulnerable. He was hip (‘got enough styles to start three fads’) but also used words like ‘egads’. Wait – was? I’m still not used to thinking of him in the past tense.
On New Year’s Eve, Doom’s wife, Jasmine Dumile, announced his death two months earlier at the age of 49. She called it his ‘transition’. It was the first time, for me, that seeing his name evoked, well, doom. His many albums and instrumental CDs contain complex, multisyllabic lyrics, esoteric samples, and lots of jokes. ‘Rhymes like Dimes’ is a musical manifesto in under five minutes. In the chorus, Doom hints at his absence from music between 1993 and 1998 – ‘Came back from five years layin’ – but he doesn’t delve into it. Fans pieced together his backstory.
Before 1999, Doom, born Daniel Dumile in 1971, was known as Zev Love X, and was a Black nationalist ‘conscious’ MC. With his brother Subroc and a DJ known as Onyx the Birthstone Kid, he formed the group KMD (‘Kausing Much Damage’). In 1993, while crossing the Long Island Expressway on foot, Subroc was hit by a car and died. Elektra, Doom’s record label, decided not to release KMD’s second album, BL_CK B_ST_RDS. Dumile re-emerged in 1999 with Operation: Doomsday, his first record under his new moniker, inspired by Doctor Doom, the Marvel Comics supervillain who permanently fused a mask to his face after being disfigured in an accident. On ‘Rhymes like Dimes’, Doom’s words are political – ‘only in America could you find a way to earn a healthy buck/and still keep your attitude on self-destruct’ – but also wry and unexpectedly tender:
To the gone and lost forever like ‘Oh, my darling Clementine’
He hold his heart when he tellin rhyme
When it’s his time I hope his soul go to heaven
He nasty like the old time, old no. 7.
On ‘Rhymes like Dimes’, Doom sampled Quincy Jones and James Ingram’s ‘One Hundred Ways’, and produced just as many quotable lines. Or, as Dunbar put it in ‘We Wear the Mask’, he mouthed with myriad subtleties. As Doom says in ‘Hey!’, another song from Operation: Doomsday, he expressed himself ‘with more rhymes than there’s ways to skin cats/As a matter of fact, let me rephrase:/with more rhymes than ways to fillet felines these days.’ Some of us followed Doom because we thought we were too cool for David Blaine. Doom’s tricks were breath control, intricate rhyme schemes, a beating heart beneath the cold veneer, of which he gave us only occasional glimpses. Now you see it, now you don’t.
In his six solo studio albums, numerous collaborations and instrumental discs, Doom’s persona illuminated the ‘villainous’ impulses of lots of rappers, including those outside his realm of underground hip-hop. If you take away the comic book references, there’s a bit of Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Dr Dre, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Future – misogyny, overconsumption, not-at-all-veiled threats. Doom was the rap id come to life, his character representing what would happen to rappers after drinking too much, smoking too much weed, ‘leaning like the Tower of Pisa’, passing out, pissing people off, embracing gluttony, living with gout. The Doom character had a nasty attitude; he clashed with lots of people (promoters, angry fans), including himself. He didn’t show up when asked, sometimes (especially) when contracted. On 2004’s ‘One Beer’ he makes fun of this, comparing performing to robbery.
As a Black trickster figure Doom belongs to a long line of performance artists, including Adrian Piper, Pope.L, David Hammons, Rammellzee. But I wonder whether his interest in not showing up was also a comment on what it means to show up, and to show oneself up. Maybe it was as an alternative to bemoaning the unfairness of the business, and the difficulties of fame, that Doom disappeared and sent imposters in his place. There was a years-long controversy over ‘Doomposters’ and ‘MF Dupes’. Maybe it was easier for him to hire other people to pretend to be him than to explain how jaded and exhausted he was.
He had a habit of undermining sentimentality, or even earnestness, as in the opening of ‘Great Day’ from Madvillainy, his 2004 collaboration with the superproducer Madlib: ‘Looks like it’s going to be a great day today, to get some fresh air like a stray on a straightaway.’ A declaration of hope is immediately undermined by a hint of violence, a naturalistic detail out of a Jack London story. The ‘stray’ could refer to a dog or a bullet. It’s a funny line, but it’s also an expression of anxiety, the thought of a person who can’t enjoy things because they’re waiting for something terrible to happen.
Doom had reason to feel that way: his brother died just as KMD were on the cusp of finishing their second record. I have experience with that kind of thinking too. My father died unexpectedly (and violently) when I was eight. Listening to Doom helped me to see what had happened to me as a consequence of what happened to my dad. Doom took a personal tragedy and converted it into a dense self-mythography. His splintered public self was in part a way to explore characterisation but also, I suspect, a way to protect himself in the public eye. He retreated behind a metal mask. When my father died, I turned into an inside person. I ducked behind my thoughts on Doom and a hundred other artists. If I hadn’t lost my dad, I’m not sure I would appreciate Doom’s sense of humour. It’s impossible to know.
Doom was a master of openings. ‘Rhymes like Dimes’ begins: ‘Hey yo, yo, y’all can’t stand right here/In his right hand was your man’s worst nightmare/Loud enough to burst his right eardrum close range/The game is not only dangerous but it’s most strange.’ On ‘Kon Karne’, from Mm..Food (2004): ‘Darker than the East River, larger than the Empire State were the beasts who guard the barbed-wire gate/Is on the job, not my fate/Tired of the wait till the villain bring deliverance from the dire straits, fire at a higher rate.’ That’s as close to an establishing shot as you’ll find in a song: the camera descending on the building, security guards perched like gargoyles, their impassive faces hiding the gloom brought on by guarding a mysterious item deemed more valuable than their lives. But then Doom starts describing how to hot-wire a car (over a sample of Sade’s ‘Is It a Crime?’). Just as we’ve been attuned to whatever big-ass, supposedly precious object is lurking behind the gate, we find the more interesting thing is happening just outside the frame, a few streets over, where there’s a thief with a hot hand.
Committing grand theft auto while ignoring some supposedly grander item is analogous to Doom’s project as an MC. While other rappers were focused on the big ticket items (major label success, luxury goods), Doom was earning a real living as a rapper, and maintaining his creative freedom. It takes skill to hot-wire a car. ‘A real price-saver way to acquire nice whips,’ Doom raps, with the self-satisfaction of an old radical handing The Anarchist Cookbook to a kid with an ‘A’ badge sewn on their messenger bag. After his disappointing experience with Elektra, he understood the cost of playing major label games – ‘I only play the games that I win at,’ he says on ‘Hey!’. He bowed out of the global music machine to become Viktor Vaughn, a self-proclaimed ‘vaudeville villain’, and King Geedorah, a B-movie monster. He was at his best when performing sleight of hand with his heart on his sleeve. That’s what elevated him above the purveyors of rappity rap for rap’s sake.
It appears that Doom was also an expert at endings. He died on Halloween, when lots of hip-hop heads, Adult Swim fans and comic book aficionados (he had admirers in each camp) would have been wearing his signature mask. He slipped out the back as the Doomposters finagled their way to the front, stumbling onto half-empty streets for penny candy and beer kegs. His masked impersonators ran amok at their socially distanced (or not) fancy dress parties like henchmen tasked with staging a distraction from their leader’s maniacal plot. As far as the world knows, Doom ‘made his exit on some calm shit’. I wonder if that’s true (his cause of death has not been made public). The belated announcement probably has to do with his family’s need to grieve in peace. But his death also makes me think of the unexpected ending of ‘Rhymes like Dimes’, when Doom stops rapping two minutes before the end of the song. No matter how often I listen to the tune, part of me always expects him to reappear and join in Bobbito Garcia’s laughter and goofball banter. On Madvillainy, Doom fashioned himself ‘the rocket scientist with the pocket wine list’, and although he may be done conducting his mysterious experiments, I refuse to believe the song is over. His ‘transition’ is just another ‘biochemical equation’ (the title of a song he made with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA). He will reconstitute in some other form, just as he emerged as Viktor Vaughn or Geedorah. We are not at the end of his song, but in its vamp out, its witching hour, or as Bobbito says in ‘Rhymes’, in that glorious liminal space known in hip-hop as ‘till the break of dawn’. And you don’t stop, keep on to the sure shot. ‘Is he still a fly guy clapping if nobody ain’t hear it?’ Doom asked on ‘Accordion’. ‘And can they testify from inner spirit?’ I can.
The day after I learned of his death, I listened to Doom on a loop and circled my neighbourhood. I stopped in front of my local record store, where there was an ancient promotional poster for The Mouse and the Mask, Doom’s 2005 collaboration with Danger Mouse. ‘With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.’ Since passers-by couldn’t see what was happening behind my black fleece mask, I could experience my grief and recalcitrant joy in private, even though I was outside on New Year’s Day, with the Mummers Parade – its costumed participants flouting the official cancellation – going by not far away.