Source Material: MF Doom, Operation: Doomsday

(Note: This was originally written as part of Rhapsody’s “Source Material” series, which explored the influences behind a classic album. The influences listed are titles that are available in the service.)

The dust has yet to settle on the indie-rap renaissance of the late 90s, with critics and fans fiercely divided on which albums constitute classics. One title they agree on is MF Doom’s 1999 masterwork Operation: Doomsday.

Daniel Dumile has not been photographed in public without his metal mask for over a decade. He launched his career as Zev Love X, one-third of the Long Island rap trio KMD, a group he shared with his brother, DJ and producer Subroc. In 1991 KMD issued its memorable debut, Mr. Hood, and were quickly lumped with the quirky post-D.A.I.S.Y. Age of groups like Leaders of the New School and Black Sheep. However, KMD’s second album, Black Bastards, was much harder-edged, reflecting the hip-hop world’s rising interest in gangster-ism. The album’s sardonic tone, and particularly its controversial art depicting a Sambo-like cartoon being hung from a noose, led to Elektra dropping KMD from its roster. Just before Black Bastards was shelved in 1993 1994, Subroc was killed in a hit-and-run accident. (Black Bastards finally got an official release in 2001.)

Dumile retreated from the spotlight for a few years before issuing several 12-inches on Fondle ‘Em Records as Metal Face Doom, starting with 1997’s “Dead Bent,” and then Doomsday in the fall of 1999. While most of the era’s major acts like Company Flow and Jurassic 5 approximated grimy boom bap, MF Doom culled from adult contemporary chestnuts such as Atlantic Starr’s “Always” and James Ingram’s “One Hundred Ways.” These quiet storm ballads, bits of which he looped then sped and slowed-down, contrasted with the fervent mic-trading of Doom and his crew (whom were later known as the Monsta Island Czars). Cumulatively, they create a tone of sadness and loss.

Doomsday is nominally built around a theme of M.F. Doom’s planned revenge on the music industry for destroying KMD’s career, and incorporates several snippets from the 1967 Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Fantastic Four. In the episode “The Way It All Began,” Doctor Doom tells his origin story of conducting a scientific experiment that goes awry, making his face “hideous.” But there are other major themes, too, including the 1983 B-boy movie Wild Style and the 1960s Japanese comic-horror movie serial Godzilla. The latter provides inspiration for another Dumile alias, King Ghidra. Meanwhile, Monsta Island Czars references Monster Island, a locale in the debut issue of the long-running comic book Fantastic Four.

Operation: Doomsday has gone in and out of print since its 1999 release in spite of its immediate acclaim, which sparked a major career comeback for Dumile/Doom that continues to this day. This April, Stones Throw Records released a definitive two-disc edition that includes the original album plus alternate versions, instrumentals, and a cappellas. The occasion warrants a deeper look.

Sade, Love Deluxe
Doomsday establishes its melancholy tone early with the first song. Nondescript session vocalist Pebbles the Invisible Girl interpolates the opening bars from Sade’s “Kiss of Life”: “When I walked into you / I knew you were the one for me/ I swear the whole world could hear you MC.” The third stanza is changed from the original, when Sade sings, “I swear the whole world could feel my heart beat.” Doom underlines his magnetic vocal powers with a quick and deft scratch from BDP’s “Poetry,” which in itself is built around TR Love’s scratch of James Brown’s “Soul Power” and the phrase “Get down!”

Teena Marie, Irons in the Fire
“A fly tramp, that’s what she called me/ ‘Cause I don’t wear no Stetson hats like Paul C,” raps Doom on “Operation: Greenbacks.” Paul McKasty was a legendary 1980s engineer and producer. As was custom during that period, production credits were often given to the financiers of a recording session, while engineers actually made the tracks. As a result, recognition for Paul C didn’t come until well after he was murdered in 1989. But that’s just a tangent. On “Operation: Greenbacks,” Doom offers a slowed-down sample from Teena Marie’s “I Need Your Lovin’,” and picks out her stanza “Ask me what I need” to emphasize his money hunger. Nothing is straightforward with a Doom rhyme, though, as he not only relates a reunion with a girlfriend after a trip to Atlanta, but also declares his dominion. “Who wants to battle, on the real?/ Choose your weapon: microphone, beats, or the wheels of steel.”

The Deele, Greatest Hits
“Red and Gold” encapsulates what may have been Dumile’s manic-depressive state at the time. The song is built on a sped-up loop of The Deele’s ballad “Shoot ‘Em Up Movies,” and he spends the first two verses talking about exploring the season during “wig-twisting season.” Then, abruptly, he rhymes about his late brother DJ Subroc. “I’ve been bent back since my physical went back” to the heavens, he says. But he infers that Subroc is just one of many loved ones he’s lost to untimely death. The title refers to autumn, “when the leaves turn red and gold.”

Steely Dan, Gaucho
MF Doom sampled from classic rock tracks such as The Beatles’ “Glass Onion” (for “Tick, Tick…”) and Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” (for “Gas Drawls”). In the 1990s, hip-hop producers often competed over who could flip a popular sample the best. The most famous use of “Black Cow” in a rap song occurred two years earlier when KNS sampled its chunky bass intro for Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz’ crossover hit “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby).” Meanwhile, Doom emphasized its narcotic qualities by slowing it down and looping it; and then making a chorus out of Steely Dan singer Donald Fagen’s rhyme “In the corner of my eye/I saw you/You were very high.”

Eric B & Rakim, Follow the Leader
Doom used several golden-age hip-hop tracks for scratch material, including Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” (for “The M.I.C.”) and Boogie Down Productions’ “Super Hoe” (for “Dead Bent”) and “Poetry” (for “Doomsday”). Keeping in vogue with the turntablism trend of the time, he’d cut and scratch choice bits from these songs into the beat, making for some crazy juxtaposition. On “Dead Bent,” for example, he alternated a romantic declaration from Atlantic Starr’s 1980s ballad “Always” with the BDP phrase “It’s super!”

MF Doom & MF Grimm, MF
Percy “MF Grimm” Carey’s career dates back nearly as far as Doom’s. Well-known on the New York battle rap circuit, he first appeared on KMD’s album Black Bastards, and then released an underground 12-inch, “So Whatcha Want N*gga?” Soon after that, he was shot and paralyzed for life. In and out of lockup for various charges, Grimm’s breakout moment came on Doomsday when Doom gave him the solo showcase “Tick, Tick…” The next year, the two collaborated on the MF EP, which features the excellent track “No Snakes Alive.” Grimm went on to found a successful indie label, Day By Day Entertainment. In 2007, he authored a harrowing graphic novel for DC Comics, Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm, which won several comic industry awards. The expanded box set edition of Doomsday includes “I Hear Voices Pt. 2,” where Grimm details a bout with schizophrenia while in prison.

Wild Style
The 1983 B-boy film Wild Style serves as a major theme within Doomsday. Doom doesn’t sample from its soundtrack, but he uses several scenes from the actual movie featuring pioneering graffiti artist Lee Quinones. The Bronx hip-hop scene of the early 80s was the subject of curious fascination by downtown New York hipsters, and Lee wrestles with its incipient commercial exploitation. So he creates a secret alias, “Zoro,” much as Dumile later did with MF Doom, in order to preserve his artistic integrity. One of the most poignant moments in Doomsday comes during the skit “The Mystery of Doom,” when Lee’s then-girlfriend, equally legendary graff writer Sandra “Lady Pink” Fabara, tells Quinones that she knows he is “Zoro.”

(Rhapsody – May 3, 2011)

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