DOOM - Clash Q&A
Clash speaks to the enigmatic (MF) DOOM...
Interview Posted by Mike Diver Tue, 17/03/2009
The man has many faces, many monikers through which he channels a singular vision of hip-hop that’s been allowed to expand in the margins without coercion from corporate suits and label politics.
But here, now, today, he is simply DOOM.
Daniel Dumile’s widest-known alter ego has dropped his ‘MF’ prefix for album three, ‘BORN LIKE THIS’ (the name is taken from a Charles Bukowski poem), but the British-born and New York-based rapper’s ear for the absurd in anyone else’s hands, his love of experimentation and sculpting designs anew, remains absolutely apparent. Five years may have passed since his last solo offering, ‘MM..Food’ (an anagram of his name, FYI), but DOOM hasn’t been lazing about, resting on his laurels.
In the same year as ‘MM..Food’, 2004, he released the ‘Madvillainy’ album, a collaborative effort with acclaimed producer Madlib (a follow-up is in the works); 19 months later, ‘The Mouse And The Mask’ emerged, showcasing DOOM’s vocals alongside beats and pieces from white-hot studio wiz Danger Mouse. So, while DOOM as a solo artist has been off the scene, his rhymes have found their place in the public’s ear – both collaborations took Dumile to a new level of recognition.
And it’s this raised profile that ensures Clash gets 30 minutes phone time with the man himself. It’s late here but early there, and DOOM’s just getting started…
Hey, that Mike?
Yeah. This the man himself?
(Laughs) Yeah, I guess you could call me that.
Well, you’ve adopted enough identities. Got a day of talking about yourself or is this one of just a handful?
No, I got ‘em back to back, with about ten minutes in between to play video games and clear my mind. You’re like number three on the list, so I’m rolling right now.
Good times. Well let’s talk ‘BORN LIKE THIS’. Must be a great feeling having a solo record out after five years ‘away’…
Oh well, it feels good to have it done – when it comes out, well, that could always take another five years. But the fact that it’s done, and completed, that to me is a huge thing. It’s great that people get to hear it.
Do you see the collaborative records as being part of the same process, the same continuity?
Yeah, I guess so. It feels that way, but it’s part of a whole bigger thing – every record plays its part. It’s a continuation – like, one will branch off into two or three, and then they’ll branch off too. Fractals, all day.
What’s the thinking behind dropping the ‘MF’ this time out? A development of the character, or simple aesthetic preference?
It’s a combination of the two, really – I feel like this record is more of a personal view of the mind of the character. Like, if the listener is in the character’s body, reading their thoughts, if you can imagine that; [previous solo albums] ‘Operation: Doomsday’ and ‘MM..Food’, those had the perspective from the outside, with the character speaking on whatever everybody else is seeing of him. In that respect, it’s not as formal. It’s not MF Doom, it’s DOOM, just the guy. You’re getting into the mind of the character. That’s really what it’s about. So just call me DOOM. What’s your last name?
So, people might call you Mr Diver, but some might call you Mike, and people might be calling out, “Hey, Mr Diver!” But you’ll be like, “Just call me Mike.” So it seemed funny after a while being called MF Doom all the time.
As you’ve written from various character perspectives, do you ever get mixed up as to what voice you’re in?
I wouldn’t say mixed up, I tend to just let the thoughts come to me and not think about it too much. But then once you get the thought, that’s when I begin writing, and it may pertain to the next record, or a totally different one. I catalogue everything, so as long as I write everything down, after a while they add up and you can put them in their respective slots.
This album’s taken its time in reaching us…
I would say it took about three years to do this record, and that’s the longest any of my records have taken. It’s always been in thought, but I’d say it’s been about three years. And it just took that long; it needed that much attention, I think. It’s layered, but it’s not overdone. I’m doing a lot of experimental things with the production, too, which took time to craft and put down. I’d listen to things two months after I’d done them, to see if they passed my test – I don’t want to use the public as guinea pigs. It can be like Frankenstein – you can’t just run out there in the street like that.
And we all know how that turned out. You’ve some J Dilla productions on ‘BORN LIKE THIS’ (Dilla died in 2006, information) – do you feel you’re doing the right thing in terms of helping to sustain his legacy?
Yeah, and at the same time he’s helping us too, in his special way. He did a lot of work and then he left us, but he was ahead of his time, totally. I got some Dilla beats that nobody’s heard, and it sounds as fresh as anything today. We always spoke about getting something done, so this is it happening.
So even though he’s not around, now is the right time?
Oh yeah, it’s the right time. When I’m listening to those beats, it’s like I’m talking to him. When you clear your mind, you really can talk to anybody, because you understand what they would say from the inkling and understanding you have of them, and more often than not it’s 99.9 per cent correct. So it’s natural, it’s like he’s right here. It’s like a written letter, or code. If you listen to [J Dilla’s acclaimed album] ‘Donuts’, that as an instrumental piece is bonkers. I mean, the arrangements and slight nuances that separate it from a collection of four-bar loops… There are certain things that needed to be done by hand. That record is like a conversation piece in itself, so I tried to add my lyrics to enhance this convo.
There’s no doubt the man made his mark, in an albeit brief career.
He was a good dude, and I’m sure he touched everyone hard. He was the friendliest guy I ever met, always with a smile on his face. I had a thousand questions for him, and I still have them. And we’d kick things back and forth… But he’s a pro, he was the best of all of us.
We’ve recently been speaking to Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio, and he told us that ‘Madvillainy’ was his favourite album of 2004. Fair to say that the album was the vehicle for DOOM to cross into new audiences?
I don’t think that was intentional, but the creativity exceeded what was labelled hip-hop at the time. It did sound a lot different, so I think its appeal comes down to that – people’s desire to hear something different. It appealed to people who just love music, y’know? The thing about that record was that Madlib already had all his beats done, so I was just picking them out and doing rhymes as they came into my mind. But his production style on that record, it’s similar to how ‘Donuts’ is – it’s so textured, with so many short beats. It wasn’t hard to be interested in it, and it sounded so fresh.
So you laid down your vocals pretty swiftly?
If I had thought too much about it, it might not have ended up the way it did. That was the only way I could work. Like, I’d hear a beat, and ask myself what the first thing I thought of was. Like, the song ‘Fancy Clown’ – that particular song, I heard the beat but he already had the loop, the music and the little voice sample in there. All I had to do is listen and go: “Oh, this is what I’d do right here, and then I stop right here…” His arrangements were already there. In a good way, it was a go-with-the-flow process, and I think that comes through.
Definitely. And that energy’s evident on ‘BORN LIKE THIS’, too.
Yeah, no doubt. We made sure it didn’t lose that. If I’m the producer of a project, I can lose myself in it unless I’m paying attention. This one took a longer time because I had a lot more to do with the mixing and all that stuff. But I still work to the same method – hear the beat, as soon as the idea’s there I write it down, and then do it and don’t try to do it again. A couple of times I’ve tried to do songs better, where I’ve missed a line, but the first time is almost always the best time – everything after that is an imitation of the first time, and it’s only ever going to be a different version of that first one. The human mind says you’ve already done it, so I kept the first takes – they exude that energy, around all the complex arrangements.
So the vocals came quickly, the music not so?
The arrangements took the time – the storyline, putting things together piece by piece and experimenting with the drums. But some vocals I did two and a half years ago, and some I did a few months ago. It’s spread out across time. I got a better microphone at one point, but it didn’t make the older tracks any better so I kept them the same. The end product’s a sort of collage of whatever happened over those three years.
So there’s plenty of ‘off cuts’, presumably?
I’ve got a whole 500GB drive full of ‘BORN LIKE THIS’ pieces – this track slower, this one louder. I always keep track of what’s the first one, so I don’t lose it. But I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff – I never throw anything away, and I often go back to it at a later date.
Was there anything you went back to on this album, that you’d initially written a lot earlier?
Yep, yep. There’s this ‘Batty-Boys’ song that I did a while back, and I thought it was too edgy. But I listened to it again, and it always had that fizz with it, so I had to be on there, and I feel now is the time for that convo, when it loses a little of its edge but is still like, “Oh shit, did he just say that?” ‘Absolutely’ is another one I did a long time ago, and I’m like, that’s how I feel. There was stuff going on in the media, stuff in the streets with police violence. These are real things. Have you heard about Oscar Grant? He got shot in Oakland. And Sean Bell in Queens, who was going to a bachelor party and the police shot him. So that’s what was going on. I did the song a little before Sean Bell, but that event reaffirmed why I did it. I wondered if the song was right, but when the Oscar Grant thing happened, it was like this shit has to stay on the record. It’s like something that needs to be heard, and a point of view that a lot of people have. We need to stop these things from happening.
I think hip-hop is, at times, the most accurate musical voice on the state of the nation, if you will – the nation representing a microcosm of the far wider world.
Yeah well, I just try to keep it to starting conversations about these things. It’s interesting listening to this story writing. But I don’t see myself as this kinda, “Here’s my goal” kinda guy – but I think as a human being that can happen naturally. Like, what do I talk about? I can only brag about my own little world so much, but maybe the more people recognise that one’s world is a microcosm of the wider one, the better we’ll be. I can touch upon a wide variety of topics. I feel that there’s a social commentary if you will, an editorial.
But you’re still able to add humour to your music…
I mean, you add satire and it makes it comfortable to hear back. But these kind of things are what I’m thinking about, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one. So, I think: “What can I say about this?” I look to push the envelope and start conversations that haven’t started.
You’ve got Tony Starks, or Ghostface Killah, on the record on ‘Angelz’, which leads me to ask about the GhostDOOM collaborative album, ‘Swift & Changeable’. Is that going to see the light of day?
Aaaah, it’s in the works. I’m gonna do the project anyway, but ‘til now the funding’s not been there. So I’ve finished this record, and I’ve started work on the next Madvillain record, so I’m keeping active. But if people keep asking for the GhostDOOM record, it’ll get done. I’m actually always thinking about it, so it’s still formulating. By the time I get some more beats and lyrics down for it, it’ll be like: SMASH.
You sound like the kind of artist who’s always working on something.
Definitely. Even when I was working on this one, I could see where things could lead, towards other records. There are all kinds of possibilities. I get constant reminders about projects, but the way the creative mind works is that you’re always on it anyway. In the few years I’ve been working on this album, I’ve kind of found a comfort zone where I have a channel for creativity – have your mind right, know yourself, don’t get too caught up on it. It’s important to step back sometimes, as that natural flow keeps creativity high.
So you are able to step away from the process from time to time, for a little perspective?
Oh yeah, totally. It’s nature – everything does that. It breathes. We’re not constantly in it, or else you couldn’t breathe. You have to exhale in order for the oxygen to pump to the blood, and ultimately gain more oxygen. It goes in waves like that – everything does. And once you figure that out, you’re set right.
Do you keep track of the more business side of your career? I see that as the only way an artist can ensure longevity today, by monitoring how they’re being represented.
I am involved in the business side, but I do keep those sides separated. Sometimes I might need a mouthpiece to speak to the business, but I am hands-on when I need to be. Some people’s natural thing is to be distant, but I think you have to have an interest. You have to get your point across right.
You’ve a couple of other guests on the LP, alongside Ghostface…
There’s a joint I have with a female MC that I produce, Empress Star. That’s me showing my production side, and capturing part of the storyline and carrying it with distinct different voices. But it’s still in the mind’s eye of DOOM, though, and that’s what’s going to come through more on this record than the others – another perspective on how everything that’s said happens.
Do you think that certain rappers have fallen foul of having too many guests on an album, and they’ve therefore lost some of their own identity?
Right, it did get out of hand. You can tell corporate structures started getting their hands in the decision making, and the artists didn’t care because they were promised that million dollars when the record sells. It started to be more of a money thing than a craft, and certain artists get the idea that they’re the biggest, and the best, so they get complacent and don’t give their new music the attention of their first record, the reason why they blew up. They don’t give it the thought and the care. They just think about buying another Bentley. I never get complacent. I tried to do that once, but found myself saying: “Stop! What are you doing?” Fuck it, I had to try though. I make records that I want to hear, and I’m sticking with my people. These cats you might not have heard of, but they fit the story.
Finally, I’ve got to ask about touring… Any plans to come visit the UK for this release?
Maybe, I’m working on it. You’ll definitely hear me but you might not see me, because it’ll be dark in there. But you’ll hear me rocking. The more people that request that I tour, the closer it’ll get to happening.
- Subroc, The Hip Hop Hendrix