July 24th, 2003

Beyond Good and Evil
Rapper MF Doom's new works of hip-hop fiction reinvent the hero principle for the modern age
Phoenix New Times

The man formerly known as Daniel Dumile understands that today's heroes come a dime a dozen, doused in bravado, drunk on morality, and that it's all too easy to be cast as one. Wave a flag and a gun, fight the odds, grab the loot, perish spectacularly, or all of the above. The crying of your immortal name on the TV signal will be temporarily assured. Bothersome questions about the commodity of heroism in the age of 15-minute shelf lives can surely be saved for another day. (What were we talking about again?)

Facing the fact that heroes require context, which doesn't come around quickly enough for the modern world, is no fun. So we've got to invent and tweak myths for mass consumption. That's true whether the discussion turns to invading forces or to hip-hop. The only folks willing to state this truth have to hide behind cover not to be persecuted. That's why Daniel Dumile had to invent MF Doom, one reason MF Doom wears a mask, and helps explain why the two new projects from Doom's prolific hip-hop think tank carry additional pseudonyms -- King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn -- on the spine. When it comes to the ambiguity of the righteous, you see, it don't stop.

Metal Face Doom's visage is, in fact, the mask sported by Victor Von Doom, best known to readers of Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four as that superhero group's archenemy, Dr. Doom, but whose villainy has always been up for discussion. Personifying the basic questions of good, evil and the mix of the two you'll find in every human wandering the Earth, MF Doom's role-playing is a hip-hop moral exploration that's got nothing to do with the Tony Montana doctrine of thug life. Just when you thought putting on an MC name stopped having psychological consequences, MF Doom pulls you back in, and does so with a combination of funk, grace, word play and invention worthy of stardom, were the game not so highlife nowadays. By the same token, where the underground rap world is fraught with numerous high-IQ MCs who aspire to soul but whose records work like audio Sominex, Doom is one of the few lyricists truly alive -- if hidden behind his characters.

"Back in the day, the first thing that hit me and gave me ideas in terms of characters and creative writing were comic books," says the New York-area bred Doom from Atlanta, where he's lived the past four years. He's trying to explain the way he does the things he does, and why. "There'd always be the hero and who he's fighting against. But the way they were projected was more like, they're equal, they just happen to be different. In the case of Dr. Doom, he was supposed to be a bad guy, trying to take over the Earth and whatnot, but where he's from (Latveria) he's revered as a king, he's loved. So it's a matter of perception, it depends on whatever angle you're looking from.

"I design my characters from the point of view of someone who's looking at them and thinking of them as bad guys," he continues. "They're not necessarily bad guys. Hopefully, once you get to know them, you build your own opinions of who they are. The listener could have something to work towards. Also, there's typical hip-hop shit going on in there. Everybody wants to be the man, chain on, superhero guy I'm the coolest dude in the world, I got all the cars ta-da-da!' So I try to balance that out by trying to create the antithesis to that: the bad guy, or the person who's considered the bad guy."

After the extraordinary critical success of 1999's Operation: Doomsday had established Doom's rep as a storytelling contrarian, he adapted the fiction writers' method as his artistic reason for being. So his two new records flaunt even deeper story lines, told by the even more alienated and the less than heroic.

King Geedorah's Take Me to Your Leader, on the Big Dada label, is the posse record, featuring members of the Monster Island clique you've never heard of outside Doom-related endeavors. Its title character is a three-headed alien dragon of old Japanese monster movies who cannot speak, but expresses himself through Doom. The music, arranged and produced by the "Metal Fingered Villain," is, understandably, centered on the sounds of tweaked '50s horror-movie soundtracks. And while Geedorah's on-screen personality is that of a harbinger of doom, here his destructive streak is cut with a desire to comprehend the foreign ways of the people around him, maybe bring a bit of insight into their/his monster intellect.

"Out of that whole Godzilla stuff, Geedorah was always the villain," says Doom in trying to explain his latest creation, and, as always, referring to himself in the third person. "So I thought, Okay, he's the oddball, let's show a little bit more of his personality, a side of him that people don't see.' He's a fan of hip-hop, but doesn't really get to express that side, except for when he interacts with Doom, which he does through telepathy. He's a cool dude. His whole mission is the evolution of humans, to show humans from his extraterrestrial point of view. What we look like from that perspective."

One need not be a sci-fi junkie to get a better grasp of Viktor Vaughn's Vaudeville Villain, on Sound-Ink, but you won't get help from Doom. Staying in character, balancing mild schizophrenia, Doom says he doesn't know shit about that record -- "you'll have to ask Vik." When you call back, there's Viktor on the phone, talking a mile a minute about the seasonal mood clouds of the album's shadowy narrative: "Every day everybody is not in a good mood, you know what I'm saying? So a lot of that naturalness is caught in there, you know what I'm saying? So I just lay down whatever I felt."

Which fits. Vaughn's album is a smart nerdy kid's braggadocio diary notes -- more than a little mean-spirited, kind of bitter, but also completely evocative of the outsider surviving high school. If anything, it's a portrait of a Doomed hip-hop artist as a young man: blowing people away on open mike nights after composing brilliant "four sides to every story" rhymes in a locked bedroom, falling for a girl only to alienate her with attitude, painting a neighborhood he thinks he'll never escape. "Straight-up Brooklyn," says Vik. Underneath, newcomers King Honey, Heat Sensor and Max Bill drop a cornucopia of techno-minded hip-hop beats (think Prefuse 73 and RJD2, who contributes one) that directly balance Vaughn's lyrical nostalgia with an abstract future funk. All of it exudes a full-bodied reality that hip-hop rarely aspires to. The good, the bad, the funny and the ugly all get equal play.

"Every record I do, I feel my responsibility to add on in some way, as well as to entertain," says Doom about painting life. "It's a waste otherwise. The way hip-hop is so many words per second, and you're listening to words like you're reading a book. So just to be bragging and boasting through that whole time, for hours and hours, seems to me a waste of that time. From a creative point of view, I wanna do something that people aren't doing, 'cause they're not talking about life and living. All the positive things are being left out. Everybody seems to be stuck on this downward spiral about death and destruction and shit. To me that's putting a bad thing over on hip-hop. Let's see if you can come to this from a living point of view."

You see, there really are no heroes here.