For the wildly original rapper, who died at age forty-nine, the mask he wore while performing offered a narrative device and protection from judgment. Photograph by Jim Dyson / Redferns / Getty
On New Year's Eve, music fans were stunned to learn that the rapper and producer Daniel Dumile had died months earlier, on Halloween. Dumile's career began in the late nineteen-eighties as a member of the beloved group KMD, but he was best known for his second act, in the two-thousands, when he performed from behind a metallic mask, cycling through a series of exaggerated comic-book alter egos with names such as MF Doom, King Geedorah, and Viktor Vaughn. His passing was confirmed by his family, on Instagram. No cause of death was reported, nor was there any explanation as to why this news was being made public two months after the fact, though the mysterious nature of the reveal did feel very Doom-like.
Dumile was forty-nine, but he didn't really seem to have a fixed age. He was an artist who took experiences that might have turned someone else cynical and cold and channelled them into a persona that retained a kind of wondrous spark. He was born in London in 1971 and raised on Long Island, where he and his younger brother, Dingilizwe, looked up to Boogie Down Productions, the pioneering Bronx duo of KRS-One and DJ Scott LaRock. When LaRock was tragically killed, in 1987, the brothers instinctively thought about their own bond. "When that happened, and we both peeped it, automatically we thought of ourselves in those shoes," Dumile told me, during an interview in 2005. They wondered whether KRS would quit or forge ahead. When they listened to Boogie Down Productions' comeback album, "By All Means Necessary," from 1988, which KRS dedicated to the memory of his late friend, the brothers promised each other that they would always press onward, too.
The brothers had a graffiti crew called KMD, which stood for Kausing Much Damage. When they formed a rap trio, they repurposed the name, only now it stood for "(Positive) Kause (in a) Much Damaged (Society)." Daniel became the rapper Zev Love X, Dingilizwe went by DJ Subroc, and a friend contributed rhymes as Onyx the Birthstone Kid. Their 1991 début record, "Mr. Hood," was effervescent and carefree, full of songs about talking to girls and finding your way through a messed-up world. They were only a half-generation behind De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, but they sounded much younger. Throughout the album, they bicker with vocal samples from a children's record about a racist character named Little Black Sambo-a reminder that not everyone is allowed to grow up innocent.
After a couple years, Onyx had left the group and the brothers were working on their follow-up, "Black Bastards." One was now in his late teens, the other in his early twenties, and both were young fathers. Their sense of humor had turned a bit darker; the rhymes about navigating the world as young Black men felt wearier. That phase of life, Dumile explained to me, is a gauntlet. "Especially living in America, being brown people, or whatever you want to call it, that age is a very pivotal time," he said. "That's when you get hit with a lot of traps."
Hip-hop was once less of an industry than a far-flung multiverse of high schoolers trying to see how far rhymes could take them. In the case of the Dumiles, their hope was to "get our own cribs and have kids, like it's supposed to be." But they never had the opportunity to live out such modest dreams. Prior to the release of "Black Bastards," a columnist for Billboard protested (and misread) the album's crude cover image, which featured a drawing of a Sambo character being lynched. Around this time, Dingilizwe was struck by a car and killed. KMD's record label, Elektra, dropped the group, and "Black Bastards" was shelved. "In this country, being original people, a lot of things be happening at a certain age, right when you reach manhood," Dumile said, when I asked him what he remembered about this dark period of his life. "A lot of things start happening. Strange shit . . . I'm just noticing my peoples disappearing-good people, not bad people."
After his brother's passing, Dumile seemed to disappear, too. At the time, there was no way to self-release "Black Bastards" or sign with another label, and the album was mercilessly bootlegged. But he continued working. Throughout the mid-nineties, he shuttled between New York and Atlanta. Legend has it that he was sleeping on park benches with nothing but a crate of records and the occasional beer to ease his woes. He randomly materialized in the late nineties at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, in Manhattan, on an open-mic night. He wore a stocking cap over his face, to approximate the feeling of being a new, unknown artist. Zev Love X was gone. Now he was MF Doom. Eventually, he took to wearing a metal mask inspired by the movie "Gladiator."
His glimmering, smart-aleck flow now sounded grizzled and spooked, toggling between slurred, super-villain threats and Old English chivalry. KMD's music had so carefully chronicled those slippery intervals between youth and adulthood. Their songs were about navigating the "much damaged" society that had dimmed their horizons. In these new tracks, references to real life were submerged under Doom's intergalactic mythology, a gallery of Thanos-like alter egos who were here to "destroy rap" and reboot the entire world. When asked about the mask, Dumile would reference "Phantom of the Opera," explaining that he had to wear the mask because the industry had deformed him. Other times, the mask was merely a way for people not to fixate on what he actually looked like; it allowed him to inhabit a range of characters. If rap is about being the toughest, why not create a proper world-destroyer?
It was about fifteen years ago when I went to Chicago to interview Doom. It was my first time driving in snow. He was unnervingly nice, with a blissful spark behind his eyes. He clutched a small black case of CDs. The bar where he would perform that night was already open, and he walked around sipping a soda, unnoticed by everyone there; they would only recognize their hero when he was masked. After the show, we climbed into a van, and I accidentally stepped on his mask. But he didn't mind. He picked it up, smiling, as though catching the glance of an old friend, and stowed it away.
From the late nineties through the two-thousands, Dumile released a series of excellent albums, including "Operation: Doomsday" and "MM . . Food," as well as collaborations with Madlib, Danger Mouse, and Jneiro Jarel. He was uncompromising, a self-contained multiverse, trolling Earthlings for our low-stakes imaginations. "Only in America could you find a way to make a healthy buck," he rapped, "and still keep your attitude on self-destruct." The mask also posed some philosophical questions about authenticity. What does it mean to watch someone perform with their face covered? Why not let understudies flex for the leading man every now and then-as Dumile did in the late two-thousands, when fake Dooms would perform at concerts in his stead?
Within a few days of Dumile's death, sellers were charging hundreds of dollars for some of his older records, which had previously been much more affordable-a macabre reminder of how Black death is often fetishized. It's as though his actual presence had been an inconvenience to those who might prefer the mask and the myth to what lay beneath: the slouch, the peach fuzz that was now a patchy beard, Dumile's skin, the grief around which the worlds that he invented actually revolved.
Masks spur an audience's imagination. But they bear a special significance for those who wear them. For Dumile, the mask offered protection from judgment, and also a narrative device. Wearing it was a way of turning inward, too-a way of remaining physically present while his mind chased after all those who disappeared. His curious eyes and toothy grin looked steely and judgmental when they were the only parts of his face you could see. The mask allowed him a measure of privacy. In 2017, his son King Malachi Ezekiel Dumile passed away at the age of fourteen, and Dumile hadn't released much new music in the years since.
In Chicago, Dumile and I ate at a restaurant frequented by Oprah, a fact that amused him. At the time, I believed that there was some canonical interpretation of the sum total of his musical alter egos, a through line that knitted together all these characters. His music was shrouded in mystery, yet there was nothing to hide. He explained that he was an author, but there was no deeper meaning. The characters did whatever they wanted to do-a series of left turns to throw off the devil's pursuit. Because I was more of a nerd than a good listener, I kept asking him about KMD. I wanted to remind him of the sprightliness of his former self. He hadn't listened to those songs in a while, he said. I didn't yet comprehend that grief sometimes involves inventing a new world where you are no longer grieving. Dumile, his brother, and their friends were just kids back then. They had disappeared, only he was still here.