Why you should care

When hip-hop was abandoning its core audience, two producers came together to perserve the underground sound of the genre.

Cold War hysteria seems silly to anyone born after Fear of a Black Planet came out, but it sure gave Otis Jackson Jr. a hell of a studio.

When Dumile started hitting local haunts, rapping in a black ski mask — as MF DOOM — it was easy to miss altogether.

By the middle of 2002, the famously introverted producer was holed up under 18 inches of concrete in east L.A. The house above was home to Stones Throw Records’ core staff: founder Peanut Butter Wolf, art director Jeff Jank and label manager Eothen “Egon” Alapatt. According to Jank, Madlib (aka, Beat Konducta) would emerge from his dungeon for only two or three breaks a day, always “to smoke giant mounds of green bud.” As the story goes, this went on for “a year or two,” Madlib churning out hours and hours of music to support Stones Throw releases, until a request came from the basement lair. He wanted to work with MF DOOM.

Any search for DOOM is part logistical headache, part existential scavenger hunt. The man born Daniel Dumile — a man raised by New York’s grit, by London’s grey, and by comic book fantasy—spent the 1990s in purgatory. Rapping under the pseudonym Zev Love X as a member of KMD, Dumile enjoyed a modicum of success in 1991 with the group’s slight, smart Mr. Hood. While recording the follow-up, Black Bastards, Dumile’s brother Subroc was hit by a car and killed while trying to cross the Long Island Expressway. (The album was subsequently shelved.) The tragedy sent Dumile into hiding, and he was quickly forgotten.

The second Golden Age came and went. The Native Tongues had their moment in the sun. Wu-Tang dragged the city back into the filth. Illmatic came out; so did It Was Written. Big lived, Big died. When Dumile started hitting local haunts, rapping in a black ski mask — as MF DOOM — it was easy to miss altogether.

But 1999’s Operation: Doomsday was harder to ignore. Now on its fourth official print (on four different labels), Doomsday established DOOM as an impossibly dense, witty, evocative artist. There very well may have been a sad clown element to the whole thing — a boom-bap Pagliacci — but he was creating his own reality, and you couldn’t look away.

On “Rainbows,” DOOM is the trenchcoated, cigared anti-hero of his own noir; on “Curls” he’s the kid too innocent for detectives to pin down.

When DOOM arrived in Los Angeles in early 2002, it was supposed to be so he and Madlib could collaborate on one song. That song (“Meat Grinder”: “’hack-thooing’ songs, lit, in the booth with the best hosts/doing bong hits on the roof on the West coast”) became two, then six, then eight.

Jank would retrieve DOOM from his hotel room around 9:00 in the morning, and the pair would swing by a liquor store before 10:00. For the rest of the day, the metal-faced monster would write songs on the outdoor porch while Madlib continued his solitary life in the basement. But the two quickly developed a creative shorthand. The chemistry was there from the beginning; DOOM, no slouch behind the boards himself, understood Madlib’s off-kilter sample chopping. The back-and-forth (“Mad plays the bass like the race card”) is the sound of rap’s most brilliant outcasts sinking into a twisted unconscious only they share.

The final press of Madvillainy is one of the most perverse, dizzying, brilliant records rap has ever seen. Hidden between lighthearted debauchery (“America’s Most Blunted”) and a truly villainous sneer (“Figaro”) are sober confessionals like “Fancy Clown” or the disarmingly empathetic “Strange Ways” (“They pray four times a day, they pray five/whose ways is strange when it’s time to survive?”). Madlib’s production is beautifully textured, with samples popping out from over and under panned drums and vocal clips. On “Rainbows,” DOOM is the trenchcoated, cigared anti-hero of his own noir; on “Curls” he’s the kid too innocent for detectives to pin down.

Everything that came after this—the Cartoon Network deals, the lunchboxes—owes its existence to these 46 minutes. But the collaboration didn’t just revitalize Madlib and DOOM. It reconciled Hip-Hop’s underground with the avant-garde; fearless creativity met formalist precision. The album feels both warmly familiar and entirely foreign, because it tries to be neither. The villains simply, finally, won. Ten years later, Madvillainy remains the inarguable peak for rap’s greatest ghosts.

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