“Let’s talk about having children as opposed to killing people’s children. Like, why say, ‘Yeah, if you don’t bust ya gun, you’re a pussy!’? You know how easy it is to bust a gun? You might as well pick something more interesting, like – jump in a pool! That’s about as easy as bustin’ a gun, but you ain’t hurtin’ nobody! Let’s all go swimming! If you ain’t swimming, you wack!” – MF DOOM on MM…Food, Spin, 2004.
Victor von Doom was rightfully depressed. His mother, caught up in sorcery with the evil Mephisto, died when Doom was a child. Werner, his father, died soon after. Cradling his son to protect him from the cold, Werner gave Victor his clothes on the Latverian mountain where Werner eventually died of exposure with his son in his arms.
As Doom grew, he became brilliant in combining sorcery with technology, and when he came to the U.S., he built a machine to communicate with the dead, hoping to save his mother’s soul from hell. But Doom’s calculations were off, and when the machine exploded, his face was permanently scarred. Expelled from university, he fled to Tibet for something most Americans lack: Enlightenment.
That MF DOOM (real name Daniel Dumile) built his persona around this guy is no surprise. Since his metalfaced debut on “Dead Bent” in 1997, his career has been in the shadow of his brother Dingilizwe Dumile aka DJ Subroc’s passing. His death is, arguably, the reason DOOM exists as we know him today. People lose their record deals all the time. They don’t always lose their brother, group member and best friend in the same week. The loss of Subroc is essential to the creation of DOOM.
MF DOOM, then known as Zev Love X, disappeared completely after his brother’s death. His days “on the verge of being homeless” consisted of putting his son on the school bus and using 50 cents or a dollar to buy an Olde English – sometimes two. “My wife, we were just startin’ to date, so she’d come on her lunch break, bring me a sandwich, cheer me up,” he told Spin in 2004. “Most of the time, I was sticking to the crib, broker than a motherfucker, listening to jazz and just writing.”
1999’s Operation: Doomsday is the ultimate rap debut, a sprawling biopic that doesn’t explain the main character as much as spill his insides. Yet amongst the dark humor and obscure culture references, there was a pervading sadness; everything on the album becomes crystal clear when DOOM ends “?” with, “The Subroc three-finger ring with the ruby in the “O” ock / Truly the most dynamic duo on the whole block / I keep a flick of you with the machete sword in your hand / Everything is going according to plan, man.” That last line never ceases to stun. These kids were supposed to rise together.
Fast forward to 2004 and DOOM is releasing his second solo album. Technically, that’s not true, as he’d dropped King Gheedorah and Viktor Vaughn albums as well as the critically acclaimed Madvillainy in the interim, but MM…Food was DOOM’s big solo return. He’d signed a new deal with Rhymesayers, which was riding high on the indie boom success of artists like Atmosphere and Brother Ali, and while Doomsday was produced entirely by Dumile himself, MM…Food would feature beat contributions from Count Bass D and PNS, as well as a Madvillain leftover in “One Beer.”
If you heard Black Bastards, then you know how important the opening collages of samples are to certain DOOM albums. Dialogue from Wild Style opens MM…Food before a voice says, “Here you will find food for your body, as well as comfort for your troubled mind.” From the jump, DOOM is telling you to look both ways. The fact that every song uses a type of food as a metaphor for street-related things like money, girls, and blunt roaches is obvious. It’s the “comfort for your troubled mind” bit that serves as the album’s subtext. DOOM is really talking about food for thought, and the mental sustenance is aimed at other rappers. Heed these jewels, an old, battered DOOM seems to be urging, or else.
The opening “Beef Rapp” is quietly one of DOOM’s most impressive outings on the album. The reference to rap beef is obvious, but when the song came out there was talk of all the subtle jail references, too: “Baloney in the bullpen” refers to the bologna sandwiches they give you in some NYC holding cells; “Cold milk from out the toilet” alludes to the beverages prisoners would keep cold via the water in the toilet; “Two batteries, some Brillo and some foil” are ad hoc materials prisoners use to make fire and cook food; “He better off in PC glued / and it’s a feud so don’t be in no TV mood” is a pun on Family Feud, but also a reference to either feuding over what to watch on the jail TV or simply avoiding watching TV in the breakroom when you have beef with another inmate, as you’re most vulnerable to attack there. Hence being “better off in PC glued.” And that’s only the first verse.
DOOM sounds sharp from the outset, perhaps not as intoxicated as he was during Doomsday. MM…Food, while it has a dark aesthetic, is a much brighter record than DOOM’s first or third album. He’s having fun as he runs a clinic on how to be a fascinating, non-commercial rapper. “Hoe Cakes,” driven by a shining Anita Baker sample, makes startling use of a J.J. Fad beatbox for drums, as if DOOM is showing rappers and producers alike how it’s done. It’s hard to imagine any other hip-hop artist making a song like that. Then he abruptly hands the reins over to Count Bass D, giving him two verses over the best beat on the album (the song was originally Count Bass D’s until DOOM asked for it). DOOM manages to flip something as overused as Whodini’s “Friends” in a fresh way for “Deep Fried Frenz.” The sampling of cartoons is more dynamic, layered and interactive on MM…Food than on Doomsday. Where as his debut used few cartoon dialogue samples to establish DOOM’s character, here they’re sewed in extensively to create a narrative that threads throughout the album and pits DOOM against the rap industry. There isn’t a second wasted across the album’s 49 minutes.
DOOM’s subtle stream of wisdom on “Potholderz” illustrates his goal: “Some say the price of holding heat is often too high / You either be on the coffin or you be the new guy.” Another jail reference. Shortly after: “A lot of n*ggas wish to die / They need to hold they horses, there’s bigger fish to fry.” These are little gems dropped in for the listener. Plus there’s “I could have had a V8 / F-150 Quad Cab but I be straight,” lowkey one of the illest wordplay rhymes of the last ten years. There’s a little bit of everything, the good and the bad on each song. But DOOM has a point.
MM…Food is a jambalaya of moods, sounds, colors and tones. A lot of the beats are bright and upbeat, like “Deep Fried Frenz,” but the production on that song doesn’t match DOOM’s explanation for being cold-hearted: “Be too nice and people take you for a dummy / So nowadays he ain’t so friendly.” DOOM is like Jay Z– take your ears off him for a split second and you might miss a jewel. He’s dropping lessons for rappers about so-called friends in this music biz. MF lightens the mood towards the ends of the song as he questions whether or not to see a onetime fling again, but knowledge is still a prerequisite: “That depends on how good was the skins / And could she memorize the lessons.” Regardless of how fine a lady is, she still needs to know the 120 Lessons that all 5 Percenters must commit to memory.
“Rapp Snitch Knishes” is another song with pick-me-up production and dark undertones in the rhymes. DOOM explains the song like this: “You have a record talking like, you-killed-like-five-people-type shit. Ain’t no statute of limitations on murder, though. I don’t know how these niggas gonna tell on theyself, record it, put it out for the world to hear, and ain’t gonna get in no trouble. Or somebody’s not gonna get in trouble. Or even talking too much about crime. That shit’s illegal. It’s really talking how rap snitches telling all they business, they telling on theyself really. So in court, who’s the star witness? They own self pointing at theyself. So it’s really like a lesson to these cats that’s like stuck on the crime topic. It’s only getting them in trouble.”
It’s funny to hear DOOM rip on rappers who snitch on themselves in their songs, but hearing him explain the song’s concept, it almost sounds like he’s looking out for these people, not making jokes at their expense. You can never really figure DOOM out. Even with Barack on the ticket, the righteous pro-black Dumile (or was that Zev?) still voted for McCain in 2008. Is DOOM making fun of rappers or offering genuine advice?
Then come the skits. At the time, people denounced DOOM’s four skits in the middle of the album as interruptive, but years later they’re a refreshing lapse in structure that more rap albums could benefit from today. As DOOM has said before, he’s out to tell a story, and this part of the story is better told with beats and samples than with raps. Listening to the album now, that stretch of six minutes and 26 seconds is as essential to the album as any number of verses could be. In fact, those vocal samples further DOOM’s agenda of talking directly to other rappers.
“Poo-Putt Platter” ends with, “Now rapper, perhaps you will listen.” “Fillet-O-Rapper” finds a guy taking a sh*t in the woods, perhaps drawing the connection between rap at the time and fecal matter. “Gumbo” is a tongue-in-cheek jab at commercial rap with a genius manipulation of a woman talking about the use of “wrappers.” “Fig Leaf Bi-Carbonate” (above) is the grand finale of the second act, as DOOM shows off a furious instrumental that could soundtrack Ben-Hur. DOOM’s clever wit is omnipresent: “The FDA has approved certain food coloring additives, some are actually – POISON! If you aren’t sure of the additives or colorings in the products you purchased – leave it alone!” The skits end with, “Well, I think that about covers all of the natural foods out here. I have to go. I’m conducting a cooking class today. Good health to you all.” MM…Food is DOOM’s music class for beginners.
The skits help the album flow, transitioning from the first half to the second, which begins with the sleeper of the album, “Kon Karne.” That song features the album’s only mention of Subroc on the last line, and the dedication makes it a bittersweet listen every time. “Vaster than the seven seas, bigger the Mount Kilimanjaro / If they don’t know, fill ‘em in tomorrow” always struck me as such a beautiful, big, wide-eyed line, and the way he rolls right into, “A mental note: return Bob’s record” is stream of consciousness incarnate. James Joyce would be proud.
By the end of the album, DOOM is running laps around rappers for fun. Like the Doomsday singles, I prefer when DOOM rerecords songs such as “Yee Haw,” which became “Kon Queso,” a song stuffed with quotables. Notice how “Kon Queso” ends with the Fantastic Four teaming up against DOOM. The last line is a guy giving them a friend’s address in New York. Then sharp strings play, and it sounds like a cartoon transitioning to an action scene. It’s a genius way to connect to “Rapp Snitch Knishes.”
“Vomitspit” is a clinic on perfect rapping, and “Kookies” is the protoypical DOOM song, rapping about internet porn as his wife wakes up and finds him “kill’t over spilt milk.” The ingenious Sesame Street flip had to be replaced with a limp version that sounds like DOOM’s “f*ck you” to whoever made him change that sample. The original is what you should go for, and Just Blaze’s remix is essential too.
DOOM used jazz, soul and funk samples solely from the ‘70s and early ‘80s, similar to the template on Doomsday. The horns from the uncleared Sesame Street sample are a highlight, plus Madlib’s inventive use of a nearly-cliché Cortex sample (the drum break makes it, but the remix is just as worthwhile). DOOM even sampled Sade on both albums for “Doomsday” and “Kon Karne.” MM…Food is, in concept, a continuation of the wisdom and feel from his debut, but DOOM has grown as a character. He’s learning how to impart lessons to the youth in more effective ways, while still distancing himself as the old man of the pack.
Talking to NPR about Vaudeville Villain in 2003, DOOM said this about the state of rap at the time: “It seems like a lot of these rap cats is like not really taking up responsibility for what they saying. It’s different topics besides murdering everybody, like that seems to be the in thing: How many people can you murder on a record? So I’m bringing it back to yo, brag about how nice you are on the mic and how nice you are with the words.”
MM…Food is DOOM taking responsibility for his art. Emerging from obscurity, he’s a misunderstood villain, one who sees what’s missing and simply wishes to fill that hole. No rapper ever used cartoon samples like this before. No rapper ever plopped four skits into the middle of their album. It’s a primary source of raw, unfiltered brilliance. Jay Z’s engineer Young Guru called MM…Food a “modern day masterpiece.” It’s time everyone else recognize it as such.