"I always look for a way to come up with the most different style," Dumile says when explaining his multiple personalities. "I really just strip it down to the bare essentials -- the beats and the rhymes. If those two are on point, then the rest of the parameters can be whatever."
MF Doom's notoriety has translated into underground success that's led to his appearance in numerous cameos on other artists' records. Everyone seems to want to work with him or one of his characters. Back in 1985, though, before he was such a hot commodity, Dumile was a member of KMD, which he co-founded with his younger brother, Subroc; it began as a graffiti and breakdancing crew and evolved into a full-fledged rap outfit. The duo made its debut on 3rd Bass's hit single "Gas Face" in 1989.
"Gradually, we got more into the production and emceeing, making demos and stuff, and we just kind of kept the name KMD for the music-group part of it," Dumile recalls. "We dropped the first album in 1991, Mr. Hood, on Elektra. You know, it was experimental, like all our stuff is -- you know, real different from, like, anything else that's out. It made its mark, that classic mark in the game."
Mr. Hood spawned hit singles and videos for "Who Me?" and "Peachfuzz," both of which were in heavy rotation on BET's Rap City and on Yo! MTV Raps. Dumile, or Zevlove X, as he was known then, and Subroc entered the rap game at the cusp of the golden age of hip-hop. Groups like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Poor Righteous Teachers were at the peak of their popularity, releasing virtuous tracks as opposed to the boastful, fat-gold-chain rhyming of Slick Rick, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane.
"It was truly that ol' time-of-your-life type of vibe," Dumile recounts. "Especially during that time in hip-hop, it was a real cool time with De La; Tribe was coming out; all that fun music was out, so we kind of like were into that. It's still kind of like how I do things."
Once the touring and hoopla surrounding Mr. Hood died down, KMD went back to the studio to begin work on its sophomore album, Black Bastards. Midway through recording the album, tragedy struck when Subroc was killed in a car accident.
"I still had to finish up the album, and it was a real weird time," says Dumile. "It was real stressful, but I still busted it out. And then when I turned the album in and they didn't want to put it out, it was like a double whammy. But I'm like, you can't keep a good man down -- it can only make a brother stronger."
Dumile is referring to Elektra Records, which shelved Bastards in 1993. The imprint reportedly thought the album's cover, an image of a Little Black Sambo-type character being hung, was too controversial for release. Luckily, Dumile owned the rights to the album and left the label.
For the next five or so years, Dumile began to create the persona of MF Doom -- a hip-hop villain seeking revenge for being scorned by the industry after the loss of his brother.
"MF Doom was partly due to my experience in the game," Dumile explains. "I saw the game go from a real pure state to real tainted. There was a lot of focus on gimmicks and what you look like, the chain you got on, how long the chain is and what kind of material it's made out of -- you know, it had nothing to do with the music. So I was trying to figure out: How can I re-enter and still have a strong foothold, where it's not the same ol' stuff that everybody's hearing?
"I was looking at it from an angle like the villain," he adds. "The villain always comes back as the one who got scarred, so it kind of fit on how everything was kind of happening anyway. So I resurrected that ol' classic villain theme and applied it to the game."
MF Doom first appeared in the late '90s. Doom would show up at open-mike nights and rap battles clad in a ski mask to hide his true identity. And when Doom finally put his voice to wax in 1997 on a trio of singles -- "Dead Bent," "Gas Drawls" and "Hey," released by Fondle 'Em Records -- the buzz in the underground was deafening. Two years later, Dumile self-released Doom's debut album, Operation: Doomsday, a throwback to the comic books of the '50s and '60s in which the villains wreaked the most havoc.
"That album must have taken four years to make," Dumile notes. "It was little by little, mostly due to the fact that I didn't have the access to the equipment that I used to have. Sometimes I went a year without having any equipment. It was all about writing, and maybe I'd write down notes on how to do the beat when I get the equipment."
By 2001, Doomsday's appeal was so massive that Dumile ended up inking a deal with the indie imprint Subverse Music, and he re-released the album. KMD's Black Bastards also saw the light of day shortly thereafter. From that point on, Dumile's productivity only increased. He's released Take Me to Your Leader as King Geedorah; Venomous Villain as Viktor Vaughn; Escape From Monster Island as King Ghidra, a member of the nine-man Monsta Island Crew; and Madvillainy as half of Madvillain -- with producer Madlib, it's his most lauded project to date.
On top of all that, in addition to an eight-volume collection of instrumental albums called Special Herbs, MF Doom just dropped another disc, MMFood. Picking up where Operation: Doomsday left off, Doom's beats and rhymes are even more villainous.
"When it comes down to it, beats and rhymes are what matters," Dumile says. "I just put a different twist to it and the hip-hop game."
With new recordings by Madvillain, King Ghidra, Zevlove X and KMD in the works, Dumile should have more than enough to keep him from getting bored.