MF DOOM’s ‘Operation: Doomsday’ is the Blueprint for Independent Hip-Hop
In the face of great loss, rapper Daniel Dumile perfected a formula. His brother Dingilizwe “DJ Subroc” Dumile was fatally struck by a car in the same week that label Elektra Records dropped the brothers’ burgeoning group K.M.D. from its roster. In spite of these setbacks, Dumile, now known as MF DOOM, crafted his way to hip-hop gold and took the world of independent rap by storm. The byproduct of his tireless work was 1999’s Operation: Doomsday, a 19-track force of blunt rhymes and inventive samples.
Operation: Doomsday is a confluence of personal interest, tragedy and madcap creativity. With its dusty cartoon samples, DOOM’s penchant for anonymity, his stream-of-consciousness flows and reliance on self-production, the album also doubles as a blueprint for all of independent rap, one that has inspired many over the course of the past two decades.
To celebrate the album’s twentieth birthday, we’ve broken down the four essential elements of the album. Each element drives Operation: Doomsday, but better yet, these elements serve to inform indie rap artists the world over.
Dusty Cartoon Samples
DOOM laces the entirety of Operation: Doomsday with samples from the cartoons that inspired his comic book persona. For instance: the opening moments of the album are ceded to a vocal clip from the 1967 Fantastic Four cartoon. What follows is “DOOM” calling into the conversation via telephone: “Hold your insulting tongue and mark my words well: I’ve plotted my revenge on you and I shall have it. Say farewell to your friends!” —“The Time We Faced Doom”
From the onset of the record, DOOM drew an obvious line between comic book culture and rap music. This connection is strengthened by skits spread across the album and whimsical lyrical allusions to the tragic origins of Marvel Comics character Doctor Doom (“Back In The Days,” “The Hands of Doom”). Moreover, the samples are a direct line to DOOM’s emotional trauma and self-imposed exile, and they set up a tradition of rappers using samples to speak on their behalf. Fans praise indie rap for being self-effacing, and we can thank DOOM’s sample use and creative weaving of dark subject matter as a source of inspiration.
With that, it’s also easy to draw lines between Operation: Doomsday’s comic book fascination and the amorphous lo-fi movement. Lo-fi, as the name implies, is a musical tradition born of looping low fidelity records meant to soothe and challenge the ear, much like DOOM’s music. One cursory click on any random lo-fi YouTube live stream is sure to unearth any number of video game, comic book and even vintage hip-hop references from within its sobering beats. We have Doomsday to thank for lo-fi’s fascination with the comic book world.
One artist who’s taken these lessons to heart is New York rapper Sammus. Her 2016 album Pieces In Space proved that she’s one of the more thoughtful members of the comic/video game-loving nerdcore hip-hop community. She dissects the comic book industry’s sexism to reiterate that “Black girls wanna have a hero, too” (“Perfect, Dark”) and uses hi-definition video game settings to explain overcoming depression (“1080p”). Her knotty word games and pop culture references are the sugar sweetening the very public act of healing on record.
In other words, Sammus has recoded the formula DOOM popularized to meet her more introspective ends, bushwhacking space for black women in a male-dominated scene in the process.
Operation: Doomsday is a masterclass in balancing the personal and private on record. There is no one overwrought moment on Doomsday, although DOOM has plenty of reasons to drown in his emotions. Instead, tributes to DOOM’s late brother are scattered throughout the project, particularly on the last four bars of “?”:
“The ‘SUBROC’ three-finger ring with the ruby in the ‘O,’ ock / Truly the illest 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.”
Instead of unfeeling, this brief tribute is a reminder that DOOM only wants you to know so much about Dumile. Between the obtuseness of the mask and the imposters he occasionally sends to shows, MF DOOM is endowed with agency. DOOM is in complete control of his narrative, a source of power for independent artists looking to make their mark on the rap game.
In that vein, we can look at an artist like Brooklyn rapper Leikeli47, who dons a mask and relies on her wordplay and the imagery she conjures to tell a complete story of who she is. Although she is more open than MF DOOM, she credits him for teaching her that a mask is a powerful tool. 47, much like DOOM, is in complete control of how much the public knows about her identity, and that power and agency is something Doomsday and DOOM himself have imparted on a generation of rising stars.
What we love most about MF DOOM is his ability to seam the incohesive into something that just sounds dope. We come to DOOM for the bars, we stay for the bars, and two decades later, we still cannot get enough of his bars.
“Rhymes is chosen like the weapons of war / So keep from steppin’ on my floor or delivery front door / I bring it to y’all motherfuckers, master yours / My disaster cause: Hell, in gas drawls” —MF DOOM, “Gas Drawls”
DOOM’s word association is grounded with tongue placed firmly in metal cheek; at their best, his bars make for some of the most abstract rapping available on streaming. At the heart of Doomsday is a unique knack for pop culture references and free-form lyricism, both of which can currently be felt in every corner of the rap game: Denzel Curry, MIKE, milo, billy woods, the list goes on. Even Lil B recorded a freestyle tape as a tribute to DOOM, titled MF Based. Making disparate words sound cool is much harder than it sounds, but DOOM’s best efforts have inspired a generation to trip their way through the thesaurus.
Producing For Yourself
DOOM knew not to trust others with what he could very well do himself. He made beats as a member of early ‘90s rap group K.M.D. and carried on that tradition into his solo career. That one-man synergy is on full display throughout Operation: Doomsday, with all but one track self-produced.
A good producer knows where to slot space for a rapper to ride a beat, and DOOM is well aware of what grooves make his voice penetrate through speakers. He rigidly arranges fuzzy drums and samples on tracks like “Doomsday” and “Rhymes Like Dimes” so that he can play vocal hopscotch with them. It’s even more impressive when guests come into play. Consider the finesse of DOOM juggling different flows to dizzying effect on a track like “The Finest” with Tommy Gunn.
This self-sustaining ethos has rubbed off on many. You can see its effects on genre stars both large (J. Cole, Russ) and small (Roc Marciano, JPEGMAFIA), putting their voices before all else in their art. As more upcoming artists learn the ropes of the MPC on their path to hip-hop stardom, we can look back on MF DOOM as a bellwether for the rapper-producer institution.
Twenty years on, we celebrate DOOM for all facets of his work and influence. In the face of tragedy, DOOM re-infiltrated the rap game on his terms. He crafted an album that was timeless from the first playthrough, with no final play in sight. His self-reliance and irreverence for traditional genre and media conventions made him into a stalwart of independent triumph. Operation: Doomsday stands as a testament to the power of betting on yourself against all odds.
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