How one gifted rapper endured triumph and tragedy to discover his own complicated voice
By Brian Coleman
It’s not a radical thing to say that MF Doom is a pretty damned interesting MC. He is never-endingly engaging, hyper intelligent and his flow has an off-beat power and allure to it that is absolutely unique.
Doom is also a strange guy, no doubt. He was always a bit different. But unless you know his history, you can’t truly appreciate all of the treacherous avenues and wormholes he has traversed since his voice first wrenched its way out from behind that shiny, slightly dented mask in the mid-1990s.
MF Doom the character was born out of pain. Real pain. The pain of loss and the pain of rejection. Hiding behind that mask wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t an act. It was an alter-ego wrought out of necessity.
The world came crashing down on Daniel Dumile in the spring of 1993, four years after listeners first heard his voice on “Gas Face” wax—as another character, Zev Love X. A part of Daniel and Zev died in April that year, on the Long Island Expressway, along with his “Siamese twin” brother: Dingilizwe Dumile. Another part of him died a year later, at the hands of Elektra Records.
And so, here is the story of how Doom came to wear the mask, clawing his way back from the brink of either death or obscurity. Thankfully neither force claimed him two decades ago.
“After Doom got his check [from Elektra], he looked at it and said, ‘Yo, I should get dropped more often. This is more money than I’ve ever gotten in the music game.’ I know he must have been devastated, but he didn’t seem like it. He was almost Zen-like. I didn’t see him much after that.” ~Dante Ross
There are few releases in hip-hop history with as much mystery behind them as KMD’s second full-length, Black Bastards. The album, whose cover boldly depicted a cartoon “Sambo” being hanged, didn’t even receive the insult of being shelved or pushed back by Elektra Records upon its completion in 1994. Instead, it was outright refused, with very little above-board explanation as to the reason, or even much of an apology, as they ushered the group’s leader out the door.
And while the aftermath of Elektra’s decision caused the group’s only remaining member unimaginable distress, the album didn’t stay buried forever. Years later—much like the artist formerly known as Zev Love X, who would shed his old name, image and vocal style and emerge as MF Doom—the album would be resurrected and released on multiple labels.
But let’s start at the beginning. KMD—sometimes written “K.M.D.” but not always—was, at its core, two brothers: Daniel Dumile [Zev Love X, aka MF Doom] and the two-years-younger Dingilizwe Dumile [DJ Subroc, aka Raheem or Heem]. Their family moved around Manhattan and the outskirts of New York City growing up, although they spent most of their high school years in Long Island. Even though they were separated by two years, Doom says, “It always seemed like me and Sub was twins. Or it might have even seemed that he was older. Like his spirit was older.”
Doom, who was born in the U.K. shortly before his family moved to the U.S., says, “We grew up in a lot of places. We went to school in Manhattan and in Mt. Vernon [NY]. Every year we was in a different town. Manhattan was always the focal point, though, because we were either going to school there or cutting school to go there.”
Aside from Manhattan, one geographical locale that had significance to the Dumile brothers was Long Beach, NY—a town technically in Long Island, but just outside of the Queens borough line. Importantly for their musical career, it was also a stone’s throw from Far Rockaway, the home of 3rd Bass’ MC Serch. Doom says that they were firmly planted in Long Beach when he was in junior high and early high school, and they also kept roots there throughout the mid-‘90s.
In Doom’s mid-teens [Sub’s early-to-mid teens], the brothers were into graffiti as much as music, and the decision about their group name—instead of the larger ESP [“Every Sucka Pays”] crew with whom they were connected—flowed directly out of a can of Krylon. “With KMD, those three letters just sound great, the way they ring together in that order,” Doom explains. “When we first figured out the name, that’s all we wanted. Then we built it from there. It was really more of a graffiti crew at first. It just looks ill when you write it.”
He continues, “At first, it stood for ‘Kausin’ Much Damage.’ Then it was more like, ‘Kause in a Much Damaged Society.’ Like a positive cause [Author’s note: See the bottom of their 1991 single “Peachfuzz” as well as the upper left of their debut album Mr. Hood for the use of this phrase]. We used the letters to make sense of what we was trying to do, musically, at any given time.”
Similar logic went into the elder Dumile’s first stage name: Zev Love X. He explains, “I started with X and also liked Z and V. Then I added ‘Love’ in the middle. It was always about the illest combination of letters, and not many people used Z or V in graffiti back then. X always posed a question. In algebra, it was a mystery. And it also spelled out ‘X Evolvez,’ backwards.”
Although visuals and language consumed their young minds, they also went beyond graffiti and tags. “We started making actual music in about 1986, just hooking up double tape-decks,” Doom explains. “I used to DJ, too, but I always took hold of the vocal aspect. Subroc had more of the technical side sewed down.”
They also met a future rhyme partner, Onyx [Alonzo Hodge], around this time. He was a neighborhood acquaintance and appeared as a secondary MC on their first album, Mr. Hood, but he was not on Black Bastards. “He was my man from down the street,” Doom says. “He used to build and bug out with us back in ’86. Everyone else in our neighborhood wanted to have beef, and he was the only dude who would talk to us. We had the same views and ideas about life. He was in between me and Sub, age-wise.”
The last important piece to the KMD music puzzle came into play during the mid-to-late 80s as well, in Long Beach. Doom recalls, “I met [MC] Serch there around ‘85. Back then it was pretty basic: everybody didn’t rhyme like they do now. If you were an MC or did beats or were a DJ, there were only a few of you. So you stuck together, or eventually met each other. Serch used to do talent shows, I think I met him at one of those.”
“One day, probably in ‘88, Serch came through and was like, ‘Yo, I got a record deal,’” Doom continues. “He asked us if we wanted to be on a track.”
That track ended up being 3rd Bass’ smash single “The Gas Face,” which appeared in 1989 on Def Jam and featured Zev as a guest on vocals, alongside Serch and his 3rd Bass rhyme partner, Pete Nice. The entire song was, in fact, based on a term that Zev himself had coined. With the addition of being in the song’s video, he was quickly vaulted into the public eye, despite still being in high school.
Pete Nice, who would go on to co-manage KMD through the mid-90s, says, “Serch met the KMD guys before I did, through 3rd Bass’ dancers, Ahmed and Otis. They lived in Long Beach, too. They were all in the GYP, Get Yours Posse. Those guys [Zev and Subroc] were very young when ‘Gas Face’ was out. They were both at a lot of our sessions for The Cactus Album, and then they toured with us after the album came out. So it was definitely a family thing; they were like our little brothers. And they were like Siamese twins with each other. Zev and Sub were so connected.”
After the impact of “The Gas Face,” record labels were more than open to the idea of a KMD album. And while Zev was the leader, at least as far as most people could see, Subroc remained a strong, silent partner. “He was just quieter than me, I guess,” Doom says. “Subroc was usually the guy to fix tracks after I had left them half-done. He’d get it tight and set the pace. He was my partner in crime. And on the mic, he started coming with his MC shit right around the time of the first album [Mr. Hood, in 1991].”
Doom explains, “’Gas Face’ was the first thing that we had ever put out, but the KMD music we were working on was piling up. Even so, we weren’t necessarily looking for a deal.” Nonetheless, by late 1990 they had one, signed to Elektra by hip-hop A&R impresario Dante Ross—a man who already had an impressive history in the game, having worked at RUSH / Def Jam [with 3rd Bass, among many others] and Tommy Boy before landing at the major label. He would go on to sign some of the most influential rap acts of the early 90s, including Brand Nubian, Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Leaders of the New School.
During the first album, KMD was managed by Serch’s and Pete’s R.I.F. Productions. “It wasn’t a super serious company or anything,” Pete explains. “But we had a lot of connections in the industry, so we figured why not?” He explains that it wasn’t a tough sell to get Dante Ross to pick up KMD at Elektra, and the group’s initial advance was raised slightly by some interest shown by Def Jam during the shopping process.
“I first met Doom and Subroc when they were kids, really,” remembers Dante Ross. “Doom was in that post-teenage, almost-a-grown-up age, still young. And Subroc was a kid, honestly. They were both really endearing and charming. I met them through 3rd Bass, probably through Serch. They really were like twins, they were so close.”
He adds, “By the time I was at Elektra and building the label’s hip-hop roster, I got to know KMD even better. We dug each other as people, and I loved their music. I guess you could say that they were somewhere in between Brand Nubian and De La Soul [two artists with whom Ross had worked].”
“Honestly, we didn’t talk to anybody over at Elektra besides Dante,” recalls Doom. “He was a regular dude. He made beats, too, and he was open to the creative direction that we were going in back then. We had total creative control making that first album.” The song “Peachfuzz” was their first single, and the first time that Sub and Doom had ever been on wax under their own group name.
One of the people who helped KMD harness their musical ideas early-on was John Gamble, a friend of Dante Ross’ and a partner in the Stimulated Dummies production crew and studio, with Ross and Geeby Dajani. Gamble engineered the entire Mr. Hood album, which he says was initially made—over the course of four or five months—as a full album demo. These first recordings were completed at the Dummies’ SD50 Studio, located in the basement of the Westbeth artist’s building where Gamble lived. After that, with Elektra’s green-light, final album tracks were completed at Calliope Studios, after another two months of work.
Gamble says, of the Mr. Hood sessions: “At first, I had no idea how the stuff they were looping was going to make any sense. But then I saw the genius of those tracks, as I watched them unfold. They were truly on some next level shit, even at a young age. It was all mapped out in their heads.”
“Doom was much more verbal at first, Subroc didn’t talk much,” Gamble recalls. “Although Sub got to be more outgoing by the end of Mr. Hood. Sub was more of the technical guy. I seem to remember that, more often than not, it was Sub who had the records and ideas of what was going to be sampled. They also never really argued about anything, or even had conflicting ideas about the music. Maybe they had already had those discussions before I saw them, but I never heard them fight about anything. Those were the best and most fun sessions I have ever done, to this day.”
Doom explains what “Produced by KMD” meant back in the Mr. Hood era: “Me and Sub would do whatever we could do. It wasn’t necessarily sectioned off. It was really just for fun, in a lot of ways. I would dig in the crates, find the loops, and come up with a concept. Then, I’d usually get close to finishing it, but I’d be too lazy. I never liked messing with computers or programming drum machines and samplers. I left a lot of beats half-done. And Sub would come in and finish a lot of them. Onyx was only vocals, he didn’t fuck with the music at all. He added a lot of humor to what we were doing. His was an ill angle.”
He also points out that—in addition to behind-the-scenes production and technical work—Subroc started rhyming on Mr. Hood, notably on the song “Subroc’s Mission.” “That shit is retarded,” says Doom.
Mr. Hood came out in 1991 and featured three singles: “Peachfuzz,” “Nitty Gritty,” and “Who Me?”—album artwork and single covers showed a cartoon Sambo image, drawn by Doom. It was a startling and evocative graphic, and it would come back to haunt him less than three years later.
Mr. Hood was successful, at least for a debut album by an abstract-leaning trio who made catchy music, but whose lyrics were too complicated for cross-over smashes. “I thought the album was promoted well,” Doom recalls. “And the wreck [praise/sales] we caught off it was good enough wreck for me.” Most parties involved agree that the album sold in the neighborhood of 130,000 to 150,000 units.
“Mr. Hood actually drove me crazy, because they did the demo in our studio,” Ross says. “So I couldn’t even use my own spot for like three or four months. But besides that, I never liked the way that the record sounded. I thought the drums were funny on a lot of the tracks. There was a lot of ‘demo-itis’ on that record. Maybe they wanted it to sound lo-fi. Either way, there was a lot of innocence on that record, because the guys were pretty innocent back then.”
“Their image and lifestyle was definitely much different on the first album,” Pete Nice recalls. “They were both devout Muslims back then, in 1991. They were still kids. We would go on the road and they would have their prayer rugs during Ramadan. They didn’t drink or do any drugs.”
Despite Ross’ feelings about the sonics of the record, and with only moderate apprehension from Elektra higher-ups as a result of the sales numbers, Ross convinced the label to green-light a second album. He explains, “We didn’t recoup on the first record, so when it came time to talk about another one, the label wasn’t sure. I convinced them that they should, but they set the budget at $200,000, which was a lot less than Mr. Hood.”
KMD toured with 3rd Bass and other like-minded artists after the release of Mr. Hood, working on their follow-up album whenever they could for the next two years. “We were on the road a lot and we were always working on stuff,” Doom says. “We always had the [Akai] MPC with us. The road was the most fun shit and it was even better for working on music, because we were there with so many different musical minds.”
Doom and Sub had added new friends to their extended family during the Mr. Hood era. Most notably the Constipated Monkey crew, including vocalist Kurious, whom Doom met via 3rd Bass in 1989. “We had been down with them for a while,” Doom explains. “They were from Uptown and they had a similar thing going on to what we were doing. So we met up and joined forces, the way culture grows. It’s like plants. Kurious, Bobbito [Garcia], Tone Greer, those are my fams.”
Doom says that they started recording the follow-up to Mr. Hood, “Upstate, at Dr. York’s studio, where the photo on the back of [MF Doom’s] Operation Doomsday [from 1999, on Fondle ‘Em Records] was taken.” Dr. Malachi York is the controversial leader of the Nuwaubian / Nubian Islamic Hebrew Mission spiritual movement and the Holy Tabernacle Ministries. York and his ministry operated out of several locations starting in the late 60s, including Brooklyn, Liberty, NY (near the Catskills, about 90 miles from Manhattan), and, starting in 1993, rural Georgia.
In addition to being a religious and spiritual figurehead, Dr. York was also a recording artist, beginning in the early 80s. Doom and Sub had an association with him during their teenage years and, according to many accounts, followed his spiritual teachings. “Doom and Sub would go and visit Dr. York in Brooklyn on the weekends,” Ross recalls. “He had a lot of influence on them.”
Demo recording locations for KMD’s second album, which would be known as Black Bastards, included multiple spots: 4-track demos at home; MPC tryouts on the road; and hip-hop hotspots like Chung King and Calliope in Manhattan. Clearly the location wasn’t important, and inspiration came from just about everywhere. “Sometimes we would just start recording in a big studio, staying in there all day. Music would just come to us, chilling and digging in the crates,” Doom says.
As they began their sophomore effort, another musical collaborator entered the mix: engineer Rich Keller. A jazz bassist who first entered the hip-hop game engineering the Beatnuts at Chung King Studios a year or two earlier, he was brought into the Black Bastards project by Pete Nice. “I was there pretty much from the beginning of those sessions,” Keller says.
Although many people reasonably assumed that final tracks for the album were recorded at Chung King—since that is the only studio listed on the album’s sole single [“What A Niggy Know”]—Keller says that almost every song on the album was actually recorded at his home studio in Livonia, NJ.
“I had full set-up there,” he explains. “It was a well-known spot. Onyx [the Queens-based group, not the ex-KMD member], Run-DMC, and Wu-Tang would record there later on. I would always go to other studios to mix records, we only tracked music and vocals at my place. When KMD was recording, a lot of times they would just crash at my house, for days at a time. We worked very steadily on the album and were very productive over that winter, late 1992 into the spring of ’93. They came with the music in their samplers and we’d build the records. I helped with technical shit, and sometimes I’d play bass or a guitar lick to fill something in, to connect sections. But it was Doom and Sub who had all the ideas.”
“What impressed me about those guys more than anything was Doom’s passion,” Keller adds. “He lived the music, every song was a proclamation that he had to get out. I was inspired by his dedication to the music.”
Keller, who had just met the duo in 1992, has an interesting recollection about Subroc, who was clearly coming out of his shell by the Black Bastards era: “Subroc was different than Doom; he was more animated and outspoken. He acted more like the rapper of the group during our sessions. I know Doom was the main MC, but Subroc acted like he was. He had the machismo and had more attitude. Doom was more about the music and ‘the mission’ when I was with them.”
Doom describes the transition from Mr. Hood to what would become Black Bastards in the following way: “Mr. Hood was like all the ideas we had from 1986 through 1991, when I was 17 and Subroc was 15. We both grew up a lot between [when Doom was] 18 and 21, being on the road, and having a career in music. The truth doesn’t change, and we were dealing with the truth. The messages don’t change, they just sound different. Maybe our attitudes towards things, or towards women, changed. We both had children by the time that we were making Black Bastards, too.”
By Black Bastards, Subroc’s voice—which was quieter on Mr. Hood—appeared on multiple tracks, solo and duo, including “Gimme!” “It Sounded Like A Roc,” “Suspended Animation,” the single “What A Nigga Know” and the bonus track, “Q3 119.” He was 19 years old, and as an adult he started to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his older brother, becoming a more front-and-center part of the group.
Pete Nice agrees: “A major change with Black Bastards was Subroc coming to the forefront. He rhymed and did a lot more production. Sub was very involved with Mr. Hood, but he wasn’t heard as much. By Black Bastards, he had come into his own. He had a big influence on the sound. In fact, he was so quiet during Mr. Hood that it was surprising to hear him rhyme. He was still young, but his lyrics were strong. He and Doom built Black Bastards together.”
“I think a lot of the musical ideas on Black Bastards were Sub’s,” says Ross. “He was a boy genius, extremely insightful and intelligent. And there was an immense change with the guys in-between records, both as people and as artists. They were hanging out in the city a lot, often with the Constipated Monkeys, and they were experimenting with a lot of mind-altering drugs. Like, a lot of them. Even so, I still felt good about what might become of the record.”
Pete Nice also mentions the marked change in the Dumile brothers between albums: “They had been really devout and serious before. By the time they got to Black Bastards, they were still Muslims, but they were drinking 40s. And musically, things got more serious. Black Bastards was more dense with imagery and complexity. Mr. Hood was more straight-forward. They were becoming adults, and were also influenced by the developments of other groups they admired, like De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers. Doom had a pretty intense focus back in ’92 and ’93. I love both albums, but I like Black Bastards more. They were just getting better at what they were doing.”
When queried as to whether Black Bastards is an angry—or at least less innocent—album, Doom replies: “On Mr. Hood we did take a less aggressive approach. There was some of the same subject matter on Black Bastards, but we went at it a bit more aggressively. I guess you could say that. Either way, people had typecast us on Mr. Hood. To be honest, if I had wanted to come real angry with shit, I could have been much angrier than what you heard, considering what was going on in the world back then. There were still plenty of jokes and funny shit on Black Bastards, so I wouldn’t call it an angry album.”
One interesting side-note is Doom’s and Subroc’s obsession with one singular album, which was sampled multiple times on Black Bastards: ex-Last Poet Gylan Kain’s fiery, black power treatise The Blue Guerrilla [1970, Juggernaut Records]. “We used to listen to that album a lot, and it was ill,” Doom explains. “It matched a lot of funny stuff we was trying to say, and it helped us get our points across. That album was definitely an inspiration.”
Ross says that John Gamble hipped Doom and Sub to the album initially, and that they knew Kain’s son. Pete Nice was also aware of the Dumile brothers’ obsession with the album. “I think that their love for the Kain record helped make Black Bastards more intense,” he says. “Everything they were doing ended up having a double or triple meaning.”
After many recording locations, road miles and wild samples, Black Bastards was just about finished when an almost unthinkable tragedy struck. On April 23, 1993, Subroc was killed by an oncoming car as he was trying to cross the Long Island Expressway on foot. He was only 19 years old.
Still reeling from the tragedy two decades later, Doom recalls, “The album was almost completely done when he was killed. I had to finish off a couple things here and there, but it was really almost done. And the album was due, so I had to go right into it. I had no time. I had to just finish it.”
Keller agrees that the album was almost completed when Subroc died, and mentions that Doom was—understandably—in bad shape for some time afterwards, occasionally calling him or stopping by to borrow money, recording equipment or even pillows and bedding for his siblings. “He was trippin’ for a little while,” Keller says.
“I think some part of Doom was gone when Sub died,” says Ross. “Sub’s death, understandably, made Doom a very angry person.”
Pete recalls, “I remember that at Subroc’s wake, Doom set up a boombox right next to the casket and played pretty much the whole Black Bastards album. It was intense to hear it in that context.”
According to all accounts, Doom did not take excessive time to mourn. Even so, he worked slowly, finishing the album—which Keller says was mixed at Chung King and mastered at Masterdisk in Manhattan—by early 1994.
In April of ‘94, less than a year after Subroc’s tragic death, the first single, “What A Nigga Know [modified to “Niggy” for the radio version],” was released on Elektra. A video for the song was also shot and readied.
Advance cassettes for Black Bastards were circulated to press VIPs, and interviews for features about the album were completed with outlets including The Source and 4080, among others. The release date for the album was set and printed on Elektra marketing materials that were sent out to press and retail: May 3.
But, sadly, Subroc’s death turned out to be merely the first blow in a one-two punch that would force Doom into a deeper depression, and out of the public eye for several years.
“It was totally out of the blue,” Doom recalls. “‘What A Nigga Know’ was out and doing well, and we were at a session. We got a call from Elektra, they wanted to see us there at the office the next day for a meeting. I didn’t really think much about it, honestly.”
“We got there and they had the [cover] artwork proofs out on the table,” he continues. “There were a couple of people in the room, including one old dude I had never seen before. He was speaking on behalf of Elektra. It seemed like they had everything planned out already, like they knew how everything was going to end before we said anything. And they said they weren’t going to put the album out. They didn’t even want us to change the cover.” [Author’s note: The cover depicted their trademark Sambo character, this time being hung by a rope on a makeshift gallows]
This came as a huge shock not only to Doom, but also to Dante Ross, who had been KMD’s biggest booster at Elektra since day one. “The album got mastered and turned in, and the artwork had gone through the Elektra system,” Ross recalls. “No one had ever questioned it. Then, all of a sudden the artwork got leaked to Terri Rossi at Billboard. At the time, a lot of older, bougie black people weren’t feeling hip-hop. I’d put her [Rossi] in the same bag with C. Delores Tucker or Dionne Warwick. She just didn’t get it.”
Ross continues his recollection of why the Elektra meeting had come about: “Terri Rossi rallied against the album and she never even listened to it [Author’s note: Rossi’s anti-KMD article, from February or March 1994, was technically in her “R&B Rhythms” column in the Airplay Monitor, a Billboard spin-off newsletter]. She never asked Doom what the album or artwork was about. He was never allowed to explain it, or defend himself.”
It’s somewhat understandable that Rossi would be more reactionary against, and out-of-touch with, hip-hop, as she was chiefly an R&B writer. But hers was not a lone, dissenting voice. Havelock Nelson, Billboard’s hip-hop columnist at the time, also spoke out against KMD’s use of the “N-Word” and the Sambo graphic as it pertained to their single. In the April 16, 1994 issue of the magazine, he stated, “Regardless of what the group was attempting to achieve with this imagery and the term, many in the black community will find them offensive. It’s inexcusable that the executives at Elektra allowed these images to slip through.”
“We had used that Sambo character before, on Mr. Hood graphics,” Doom explains [Author’s note: The group had, in fact, used the image—sans gallows—as far back as 1989]. “It was kind of like our logo, our mascot. We were about deading [getting rid of] the whole stereotype thing. It was a mockery of a mockery. And we took it to the next level on Black Bastards, by hanging the dude. But minds were just closed. It had to be more than the cover [when it came to Elektra not being pleased] because then we asked what if we changed it, and they weren’t hearing it. I guess what we were doing was going to make waves in places where they had financial interests.”
The Sambo character was drawn by Doom, who was a talented artist in addition to his lyrical and production skills. Sub may have had a hand in it as well. “Doom generally did all the artwork for KMD, like the Sambo character,” Ross says. “And I think Sub might have helped with some of what appeared on the Black Bastards cover. They had a symbiotic relationship, even with the artwork.”
“My boss, Bob Krasnow, understood what Doom was doing [with the cover] after I explained it to him,” Ross continues. “But Bob was in no position to help us, because of some internal politics over there. He ended up getting fired less than a year later.”
Ross says that a meeting was even set up at one point with some of the powers-that-be at Elektra and WEA—including Sylvia Rhone, Vincent Davis and even Terri Rossi—but it was cancelled at the last minute. Seeing no other good option, Ross says he convinced Krasnow to release Doom from his Elektra contract, give him his master tapes, and some “walking money” for his trouble.
According to Doom, Ross and Pete Nice, the album had cost somewhere around its $200,000 budget to complete, including sample clearances and the video for “What A Nigga Know,” which was never released. And now, for better or worse, Doom had it all tucked under his arm, on his way out of the Elektra Records doors.
“They were like, ‘We’d rather you just keep the album,’” Doom says. “I would have changed the cover at the time, but I’m glad I didn’t. The whole jewel of that album is based on the cover.”
Clearly, the 1992 Ice-T and Body Count “Cop Killer” controversy had rattled Elektra, and they were willing to take a significant loss rather than put out the album. “This was all definitely tied in to the Body Count fiasco, and they gave Ice-T his masters back in that case, too,” Ross explains. “Basically, I think Elektra knew that the [KMD] album wasn’t going to be a huge hit, and they didn’t want black people mad at them, in the community and at the company. So they figured they should just cut their losses.”
“It wasn’t just the cover,” says Pete Nice. “And it was definitely a direct result of the ‘Cop Killer’ stuff, not anything else. I mean, the record was called Black Bastards, the single was ‘What A Nigga Know.’ Unfortunately, everything added up against them being on Elektra. And it wasn’t Dante’s fault at all, either, he did everything he could.”
To make things official, Elektra released a statement which appeared in The Source magazine’s “Weekly Word” newsletter on April 8, 1994. Attributed to “Bob Krasnow, chairman of Elektra Entertainment,” it read, “The groundswell of reaction produced by the cover imagery of KMD’s new album has exacerbated existing concern within Elektra, and the decision has been made that it was best that the record be taken in its intended form elsewhere.”
And so, with another tragic occurrence under his belt within a year’s time, Doom walked off into the sunset. “The album advances were sent out to a lot of people, they were out there,” Ross says. “And the single had already been out. So lots of people in the industry had it, and liked it. But the final album never got pressed.”
Despite now having the album under his control, things weren’t looking anywhere near up for Doom. He was, of course, still reeling from his brother’s death. And now he had a blacklisted album to try and sell to another label.
“It was a dead album, everybody was scared of it,” Doom recalls. “We shopped it and everybody shot it down. Believe me, I would have wanted something to do with the business if the business wanted anything to do with me back then. It just seemed that, all of a sudden, motherfuckers didn’t want to fuck with me anymore.”
“As soon as we got the record back from Elektra, I immediately tried to get it on Sony,” Pete Nice says. “Kurious was on the label, so I already had that connection. And they passed on it. That record just had a black mark on it after all the controversy. At that point, Doom kind of disappeared, which was understandable.”
Doom faded from view for a couple years, moving from New York to Georgia. It was there that his MF Doom persona began to take shape, in private. By 1995, Doom’s old friend Kurious suggested that he approach radio impresario, artist manager and journalist Bobbito Garcia to release some of the new, non-KMD material he had been building, on Garcia’s ultra-indie label Fondle ‘Em Records.
The first MF Doom single, “Dead Bent,” [with “Gas Drawls” and “Hey!”] was one of Fondle ‘Em’s earliest releases, and garnered attention in the now-churning underground hip-hop scene emanating out of New York City. It bolstered Doom as he embraced a new era of music-making.
“I think Doom enjoyed putting out stuff the way we did it, with no politics or any of that,” recalls Garcia. “No record sleeves, no CDs. Just put the record out and it will speak for itself.”
As he continued to release intermittent singles on Fondle ‘Em as MF Doom from 1996 until the end of the decade, the former Zev Love X decided that it would also be a good time to finally revisit Black Bastards. By 1999, he had released three KMD-related platters: the Black Bastards Ruffs + Rares EP [which included four album songs, plus the song “Popcorn”]; the “What A Nigga Know” / “Constipated Monkey” single; and “It Sounded Like a Roc,” featuring the late Subroc on lead vocal.
Garcia says, “Once people were hearing the Doom stuff, he told me that he owned the masters to the KMD album 100%. So I was definitely down. He selected all the tracks he wanted to put on those singles, I wasn’t involved with any of those decisions.”
Interestingly, Bobbito says that the KMD releases didn’t sell as well as Doom’s “Dead Bent” single, despite the fact that KMD had been a known, major label entity earlier in the decade. On the full-length releases front, Doom’s non-KMD work also led the way: in 1999, he released Operation Doomsday [as MF Doom, also on Fondle ‘Em] to much acclaim in the indie hip-hop world.
In 2000, Doom finally released the full KMD Black Bastards album, rejected artwork and all: first on the California-based Readyrock label; and then a year later on his own Metal Face Records [via Sub Verse], with two extra tracks. The 2000s cover had been slightly modified from the 1994 version, but not in any significant way.
Doom describes those years in the late 1990s: “I went from real pain to being ultra-broke, and then back up.” His new MF Doom persona was a rebirth for the rapper formerly known as Zev Love X: still witty and ultra-charismatic, but now with a choppier lyrical attack that was perhaps even more abstract than his previous incarnation. That and the fact that—although the world had seen him many times in videos and promo shots—he now wore a metal mask, seemingly 24/7, on-stage and off.
“The way things go is the way things are supposed to go,” Doom says, looking back. “I try and go with the flow and see what’s good with it. You can always find some things in any situation that are to your benefit.”
And Doom says, looking back on those days with his dearly-departed brother Subroc: “Black Bastards was a dope album and it feels right that it finally came out, no matter how that happened. I look at it now and say, ‘OK, I definitely see what we was trying to do.’ I just wish more people would have seen the same thing back then.”
“With that whole album, I was always impressed with the music they drew from to sample,” says Rich Keller. “It was traditional, real music. It was deeper than a lot of their peers. Working on that album was like working with a great jazz band.”
Pete Nice muses, “As it ended up, you really couldn’t forecast a worse disaster for an artist or a group than what happened to KMD. If Black Bastards had come out in 1994, I think it would have been a huge underground classic. KMD always had the potential to hit the level of A Tribe Called Quest, they just never quite got there. They were still so young, even when Black Bastards hit, they had so much more to accomplish. I think the record would have definitely done Brand Nubian and Leaders of the New School numbers, which were more than acceptable to any label in that era.”
“When I listen to Black Bastards today, I think it’s amazing: insightful, expressive and just great,” says Dante Ross. “It’s very complicated, too, since the frustration of Doom’s life is on that record. In a lot of ways, his innocence was gone. But it was the shining moment of KMD. Doom was a better rapper, the beats were 100 times better, the mixes were better. His vocals were so much tighter, he knew his pocket and his style was so much better. I just think that those guys had stepped up their game 100 percent. There was a good feeling about it with people who heard it when it was finished back then. I would say that, aside from Large Professor’s record [The LP, recorded for Geffen in 1996, and not released until 2009], Black Bastards is probably the greatest lost hip-hop record of all time.”
MF Doom aka Zev Love X: That’s got all those movie samples on it. We really got that style from listening to the radio, especially WHBI 105.9, the World’s Famous Supreme Team Show [from the early ‘80s]. Just Allah [aka Jazzy Just] the Superstar and Se’Divine the Mastermind were the DJs. They had a section of the show where they’d play beats and would put shit that sounded like Monty Python behind the records. Ever since we heard that, we would do a similar type of thing. That track was Subroc’s idea, he put that whole thing together. It was movie pieces from the ‘60s and shit like that. They had a different style of speakin’ in those days. Sub did the beat and all the vocal samples. He just happened to stay up all night one time and recorded most of those movie things used on there. It was like, “Watch cable all night, keep the DAT player recording, and catch all the illest lines.” Then we stayed up all night the next night just cutting ‘em up. The “It’s not the three of us anymore” part on there is a reference to how Onyx wasn’t on the album.
Dante Ross: We never cleared any of those movie snippets, or even that Jody Watley joint [“Looking For A New Love,” sampled on the single “What A Nigga Know”] [laughs].
Doom: That was me talkin’ about if you was real, real broke, what extreme would you go to? How far would you go, with the heat? Robbing people, just to eat. It’s a real extreme song, about how wild it can get.
Pete Nice: That and “Suspended Animation” are my two favorite tracks on the album. Those guys had a lot of pent-up anger, and it came out on a track like that.
Ross: That was the first and only single off the album. There was a video, but that got pulled pretty quick. I don’t remember it being stunning, but it was pretty cool. That’s definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album. We [Elektra] didn’t pull the single from retail once the album got dropped, we just stopped promoting it.
Doom: That preacher type of thing at the beginning was Gylan Kain. Subroc was using his Dead Roach alias on his verse there. He used that alias a lot, but not really on any records. That was out before the Elektra shit happened, I think they had pressed about 20,000 copies. We even did a video for it. That was a filtered bassline, Sub was using that technique a lot. A lot of those were sampled notes, played in a certain order. We made a video for that song. It was real ill. I know I got a copy of it somewhere.
Pete: We had to change the title of the single to “Niggy,” or that would have never made it out. That was the only single that we had figured out up until that point. I’m not sure what would have been next.
Pete: A song like that would have definitely never been on Mr. Hood! They weren’t drinking back during the first album.
Doom: That’s one of my two favorite tracks on the album, and that would have definitely been our second single, if we had ever gotten the chance. We already had it planned out. I was drinking a lot of Manischewitz wine back then. White Concord grape stuff. At the time, let me tell you, it was a stressful situation, and that’s when niggas started drinking. It was a fun drinking time back then. But eventually, you slow down. When we was on the road, half of us would be drinkin’, half of us would be against it. But that wine came in handy sometimes.
Ross: I’d always have these bottles of wine in my office and Doom would just come in and drink them. I didn’t even drink wine, so I didn’t care.
Doom: If you listen to the end of that version, there’s a recording of a girl, and she’s sayin’, “you’re so goddamn stupid!” So I picked words [for my verse] that made sense, but still rhymed with what she said. “Loose Hoe” was a reference to her. God, that’s me. And Cupid came in between and got me fuckin’ with a loose type of woman. “Peachfuzz” [from Mr. Hood] was about how girls see the guys, and “Plumskinzz” was more about how we see them. Like fruits, like succulent plums, all rounded when they get ripe.
Ross: That was the first demo I heard from them off Black Bastards. I think they wanted to play me the song they thought was a hit. Eric B. & Rakim used that same loop later on, for “Know The Ledge.” Nice of them to take a song that never came out! That’s a Pharoah Sanders loop.
“Smokin’ That Shit”
[featuring Kurious, Earthquake and Lord Sear]
Bobbito Garcia: We used to play that song on my show [“The Stretch & Bobbito Show,” on WKCR], because it had Kurious and Sear on it and those were my boys, too. That song is hilarious. I love Sear’s banter at the end.
Ross: Lord Sear [now a popular radio host on Shade 45] was a little less crazy back then, but he was still as funny. Jorge [Kurious] was the leader of the gang they all hung with, with Zev [Doom]. Grimm was the more street dude, and he led Doom down that road a bit. Those guys were all very heavily into psychedelic drugs, and… I dunno, some of that shit might have contributed to Sub’s death. Sub had a bad acid trip a few months before he died, and was pretty spaced out at that time.
Doom: That was Earthquake and them on that. I don’t know what happened to that dude. Quake was from Freeport, Long Island. We tried to do for Quake what Serch did for us. I met Lord Sear uptown, through Kurious. Sear was Kurious’ DJ.
Pete: They were always hanging out with [Kurious] Jorge during that era, they were very close. And Cage, too, they spent a lot of time together. Especially Subroc. Earthquake was another kid from Long Island in the crew. Jorge was definitely the leader of the Constipated Monkeys, he was a big influence on those guys. He and Doom were always together.
Doom: That was a totally true story. We was on tour, in Cali. The album is kind of our initiation into manhood. “Sweet Premium Wine” was when we was just starting to drink. “Blitt” is when we first started to get introduced to smokin’ weed.
Doom: I think that’s my favorite track, that’s my shit. Some Subroc solo shit.
[Author’s note: Originally titled “Black Bastards And Bitches,” on the advance cassette]
Doom: More or less, that was about identity, and how people have problems with whether they’re black or they’re white. There’s always a black or white issue. That song is about the whole color thing and about how it’s not such a big deal. It really don’t make no difference. It was also about how a lot of white MCs were coming out of the blue at the time. Like, “Now you’re on TV so you can rhyme, all of a sudden!” There was this guy Parker Lewis, I talk about him on there. That was a true story, it happened at Ed Lover’s birthday party. He was so wack, I had to put it in there. [Doom continues to go off on him for a while…] At the party, they applauded him because he was on TV. We take this game for real, though. Cats eat off this game.
Ross: That was a really great song.
Doom: Between that and Subroc’s thing on “Gimme!” I don’t know which one is iller. They’re both so well-written. That’s some solid shit, it could come out today and still be dope. Sub started coming with his MC shit around the time of the first album. He had a solo joint on there called “The Mission” [“Subroc’s Mission”] that was retarded.
Pete: That was Subroc’s solo joint. They both did the music.
Ross: Sub did most of that one. That song is definitely sentimental to me.
Ross: When I heard that, I knew those guys were onto something. Although I thought the first version that was on the album was better.
“Constipated Monkey” [co-produced by Q4]
Ross: Q4 was their man from Long Island.
Doom: That’s the last song I laid down vocals for on the album, after Subroc was killed. My other brother Dim is two years younger than Sub [therefore four years younger than Doom], he found the drums for that song. For years he’d say, “You know I found those drums, you gotta give me co-production credit!” That “constipated monkey” sample was another one off the [Gylan Kain] Blue Guerrilla album. Constipated Monkey was our crew. It was a vast crew, but we always stuck together. All the drums on the album are sampled or programmed, but if they’re programmed, it’s to mimic the sound of real drums. The only live instrumentation on the album was on that song, my cousin Brian [Thompson] played the bassline.
“Fuck Wit’ Ya Head!!” [featuring Hard 2 Obtain]
Doom: That was with H2O [Hard 2 Obtain] and CMOB, they were my boys from Long Island. They had an album out, I forget the label [Atlantic Records, 1994, with several songs produced by Dante Ross’ Stimulated Dummies crew]. That song was to show how versatile we were, beat-wise and lyrically. That T La Rock “It’s Yours” sample was the basis for the song, because it was true. Some musical rhythms can fuck with your head. Different sounds affect the body in different ways.
Pete: That was my shit back then, because it was Subroc’s first full effort at rhyming on a track. The atmosphere on that song is just so surreal. I still remember being at Subroc’s wake with the album playing, and that song really moved me more than anything else.
Doom: That poem was another Kain sample. I used to listen to that album so much, for real. I was trying to figure out what he meant: “Casting shadows over the sun.” If you’re higher than the sun, you’re real high. So I made it all about trees.
“What A Nigga Know? (Remix)”
[featuring MF Grimm]
Ross: I think Doom did that because he just wanted Grimm on a song, to change it up. Grimm started fuckin’ with them between the first and second albums.
Doom: That remix was done after the rest of the album was recorded, but before I mastered the album. The day after we did that song, Grimm got shot up [and was paralyzed]. He was standing up when he did that track, and the next day he got shot. A friend of mine, Jay, who was at that session, he got killed that same day. We released that as the B-side of the original single.
[Note: B-side, with slightly different title, on Elektra’s “What A Niggy Know” single from 1994; not on 2000 ReadyRock album; Originally listed as “Untitled” on 2001 Metal Face / Sub Verse CD]
Doom: That was actually called “Q3 119.” That was another one of Subroc’s names, his aliases, and that’s some of his freestyle solo shit. I don’t know what that means, he named it. I never got a chance to ask him…
[From Fondle ‘Em Black Bastards Ruffs + Rares EP, not on other versions of Black Bastards]
Doom: That was a Mr. Hood-style track, but it was done after the album was out. And then it was too early for Black Bastards, so it didn’t make it there. It was kind of in between.
Excerpted from Check The Technique Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies by Brian Coleman. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Coleman. First American Edition 2014. With permission of the publisher, Wax Facts Press. All rights reserved.
For more information, visit: www.WaxFactsPress.com