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Sitting across from me at the Ramada Inn bar on Ninth and Market, the legendary MC Daniel Dumile -- aka Zevlove X, or MF Doom, or King Geedorah, or Victor Vaughn -- looks like a complete stranger. Although I've almost religiously followed Dumile's career as he has morphed into different personas -- from black radical to postmodern "super villain," then to alien invader, and on to rogue ladies' man -- I haven't seen a picture of him in nearly a decade. In every press photo, on each of his album covers, and at his infrequent concerts, Dumile wears a thick metal mask that obscures his face, leaving him austere and enigmatic.
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If Dumile leaps into different characters, constantly abandoning one identity for another, veiling any individual essence in favor of anonymity, then Los Angeles MC/producer/DJ Otis Jackson Jr. -- best known for his work as Madlib -- splits his personality into an ever-expanding cast in order to encompass his various moods, talents, and ideas. Whether jamming with Yesterday's New Quintet -- a jazz "band" made up entirely of Jackson's aliases -- or playing the part of Quasimoto, a helium-voiced hedonist whose primary occupation is smoking herb and "astro traveling," Jackson occupies a world where he exists amongst his various incarnations, a b-boy Brahma with a blunt dangling from each lip.
While the convergence of these two brands of schizophrenia on the just-released Madvillainy would seem to run the risk of being complete abstract pretense -- or just simply overcrowded -- the album creates a distinctly unique universe, one that resurrects and remolds 40 years of pop culture into a landscape where identity is fluid and time is out of joint. At times, the album sounds older than the old school, as in the exceptional "Accordion," featuring an accordion sample that wobbles somewhere beneath MF Doom's gravelly voice, which recalls the Delta blues as much as it does today's rappers. But then there are songs like "Shadows of Tomorrow," which sounds like an apocalyptic dirge made by an alien race.
Although the album is credited to MF Doom and Madlib, Quasimoto and Dumile's pseudo-suave Victor Vaughn make appearances as they're needed. Somehow, though, all of the narrative trickery and sonic juxtapositions eloquently create a self-contained empire where all of these various identities can exist in harmony. It isn't an easy feat, but Dumile and Jackson manage to pull it off by allowing their complementary -- though oftentimes contradictory -- creative processes to work naturally off one another. The result is the best hip hop album so far this year.
According to Dumile, his mask and reluctance to do press are not mere acts of defiance against the MTV generation. It's his way of identifying with his audience. "I'm a regular Joe with a potbelly, how all of us are," he says. "Doom represents everybody. Doom is [someone] that doesn't win all the time, he's the one who's gonna keep coming back." Throughout our conversation, Dumile refers to Doom in third person. This isn't an egomaniacal trick, but rather an acknowledgement that the personality generally associated with the man sitting across from me is only another character.
Still, one can't help but wonder if the guy who created Doom is shielding himself from an industry that he feels betrayed by. Formed in the late '80s with his brother Sub-Roc, while Dumile was still using the pseudonym Zevlove X, the duo K.M.D. first rose to national prominence on the strength of its 1990 single "Peach Fuzz." The group presented a jocular take on Afrocentric themes, and although the corresponding album was a success, clouds began to gather shortly afterward.
In 1993, Sub-Roc was killed in a car accident. Devastated by the tragedy, Dumile re-entered the studio to record Black Bastards, an album with much darker hues. With an unrelentingly raw aesthetic, that work dealt with themes such as drug addiction and poverty, and featured an album cover with Little Black Sambo -- a longtime symbol of racist bigotry -- being lynched. But in the aftermath of the "Cop Killer" controversy, in which Ice-T's rap-metal song drew the ire of Dan Quayle, K.M.D.'s record label, Elektra, wanted nothing to do with Black Bastards, shelving the album and dropping the act from its roster.
Still reeling from his brother's death, and watching his career quickly dissolve, Dumile retreated underground -- way, way underground -- and did not emerge again until 1999's near-classic Operation Doomsday, on which he was the newly crowned "Super Villain," i.e., MF Doom. Since then he's gone on to release two of last year's most critically acclaimed hip hop records, King Geedorah and Victor Vaughn, as well as a series of instrumental collections titled Special Blends Vol. 1-5.
While Dumile had to claw his way back into the spotlight, his collaborator for Madvillainy has been on a slow ascent for the last several years. Jackson initially came into the national focus in 1999 as the consummate b-boy Madlib, the producer/MC for underground group Lootpack. He next popped up on 2001's jazz/hip hop classic The Unseen as Quasimoto. To make matters more confusing, Madlib was listed as the producer of, and had guest spots on, that same album; it took months for a disbelieving public to catch wind of the trick. Jackson then went on to form Yesterday's New Quintet, which contains five different members who all play different instruments and who are all Jackson.
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