“Madvillainy” and the Importance of Being Weird

On my walk home from work on New Year’s Eve, I noticed the local casino had spelled out a message in the windows from their hotel. Seeing that it was a nice night weather-wise, I decided to put in a few more steps and walk over to get a closer glimpse. I’m not saying anything out of line when I write that this year has been rough to downright awful for most people, so the sight of a billion-dollar building displaying the phrase CHEERS 2021 in the windows was enough for me to take a seat at a bench and take pause.

Not going to lie, I pulled out a beer from my bag and cracked it open while I sat. We survived.

What started off as quiet moment of reflection was halted by the incessant need to check my phone. Might as well snap a picture of the monolithic casino’s message, you know? Before I put my phone back in my pocket, I decided to check social media to see how the rest of the world were ringing in 2021. While scrolling, I quickly noticed that a good amount of posts were pictures of rapper MF DOOM. 

Nowadays, any time that happens you can kind of expect the worst. And it was the worst.

Damn.

It was announced on the last day of 2020, that MF DOOM had left the physical world in October. Despite the initial shock, I took a bit of amusement learning that. It felt on brand for him to announce his passing like that.

He went out on his own terms. Just like how he lived his life. On the remaining walk back home, I fired up Madvillainy and somberly thanked him for his work.

Daniel Dumile carved out his own path and revolutionized a genre by donning a metal mask and taking on the traits of an enigmatic super villain, representing the underground and the anti-establishment. Dumile’s altar-egos included King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn, Zev Love X, amongst others, but the most well known character was MF DOOM (or DOOM – all caps when you spell the man name).

While the villain persona and metal mask made a statement, but DOOM made his mark with incredibly intricate rhyme schemes showcasing a wealth of words, phrases, and references, all with an undercurrent of absurdist humor. Backing his lyrics were backdrops of samples and beats that took the listener to another world.

My first encounter with MF DOOM was The Mouse and the Mask, his DANGERDOOM project with producer Danger Mouse. The Mouse and the Mask was heavily filled with samples, characters, and was endorsed by Adult Swim. The album was essentially a cartoon playing out in your ears. Even if you weren’t a particular fan of those shows or that style of animation, there were plenty of gems that were musically undeniable and withstood the test of time (“Benzie Box”, “Old School”).

Now that I had an appetite for any and all things DOOM, I found myself in the possession of arguably his greatest work. Partnering with Madlib to form Madvillain, the duo released Madvillainy in 2004, forever changing the landscape and molding the future of the genre. Not exactly a concept album, Madvillainy still plays as an origin story of sorts for DOOM. Like a comic book sprung to life. 

DOOM’s unorthodox flows playing off an equally bouncy beat and jazzy instrumentation will remain a feat that a very select few would be able to pull off. It comes off like all the elements in play are not cooperating off each other, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most tracks on Madvilliany are dizzying and at times assertive, but they are all necessary to the overall story that the album tells.

The bubbling “Meat Grinder” set the pace and grooves along while songs like “Bistro”, “Raid” and “Curls” sound like a radio drama struck by lightning. It’s easy to declare “All Caps” as the definitive Madvillain origin story, and you’d be correct, but for me it doesn’t get any better than “Accordion”. A rarity of beautiful melancholy with a simple hip-hop beat that is equally haunting and moving. It feels as though DOOM is reluctant to wear the mask and pursue the life of a villain. The fabulous use of sampling an accordion makes the track feel timeless.

Speaking of sampling, it was a point of passion for MF DOOM. Throughout his career, DOOM would release Special Herbs – EPs of instrumentals named after ingredients. It would be a highlight to recognize a sample that DOOM would use on these tracks. “Mandrake” lifts the unmistakable hook from the Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” and “Myrrh”, later morphing into “Deep Fried Frenz” on MM…Food? samples “Friends”, the massive hit in the 80’s for the electro-rap mavens Whodini.

Listening to “Deep Fried Frenz” now quickly gained more heart wrenching importance after learning that before the announcement of Dumile’s passing, Whodini’s co-vocalist John “Ecstasy” Fletcher had sadly passed on December 23rd. 

It felt like a strange connection of sorts besides the usage of the sample. Whodini made their creative impression felt with thematic soundscapes utilizing the full capabilities of drum machines and synths to create groundbreaking rap tracks like “Funky Beat”, “Big Mouth”, and “Five Minutes Of Funk”. No Halloween playlist is complete without “Freaks Come Out Night” and “Haunted House Of Rock”.

It felt like both Dumile and the gang from Whodini were cut from the same cloth. The same can be said for acts like Kool Keith, OutKast, Iron Mike Eagle, and Aesop Rock as well. These are musicians who don’t strive to be boxed in. They paved the less traveled path and but an emphasis on being weird, being a character, being unique and I, along with countless others, are eternally grateful for that.

It’s amazing what waves you can create from a simple stone’s throw.

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