Return of the mask: an interview with Doom

New collaborators, a new record and possibly going pop? Oliver Keens talks to the rap great

Sitting opposite a slightly portly man in his forties wearing a metal mask should be a deeply unnerving experience. Even though we’re alone together, sitting on twee, floral-patterned armchairs, Daniel ‘Doom’ Dumile still feels the need to wear his villainous disguise in my presence, yet he’s so charming and jolly it feels more like visiting a department store Santa.

He first started to wear his ‘metal face’ (the origin of his main alias, MF Doom) as a way of hiding the twin scars of his brother’s death and being dropped from a major label while in KMD, his first group. His Marvel Comics-indebted character was intent on revenge on the industry that had hurt him. Up close, one can see tiny dings and scratches on the mask’s surface, but it’s mostly been an easy fight. Doom has triumphed over the years – reinventing the underground hip hop scene in a range of guises (Madvillain, King Geedorah) over several seminal albums of murky beats and oceanically deep wordplay. His latest, ‘Key to the Kuffs’, made with producer Jneiro Jarel, was recorded in London – the town he was born in, that he’s only recently come to know – and features guest appearances from fans like Thom Yorke, Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and Damon Albarn. Such A-list stars hardly suggest a man living on music’s fringes anymore. But, as he makes clear, there’s still a resolutely underground mentality at work behind that mask.

Is it hard keeping the character of Doom consistent when you’re working with other producers like Jneiro, Madlib or Dangermouse?

‘It’s a breath of fresh air, actually. The beat is like the scenery and the rhyme is like the human being in that scene. So Jneiro brought a different kind of scenery and I just put the character of Doom right into that space, which is cool because it gives the listener a different view. It’s like Doom on Earth or Doom in space. Or a field of lilies or a subway train. The background changes but the character’s still raw as hell.’

Having been part of the NYC hip hop scene of the early ’90s with KMD, did your rebirth as Doom mean you lost that connection with others from that time?

‘It does feel good to be back with my colleagues and be semi-successful. Everybody nowadays rhymes, but out of the people that really, really do it well, it’s still a small community of artists. We all tend to be in the same circles – people like my Wu-Tang brothers, or Black Thought from The Roots. Prince Paul is another good friend, he’s like an older brother. He’ll criticise and be brutally honest with you, that’s what I like about Paul. I’ll bounce a song off him and he’ll be like, “Yeah, it’s all right, but your other shit was doper.”’

At times on ‘Key to the Kuffs’ it seems like you’re wrestling with the idea of popularity?

‘Well it is kinda my attempt to go pop. The song “Bite the Thong” in particular, with Damon Albarn, really encapsulates the whole dilemma of, “Hmm, should I stay on the underground when everybody else is selling out?” Nowadays you can just do it – have your name-brand clothes, do songs with rock ’n’ rollers – and it’s not considered selling out. So that song is about the contemplation, with Damon singing into my ear, “I go, you go, we all go pop eventually Doom”… by the end of the song I’m like, “Okay, well fuck it, I’ll do it. Bite the thong, get it off, I’ll go for it.”’

Doesn’t that make it hard to remain an underground hero?

‘No matter what level of popularity I get, I’m always going to be doing avant-garde, off-to-the-side shit. Of course, with the next record, Madvillain’s gonna go right back to that raw shit. I’m always trying to show versatility. I’m juggling and I’m flipping fire, and I’m chewing gum and rhyming at the same time… on a unicycle, while playing the drums. That kinda shit!’

Was recording in London strange, given you were born here but never lived here before as an adult?

‘Yeah, this was my first time really absorbing the culture so everything in my life over the last two years has been completely different. It’s almost like I’m a big two-year-old. A big two-year-old baby with a house, walking around with a cellphone!’

The album ends with a sample of a man saying: ‘They called them “muppets”, which is a British term that means a stupid, ignorant person.’ Why did you pick that?

‘I didn’t understand the reference, but when I heard it, I couldn’t stop laughing. The voice of the guy saying it not only sounds a bit like Kermit, but he says it in such a weird, deadpan way too… it felt good to end the record on a seriously funny note.’