Being that hip hop originated not in the studio, but in a live party atmosphere, it’s sort of sad that most live hip hop sucks nowadays. With the exception of a few acts that have distinguished themselves over the years (Outkast, Kanye West, a cadre of underground acts that cut their teeth on the live show), most live rap shows amount to a terrible sounding and unjustly, yet mercifully, short experience simply not worth the time and/or the money. Yet in a fledgling music industry, where sales of albums simply aren’t where they used to be, the live show remains most artists’ main source of income. It’s a chance to build a stronger fanbase, to sell tons of merchandise, and to get a semblance of a steady paycheck; all on top of the fact that performance, in some form or fashion, rests at the core of all musical creativity. You make music for others to hear, the most direct means to do so is a face-to-face live performance. You are a musician, therefore, you perform.
With this much riding on the live performance, you’d like to think that even the most terrible of rap live acts at least have every intention to put on a good show. Even from the more cynical, disinterested artists, we as fans at the very least demand the facade of concern or desire of wanting their respective live show to be decent. I mean, surely no rap act in his or her right mind would want to put on a flat out BAD show, right?
MF Doom would probably disagree with you. While being a heralded beatmaker and prolific rap artist with a legion of faithful, dedicated fans, MF Doom is a terrible live act for a myriad reasons. For one, he is known to show up late to his live shows; that is, if he bothers to show up at all. His shows have often fallen into “less than half hour” group, at times going so short as ten minute sets as the headliner. He’s been known to lip sync at rap shows, or even stranger, simply mime rapping motions without opening his mouth. For those keeping track at home, all of these make Doom a TERRIBLE live performer.
But perhaps the strangest element of a modern MF Doom show is the growing list of concerts and events where MF Doom sends an imposter, or a “Doomposter,” to perform his songs. As Doom’s live act involves wearing a metal mask while delivering his mumbly, mush-mouthed delivery style, it’s not unfathomable to think that a Doomposter could sort of pull off Doom’s songs; but the recent spate of blatant Doomposters has caused many industry experts as well as fans to speculate that perhaps the real MF Doom has not performed for something close to 4-5 years.
When asked to respond to this controversy, Doom simply stated:
“Everything that we do is villain style,” he explained. “Everybody has the right to get it or not get it. Once I throw it out, it’s there for interpretation. It might’ve seemed like it didn’t go well, but how do we know that wasn’t just pre-orchestrated so that we’re talking about it now? I tell you one thing: People are asking more now for live shows and I’m charging more, so it must’ve worked somewhere.”
And the question has to be asked, is he just another bad live rap act, or is he the best live rap act that none of us could possibly understand?
MF Doom, aka Daniel Dumile, emerged in the rap scene as a member of the seminal rap group KMD. Having debuted on the classic 3rd Bass song “The Gas Face,” Dumile went on to record two albums with KMD under the moniker of Zev Love X, releasing the now classic album Black Bastards, an album that became as rare as it was essential for its controversial cover art.
Shortly before the release of Black Bastards, Dumile’s brother, fellow group member and younger brother DJ Subrocwas killed in a car accident, causing the demise of the group and Dumile’s retreat from the music industry for the next few years, during which Dumile reportedly fell into a deep depression. Sometime around 1999, Dumile resurrected his rap career behind a metal Dr. Doom mask, and began making music again, releasing the seminal underground album Operation: Doomsday. A legend was born.
As recently as 2004, Doom was performing 45+ minute sets, fetching high performance fees and drawing huge crowds. In 2005, Doom released Live from Planet X, a forty minute continuous blast of 15 songs, displaying Doom’s prowess and ferocity on stage. At the time of Planet X‘s release, Doom had begun collaborating with the best of the independent music scene (Madlib, Danger Mouse, a rumored project with Ghostface Killah was on the horizon). A cult had grown around Dumile in a way that no one could have predicted, all for the right reasons: the music was dope, and the theater of the music was even better.
Shortly after that, the Doomposters started showing up, shows were canceled, a growing sense that Doom was having his fun with the public was first received with tongue-in-cheek humor, but was soon replaced with a growing anger by his fans. In 2007 at the world famous Rock the Bells tour, side by side with the modern day legends of rap, Doom sent out a blatant Doomposter, causing a crowd chant of “bullshit!” from the crowd.
NYMag’s Vulture blog’s Amos Barshad recently reported that MF Doom was planning to release a new album on September 14 titled Expektoration. Barshad raises the obvious question: is this going to be a live album of the actual MF DOOM, or is this going to be a continuation of Doom’s recent spate of flouting public expectations for his live show?
The thesis isn’t surprising, but maybe we are all missing the point. To look at it in a few other ways, one could argue that Doom’s live show is, while objectively terrible, a fascinating conceptualization of his persona and his musical legacy. As Doom stated in his response above, he is a villain; and presumably, the most villainous thing he could do would be to cheat people out of their money. It’s gotten to the point now, almost six years running, where people are finally starting to question the wisdom of even going to live MF Doom shows. SIX YEARS of being consistently snookered by this guy, and people are only now questioning whether it’s time to give up on the efficiacy of the MF Doom live show, while he laughs all the way to the bank.
In another light, Doom’s framing of modern hip hop is fascinating, if not cynical. Modern hip hop is a studio monster, one comprised of punch-ins, over-production and overdubs, with a live show that’s both restrictively shackled to the studio blueprint of a song, while also completely devoid of any chance for interpretive embellishment by means of delivery to the public. Put it another way, you go to a live show because you want to hear a song that sounds like the song; and yet, just hearing the song in the exact same way is inherently unsatisfying because it’s a live show. Whereas rock bands can switch up tempos, add in guitar solos or fill-ins, the hip hop live show blueprint is married to a beat that on some level, has to sound identical to what you’re used to, while also married to a vocal track that the live emcee can try, but will never mimic in all of its studio glory. Somewhere in MF Doom’s strange theory may be the only exciting way to interpret hip hop in a live setting: to simply raise a middle finger to all the expectations and try to deliver a show that at the very least creates an intense emotional reaction, even if it’s one of betrayal and hatred. At the very least, you can’t say that it isn’t interesting.
Barshad poses this simple question: “Are we overanalyzing this because it’s Doom?” Probably. But the fact that we’re even analyzing live hip hop, by all accounts a mostly unexciting cultural element, while theorizing about the worth of performance content versus performance art delivery is a worthy conversation for such a troubled, confusing, and at times, maddeningly genius rap artist like Dumile. Is it enough to get me to plunk down the cash to see a live show, even if I know that it might last 10 minutes with an imposter miming around on stage to a laptop simply playing Doom’s songs?
Honestly? Yeah, it might be.