I. As Luck Would Have It
Dedication is dragging an iron mask to business meetings. But there’s no such thing as halfway crooks, and no legitimate supervillain can strike terror in spectacles and a kufi. You need esoteric scars and an origin myth smothered in smoke. You need resilience to battle post-9/11 Homeland Security officials wary of black British nationals with Five Percenter backgrounds. You need a metal face, preferably one with an aperture allowing you to drink beer. Otherwise, you’re just weird.
The name on the plane ticket read: Daniel Dumile. It summoned the ex-Zev Love X from Atlanta to L.A. to meet Madlib. Dumile may have officially announced his villainy around the time of Clinton’s impeachment, but “DOOM” was what the kids in Long Beach, New York, always called him—a warning woven into the syllables of his surname. It became chilling prophecy when SubRoc, his brother and partner in K.M.D., was run over and killed on the Long Island Expressway in 1993.
Shortly thereafter, Elektra dropped K.M.D., partially due to album artwork that depicted a Sambo figure hanging from a noose. A half-decade of darkness followed. All we really know about these Sinai wanderings in Strong Island is that the originator of the gas face fathered a child, wrote dozens of raps that never saw daylight, and grieved over obscene quantities of malt liquor and jazz.
He eventually re-emerged with a morbid bent, cruller-shaped physique, and a Darth Maul Halloween mask (mercifully, soon upgraded and galvanized). After a series of 12”s on underground rap Masada Fondle ‘Em Records, he released Operation: Doomsday, which became a subterranean classic among JanSport zealots.
It also lodged in the belfry of Madlib, the Oxnard-raised loop digger, who had recently hatched an album of psilocybin-rattled helium raps, inhabiting an animated alter ego named after literature’s most famous hunchback. It was a union conceived in head shop heaven.
But the idea of Madvillain was as unlikely as it was inspired. Both men exhibited reclusive, out-of-orbit tendencies usually only found in Burial, Thomas Pynchon, and Himalayan glacier beings. And this was the early 2000s, before cell phones, social media, and email became appendages. The odds of corralling the duo in the same room were grim. Especially after Madlib became estranged from hip-hop in favor of Yesterdays New Quintet, his fictional fusion jazz band where he played every instrument. It may have been creatively emancipating, but his fledgling label, Stones Throw, was on the brink—and, save for a fluke hit that became a turntablist AK-47, Madlib was the imprint’s one-man business plan since its inception in 1996. Despite the sterling merits of his jazz forays, Stones Throw’s target audience didn’t overlap enough with the chill stoner grandpa demographic to sustain itself.
“I was looking to do anything to kick start his interest in hip-hop,” remembers Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, former Stones Throw general manager, founder of Now-Again Records, and co-founder of Madlib’s Madlib Invazion label. “We had the chance to do a reunion album of [Madlib’s first group] Lootpack. I got them weed, booked studio time, and it fizzled out.”
Stones Throw had recently moved operations from San Francisco to L.A., mostly to be closer to its hermetic star, whose own family members called him The Unseen. Lacking capital for an office, a rented house in the Mount Washington hills doubled as a nerve center and crash pad for the label’s staff: founder Peanut Butter Wolf, art director Jeff Jank, and Alapatt. An Eisenhower-era bomb shelter with 18-inch concrete walls became Madlib’s studio, and an implicit symbol for the subterranean enterprise.
But it’s tough to alter music history without money for caffeine and weed. Funds were so scarce that the coffee budget came from scrounging forgotten dollars from Madlib’s dirty laundry. And without more Madlib rap music, the label seemed fated to wind up like Fondle ‘Em, which fossilized in 2001.
Destiny dilated in a darkened aquarium in Long Beach, California, where a turbaned Madlib tripped out on a tank of phosphorescent sea dragons. He was there for a feature in the LA Times. When the reporter asked Madlib for his list of dream collaborators, two names came up: J Dilla and MF DOOM.
Machinations had already begun for what became Jaylib’s Champion Sound. But DOOM was entirely off the grid. After Operation: Doomsday dropped and Fondle ‘Em folded, the villain basically disappeared for three years, hustling back and forth between Long Island and Kennesaw, Georgia, an ex-railroad suburb of Atlanta named after the Cherokee word for “burial ground”—famed for a mandate requiring every resident to own a gun. It was the ideal enclave for a metal-fingered malefactor to conceal himself in plain sight.
By chance, an old college crate-digging friend of Alapatt’s happened to live in Kennesaw and had a passing acquaintance with DOOM, who had never heard of Madlib or Stones Throw.
“I told my friend that Madlib’s been making beats and I needed to get them to DOOM to get Madlib back into rap again,” says Alapatt, who promptly shipped out a care package of Madlib’s early work. Three weeks later, the friend called back: DOOM loved it and wanted to work. Phone calls and tapes were exchanged. An offer was made. One of several quasi-managers then orbiting the DOOM solar system demanded plane tickets to L.A. and $1,500 for three songs over Madlib beats. Stones Throw immediately agreed.
“She was playing hardball: ‘DOOM needs this, DOOM needs this,’” Alapatt says. “I thought it was all pretty stupid, but I agreed to it, even though we didn’t have any money in the bank after buying him the plane tickets.”
That’s how Daniel Dumile wound up with a steel face stashed in his luggage on a spring day in 2002. When the plane touched down in L.A. and Peanut Butter Wolf arrived at the airport to pick him up, the mask rusted at arm’s length, just in case a mass conqueror needed to get a little ruthless. By the time the car reached the Stones Throw citadel in Mount Washington, the shield was strapped on, the debt ready to be collected.
“The first thing his manager did was get me in my bedroom, which was also the office, and corner me about the 1,500 bucks,” Alapatt says. “I realized that if she was in here, then DOOM was with [Madlib], and the longer I kept up this charade with her, the longer they’ll vibe and maybe it all might work out.”
It became a scene straight out of a Bond movie. The longer Alapatt distracted DOOM’s henchwoman, the more time it allowed Madlib and DOOM to escape into a different dimension—or, at the very least, smoke a blunt and bob their heads to beat tapes. If she discovered they were broke, the jig was up, DOOM would be on the next flight back to Georgia, and the universe we live in would be 73 percent less dastardly.
But as Shakespeare wrote, “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind.” And he was no stranger to strong smoke, masks, and the idea that audiences love to hate. The union of Madlib and MF DOOM was destined through hook and crook. As the tense haggling transpired upstairs, the instrumental from “America’s Most Blunted” bumped from the bomb shelter, its psych-rap rattle bleeding through the walls of the house. If you took a deep inhale, it was impossible not to notice the dank aroma of creativity being increased.
II. Bong Rips on the Roof on the West Coast
One hundred Madlib beats materialized in a matter of weeks. A bolt of inspiration ignited most of the stash for Champion Sound and Madvillainy, along with albums from M.E.D. andDudley Perkins. In his atomic lair, the 28-year-old skinned his wax collection like the Native Americans used buffalo: equally reverent and rapacious. A commodity to be split into a thousand parts, nothing wasted.
“Everything was spontaneous,” Madlib tells me now. “We worked with whatever we had at hand. If you think about it too much, it won’t work. But shit usually works out when you’re with the like-minded. DOOM’s like my super-smart cousin. We trade books and records: Sun Ra equations, biographies of Charlie Parker. Some people are born off that same energy.”
Stones Throw foraged enough cash to rent DOOM a hotel, but most of his time was spent at the house in Mount Washington. Mask off, writing rhymes, demoing, drinking beers, eating Thai, and hitting a bong on the terrace. In his bunker, a solitary Madlib smoked stupendous amounts and feverishly kept pace. At one point, Peanut Butter Wolf threw a Super Bowl party, where attendees were star-struck by the supervillain scarfing chicken wings and watching Tom Brady knife up the St. Louis Rams.
“I’m staying in L.A. and trying to get back to my children… working as fast I can without sacrificing the quality,” DOOM recalled in a 2011 interview at the Red Bull Academy. (He declined requests to speak for this article). “[Madlib] would give me another CD, and I’m writing… We might stop, and he’ll burn one and listen to the beat, and that’s it… We hardly spoke. It was more through telepathy. We spoke through the music.”
By booking DJ gigs, delaying a few royalty payments, and banking on a vinyl advance from Fat Beats, Stones Throw scraped together the $13,000 budget. A contract between DOOM, Madlib, and the label was written and signed on a paper plate. The villain got a $1,500 advance, with subsequent installments meted out on a per-track basis. Proceeds were split 50/50, upon recouping of expenses.
“I had the romantic idea that it was protecting the artists more—and I didn’t want to be a shady record label,” Peanut Butter Wolf says. “But there are so many different aspects of releasing a record that need to be spelled out. The hand-written anti-contract was a cute joke at the time, though.”
It reflected an established anti-establishment approach. Both Wolf and DOOM spent the early 1990s in rap groups on major labels. Both got dropped shortly after the crushing deaths of their partners. Madlib loosely apprenticed under West Coast heavies King Tee and the Likwit Crew before self-releasing the first Lootpack EP after no one offered a deal.
Stones Throw’s fulcrum hinged on nothing being too eccentric or commercially toxic. They were defiantly anachronistic without being overly sentimental or nostalgic; hiss and dust were necessary to a balanced diet. Then there was Madvillain, wandering towards the future through the wax portal of the past, warping to an alternate dimension where the reigning deities descended from Saturday morning cartoons, Blaxploitation cinema, Blue Notes, and psycho-tropic visions.
At the time, the label’s central priority remained the Madlib and J Dilla collaboration. Fresh off the success of Slum Village, the Detroit soul magi had a major label deal and production credits for the Roots, Erykah Badu, and Common. In comparison, Madvillainy was the cult comic too abstruse to be adapted. And its odds of success only decreased after it leaked on a trip to Brazil.
Booked to speak at the Red Bull Music Academy, Madlib spent most of his two-week sojourn trawling for Tropicalia and samba loops in mom and pop shops scattered across Sao Paulo. Hijacking the only room with a cassette player, he rigged it up to his SP-303 sampler and started to gut and fillet the fresh catches.
“We went to every little store we could find,” Madlib says, still lamenting the two boxes of records forever lost in transit. “I was keeping Brazilian time, sitting in my room smoking some terrible weed and sampling shit, while everyone else was out partying and getting drunk.”
Madlib and Cut Chemist shared a suite with adjoining doors; countless strangers carouseled through the rooms. The beats for Madvillainy’s “Strange Ways”, “Raid”, and “Rhinestone Cowboy” were birthed. And at some point, someone wrangled a near-finished demo cassette of the album, took it on a plane back to the United States, and leaked it on the internet—14 months before its official release.
“Those were the early days of internet leaks, and we thought it would completely ruin sales,” Jeff Jank says. “People were approaching DOOM and Madlib at shows to tell them how much they liked the album, so they were like, ‘Fuck it, I’m done.’ Madlib started on other stuff, and DOOM, well, you never know what he’s doing.”
Nearly a year elapsed. In that span, Jaylib flopped commercially. DOOM snapped his hiatus with Take Me to Your Leader, a monster-movie concept album where he played a triple-headed rapping gold dragon named Geedorah. He also released Vaudeville Villain, playing teenaged Viktor Vaughn, a “young whippersnapper” and sometime rival to the metal-faced terrorist. The first Madvillain show also occurred at a Stones Throw Coachella set, but few saw it because Talib Kweli was playing at the same time. It was 2003.
It’s unclear why Madlib and DOOM started working again. The laws of their partnership are ungoverned by cycles of commerce, Gregorian calendar, or conventional reason. All that matters is that at some point that fall, they came back with thumbtacks and pop for the beer. The intent was to retain the raw integrity of the leaked Madvillainy while paradoxically refining it.
“On the original version of album, DOOM rapped in a really hyper, more enthusiastic voice,” Peanut Butter Wolf says. “Then he decided to rap in a more mellow, relaxed, confident, less abrasive tone. I think he did it to make it different from the all the other projects he dropped those years.”
The villain made minor lyrical edits, presumably for the purposes of posterity. A SARS reference switched to AIDS. A reference to 9/11 on “Meat Grinder” became “10/11.” He re-did every vocal and wrote what became “Accordion” and “Bistro”.
“I didn’t understand why he re-recorded his vocals,” says Jank. “I wasn’t crazy about the second version at first, but he was really just perfecting it as an album—he was very aware of the consistency from one track to the next.”
Between the leaked demo and the official release of the 12” to Money Folder/America’s Most Blunted, Madvillain cultivated a bigger buzz than anything Stones Throw had experienced. But the last stages of completion were fraught with complications.
The label asked Madlib to re-do a few beats, but he said he forgot the sample sources. Then DOOM demanded to alter some tracks. Everyone grew frustrated. Compounding the anxiety, Alapatt, the project’s chief A&R, realized it lacked a legitimate ending. With less than a week left to turn the record into the distributor, they rented DOOM a $60-an-hour studio. Selecting the beat for “Rhinestone Cowboy”, the villain smashed in timely fashion.
With the finale, DOOM slapped the white 10-gallon hat off Glen Campbell in favor of a black Stetson and silver skull. The diabolic sequel of “Rhinestone Cowboy” flips the original’s themes, similar to Madlib samurai-chopping samples. The Wichita Lineman crooned about a veteran troubadour who knows “every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway/ Where hustle’s the name of the game/ And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain.”
It doubled as testimony to Dumile’s tribulations in his first music industry rodeo. Out of necessity, the mercurial chrome-masked man replaced the kind temperance of the rookie. After a dozen years of grinding, Madvillainy finally re-directed the lights towards DOOM.
The encore encapsulates the album’s runic brilliance. Madlib loops a millisecond from a Brazilian gem cut by Caetano Veloso’s sister. DOOM is the phantom of the Grand Ole Opry rocking parties and departing in a jalopy. The grimy slimy limey references Eddie Murphy’sDelirious and an arcane 1970s kids show in the same bar. He cryptically alludes to the leak and subsequent delay. The wordplay is opaque and dazzling. The beat is psychedelic and sinister. The villain has the last laugh, but not so loud that you can’t hear the applause.