Genuinely successful comebacks are pretty rare in music. Whilst Daniel Dumile may not have topped the charts first time around with his pals KMD, their debut on 3rd Bass’s legendary ‘The Gas Face’ counts as significant success in my book. The way the London-born rapper later vanished and reappeared next counts as remarkable.
In 1993 KMD’s second album ‘Black Bastards’ was rejected by Elektra and the outfit were dropped. All this mere days after Dumile’s brother Dingilizwe, aka fellow KMD member DJ Subroc, was hit and killed by a car in New York. Dumile spent the next few years in the wilderness living “damn near homeless” before making tentative steps back via open mic nights, hiding his identity behind rudimentary masks.
By the time he made it to 2004 he was the metal-masked MF DOOM, partnering producer MadLib on ‘Madvillainy’ and gatecrashing the top ten of Pitchfork’s end of year list, the same website later naming the album the 25th best of the decade. The record is as intriguing as the backstory.
Hailed by some as ‘indie rap’, and dismissed by others as ‘indie rap’, ‘Madvillainy’ is poorly served by the label no matter from which direction it’s being applied. It’s a complex, layered swirl of beats, samples, sweeping supervillain soundeffects and deadpan wordplay. It contains as much straight head-nodding hip-hop as it does smoke-filled flights of fancy. DOOM’s rhymes and Madlib’s beats seem to have been born for each other. The rhythm track and scratchy instrumental curlicues stagger and step slipping into and out of sync with DOOM’s flat and woozy flow creating between them a sound which manages simultaneously to be comforting and disorienting.
And the ideas keep on coming. With 22 tracks crammed into 46 minutes for me ‘Madvillainy’ is the hip-hop equivalent of ‘Bee Thousand’. The songs go on as long as they merit and then they move on to something else. If that means laying down just a beat and a single verse, then so be it. The result is bewildering, impossible to pin down, sprinkled with transcendent moments and never ever dull.
And like the GBV masterpiece, the more you listen, the more you get back. I don’t listen to a huge amount of hip-hop. ‘Madvillainy’ makes me realise what I might be missing out on, but it’s also one of the reasons I don’t feel compelled to look much further.
Tom Listened: When Rob likened Madvillainy to Bee Thousand I mentally strapped myself in expecting a much bumpier ride than actually transpired. I can see where he’s coming from in drawing this likeness but where as Bee Thousand sounds spontaneous, tangential and extremely discombobulating at first, I found Madvillainy quite accessible, considered and straightforward in comparison. I don’t think I’ll ever feel compelled to buy it (but I remember saying the same thing about Captain Beefheart when I first heard him) but I enjoyed the listen and have come to the conclusion that ‘Indie Rap’ is where I’m currently at in my appreciation of Hip-Hop.
Graham Listened: After warming so to Death Grips, from Rob’s introduction I wondered if this might be a little “tame” for a “bad-ass” like myself. But no, there were plenty of accessible/commercial sounding hooks and beats to cling on to, broken up by clever “off piste” moments that stimulate, rather than irritate. Other than what I have learned at DRC, I know nothing about this type of genre, but I’m willing to find out more.
Nick listened: I’ve owned Madvillainy for years, pretty much since it came out, but never fully got to grips or fallen in love with it: it came out as my interest in hip hop was waning after a couple of years of being fascinated by the more commercial end of the genre (Missy Elliot, Jay-Z, Neptunes) with occasional divergences into more modernist, sci-fi, techno-influenced stuff (Cannibal Ox and other Def Jux stuff, essentially). I’ve been intending to delve into it again properly for some time, as it was a big favourite with a lot of people whose taste I respect. Listening now, it was strikingly turntable and sampler based, and the short songs, abstract lyrics, and absence of dancefloor-aimed beats mark it out as something very different to Timbaland and Missy: it’s a real head-nodder. I’m going to need to spend a lot more time with it before I can form a proper opinion.