MF DOOM: The Madvillain

I’m not really in a position to give a fully informed reflection on the importance of the late hiphop artist MF Doom (or on his producer Madlib), but I’d like to have a stab at acknowledging his importance, mainly because the report of his death (which occurred as far back as October) has somewhat discombobulated (or even just plainly upset?) my 30-year old son, for whom he is an extremely important artist. It’s always salutary, I think, for music fans of my age to properly appreciate, if we can, the achievements of artists from later generations, even as the impulse remains to dig down in to the product of one’s own ’glory days’. This can be more difficult than it sounds.

I’d been aware of Doom since Nathan’s purchase of Madvillain back in the mid-00s. I have to admit to only giving it a cursory listening at the time, not finding anything of sufficient interest to detain me beyond two or three spins. Big mistake. It was really only on hearing of his premature death a couple of days ago (cause uncertain) that I felt a need to reassess the recording, feeble as that sounds. It undoubtedly has something to do with the Covid-related sense of transience and impermanence that we all live with today, and the fact the Doom was only in his late-40s. Was his yet another Covid death? I guess I wanted to pay some respect  and attention to an MC who was clearly so respected by my son’s generation, if that doesn’t sound too condescending. I do sometimes get into arguments with friends who seem enmeshed in the music of the 60s/70s and who seem dismissive of music post - 2000 (this includes, of course, internal arguments with myself and my own biases).

So, impressions of Madvillain include a sample-rich environment, with some references that I can relate to (from Zappa’s Uncle Meat, for example). Samples celebrating weed and getting stoned, and multiple comic book nods and winks reminding me a a far less aggressive and macho Wu Tang Clan and its various splinter artists. Going further back, there are reminders of Public Enemy’s piling up of ‘laminar’ layers, a multi-referential, complex sound field (”silly goose” being just one echo/micro-reference to PE’s Flavor Flav that even I can pick up on). It contains much less directly ‘political’ references than PE, and I was also reminded of John Zorn’s fractured and unreliable ‘surfaces’. The content is constantly agitated, unreliable and on the move, somewhat like Naked City’s stylistic mish mashes.

It’s a far gentler sampladelia than many, though. To my perhaps naive mind, it seems to be, to use a much misused word, a ‘transitional’ album, between more hostile 90s forms and more ‘progressive’ hiphop, that welcomes both Afro-Futurism (there are references to Sun Ra) and the more gentle administrations of the brief Daisy Age of rap, with its playfulness and good (or at least better) humour. Or am I just talking bollocks? I’ve always felt a bit of an imposter in this world, which is as complex and multi-threaded as that of ‘jazz’ (where I feel much more comfortable). But I can see here that Madvillain demands as much creative listening as any Miles Davis album. It’s clear to me (duh!) that this is great music and I’m at that enviable point of still discovering more and more with each listening.

Doom is obviously a great loss to creative music.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.