Sometime in the mid-90s, Daniel Dumile became the villain. As part of the trio K.M.D., the precocious wordsmith spent the early part of that decade as Zev Love X, putting out records with his brother Subroc and a friend of theirs from Long Beach, New York, who called himself Onyx the Birthstone Kid. After Subroc’s sudden death in 1993, K.M.D was dropped from its label, and Dumile retreated from hip-hop. During this five-year hiatus from recording, he started calling himself MF Doom, writing rhymes and playing open mic nights at Manhattan’s legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Early on, he experimented with disguise by wearing bandanas and stocking caps. Then he put on the mask.
Not everyone understood the reincarnated rapper with the metal covering his face, despite his evident lyrical gifts. An overwhelmingly negative Spin review of Operation: Doomsday, Dumile’s 1999 solo debut, called the record a “rambling exercise in musical therapy.” Still, he was onto something. His rhymes were blindingly technical but strangely nonchalant, with complex wordplay delivered in the monotonous flow that would become his signature—a sound he developed on a string of records released under a litany of stage names over the next few years. In 2002, Stones Throw Records summoned him to Los Angeles, where Madlib—a preternaturally talented producer with a gift for choppy, obscure samples—was ready to drop every project on his plate for a prospective Doom collaboration.
From marathon recording sessions, a new persona was born in the hybrid of producer and MC: Madvillain. The months that Doom and Madlib spent together in the Stones Throw compound amounted to a blunted haze of creative productivity: Madlib inside making beats, Doom on the porch writing rhymes. The record they came up with is murky, free-associative, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny—the sound of two casual virtuosos hanging out together all day, shooting the shit and trading ideas. Fifteen years after its March 2004 release, Madvillainy stands as a classic of underground rap. Its skewed sensibility can be heard in a new generation of rappers like Earl Sweatshirt and MIKE, who like their samples inscrutable and their rhythms woozy, and who can dazzle you without sounding like they’ve even gotten up off the couch.
Last week, to mark the 15th anniversary of Madvillainy‘s March 23, 2004, release, SPIN spoke at length with Doom about the legacy of album and his memories of making it—the first interview in nearly a decade in which the rapper has spoken at length about his Madlib collaboration. Over the phone, he doesn’t belabor his legendary status. He’s funny, and surprisingly open for a guy who’s spent most of his career behind a mask. He remembers the period of making Madvillainy like it’s a “polaroid,” hazy and warm. He says that he and Madlib have multiple albums worth of material that they’ve recorded since then, which he hopes to someday release. And he speaks warmly about his son Malachi Dumile, who had just been born when Doom and Madlib were making Madvillainy, and died at age 14 in 2017.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Are there particular moments in the studio, recording Madvillainy, that have stayed with you?
When we say “studio,” I want people to get the right idea of what it is. It’s not as constricted as people may think, like, you’re in a room with a mixing board and you engineer it. It was more natural than that. You see, both of us are producers. We both have our set of equipment that we use. And Madlib be having drums and all kinds of shit in the crib. We were at a big house, and we could be anywhere in the house doing what we do.
I think the third song I got done was “America’s Most Blunted.” I’m writing on the back deck, overlooking the Hollywood Hills, sunny day, you know how L.A. is. And they be having the lethal out there. They had what they called the bubble gum at the time, but I think now they call it Superman or something. Oh, you know what they call it? Sour Diesel. It’s the same strain, I think, but they changed the name up. It was off the Sour Diesel, a blunt of that shit, is when I wrote that song.
There was a room we used to call the bomb shelter. There was no windows in there. It was like a real bomb shelter, like if something went off, you could be down there and you’d be alright. And that’s where we had some of the recording equipment, where we could actually record. We would only go in there when it was time to record. The rest of the time, I’m writing around the crib, listening to the beat on the deck, or in the whip, driving around. The whole house was the studio.
What kinds of beats were sticking in your mind at the time? Did you have a vision for the sound of the album?
I don’t have an idea of what the album is gonna sound like until I hear the beat. So the music is what drives the idea. Otis [Madlib] would be giving me beat tapes and beat CDs, be having like 50 beats on there. Some of them is two minutes long, some of them is one minute long, but there would be a bunch of them on there. One out of four, on average, would stand out to me.
As quick as I was coming up with ideas, he would have more music for me to listen to. As I’m doing the writing, he’s in the other room finishing up more instrumentals. By the time I come up with a couple more songs, I’m like, “Yo, you got another CD?” He got a fresh one, hot off the presses, with another fifty joints. I listen to another 50 beats. It would probably take me over the course of two or three days. Just listening to the 50, back and forth and feeling it out, and then, pow! By then, I got another four joints. Four or five joints off the next 50. So every 50 beats he give me I got five joints.
Otis has the arrangement and the production already done, so I don’t change anything when he gives me the beat tape. He would give me the beat already done, and I write around the song. Even the choruses and the cuts, the samples are all there. “America’s Most Blunted” already had the sample in there. So I had to write a song around the existing chorus that was there, and still have it feel like it made sense. It was challenging to work with something that’s already in existence, and bring out something in it that still sounds natural.
When I hear the beat for the first eight bars, by then I’m getting an idea. So I don’t know until the album is done what it’s supposed to sound like. I’m not even choosing what it’s gonna sound like. The beat is choosing.
The beat does part of the work for you?
No, I do the work for the beat. Depends how you want to look at it. I do the work for the beat, or the beat do the work for me. Either way, it’s guiding. The music is what guides it, and I’m coming in with the idea after I hear what the music is telling me. I don’t make up the idea first.
What else were you guys doing in that house besides making music? Were you reading, watching movies, hanging out?
He would go out and hang out on certain nights. He would take a break, but it’s still music shit he be doing. A couple of times I went out with him. Most of the time I don’t go out, so the couple of times I did go out it was memorable. We’d go to the club and listen to music, basically. Every once in a while, you get a clown in there. Otis is kind of popular, people know his face. I don’t get no problems, motherfuckers don’t know me. But sometimes, when people know your face like that, they’ll target you. They might be like, “Yo, that nigga be with my girl,” or whatever, or be a little jealous and shit like that. One time, some cat got jealous and shit, and he started trying to front on O. But he didn’t do nothing! He was about to get smashed, but I wasn’t rolling like that. That night, I parlayed. I was on some peaceful shit at that moment. O was alright, he wouldn’t care. Dude was jealous.
How do you hear the album today, after 15 years?
Fifteen years, that’s what we’re coming up on? Like when, today or tomorrow?
Uh oh. Yeah, that’s fly, I gotta take that day off. So the question is how has the music changed, or how do I feel about listening to it?
How do you feel the music has aged? Do you hear it differently now?
It sounds to me like I just did that shit. I would do it the same right now if you gave me the same beats. The way I hear it—I don’t listen to it all the time, but maybe every other year I’ll throw it on, or come across an instrumental or something like that. As soon as I hear the beat, it brings back all the lyrics to me.
Do you have a favorite track on the record?
I couldn’t just pick one. The whole piece of work to me is one record. So it’s hard to slice it like that. “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a good ending to it. The fact that that’s a good ending is based on everything that comes before it. So I can say “Rhinestone Cowboy” is my favorite, but if “Figaro” wasn’t there, it wouldn’t build up the same way.
You’ve got these very technical, granular flows that work really well with Madlib’s production. The focus is always on clean, rhyme-heavy metaphors and really technical wordplay. How do you think about that flow now?
Can you give me a song, when you say a rhyme-heavy rhyme style?
“That’s why he bring his own needles, and get more cheese than Doritos, Cheetos, or Fritos.”
Very reference-heavy kind of thing? Metaphors? Cross-references, double entendres all in there, is that what you mean?
Yeah, very technical stuff.
Like a complex joke, something that has multiple ways of looking at it. You have to go the extra mile to use a technique like that in your writing. When you’re looking at quality of wordplay, you’re looking at, how many words repeat in a bar, or two bars? How many syllables can you use that still make sense in a song? In certain ways, you get a triple word score. You know how in Scrabble, you have triple word score joints, the way you get points based on words, and how they correlate on the board? It’s similar to getting points like that, if you really take it to the next level.
What I be looking at is the quality of the rhyming word: phonetically, how the tone is, in the pronunciation of the word. Regardless of language—you can be fluent and speaking Spanish, Arabic, whatever. You can use an Arabic word to rhyme with a Spanish word and have English slang all in between it. As long as the word itself rhymes, you still get points for that word. And the reference is another way of bringing that same thing home. How many references can you cross and still stay on topic? And still rhyme? The more complex the subject matter and wordplay is, that’s where you get your points.
I’m a rhymer, so I go for points. I ain’t going to be talking shit about the next dude, or bragging about shit I got. I talk broke shit, I talk about shit I don’t got, or things I’m striving for. Say you’re speaking from a point of view where you’re talking to yourself, in maybe a sad mood. How do your tones come across? Can people feel what you’re saying? Can they hear what you’re saying? Are you well pronounced? Maybe you purposely were a little bit sloppy with it, to bring the point across. Can you bring the point across and still get the rhyme points? It’s like gymnastics on paper.
Is there anything you would change about the record?
Nah, I can’t change nothing on it. It’s perfect the way we did it. I remember when we was doing it, I remember the days, and things that was going on. When I was hearing a beat that day, like a Sunday, it might have rained a little bit that day, it was wet on the ground a little bit. Very quiet up there in them hills, so we could focus and think. To me, if I would say, “Oh, I would change that now,” it’s like changing part of the day. Even if you had a day when you stubbed your toe, when you stubbed your toe you met that girl after that. If you ain’t stubbed your toe, would you have met that girl? You know what I mean? I wouldn’t change anything about it, it was perfect, it was the way how a day would go. I would’ve listened to the beat the same amount of times, I would’ve wrote the same exact thing. I wouldn’t change nothing about it, just like the way I wouldn’t change nothing about when the sun come up and when the sun sets.
Your son, Malachi, was born around that time too, before the album came out. Do you associate that time with him?
Yeah definitely. Lot of good memories.
He was born in 2003? So he would’ve been a year old when the album came out.
Yeah, something like that. Make sure you get his name in there, make sure you shout him out. King Malachi. The best baby boy I could ever imagine having. He was a king, a born king.
What do you remember about your relationship with him around that time?
He was born, and I had a chance to be there when he was born, and then I went out to L.A. to do the record, for a month or two or three, some shit like that. When a baby’s first born, they be so little. You can hold him, but you can’t really do nothing. By the time I came back, he was a little older, but he wasn’t walking yet. His whole walking and all that came after the record was done, and after we had a chance to hear the record a while. He was little, but he was big. He was always a big boy, you know what I’m saying? I could tell he was strong.
Would you play your music for him?
Nah, I would go to work and do the work. I don’t really do music at home. We listened to music, but I do that shit just to get money. I write rhymes and shit to get money. Other than that I don’t listen to hip-hop music. I listen to jazz music and instrumentals and shit like that. I only do this for the simple fact of points-per-rhyme, the point game. It seems to be a profitable thing these days, and nobody else is really paying attention to it. You can be about your points, and if nobody else can do it, you can get some change off that joint, because you’re the only one doing it like that. That’s what I get out of the rhyming.
I didn’t know it was gonna be such a popular thing. It’s something we used to do for a side hobby, to keep your mind fresh. Word games. You might be walking down the street, playing with words in your mind, so you throw them back and forth, and words that rhyme just come to you. It’s something we did as a hobby, like practicing thoughts, brain exercises. Word searches and things like that, studying different languages, where words come from. A practice to keep your mind sharp, is how we used to see it. But then it turned out to be something—if you put it to music, in a rhythmic way, and you know how to bring the point across, then you can turn it to something that’s real profitable. I’m blessed to be part of this whole thing, from this hip-hop experience.
Did you share that mindset with your son? Would he rap and try and keep his mind sharp in the same way?
He didn’t ever like that kind of music. But he was a word game-type dude. Every morning, he would write down his dreams, and that would keep him writing. He worked on a book of short stories, and he was just about to get it all in order so he could publish it. He turned out to be quite the young writer. I’m really proud of him, still, right now. And I’m definitely going to make sure that book gets published, and his ideas come out. One time, I said, “Yo, you should write a story to read to your sisters.” In like ten minutes, he had a story, subject matter, a marvelous end to the story, the whole shit, and it would be some stuff off the top of the head. I’m like, “Yo, you wrote that? How you come up with that shit?”
So in that way, he was a wordsmith. The apple don’t fall too far from the tree, as they say. He always was a well-spoken young man. Eloquent with his words, how he chose to say things, how he chose to speak, his demeanor, and things of that nature. He was never a sloppy dude. Would never curse. I never even heard him say a slang word. I tried to make him curse one time, like, “Nigga just say shit one time nigga, you can say it, you won’t get in no trouble!” And he was like “Nah, I ain’t gonna do it.”
You’ve inhabited all these different characters over the years. I’m curious how Madvillain—you and Otis combined—fits into the larger Doom cosmos. What’s his role?
The whole Doom persona, and idea, and how we approach those records, is like, I’m thinking of my own mind, I’m not speaking to anyone. You’re hearing my thoughts, what I’m thinking about when I’m walking, random thoughts, as if you’re in the mind of the writer. Now Madvillain, the approach I took on that one is like, I’m talking to Otis. Like, “Yo O, check it out, ha ha.” Making jokes at somebody, like I’m speaking to somebody audibly, out loud. So that’s the difference. That’s what I did to differentiate the Doom realm, which is an in-thought realm, from Madvillain, which is more like an outside realm.
Do you ever hear more recent hip-hop and hear a bit of you and Madlib in it? Earl Sweatshirt put out an album last year, and a lot of people noticed some similarities between that and Madvilliainy. Did you hear that?
Nah, I didn’t hear it. But it’s a compliment to us I guess, if someone says it sounds similar to them. I can see how it may have influenced a lot of these artists, but I don’t hear it when I hear their songs. I haven’t heard anything that sounds like us, but I see how it could be inspired by us, based on the fact that we was on some, “Yo, let’s just sit there, whatever you first think of, just do that shit.” Our shit don’t be scripted like that. Whatever comes to mind, do that shit, record that shit. You know what you’re saying, you know how you feel. Rock that shit. Each song is unique, based on the fact that I choose the writing based on the instrumental. Each instrumental was different, so every song’s gonna be different.
Somebody else might not even use an Otis beat, but they may be using the same form as, “Yo, when you hear a beat, write whatever you’re gonna write. Say that shit.” The spontaneity is what brings that Madvillain out. So I think people maybe be hearing the instant rap, as opposed to having a song pre-scripted, with three 16s, and you wrote them joints, you rocked them mad long, you memorized it, you walked up and down. When I did the record, I wrote the song right there and said the rhyme right there. It was all based on, “Yo, what do you want to say that day, to that beat?” It wasn’t no pre-scripted. So people may be hearing that, that automatic shit.
Were you involved in Madvillainy 2 in 2008, the remix record? Did you sign off on that?
I was involved insofar as they asked me if it was alright to use my voice to remix it. And I was like, “Yeah, OK.” I wasn’t involved in the recording of it. And they played me the finished versions for approval, and I was like, “OK, it’s approved.” That was more like a remix record, but it was slated as Madvillainy 2, which is… it’s cool, I guess. But since then, we’ve recorded a lot more stuff. There’s a few of them we could put out as whole albums. I’m just looking for the right time. It’s hard to choose a time, as far as the manufacturing side, and the business side. Once that’s all out of the way, people will hear more of it. It’s a ton of stuff that we got.
So in the past 15 years, you’ve collaborated with Madlib, but you haven’t sat down in a house with him in the same way?
We did that like twice. But one good time. I was out there for the whole summer, went to the crib, the whole joint. We recorded a bunch of stuff. I used the same technique. I got the beats from Otis and wrote to the beats. I didn’t change anything from it. I let him be the producer and I was the MC. I approached it the same way, where the first thought that I had I would just—syntax a little, say your first thought. Make sure your rhyme point game is on point though. Either one could be recorded at the same time—if you heard them back to back, it would sound like both of them are interchangeable. All three of them, there’s actually three or four of them by now. But they’re interchangeable, the feel of them.
When was that, that you went out there to work together?
I don’t remember what year it was. I have no way of pinpointing what year it was. I wasn’t paying attention to what year it was. I had nothing to do. I was on no schedule.