:: Article

Metal Face Dada

By Eric Tyler Benick.

Photo courtesy of The Arches

It was announced on New Year’s Eve, 2020, to much surprise and sadness, that the rapper MF DOOM had passed away. For me, the incredulity of his passing seemed amplified, not only by his historical importance to me as an artist but also by something more unique, more elusive; his mythos. How could DOOM, the cartoon antihero, the transcendental guise, a legacy, be dead? In donning his infamous metallic mask, DOOM became a larger context of subjectivity, a construction of mad genius. As such, his lineage, and, by extension, his personhood, could not be traced through a narrative. It was because of this context, the subversion of identity by fabricating identity, that DOOM eluded many of the codifications of hip-hop we have taken for granted, illuminating the penumbra of an entirely fresh aesthetics.

In his 2009 profile of the artist for ​The New Yorker,​ Ta-Nehisi Coates defines the “rap album” as, “an auto biographical [sic] comic book, whose author styles himself as a twisted, oft put-upon antihero.” Coates then cites such (man)ifestations as Carlton Ridenhour/Chuck D, Christopher Wallace/Notorious B.I.G., and the many modified appellations of Nasir Jones. Coates’s point is obviously tailored for his coverage of MF DOOM, but importantly calls into definition the subtextual materials for a generalized rap album. The persona, as Coates exemplifies, is the dimensionality of the art’s transference, the unspoken architecture of perspective and delivery. To see Tupac Shakur as the sensitive lover of Shakespeare from Baltimore, by way of Harlem, is to see beyond the obfuscation of the persona. It is to search for meaning behind the frenetic force of celebrity, ditto BIG as the soft kid on St. James Place. With DOOM, the celebrity​ is​ the persona. By donning the mask, DOOM reconstructs the rudiments of persona as a praxis for framing the art itself, rather than the artist alone. Where with other hip-hop artists the thin line of subjectivity between the persona and the person can become irreconcilably conflated, with DOOM there is an objective point of entry into the persona, and an objective exit out. DOOM further tested and exposed this conditionality by frequently having look-alikes perform his sets, much to the exasperation of fans who wanted the “man” who, in DOOM’s vision, was simply a construct. By making the persona a façade, DOOM exposed our untenable need for a solitary figure of genius and for that figure to be transparent. If seeing DOOM live meant we could be seeing anybody then our definitions of authenticity become subverted, our gaze perverse in its desire to see behind the mask. The semiotics of DOOM were all that was ever meant to be visible. The delivery of those semiotics was always conditional to their premise. It is in this fabricated subjectivity that MF DOOM eludes proper definition, and is free(r) to exploit the trappings of persona, that the very idolatry of persona can be so easily lampooned, and furthermore, that it ​must​ be lampooned. We can then see MF DOOM not only as a fiction, but the universe of that fiction, and how the tenets of that fiction reflect/refract the problematic fascinations of our reality. DOOM is then, within that definition, a pastiche, a costume, an ethos, a topos, and in that, a literature.

Tristan Tzara states in his 1918 ​Dada Manifesto​:

If I cry out: Ideal, ideal, ideal, 

Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge,

Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom,

I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom, and that the writer is entitled to his boomboom: the satisfaction of pathological curiosity a private bell for inexplicable needs; a bath; pecuniary difficulties; a stomach with repercussions in tile; the authority of the mystic wand formulated as the bouquet of a phantom orchestra made up of silent fiddle bows greased with filters made of chicken manure.

Thus, through a slippery combination of play, absurdity, randomness, banality, and nomenclature, Dada became a retort to bourgeois commodification and culture. In Dadaist poetry, like that of Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, sound and sense were a unified frequency, words ordered (or invented) for the cadence of their soundings, or sounds repeated until they reached a familiar wordliness. The reconstruction was also a deconstruction, piecing together syntax so as to glimpse the raw material of its foundation, the absurd chasm between signifier and signified, a kind of lexical invagination exposing the soft, meaningless meat of the sign’s interior while folding away the concatenative expectation of its carapace.

I am also interested and delighted by what Tzara calls ​boomboom​, an ineffable variable of individuality, an explosive indwelling quality, that which is one’s own, that which cannot be bought, or sold, or commodified without noticeably egregious appropriation. Is this not the protoplasm of the creative cell? The ​boomboom​ is the living, moving particles of energetic elasticity. The ​boomboom​ is the initial place of art’s happening. A ​boomboom ​that revs the engine of Amiri Baraka’s “It’s Nation Time”: “come out and strike boom boom/Heyahheeee come out/strike close ford/close prudential burn the policies.” The ​boomboom, ​a visceral propulsion of radicality. I cannot see this ​boomboom​, this cautionless freedom of exposition, this invagination of meaning and expectation, this critical experimentation against bourgeois convention, and not see the gleaming metal face of DOOM.

In DOOM, the invagination first occurs in the wearable persona. Where persona is usually constructed and extrapolated in ​subtext​ or interiority (i.e. in using the narrative architecture to suggest or impose a divergent character), in DOOM the persona is the ​context ​or exteriority. Thus the very nature and function of the persona is folded, inverted, and exploited. It is simply ​not​ DOOM without the mask. The context is the conditional modality required for the artistic transference. DOOM must don the mask to recite “Figaro” just as Hugo Ball must don the lobster to recite “Karawane.”

It is not only this external conditionality that feels similar as DOOM’s own lyrics often contain Dadaist similarities. Take these few lines from the song “Figaro” from the album Madvillainy:​

A shot of Jack got back it’s not an act stack

Forgot about the cackalack, holla back, clack-clack, blocka

Villainy, feel it in your heart chakra, chart-toppa

Smart-shit stoppa, be smart shoppa

Shot-a-Cop day around the way ‘bout to stay

But who’d a know there’s two mo’ that wonder where the shooter go

One can see the sonics of syntax are more initially realized than the semantics. It’s not quite the non-sequitur of Tristan Tzara​, ​nor the invented language(s) of Ball/Schwitters, but residual elements of both feel alive in the composition as if gleaned and sieved through the collective unconscious. This is not to suggest allusion in DOOM where there likely is none, but to highlight a shared instance of the avant-garde, a unique positionality of DOOM’s modes of composition that could almost seem atavistic as if there is some ineffable inheritance of form and vision. I think of Method Man explaining the etymologies of the Wu-Tang Clan and arriving at Ol’ Dirty Bastard being such because “there’s no father to his style.” An acknowledgment, by extension, that presupposes an atavistic link to the other members, and by further extension, to every artist and their aesthetics, thereby calling into question the ineluctable inheritance of form.

Compare the lyrics of DOOM to those of Amiri Baraka’s “BLACK DADA NIHILISMUS”.

Black scream

and chant, scream,

and dull, un

Earthly

hollering. Dada, bilious what ugliness, learned

in the dome, colored holy shit (i call them sinned

Both writers move with percussion and urgency, their syntax parsed down to its rhythm and cadence through which sense can be hurried and uninterrupted, nearly osmotic. DOOM, as a rap artist, makes greater use of rhyme, but the slant rhyme in Baraka’s poem falls in almost DOOMian patterns, being more deeply integrated into the architecture of each meter, rather than rounding out every line as an end rhyme, the caesura falling naturally with the breath rather than dictated by the strictures of form. It is not publicly documented whether DOOM read Baraka, but one could easily surmise an aesthetic inheritance. The missions of the two seem similar as well: to broaden artistic form and vision by wrestling with exhausted cultural codifications; Baraka more directly with the avant-garde, DOOM with the structural limitations of hip-hop.

Tzara calls the freedom of Dada, “a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites, and of all contradictions, grotesques, and inconsistencies.” By Tzara’s definition, both Baraka and DOOM are Dada. Baraka’s work tracks his complicated arc from the Lower East Side to Harlem. In a retrospective sense, he is a poet of contrapuntal inconsistencies, his later use of homophobic and antisemitic language seeming in direct contradiction to relations with his first wife, Hettie Cohen, and his good friend, Frank O’Hara. I call these inconsistencies contrapuntal because even though there exists a clear divergence, the gap between them can be harmonically realized through the track of Baraka’s radicalism. I liken it to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” a composition with enormous harmonic leaps and arduous chord changes that can seem off-kilter and disparate before one recognizes the harmonic thread. Baraka’s radicalization from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka illuminates the gossamer connecting the two, his urgency to cast off his former self, his resentment of his own subjugation in the world of the white avant-garde, and the Fanonian mission of his own decolonization. Becoming Baraka was Dada, a motif he vehemently reclaims in “BLACK DADA NIHILISMUS,” a revolution in itself.

DOOM’s own becoming shares certain similarities with that of Baraka. Before the invention of the metal-faced villain, he was known as Zev Love X, a member of New York’s lesser-known KMD. My purposes are not to fully excavate DOOM’s early foray into hip-hop, as there is plenty already written about his early work, but to draw out the avant-garde similarities of this transformation. After the tragic dissolve of KMD came the dissolve of Zev Love X, a nearly ten-year hiatus, and then suddenly, the villain himself, a visage personified, with his album ​Operation Doomsday​. The transformation of Zev Love X to MF DOOM seems almost a non-sequitur, the differences in style, persona, cadence, and subject are chasmic (once again, “Giant Steps”). It is not a leap that requires logical rectification, even if it does evoke a narrative curiosity, but a reformation of subjectivity that, through its own internal devices, propels its own harmonic frequency. The chasm between the two personas feels rectified by the exaggeration of the latter, even if it is not narratively simplified. Like Baraka, DOOM became more grotesque, more satirical, more antagonistic, knowing this construction would serve as a severance from past work/self. Both artists undertook what Tzara would call an “elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere,” the sphere of which was the self-made world of creation, the unprecedented, the unparalleled, the avant-garde.

In her essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” Cathy Park Hong draws a distinct corollary of origin and influence.

If we are to acknowledge that there are formal choices that define avant-garde poetry such as polyvocality, hybridity, collage, stream-of-conscious writing, and improvisation, these techniques were not only used but were actually first inaugurated by African American writers or they were America’s early practitioners.

Hong’s argument is the empirical basis for her polemic against the white institutions that have long neglected the inclusion of artists of color from the canon and codification of the avant-garde, and/or who have been transparently tokenistic in their notably small, infrequent moments of “inclusion.” Hong’s essay focuses exclusively on the literary world, citing figures like Kenneth Goldsmith and Marjorie Perloff as the gatekeepers of said codification. Though Hong’s essay is valid and successfully makes strides to decolonize and rupture the perceived whiteness of experimental literature, I am lead further to question why the canonical “integrity” of the literary avant-garde continues to exclude the most consumed modality of poetry of the last thirty-five years; hip-hop.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. What is the ontological difference between Dylan’s ​Blonde on Blonde​ and Lamar’s ​To Pimp a Butterfly?​ Hip-hop has long inherited and advanced the oral tradition of poetry. Lamar’s ​TPAB​ is a personal and esoteric glimpse into one man’s struggle with depression, civil inequality, and the mounting pressures of notoriety who finds his way back to truth and humility by returning to the place and people of his genesis. Replace Lamar’s existentialism with allegorical chimerae and you have ​The Odyssey​. Lamar was awarded a Pulitzer in 2018 for his album ​DAMN.​, but the prize was for Music. Lamar’s work, like Nas, like DOOM, is more than music. It is an avant-garde literature that becomes categorically stifled by its own musicality when it should in fact be the inverse; liberated, expanded by it.

Poetry and music are ontologically codependent. Their very materials are inversely linked. Words have sound, therefore words are music. Sound has sense, therefore sound is language. The communication of one always implicates the other. These are not novel assertions, yet they have become categorically ignored. In academia, as well, there exists a needless conflict of classifying rap as poetry, which, of course, is perpetuated by a perceived obligation to a lambasted canon. Any course discussing the serious merit of hip-hop is likely relegated to a one-off special interest of the Humanities department rather than fully integrated into the syllabi of the English department. The academic separation of two mediums that are dialectically engaged is absolutely due to the racial and classist ignorance that Hong speaks to.

Hong ends her essay, “The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.” However, Hong’s idea of propulsion is limited to a tired system of academia, an institution that acts, and has always acted, in its own interests. The very creation and cultivation of rap was a hewing of a new path that in its foundational ​geist​ was antiauthoritarian, skeptical of systems of education, systems of monetization, systems of policing and incarceration, etc. Not only was rap an invention of a new kind of poetics, it was an invention of a new sound to embolden its poetics, a new fashion to adorn its poetics, a new dance to embody its poetics. It was (is) the absolute front of the line. It was (is) the avant-garde.

Fred Moten states in his seminal academic text, ​In the Break​, “What I’ve been specifically interested in here is how the idea of a black avant-garde exists, as it were, oxymoronically—as if black, on the one hand, and avant-garde, on the other hand, each depends on its coherence upon the exclusion of the other.” Moten later goes on to dispel this tired supposition by drawing clear lines of influence and inheritance between Blackness and the avant-garde through jazz icons like Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy, as well as literary figures like Ralph Ellison and Amiri Baraka. Moten’s mission, like Hong’s, is to excoriate the notion of the avant-garde as solely an appellation appointed through a white crucible, further articulating the atavistic resurgence of form. Moten’s examination of lineage draws the conclusion that “invention” is often an artifice, a system of claiming and thus capitalizing on provenance. Just as cubism was not a groundbreaking effort of singular genius, but an appropriative exploitation of earlier forms, so too are other avant-garde modalities similar or more egregious erasures.

Baraka’s poetry is an important reminder of this fact. It is poetry as praxis, a responsible reclaiming of the transmogrified subject. In DOOM, we are given the very visage of that transmogrification, the generations of revolution and subjugation, the misleading dialectics of inheritance and invention. It’s as if Baraka reclaims the avant-garde so DOOM can further invert it, exploit it, and excoriate it. The “metal-faced villain” then becomes the anti-hero of the avant-garde, the Dada ubermensch, the subterfuge personified to criticize subterfuge, a new praxis for the ancient custom of mask-wearing.

When I speak of​ avant-garde i​n relation to hip-hop, or ​Dada i​n relation to DOOM, I am speaking of the unconscious synthesis of radical traditions within a “fresh” composition. A visual representation of this concept (besides DOOM himself) might look something like the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose unique forms also contain an ostensible lineage; or, more recently, the work of Adam Pendleton, whose exhibition ​Black Dada​ works to rectify the oppression of inherited forms while imagining unbridled futures, as proof that the perceived linearity of form can also be excoriated. Hip-hop is exactly this simultaneity of inheritance and excoriation. Its very form and structure, a sonic bricolage, manage to reuse sound without being appropriative, transforming the familiar into the​ disf​amiliar, into the new, into the now. It is the living, breathing, viable avant-garde.

MF DOOM may have been the loudest entry point into this constellation of hip-hop as experimental literature, but he, as he would have preferred it, was not its locus, not its singular genius, as these concepts do not exist. Still, it is through his flamboyance that many of us were galvanized to explore the odd nature of his tropes, his cadence, his allusions; diverging, I’m sure, towards various originary sources. Such is the result of successful art, this divergence of interpretation, an incommensurable integration of meaning. Just as I have used DOOM to examine a trajectory of radical poetics, he can just as easily be employed as a key to the expansion of the graphic novel, or as the bridge between the “Golden age” and modern era of hip-hop, or as a contemporary elaboration of jazz, etc. Daniel Dumile is no longer with us, but MF DOOM is forever as a semiotics, an inexhaustible map of inquiry, as the mask we can all wear. 

Photo courtesy of Eric Tyler Benick.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Tyler Benick is the author of the chapbooks I Don’t Know What an Oboe Can Do (No Rest Press, 2020) and The George Oppen Memorial BBQ (The Operating System, 2019) as well as a founding editor at Ursus Americanus Press, a publisher of chapbooks. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Vassar Review, Bat City Review, Birdcoat Quarterly, Mount Island, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 26th, 2021.