Saturday, May 31, 2014

Operation: Doomsday 33 1/3 Proposal

In late February, I submitted a proposal for Bloomsbury’s generally excellent 33 1/3 series. Unfortunately, my proposal for MF Doom’s classic Operation: Doomsday was not accepted, but I am still proud of the work I put in and think it would have made a great book. The process of conceptualizing and putting together a book proposal burned me out, so I took a break from this blog for a few months. I’m starting to have a few irons in the fire again for No Exchange, and I thought it only fitting to kick things off again with the draft introduction and full chapter breakdown from my rejected proposal for Operation: Doomsday. Regular No Exchange content will be resuming in the days to come.



After luring the mighty Silver Surfer, sentinel of the spaceways and wielder of the power cosmic, to his amazing experimental workshop and entrancing him with a view of the vastness of space, Doctor Doom’s underlings attach a bizarre apparatus to their master! Suddenly, Doom clamps a pair of high intensity inductors to the Surfer’s head and draws his titanic cosmic power into his own armored body! After one thunderous final release of energy, Doom has no more use for the defeated Surfer.
“Release the Silver Surfer! He can menace us no longer! Now, it is I who possess the cosmic power which once was his! Never before has any one human being been as totally supreme—as invincibly superior—as I! Now let mankind beware—for Doctor Doom has attained powers without limit—power enough to challenge Galactus himself!”[1]


In July 1962, Fantastic Four #5 introduced Doctor Doom, arguably the greatest villain in comic book history and certainly the greatest villain that the Fantastic Four has ever faced in their more than fifty years of continuity. A terrifically vain nobleman from the fictional Balkan state Latveria, Victor Von Doom developed a scientific rivalry with the young Reed Richards while in college. Doom’s own hubris caused one of his experiments to explode, horribly scarring his once-handsome face. He fled back to Latveria, he fashioned a fear-inducing mask so that no one, least of all himself, could gaze upon his disfigured features ever again. Then he waited and plotted his revenge. When Richards and three friends found themselves bombarded by cosmic rays and transformed into the Fantastic Four, Doom seized his moment and began a relentless attack on his bitter rival.
For 102 issues spanning the entirety of the 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run on Fantastic Four exemplified all of the best things about comic books’ silver age.[2] Restless invention, constant pushing against the established constraints of the form, and a flawless combination of pathos and otherworldly flights of fancy redefined and revitalized the form for the era of counterculture. Even with all of the darkness that Lee, Kirby, and Spider-Man/Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko injected into their brightly colored superhero comics, the books were fun and exciting above all else.
Thirty-five years after Doctor Doom debuted, hip-hop had nearly as many heroes and villains as contemporary comics did, but the nature of these rap villains too often paralleled their 1990s comic book counterparts. Comics of the day were home to a glut of interchangeable, morally ambiguous antiheroes who fought unimaginably vicious villains. Nearly all of them ended up being laughably cartoonish in ways that their sunnier forebears in previous eras never succumbed to. The ‘90s were a decade when even Superman wore black for a time, and rap followed suit. For every Notorious B.I.G. who compellingly embraced the darkest aspects of his personality, declaring that “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell/ ‘Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fucking tell/ It don’t make sense going to heaven with the goodie-goodies/ Dressed in white, I like black Timbs and black hoodies,”[3] there were a hundred generically villainous rappers with more excess than substance. Rather than being colorful and entertaining, too many of these generic villains were all darkness and no personality.
Enter MF Doom, the only silver age villain that hip-hop has ever seen. Originally known as Zev Love X and part of the group KMD, he had a brief career on major label Elektra Records in the early ‘90s. The death of his brother and group mate Subroc and the disastrous end of his career at Elektra in the same week drove him into a half decade of hiding and homelessness. When he returned with a mask and a secret identity, it was in an environment that no longer resembled the hip-hop climate that he was used to. Hip-hop had become the highest-selling genre of music in the country, and record labels scrambled to commodify and corporatize the music for maximum profit. Rap radio became glossier, lyrics less incisive. Ascendant stars like Puff Daddy and Master P were deemed the enemy by a new crop of stridently underground New York rappers committed to keeping the old forms of dusty sample-based hip-hop alive. These colorful underground emcees formed labels and collectives, strategic alliances and team-ups that resembled the Marvel comics of old.
MF Doom couldn’t have arrived at a better time. His relentless quest against the record labels that left him scarred and the wack emcees that served as those labels’ minions found nearly universal support among his underground peers. He formed his own team, the Monsta Island Czars, from the ranks of Godzilla movie monsters like Jet Jaguar, Rodan, Megalon, and Kong. These fearsome henchmen only made Doom more threatening to the rappers that he faced.
Doom’s most fruitful team-up was with a man he knew from his KMD days: Bobbito Garcia. As the cohost of the tremendously influential late night rap show The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show on Columbia University’s KCRW FM, Bobbito was responsible for breaking rap titans like the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, and Black Star. By the time Doom returned, Bobbito had fully embraced his own role as arbiter of taste for the underground, starting Fondle ‘Em Records as an outlet for regular guests on his show who did not have and were unlikely to get record contracts elsewhere. Doom was a bit too weird for the other great underground record label Rawkus, but Bobbito brought him into the fold almost immediately after hearing his music. By being Doom’s first and greatest booster, Bobbito carved out an audience for the man’s music through three highly sought out white label vinyl singles. Two years after his initial masked appearance on an open mic stage, Doom had a force of loyal acolytes in the struggle against wack rappers, and Doom had a manifesto for them, Operation: Doomsday.


Operation: Doomsday was only the first of several great albums that Doom has released under various aliases, but it is both his best and his most influential. Late ‘90s underground hip-hop’s influence far outweighs its sales figures. Countless artists, including ones much more popular than Doom, listened to Operation: Doomsday and carried that influence into their own music. Doom inspired many to pick up the mic or start digging for samples, not unlike the old cliché about every person who listened to the first Velvet Underground album starting bands of their own. Some of the most exciting and acclaimed young artists of hip-hop today, including Earl Sweatshirt, Bishop Nehru, and the Pro Era crew, cite Doom and Operation: Doomsday in particular as a major influence.
Not since Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993 had a hip-hop artist been able to so completely establish a new aesthetic and fringe pop culture-based image over the course of one album, but the album is important not just for how unique and exciting it is but for how indicative it is of the time and environment in which it was created. This album perfectly encapsulates the bare bones, low budget, sample-based sound of NY underground rap at the turn of the 21st century. The album was recorded straight to cassette on a beat up old sampler and the cheapest microphones they could find, and it sounds like it. For artists explicitly positioning themselves in opposition to a different class of overly glossy pop rappers, audibly low budget records were a large part of the appeal.
The album’s scope is remarkably insular. The only guest rappers are members of the Monsta Island Czars, Kurious (a member of the CM Famalam and affiliate of Doom and Bobbito), and Bobbito himself (under the name DJ Cucumber Slice). Doom produced all of the beats himself with the exception of a few from the Subroc vault. As much as the album was an assault on wack rappers, its greatest power came from its status as a viable alternative. Simply railing against art that you don’t like means little if you can’t put forth a better substitute, and Doom was ready to do just that. Amidst a crowded field of rappers and a few dozen great records that were also released on Fondle ‘Em, Operation: Doomsday has been the rare record that continues to be relevant beyond its original moment.
Operation: Doomsday is both a classic album and one that exemplifies so much of underground hip-hop in the ‘90s. As such, it is the perfect prism through which to examine Doom’s career, the influence and importance of The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show and independent rap labels, and New York underground hip-hop as a whole. Just as the New York subway system interconnects and drives that city, the hip-hop underground is the network that keeps the entire hip-hop culture moving, yet its late ‘90s iteration has been mostly glossed over or left out of the hip-hop literature. It’s time for that to change.


Not long after its release, Fondle ‘Em had to stop pressing copies of Operation: Doomsday due to a cease and desist from Marvel over the image of Doctor Doom on the cover, but the album lived on through bootlegs and peer-to-peer file sharing networks before finally being reissued by Stones Throw in 2011. The reissue came in two equally expansive versions befitting the album’s legacy status. The 4LP box set included the album as well as two LPs of alternate takes, instrumentals and b-sides, a beautiful lyric book, and trading cards of all of the rappers who appeared on the album, all packaged in a metal tin patterned after Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box. The CD edition featured everything from the LP set packaged in a tin lunchbox in the vein of the old Marvel Comics lunchboxes of decades past. After twelve years of mixed quality bootlegs, it was a fitting—if unfortunately limited edition—return to print after one of the most exciting decade long runs by any artist in hip-hop history.
By masking himself and mostly avoiding the press, by willfully submerging his identity behind the Doomposters that he has sent to his shows in his stead and teasing projects that never see the light of day, Doom has fashioned himself into one of the most mysterious and, yes, villainous figures in music. 


Introduction: The Hands of Doom
The introduction will open with an adapted excerpt from an issue of the classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four from the 1960s. Doom uses samples from the 1966 Fantastic Four animated series throughout Operation: Doomsday as a way of both establishing his dominant aesthetic and creating thematic consistency within the album’s nineteen tracks. As such, it seems appropriate to “sample” the classic Fantastic Four comics throughout the book—primarily as openings for each chapter—for the same purposes. I don’t mention this in the annotations for each chapter so as not to distract from the breakdowns of the themes that I plan to focus on throughout the book.

Chapter 1: Peachfuzz
The first chapter will begin not with Doom, but rather with the Marvel Age of comics, which began in 1961 with the publication of Fantastic Four #1. The character of Dr. Doom was introduced in the fifth issue of that series, and the 102 issue run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was the formative influence on Doom’s image and first album. From there I will move on to Daniel Dumile’s birth in London in 1971. Little info is available on Dumile’s childhood and he has been historically reticent to divulge details of his life prior to entering the public eye so it is likely that I will rather quickly age him up to 18 when he formed the group KMD with his brother Dingilizwe Dumile (DJ Subroc). Running parallel to Dumile’s adolescence and the formation of KMD was the rising global influence of hip-hop and its increasing commodification. A mad scramble ensued in which major labels began snatching up as many potentially sellable hip-hop acts as they could. In the wake of jazzy hits by groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, the increasing influence of the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths in hip-hop, and a name-making appearance on 3rd Bass’ hit “The Gas Face”, KMD was swept up in the wave and ended up on Elektra Records alongside like-minded artists like Brand Nubian, Digable Planets, and Pete Rock & CL Smooth.
The first KMD album Mr. Hood arrived in 1991 and sold poorly despite positive critical attention. While promoting the album, the group made their first appearance on The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show in 1992. Bobbito in particular took a shine to the group. KMD songs entered regular rotation and a few more appearances on the show followed. Bolstered by growing underground support, the group began work on a darker, more confrontational sophomore album titled Black Bastards. As the album was nearing completion, a car struck and killed Subroc on the Long Island Expressway. Around the time that Subroc died, attacks by members of the press who misunderstood the symbolism of the hanging Sambo figure on the Black Bastards cover called for a boycott of the record. Fearful of the controversy, Elektra dropped KMD less than a week after Subroc’s death, and Zev Love X effectively disappeared from hip-hop.

Chapter 2: Praise Due
The second chapter will focus primarily on Bobbito Garcia, the early years of The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show (which started in 1990), and the formation and early releases of Fondle ‘Em Records. The bulk of this chapter will be spent on the years from 1993 to 1997, when the show solidified itself as a strong force and consistent tastemaker in hip-hop. Since Daniel Dumile was completely out of the public eye for most of this period, he will only make sporadic appearances in this chapter until he starts showing up on open mic stages with a stocking mask over his head at the very end of the chapter.
The primary narrative in mid-‘90s east coast hip-hop was an increasingly powerful us vs. them dynamic. A vocal contingent of hip-hop heads considered the mainstream to be empty, overly glossy, insufficiently lyrical, generally terrible, and a powerful threat to “real hip-hop” as they defined it. The underground sounds that these heads championed were gritty, sample-based (in spite of rigid sample licensing laws), intensely lyrical, and unconcerned with the trappings of materialism. By the time Puff Daddy and the Family’s No Way Out won the Best Rap Album Grammy in early 1998, the divide between the two segments of hip-hop was nearly insurmountable. Pressure on underground artists was so great that El-P of the group Company Flow felt that he couldn’t even publicly admit that he liked Jay-Z’s music. It was in this environment that Fondle ‘Em (and like-minded labels like Rawkus Records) built its following. When Dumile returned as MF Doom in 1997, hip-hop had stratified so much that his light jabs at the crossover rapper MC Hammer in “The Gas Face” eight years earlier seemed far too tame in an era when rappers had started dying over beef.

Chapter 3: Who You Think I Am?
            Dumile’s reemergence in the growing New York underground was well timed. His new identity as a masked supervillain in the silver age Marvel mode provided menace and some much needed lightheartedness in equal measure. The four years since KMD’s dissolution gave Dumile some much needed time to hone his craft, and his lyrical ability had improved immensely. Being part of KMD created an environment that was crucial to him developing his original style, and when he returned to the stage in 1997, he quickly affiliated himself with two new crews that were integral to the production of Operation: Doomsday and its release in 1999. The first, the CM Famalam, was an outgrowth of The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show. More a loose association than a group proper, CM Famalam included Stretch & Bob regulars like the Grimm Reaper (soon to rechristen himself MF Grimm as he became Doom’s primary collaborator), Kurious, and Powerule. Though CM Famalam never recorded as an official group, it provided a new spark for Dumile’s relationship with Bobbito. CM Famalam is the primary reason why Dumile was able to sign to Fondle ‘Em for his first single as MF Doom, “Dead Bent” b/w “Gas Drawls”/”Hey.” CM Famalam found new focus when the Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show was replaced by The CM Famalam Show in 1998 (sans Stretch Armstrong), but by that point Doom and Grimm had focused their attention on their new crew, the Monsta Island Czars. With the exception of Kurious, the Czars were the only featured artists on Operation: Doomsday. The group’s Godzilla-inspired aesthetic—every member adopted aliases based on kaiju monsters from Godzilla movies (Doom as King Geedorah, Grimm as Jet Jaguar, etc.)—added extra color and depth to Doom’s comic book-driven mythology.
            By the time MF Doom arrived, Fondle ‘Em had already established itself as the go-to label for deep underground New York hip-hop. Along with Rawkus Records, who released albums by more prominent members of the New York underground including Company Flow, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Pharoahe Monch, Fondle ‘Em was the cavalry of the forces opposing mainstream hip-hop. Just as hip-hop heads stayed up into the wee hours on Thursday nights every week in order to dub tapes of Stretch and Bob’s show, Fondle ‘Em’s white label vinyl only singles became required listening for rappers and fans on the East Coast. In spite of their small pressings and relative obscurity, the influence of Fondle ‘Em’s releases far outstripped their sales numbers. By the time Doom’s first single became the label’s eleventh release, Fondle ‘Em was well enough established that Doom had a readymade audience in place. As such, the three singles that led up to Operation: Doomsday sent shockwaves through the small but vocal community of Fondle ‘Em fans. It is into this environment that Operation: Doomsday dropped.

Chapter 4: Special Herbs and Spices
The fourth chapter will be devoted to a track-by-track breakdown not unlike the one in Bryan Waterman’s volume on Television’s Marquee Moon. I will be paying special attention to the ways in which the songs exemplified the sounds and ideas that drove New York’s hip-hop underground in the late ‘90s and the way those songs telegraphed the future of hip-hop. For instance, on the album’s penultimate track “?,” Doom’s ode to his deceased brother Subroc, he packs in obscure pop culture references, witty multisyllabic rhymes, a slightly drunken vocal delivery, and well-chosen samples from the 1966 Fantastic Four cartoon (itself an homage to the RZA’s use of kung fu movie samples on the Wu-Tang Clan’s group and solo albums). Doom’s lyrical and production choices, as well as his specific inflections and cadences have been aped by countless of his successors in the 15 years since the album’s release.
Though this book is intended primarily as a historical work, chapter 4 will likely be the longest chapter so that I can dissect and analyze each of the album’s nineteen tracks, as well as alternate versions found on the three 12” singles Doom released on Fondle ‘Em and the instrumental versions found on Doom’s Special Herbs vinyl series.

Chapter 5: Escape from Monsta Island
            MF Doom’s career after Operation: Doomsday has been marked by periods of intense creativity and prolific output interspersed with long periods of inactivity and fan-alienating actions. After his first album, Doom did little to capitalize on his initial success and outside of his instrumental Special Herbs vinyl series he did not release an album until his first King Geedorah project in 2003. The following three years were the most fruitful and prolific of Doom’s career. He released his second album as MF Doom, MM… FOOD, two albums as Viktor Vaughn, full-length collaborations with Madlib and Danger Mouse, and an album with the Monsta Island Czars. A bitter split with the Monsta Island Czars occurred soon after this latter album, and tensions quickly rose to the point where Doom and MF Grimm were taking shots at each other on record. Still, Doom’s profile rose immensely, and he became one of the most visible and acclaimed rappers in the hip-hop underground. Since The Mouse and the Mask with Danger Mouse in 2006, however, Doom’s output has consisted of only two studio albums and two low quality live albums that have been widely derided as cash-ins. Doom has also taken to sending masked imposters, dubbed Doomposters, to his concerts, where they have attempted to lip sync before being quickly booed off stage. Yet even Doom’s seemingly willful alienation of his fans has done little to diminish their devotion. The Doomposters seem to have gone the way of the buffalo since Doom was deported to England three years ago, making him more elusive than ever to his American fans.
            In 2001, Bobbito decided that Fondle ‘Em had served its purpose and passed the torch to El-P’s (formerly of Rawkus-signed group Company Flow) new label Definite Jux. One of Def Jux’s first releases was the compilation Farewell Fondle ‘Em, and the label’s subsequent string of massively acclaimed releases positioned it as the natural successor to Bobbito’s work with his label. Rawkus took the opposite approach, making increasing overtures toward the mainstream. The label’s identity rapidly diluted and it hemorrhaged fans throughout the early 2000s before effectively folding with a tarnished reputation in 2007. Def Jux, Stones Throw (which released Doom’s Madvillainy album with Madlib), and other labels picked up the torch from Fondle ‘Em and Rawkus, maintaining the underground in a period of incredible transition in the music industry. After years of being out of print save for low quality bootlegs, Stones Throw released a massive reissue of Operation: Doomsday in 2011, exposing the album to a new mass of fans who had either missed the album on its initial release or had only heard it through file sharing networks. Though Madvillainy remains Doom’s most well-known project, Operation: Doomsday’s influence is deeply felt in hip-hop today. Highly touted rappers like Earl Sweatshirt, Bishop Nehru (who actually has a project in the works with Doom) and the Pro Era crew have spoken of the album’s effect on their own musical development, and Doom’s lyrical style is oft imitated though rarely equaled. 

[1] Adapted from Fantastic Four #57 (December 1966)
[2] Fans generally consider the silver age of comics to be the period between the debut of the second Flash in October 1956, which heralded the resurgence of superheroes in the popular consciousness, and about 1970.
[3] On “Suicidal Thoughts,” the final track on his debut album Ready to Die (1994).

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