'm not sure why hip hop is such an authenticity-obsessed genre, but I have my suspicions. Hip hop went from street-based folk culture to mainstream cash cow so quickly that anyone entering the game immediately had their motives questioned. Hip hop's first big pop stars, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice went from fortune to kitsch so fast that it seemed like those that believed in the music feared that the genre would be written off as well. Fast forward to the current hip hop climate: authenticity is achieved in a variety of ways. Gangsta rappers appeal to visceral violence and hypermasculinity; strident underground headz eschew mainstream success; conscious bohemians seek to elevate their music with earthy values; fiercely canonical old-school devotees attempt to return to the days of hip hop unsullied by pop charts; white middle class rappers turn their angst into heartwrenching tales of self-doubt.
No one rapper falls exclusively into these neat categories: plenty of cross-fertilization of values occurs. One thing remains constant, however: the battle for authenticity in hip hop is inherently contradictory and unredeemably quixotic. Now, I won't use this review to discuss how "true" authenticity is impossible; I doubt I could do a good job of it anyway. Suffice to say that truly authentic music, if it exists, would never subscribe to any previously ordained set of values. To do so would be to compromise the unique artistic vision of the artist -- the values must be created by the artist him/herself to fit the music. Ja Rule, Common, KRS-One, and Atmosphere are all chasing their tails. If they pushed all the self-conscious image promotion aside and focused on making the music they wanted to make, their efforts would be far more successful.
I know of few rappers that are able to do this, to enter a world completely their own, but those that can are inevitably my favorites. Kool Keith could do it, before he degenerated into self-parody. Ghostface Killah still does, despite fame and fortune. Cannibal Ox's Vast Aire has achieved this on The Cold Vein. And finally, MF Doom, perhaps the most adept at doing what Ghostface advises: "Just pop yo' collar / Do whatever you do best." Practically an underground legend at this point, Doom has been in the game since the '80s, as a member of the jazz-rap group KMD. After the group disbanded following the untimely death of one of its members, Doom went underground, surfacing only in freestyle battles wearing a metal mask to keep his identity secret. Eventually Doom released the classic Operation Doomsday on Fondle Em Records in 1999, an infectious hodge-podge of blunted beats, smooth jazz, odd samples, and more eccentric non sequiturs than Kool Keith could shake a stick at. The album was a slow-burner, but by 2001, Doom had enough important fans (including Scott Herren, who gave him a guest spot on the first Prefuse 73 album) that suddenly he was in demand. This year, Doom will release at least two different albums, as well as numerous singles, EPs, guest appearances, and reissues.
Doom achieves where so many other MCs fall short. His flows are the definition of effortless: deceptively clever metaphors roll off his thick tongue so naturally that it sounds like he could rap about anything that comes to mind. Compare this to, say, Aesop Rock, who struggles to pack in so many syllables into his lines that he comes off as too eager to impress. A dense mass of verbiage obscures everything else about the music: the result is the equivalent to wanky guitar solos ruining otherwise serviceable rock songs. Doom has always been very conscious of the music as a whole, especially on Take Me to Your Leader (released under the King Geedorah moniker), which is really a platform to display his production skills. Doom himself only raps on a handful of tracks, leaving the rest to be voiced by a host of like-minded MCs and monster movie samples, an odd move for an MC with such a distinctive and compelling voice.
Fortunately, it happens to work beautifully. Doom imbues the production with as much warped charisma and character as he puts into his raps. "Fazers" kicks things off with a huge slab of dusty strings, ripped right from the AM dial. Guitars squeal on "Fastlane," while the drums of "The Final Hour" stomp like the album's titular 300-foot beast. A tangible spirit of Saturday afternoon TV kitsch is all over the beats: sci-fi theremins, laser blasts, organs culled from '60s jingles. Fuzzy drum samples come clearly banged out on a sampler in lo-fi analog glee -- no digital quantizing is stifling these joints. But for all the cheesy glory of Take Me to Your Leader, nothing comes off as ironic dabbling -- somehow Doom retains the goofy energy that make monster movies so damn entertaining. He never treats his material as something he's above; I don't think Doom would ever do that. The affinity is genuine, pure, not concerned with anything outside of making beats that sound dope. Isn't that what it's all about, anyway?
This kind of philosophy runs to the core of Doom's lyrics. Pop culture references, idioms, and warped cliches are thrown into raps, sometimes with cohesion between sentences sense, sometimes not. It doesn't really matter -- the sound and rhythm of the words are paramount. The voice is becomes another sonic tool for the song (and it makes Doom's guest appearance on Prefuse 73's Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives album, which experimented with this aspect of hip hop, highly appropriate). The effect is like jazz musician soloing using a cultural consciousness as an instrument.-Needless to say it makes for brilliant songs -- everything in the music is cohesive, warm, and, with Doom's unique character, easy to love.
It's a shame that hip hop that puts music as the foremost concern over posturing, semiotics, and authenticity comes off as so refreshing. It should be a non-issue. But with the current rise in hip hop's marketability, the genre is bound to be saddled with the same image issues that have been ruining rock music for decades. Fortunately someone is out there creating music out of pure love, without trying to prove anything. And by doing just that, Doom proves, perhaps incidentally, that he's one of the most important figures working in hip hop today -- someone with a fresh vision, effortless style, and tweaked charisma for days. Take Me To Your Leader comes off as a bit sparse -- it's a brief 43 minutes, a bit light on rapping, with several musical themes repeated throughout the album -- but when Doom is slated to release three albums in one calendar year, can you blame him for leaving you wanting more?
Reviewed by: Gavin Mueller
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01