The emergence of MF DOOM and the receding of Zev Love X, is one of hip-hop’s greatest stories never told. We hear it in dribs and drabs from the rumour mill, or as fleeting, albeit recurring, references from DOOM himself.
It is a moment simultaneously obfuscated by time and animated in rhyme. A late-’90s Lewis Holiday photograph taken at an open mic event at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe in New York began circulating online soon after the news of Daniel Dumile’s passing, which was announced on 31 December 2020. Like a slowing-down platter rendering the artwork of a classic record visible, the photograph gives us a glimpse into Dumile’s early experiments with concealment.
Holiday spoke to the Mail & Guardian about the night the photo was taken and how DOOM, in classic villain style, circled back into his life for some unfinished business.
When I Iook at that image, I think of a few things. One of them is how MF DOOM often referred to how he gripped mics. It seemed like an act of combat, brutality rendered as emceeing. What does that body language make you think of?
Honestly, I see confidence. It’s pretty powerful. I think he showed a lot of power and authority. He was around for quite a bit before, being in KMD, working with 3rd Bass years ago, which a lot of people weren’t familiar with. I think he definitely came out as [if] there was nobody better.
And obviously that image captures the cusp of something. Much of its import is kind of retrospective at this point with his passing. Did you feel its significance looking at it for the first time after you’d shot it?
Honestly, I did not. I took that photo. I remember taking a bunch of other pictures of him that night and, for some reason, I can’t find the majority of the ones I thought I took. That’s the only one I saw in the negatives. I have had a lot of people contact me for that photo. I didn’t think it would be as powerful as some other people are seeing it. I’ve been doing hip-hop photography for quite a bit, going to shows. I just happened to very close up for that show. I was just surprised to see him because I don’t think he was even on the list. I think he was like a surprise guest type of thing. I was there to shoot 7L and Esoteric, because I’m friends with them. I grew up with those guys.
What did you make of DOOM’s approach to emceeing?
I looked at him as someone who kept to the basics of hip-hop. He stuck to the formula. Dope beats, dope rhymes, there you go. His voice and his flow — it just blended in perfectly. There are some songs that just blend in, like he’s made for that beat. He handpicked his beats quite a bit, and he produced, as you know. I think he stuck to the script. Subtle punchlines. Some were hard; some of them you wouldn’t even notice until you had to hear it again.
Did you get to photograph him again? How did your paths cross in that regard? I see you shot the mask and you mentioned your son portraying him in a video.
That was the only shot I took of him personally, at that show. That was back in 1998 … When the [Czarface meets Metal Face] album came out, Esoteric hit me up and said, “I wanna do this video [for Bomb Thrown], and I wanna use your son (my son’s name is Jeremiah) to play DOOM”. And Esoteric was gonna use his son Xavier in a mask to play Czarface. Like a Czarface vs DOOM thing. I did stop-motion photography for the video. The mask for the video was from DOOM. DOOM sent that mask to Esoteric [a member of Czarface] and Esoteric sent it to me and DOOM let my son have it. It’s been hanging on our wall for the last two years.
Thinking about the mask, I’m feeling like it provided shrinking levels of privacy as more people came to know him. I’m just speculating that that’s probably why we saw less of him in public as time went on. How accessible was he to people he knew and people he was cool with?
I do know that he was hard to get a hold of. He’s been private for a long time. He usually does his lyrics either at his house or at a private studio and then he’ll send them off. I think he was living in London. He wasn’t even in the States [in his latter years]. He’d been living in England for years … from my understanding. I think somebody else was running his social media. And most of the social media stuff he had on there was merchandise. So that kind of tells you a little bit. He was private. He was old school like that.
For more images, follow Holiday on his accounts @lewisholiday and @lewisholidayphotography