A decade after the late rapper's infamous concert, it remains full of intrigue – behind-the-scenes and onstage
MF Doom (or imposter?) performs in 2011.
In Toronto, MF DOOM has a very specific legacy: one infamous concert at the Kool Haus in 2010.
The legendary rapper, whose death was announced on New Year’s Eve, is maybe hip-hop’s most obsessed-over cult artist. The man born Daniel Dumile released music under a variety of different aliases – not just MF DOOM, but Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, Madvillain, etc.
On the rare occasions he performed live, he always wore a mask. Or, sometimes, other people did.
He’s revered for his intricate multi-syllabic lyrics, VHS plundering production and kayfabe-revering persona play. He might not have been a household name, but those who loved him pored over his words, memorized his albums, learned his dense mythology. He was your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper. In the last week, everyone from Busta Rhymes to Tyler, The Creator paid tribute.
The show that went down at the now-gone Kool Haus concert venue on February 25, 2010, is the stuff of local legend. It was the scandalous culmination of a disastrous mini-tour during which Dumile had allegedly been sending out an imposter in a mask to perform for him.
By the time he reached Toronto, nobody knew whether DOOM would perform, and if he did, whether it would really be him. It culminated in a twist worthy of Wrestlemania. Or the Twilight Zone.
As notorious as it was at the time, now, 10 years later, we’re learning there was just as much intrigue and mystery behind-the-scenes as onstage.
“They say never meet your heroes,” says Jonathan Ramos, the promoter who brought DOOM to Toronto. “This is the classic example of that.”
“It was such a mindfuck,” says D-Sisive, the Toronto rapper who opened the show. “It was like: Is this guy crazy? Is this guy an asshole? Is this guy all of the above and a genius?”
It all started with a video.
In late 2009, a clip of Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey), an underground legend in his own right, surfaced from his recording studio. Between takes of his own music, he was rapping a capella DOOM lyrics with pitch-perfect accuracy.
DOOM got wind of the video and expressed his mutual admiration. The two decided to embark on a rare double-headliner tour. Three dates were announced: Chicago, Toronto and New York. A catnip bill for backpack rap fans, the shows all quickly sold out.
The announcement inspired cautious optimism and a lot of hype. The normally press-shy DOOM granted a cover-story interview to Toronto’s Eye Weekly. There was even a Toronto-specific illustrated poster made by artist Kagan McLeod.
After an initial last-minute postponement the day the Toronto show was supposed to happen in January, the Chicago show instead started the tour in February. Mos Def performed as planned, even dropping a few DOOM verses in his own set. But when DOOM played, people were suspicious. Everything sounded a little too precise, and that guy in the mask didn’t quite look like the pictures…
By the next day, reports that it was an imposter were all over music blogs. The venue confirmed it, but DOOM’s camp called it patently false.
It wasn’t the first time DOOM had been accused of sending someone in his place, though. He even kind of admitted it.
“I liken it to this,” Dumile said in an interview. “I’m a director as well as a writer. I choose different characters, I choose their direction and where I want to put them. So who I choose to put as the character is up to me. The character that I hired, he got paid for it.
“There’s no impostor… When I go to a show, I’m going to hear the music. I’m not going to see no particular person.”
But Mos Def evidently wasn’t on the same wavelength. After the Chicago show, he quickly dropped off the tour. It wasn’t announced why, but timing and other accounts suggest it was directly related to the DOOMposter incident.
According to Ramos, who’s now the director of live music for INK Entertainment’s and its hip-hop division, RapSeason, both artists were already paid up front. DOOM’s manager, however, denied the imposter rumours and insisted he’d still play the show.
Just one day before the Toronto show, REMG offered a refund to anyone who wanted it, and re-billed it as a DOOM solo headlining performance.
By this point, fans were feeling nervous. Those who didn’t take the refund were gambling that the concert would go ahead, or that Dumile would be the one under the DOOM mask.
REMG, for their part, tried to reassure fans that they would get the real Daniel Dumile under the DOOM mask and went so far as to promise to ID him before he went on stage.
“REMG Entertainment takes the integrity of our concerts and the trust placed in our company by our loyal patron base very seriously,” they said in a statement reported by Exclaim! “As such we feel it necessary to address the ongoing rumours and concerns about the true identity of the performer on stage during recent past Doom performances. We are taking every precaution necessary to ensure that the performer on stage is in fact DOOM (Daniel Dumile).
“The artist has agreed to produce proper identification to us prior to performing to confirm his identity. We will not allow a substitute to perform in his place.”
Behind-the-scenes, though, Ramos was getting nervous.
When he woke up on the day of the show, a snowy February 25, he still didn’t have flight info for Dumile and didn’t know when he was supposed to arrive in Toronto.
Finally, at about 3 pm, he got word that Dumile was booked on the last flight from Atlanta to Toronto. The plane was scheduled to touch down around the same time that the doors of the Kool Haus were set to open.
Ramos, though, says he has a policy of not letting fans into a show until he knew for sure that the artist was there.
So DOOM’s manager, who was already in Toronto, told him he could come to the airport with him and verify Dumile was there and then open the doors.
But Ramos didn’t actually have a clear picture of what he looked like under the mask, so he brought along a friend, a DOOM super-fan who had met and talked to Dumile after a show in Buffalo a few years before.
His manager warned him: DOOM doesn’t trust promoters, and if he saw him there, he’d turn around and get right back on a plane. So they couldn’t drive together, and they couldn’t stand together at the airport. Ramos, his friend and DOOM’s manager all stood in different areas of the airport, eagerly awaiting his flight.
By this point, some fans had already been waiting hours outside the venue in the snow. Ramos’s partner, Jeff Brandman, was at the venue and panicking, calling him and asking if he could open the doors.
Eventually, Ramos says, he took a leap of faith and told him to let the fans in.
When Derek Christoff, a.k.a. D-Sisive, got the call to open the concert, then still billed as a Mos Def and DOOM show, he says he was both excited and terrified.
“Both those guys are my fucking heroes,” he says. “Just to be in the same room as them was incredible, but to open for them was like the ultimate hip-hop honour.
“But I was terrified for a few different reasons. One, you don’t want to flop opening for two of your heroes. I still had that fanboy fantasy of both of them on sidestage watching my set and then giving me props after the show.
“But then, getting into soundcheck that day, looking out into the empty venue, as excited as I was, I could see the stress that John [Ramos] and his team were going through the day of the show and I wondered, did I make a mistake here? Am I going to get fucking bottled?”
Christoff went on shortly after the doors open, around 9 pm. By that point, fans were still relatively calm and supportive. In his 30 minute set, he even had a few of his own fans rapping along. Nobody knew that DOOM hadn’t even landed in Toronto yet.
“A scary as it was, I ended up having a pretty good set,” says Christoff. “But, like, not getting cups thrown at me would have resulted in a very good set.”
Christoff says he was slightly annoyed to be going on so early at the time, but that changed throughout the night.
“In hindsight, I would have much rather gone on at 8 pm than 11 pm when the shit was flying,” he says. “And I was sidestage for the entire night. The shit did fly.”
DJ duo the Mixtape Massacre, who had a show on CKLN radio at the time, were charged with entertaining the crowd after that. They did admirably, but as the night dragged on with no sight of DOOM, the crowd at the mostly-full venue was getting more and more restless and more and more intoxicated. People started to boo and snap.
As the hours passed, the promoters made a series of announcements that DOOM was “almost here.”
Meanwhile, Ramos was at the airport, hiding out of sight and getting increasingly panicked. The flight that Dumile was supposedly on had landed and people were shuffling off. Every time someone came out that looked like it could be him from a distance, Ramos would glance over at his friend to see if he recognized him. Every time, he shook his head.
Finally, about an hour after the flight landed, at around 10 pm, Ramos says the gate was pretty much empty when one last man came out pushing a luggage trolley. The promoter looked at his friend who gave him the signal that this was him and he let out a sigh of relief. Dumile left with his manager while Ramos got in his own car and hurried back to the Kool Haus.
He returned to see the crowd getting unruly. Some people were trying to leave but were told they couldn’t get refunds once their ticket had already been scanned. When someone hurled something onstage and spooked the DJs, Ramos himself got up on the mic and told the audience DOOM was here, he had seen him with his own eyes, and to please be patient.
Instead of heading straight to the venue himself, Dumile went to his hotel room. Finally, by about 11 or 11:30, Ramos says, DOOM arrived and went straight to his dressing room.
Christoff, who had been standing sidestage since his set, was sent back into the crowd along with all the other VIPs. The whole stage area was cleared.
Finally, sometime after midnight, DOOM’s DJ got up onstage and started the beats. Out came a rapper in an orange jacket, a hat and DOOM’s iconic metal-face mask. As he rapped the first few bars of Accordion, a song from the 2004 classic Madlib collab Madvillainy, the audience rushed to the front of the stage to get a glimpse.
“That’s not fucking DOOM!” someone screamed. “Get the fuck off the fucking stage!”
You can hear it in the video below.
Then, from the other side of the stage, in a green jacket and a matching mask, came another DOOM rapping the same song. The real DOOM!
The crowd went wild. It was a fakeout.
“I was just laughing,” says Christoff. “The balls on this fucking guy. It’s like, okay, you’re playing the villain, but when people are paying 50, 60 bucks to come see you and you don’t show up, that’s a bit of a dick move. But then you fuck with it and send out the fake guy? But you’re actually really there? This guy was living the art, man. That’s some Andy Kaufman type shit.”
That fakeout has become the stuff of Toronto live music legend, an immortal music moment.
The rest of the show, by all accounts, was less memorable. The superfans who stuck it out were thrilled to be hearing so many MF DOOM classics performed live. But his set only lasted for about 40 minutes, when some sort of tech issue ended the show early. Once it was evident the show was over, the venue emptied out in record time.
After the show, an exhausted Ramos was sitting in the production office when he got a knock on the door. It was DOOM’s manager, who raved about how it was an amazing show and said people would be talking about it forever. Then, he told him to follow him and took him to Dumile’s dressing room.
“Now I’m face to face with Daniel Dumile, no mask, no nothing,” Ramos says. “He says ‘I’m telling you, I don’t know what the fuck Mos Def was on about in Chicago, but I appreciate you sticking with me. You’re family.'”
“Part of me thought, ‘What the fuck? This is not normal!” he recalls. “But also, I thought ‘Thank you so much.'”
Within 10 minutes, he says, DOOM was gone.
So, was it worth it?
Reviews of the concert in 2010 at the time were near universally negative.
“So why did we all do this to ourselves? Why would we willingly go see DOOM after all of the no-shows, delays and imposters?” asked Vish Khanna in his review for Exclaim! “The only explanation is the strength of the music itself, but despite DOOM’s best efforts, even that didn’t come across sounding so shit-hot at the Kool Haus.”
Fans complained about it on blogs and message boards for weeks after. Nobody wants to feel like they’ve been duped.
Despite having an all-time story to tell, Ramos doesn’t remember the concert fondly. On record, he says, DOOM is unassailable. His talent, he says, is undeniable. But if he was ever offered the chance book another MF DOOM concert again, he would have instantly said no.
MF DOOM never did make it back to Toronto.
But without the controversy that surrounded the show, without the mystique it created, would we still be obsessing over it a decade later?
“It’s kind of hard not to admire,” says Christoff. “Everything was on his terms. You’re either part of his world or you’re not. And it’s one thing if you do this kind of stuff and your music is mediocre, but DOOM is world-class. He’s one of the best. So we give him the ultimate pass.
“He wasn’t just the super-villain, he was like the boss of his world. These character narratives that he created, he took that to everything he did, to everyone involved. As depressing as it is, he took it right to his death. But he called the shots. He did what he wanted.
“And that’s why he’s forever the king.”