One man's death is another man's soap: the death of MF DOOM and how we grief.
As we all wanted to leave the dreadful last year behind, right on the last day word spread about the passing of one of Hip-Hop's legendary underdogs: The Super Villian, Viktor Vaughn, King Ghidra, Metal Fingers or– regularly known as MF DOOM (ALL CAPS). What followed was a collective cultural mourning process with DJs paying respect through mixes, producers remixing old acapellas with rigid samples, graffiti artists creating beautiful memorials, and fan(atics) showing grievances on social media. It says a lot about how we mourn and celebrate the death of celebrity musicians nowadays. We'll dive a little deeper into this phenomenon on how music culture deals with death, as there are multiple angles to look at it.
In the weeks after Daniel Dumile's death was announced by his wife on Instagram, a movement of paying respect followed. Not only was this a worldwide phenomenon, but it also showed DOOM's influence beyond the borders of his own genre and brought out the music lover in people. This can be attributed to the Super Villian's skillful way of making an album out of seemingly random concepts and topics, while seamlessly flowing over a beat that your average rapper would have a hard time with. DOOM's cultural relevance was brought to light by his passing. Hip-hop, house and (online) radio DJs started dedicating their time on the airwaves and– who are we kidding– their DJ mixes on Mixcloud to him.
DOOM tribute by Belgian DJ Lefto.
Whether it's graffiti writers, producers creating enticing tribute edits or remixes, such as Steppin' Into Tomorrow's own Lucas Benjamin, or DJ sets as seen above, cultural production soared following DOOM's death, celebrating his legacy. But this is not exclusive to cultural producers. It's as easy as sharing your favorite video of MF DOOM in your Instagram story or a Facebook post.
Stating these things might feel redundant, but this is arguably a new way of dealing with the grievance of your favorite artist. The collective mourning happens individually by people sharing their feelings to their (online social) network. As with cultural producers, it's their way of honoring the legacy an artist left behind or immortalizing their character.
With 20th century legendary and groundbreaking artists in the last leg of their lifetimes, we're confronted with their deaths at an increasing rate. Last year alone we saw the passing of artists such as Manu Dibango, Tony Allen, and Bill Withers. While DJ culture is not as old as some of these artists, we do see early deaths of foundational DJs, such as Chicago pioneer Frankie Knuckles in 2014, Detriot legend Mike Huckaby in 2020, and– more recently– London DJ and producer Phil Asher, who passed away due to a heart attack at the age of 50 recently. These artists didn't match the mainstream success as a Bill Withers or a Tony Allen or as MF DOOM, but were very influential and stand at the foundation of DJ, club, and house/techno/broken-beat subcultures. The legacy of these subcultural heroes was celebrated similarly as MF DOOM, with podcasts, radio shows, replays of old interviews, and more. Their legacy clearly lives on in these subcultures. But in addition to their legacy and their wonderful music, they leave behind something else.
One man's waste is another man's soap
From a cultural perspective, solidarity and paying tribute are central concepts to the death of notable artists. However, from a media theory perspective, there is something else going on. French sociologist Pierre Bordieu introduced the concepts of social and cultural capital, which parallel or oppose (monetary) economic capital. Social capital entails the interaction an individual has between people in a network or music culture in this case. Put simply: the more people you know in a network, the bigger you are as a node in that network and the faster you (can) grow. Cultural capital is the result of what (status) is gained by cultural production. For this example, cultural capital can be seen as a music piece, a DJ set, graffiti art, or, to a smaller degree, a social media post with an image of the deceased artist.
DOOM graffiti tribute on a train in Amsterdam, (Ibrahim Wijbenga/@ibrahimwijbenga)
More specifically, in the niche world, these forms of capital could be seen as subcultural capital (Partridge 47-8), where 'being in the know' or being in the in-group is a form of capital. How does this relate to the death of an artist? Well, take the example of DOOM, a cult hero in a niche world that stretched beyond its own borders: People utilizing their craft under the wing of 'paying tribute' results in a cultural capital, namely DJ mixes, remixes, or graffiti art. These individuals are part of a subculture that they think DOOM is also part of. This subcultural content is, then, for them a form through which they can increase their cultural capital from. Put differently, the death of an artist can not only be capitalized on by the record industry but also by individuals of a subculture. This is not to say that people actively or consciously do so, but as a trend, it is arguably underlining these notions of enthusiastically paying tribute to an artist that gave you so much inspiration, consolidation, or joy through their music.
Alternatively, it is very well-known that the death of musicians surges a rise in their sales (Renard, Gretz 2019). Split between physical sales, such as vinyl, cassettes, CDs and others, and music consumption via streaming platforms, both create a renewed cultural relevance for the artist. Both forms of music sales don't seem to return to pre-death levels and maintain to be increased years after the artists' passing (Renard, Gretz 2019).
So the network that emerges through the death of an artist: the deceased artist, music listeners/fanatics, cultural producers (DJs, writers, producers, radio hosts etc) and the music industry such as record labels. A little different from how it was just over a decade ago.
Remember the time?
Take the recent examples of MF DOOM and Phil Asher and compare them to arguably one of the most widely felt and shared mourning moments in history: the death of Michael Jackson.
I remember it vividly, I was 16 and just finished high school. Some friends and I were going through the canals on a boat when my moms called me to fill me in on what's been going on. As soon as I went home I watched the non-stop coverage of the ongoing process. The collective mourning was already going on full-stop, with the news taking care of this. The reason why I remembered his death so vividly, is because his catalog was the first I knew front to back and– not to mention– I had tickets to see his This Is It tour in London. But I'm sure you have a similar story.
While the passing of DOOM and Phil Asher were announced by relatives through their own social media channels, Michael's death was announced authoritatively by news media. This difference highlights a form of control over how you want to present such an event now. Michael's death was mainly covered by news media, with his tear-jerking public memorial service as the epitome of the events. CNN ran a non-stop coverage on June 25th, 2009 about his death, featuring experts, fellow musicians and fans. Now realize that the platform climate we know the Internet as today was already in place, but not as established or ubiquitous as it is today. There were people who expressed their feelings online to their Facebook friends, but since the maturing of platforms brought along marketing value to individuals not until later, there was little to capitalize on, also due to the then limited population on social media platforms. Again, this is not to say that this didn't happen, but not as significant as it occurred with DOOM, for example.
As news media evoked the collective mourning in which we all participated, there was little cultural production value. Maybe memorial graffiti is an outlier in this case, as they are outside the digital realm (although posting about it is what the capital really is). The broadcasting and photos of the memorial service were all in the hands of traditional media, making the event of Michael's death more consumable than participative. Participatory culture opposes consumer logic and argues that individuals are both the consumer and the producer (Jenkins 2017). You can see this clearly in DOOM's case, where remixability (whether that be music, images, or video) is key to the way we mourn or celebrate his legacy. The people who hold DOOM in high regard are not only listeners (consumers) but also people who create and they want to express their feelings through being a prosumer (producer and consumer). After the 2010s participatory culture became more mature, with producing utilities (Photoshop, audio workshops and such) becoming more accessible and the concept of a user increasingly being part of culture becoming more normalized (an example of this could be Vine). This is completely different from the cultural impact of Michael's death, which relied more on traditional media. Hopefully, what will be similar, is a posthumous album (we have our fingers crossed for Madvillainy II). Wishful thinking, I guess...
Now I hear you thinking 'How can you compare MJ to DOOM?', to which I respond: the status they both held within their own (sub)culture, MJ as the king of pop music and DOOM as your favourite rapper's favourite rapper, are relatively similar. They both champion their subculture. Therefore, how people respond to their death can be analysed similarly.
The purpose of this article is not to say people who pay tribute with cultural productions are intentionally doing so for 'clout', but to show that in the contemporary digital age, celebrating one's legacy and (sub)cultural capital go hand in hand. I mean, this article is not any different, really. It shows a performative nature in the way we mourn or celebrate an artist's legacy.
- Jenkins, Henry, et al. Participatory Culture in a Networked Era : a Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics. Polity Press, 2017.
- Partridge, Christopher. “Mortality and Music: Popular Music and the Awareness of Death.” Mortality and Music, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017.
- Renard, Stan, and Richard T. Gretz. "Music, Death, and Profits: Variables Contributing to the Surge in Sales After an Artist's Death." MEIEA Journal, vol. 19, no. 1, 2019.