The cryptic crossword of intricate rap

Or, remembering MF Doom

Take a few dozen cultural references, distill them into interlocking words, then carefully arrange them into one symmetrical composition.

This is how you make a crossword puzzle, and it’s how the late Daniel Dumile made music. Better known as MF DOOM — “all caps when you spell the name” — the rapper’s rapper died on October 31 of last year at the age of 49, though his passing was only announced by his widow last week.

To consider the wit of his lyrical rap is like considering an ingenious cryptic crossword clue: No matter how clever the wordplay, it still has to work as a piece of a larger puzzle — so what you see on the page is only half of it. Or as DOOM put it, Got more lyrics than the church got Ooh, Lords / And he hold the mic and your attention like two swords.”

Dumile began rapping as Zev Love X in the early 1990s but disappeared from public view after his brother’s death in a car accident and a skirmish with his label. That became the origin story of Metal Fingers DOOM, identifying himself as hip hop’s masked comic book supervillain on his 1999 debut album Operation Doomsday. He played roles and words with equal facility:

Broken household name usually said in hostility
Um... what is MF? You silly
I'd like to take "Means to the End" for two milli’
“Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo!” That's a audio daily double
Rappers need to fall off just to save me the trouble

His stated goal was to clear the field of sub-par talent, both by showing them how to properly construct a verse:

Joking rhymes, like the “Is you just happy to see me?” trick
Classical slapstick rappers need Chapstick
A lot of 'em sound like they in a talent show
So I give 'em something to remember like the Alamo

And mocking their feuds and flexes:

To all rappers: shut up with your shutting up
And keep a shirt on, at least a button-up
Yuck, is they rhymers or strippin’’ males?
Out of work jerks since they shut down Chippendales
They chippin’ nails, DOOM tippin’ scales

His references ranged from Devo to D.B. Cooper to Cole Porter to every Hanna Barbera cartoon ever aired, and his fans filled message boards trying to make sense of it all. He had “more rhymes than there’s ways to skin cats / As a matter of fact, let me rephrase: / With more rhymes and more ways to fillet felines these days.” Did it have a greater meaning? Or was it just a puzzle for the sake of a puzzle?

MF DOOM was a lyrical cruciverbalist. A writer from Spin spotted copies of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions and The Dictionary of Cliches in his studio, the tools of a crossword fiend’s trade. He wanted to bring new references and language to his art, because, as he said, “cats are still using the same five curse words.”

Which brings to mind “Who’s In The Crossword,” this fascinating Michelle McGhee piece of visual journalism that demonstrates how the cultural references that underpin the black-and-white grids are often stuck in a very specific past where “AVA” refers to the actress Gardner and not the director DuVernay. 

All wit is based in esoteric knowledge, as it involves connecting unexpected concepts. The source of those references tips your hand, showing how widely you shop in the marketplace of ideas. DOOM threaded his rhymes from The Lion King to Star Trek, all while staying on the beat and the topic:

Off pride tykes talk wide through scar meat
Off sides like how Worf rides with Starfleet

MF DOOM said wore a metal mask “just to cover the raw flesh / a rather ugly brother with flows that’s gorgeous,” but he later used the conceit to send out impostors in his costume, handing the mask off to conspirators and comedians. What did it mean? Whether in a grid or on a mic, wordplay is a universal expression of wit, a series of deep cuts in a universal groove. Or as the man said:

Anybody in here could wear the mask. Male, female, any race. It’s about where you’re coming from in your heart. What’s the message and what you got to say.

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The quest to find that one perfect tweet continues, and this week our guide is @theandrewnadeau, a.k.a. MehGyver. 

Q: What’s the one word that makes any tweet better?
A:
For me personally, lack of words. I love the awkward pauses.

Q: Edit button y/n?
A:
No, good in concept, too easy to abuse

Q: All-time fave book or movie?
A:
Favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird, movie is Young Frankenstein

Q: Joke, epigram, or witticism you live by?
A:
Not sure I really have one I live by. I appreciate this one though:
“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” — Eden Phillpotts

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That makes Issue No. 79 of Get Wit Quick, your weekly soundtrack for flipping the grid. Kudos to the Financial Times for the most unexpected MF DOOM tribute, even though you really have to squint to see the stock tips in his music. A clarification from Issue 77: I accidentally wrote that Spaceballs was the only good space satire, misspelling the words “Red Dwarf.” Thanks to Robert Sarson for catching that. I wrote about Jay-Z and rap wit in Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting, which confused some readers. The goal there is the same as here: To show how surprising creativity takes many forms, all worth a tap of the ♥️ below.