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Underground Music Legends We Will Miss

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
album cover of deceased musicians
Musicians who left us this past year: MF DOOM, Harold Budd, Tony Allen, and Peter Green

Some truly beloved pop music stars passed away in 2020, including Little Richard, Eddie Van Halen, and Bill Withers, and many others as well. I would like to shine a light on some lesser-known but favorite musicians of mine who left us this past year: MF DOOM, Harold Budd, Tony Allen, and Peter Green.

On December 31st, hip-hop fans were stunned when Jasmine Dumile, the wife of Daniel Dumile, aka MF DOOM, revealed in a heartfelt Instagram post that her husband had died on October 31, at the age of 49. No cause of death has yet been announced. The odd and reclusive MF (Metal Face) DOOM was considered by many to be one of the greatest and most original hip-hop artists ever to rock a mic. He was known for only appearing in a metallic face mask, modeled after that of Marvel Comics supervillain Dr. Doom, a character with whom he identified (and of course, a play on his surname). Dumile was born in London but grew up in Long Island. In the late 80s, under the name of Zev Love X, Daniel and his brother Dingilizwe (aka DJ Subroc) formed KMD, a cerebral, jazzy, Afrocentric hip-hop group aligned with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Brand Nubian. They released their debut album, Mr. Hood, in 1991, and were completing the followup, Black Bastards in 1993 when Dingilizwe was struck by a car and killed while attempting to cross the Long Island Expressway. Black Bastards was too ‘controversial’ for Elektra and the group was dropped; it was eventually released by another label years later. Grief-stricken, Daniel Dumile dropped out of the music scene for many years, finally re-emerging with his new MF DOOM persona and a brilliant debut, Operation: Doomsday. Over rough-hewn, abruptly minimalist loops, DOOM delivers dour wit and insanely creative wordplay in a gruff monotone, eschewing pop tropes like hooks and verse-chorus structure. This was the apotheosis of so-called ‘backpacker’ rap; brainy, DIY indie rap at the opposite end of the spectrum from Top 40 pop-rap stars. Dumile’s life, marked by pain and loss, informed his music: he took rap seriously and purified it to a high art, at once hard-hitting, hilarious, expansive, and poignant. His most creative period was the early 2000s when he put out a series of albums under various aliases that spun heads, culminating in the classic Madvillainy collaboration with a musical soulmate, psychedelic L.A. beatmaker Madlib. In recent years DOOM became more reclusive and recorded more sporadically, moving around between Atlanta, London, and elsewhere. Like Thomas Pynchon, he was rumored to have sent mask-wearing surrogates to lip-synch concerts under his name, ‘villain style’. For him, the music mattered more than presenting himself, hence the mask. In December 2017, his 14-year-old son King Malachi Ezekiel Dumile died. Though DOOM never achieved widespread fame, his legacy is secure: he had visionary ideas of what hip-hop could be and fully achieved them, influencing younger creators like Odd Future and Flying Lotus and undoubtedly hip-hop generations to come. Explore hoopla and Freegal for more of his work.

Harold Budd died on December 8th from complications of COVID-19, which he contracted in a rehabilitation facility while being treated for a stroke; he was 84. A Los Angeles native, he grew up in Victorville, near the Mojave Desert, the silent and spacious presence of which seems to have always been at the heart of his music. Since his collaborations in the 1970s and 80s with Brian Eno, Budd has been revered as a composer of ‘ambient’ music, a label he was not always happy with (though preferring it to ‘New Age’). Born in 1936, he got his start as a jazz drummer after leaving the Army, playing gigs with Albert Ayler. While studying music at various institutions in the 1960s, influenced by John Cage and others, he began composing long, difficult multimedia pieces in the grandiose idiom of the era, featuring drones and early synthesizers. By the time he started teaching composition at CalArts in 1970, he had settled on a simpler style centered around spacious, echoey, sustained ‘soft pedal’ piano, inspired by the melodic simplicity of Medieval and renaissance music, often in major keys. At around the same time, Brian Eno was framing the idea of ‘ambient’ music: quiet background music with a kind of emotional neutrality that works on the listener almost subliminally by creating a sonic environment, inspired by the work of Debussy and Satie. Eno acquired a recording of Budd’s 1972 Madrigals of the Rose Angel and brought him to England to record for his Obscure label. This reoriented Budd’s focus to studio work, resulting in 1978’s ambient-jazz fusion The Pavilion of Dreams, and two collaborations with Eno, Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (1980) and The Pearl (1984). Although he always kept a hand in ‘serious’ composition, Budd went on to record with rock musicians like the Cocteau Twins, Ultravox’s John Foxx, and XTC’s Andy Partridge, acquiring a legion of fans devoted to music he sometimes lamented was so “sweet and pretty and decorative” that it would probably have offended his original avant-garde contemporaries. He occasionally declared himself ‘retired’, but he was productive until the end, and left behind a raft of string quartets and chamber music that Budd fans like myself hope will eventually be transcribed, performed and recorded. Explore hoopla and Freegal for more of his work.

Tony Oladipo Allen died in Paris last year at age 79. He was known for having co-founded the sound called ‘Afrobeat’ with the indomitable Fela Kuti in Nigeria, whose band Africa ‘70 he anchored as drummer and bandleader through the 1970s. To a base of juju and highlife, Afrobeat added James Brown’s heavy funk and Allen’s own interest in the hard bop sounds of Max Roach and Art Blakey. Always a music lover, Allen got his start as a radio technician in Lagos, playing claves and filling in with local highlife bands. He got the percussion gig with Fela’s early band Koola Lobitos; they developed a passion for American funk after a US tour. Fela returned to Nigeria with a new, militant funk style, and Africa ‘70 was born, centered around Allen’s innovative drum patterns. Tony Allen’s drumming is instantly identifiable for his unusual rattletrap, skeletal, deep-in-the-pocket style. Africa ‘70 recorded some 30 albums during that turbulent decade, and Allen led three solo albums on the side: Jealousy (1975), Progress (1977), and No Accommodation For Lagos (1979). Allen parted ways with Kuti when the chaos and mismanagement grew too great, and resettled in Paris. After some years of obscurity and hard living, he eventually became seen as the torchbearer for Afrobeat and an in-demand drummer, working with fans like Blur’s Damon Albarn on a number of projects, African pop stars like King Sunny Ade and Hugh Masekela, Grace Jones, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Moritz Von Oswald, and many techno and dub producers. In his role as elder statesman, he mentored and fostered the careers of several younger Afrobeat artists. After being feted at two Paris concerts in mid-March, he died on April 30 of an aortic aneurysm, considered by many one of the finest drummers in the world. Explore hoopla and Freegal for more of his work.

British guitarist and songwriter Peter Green founded Fleetwood Mac in 1967; he died last year at age 73. Many fans of the Lindsey Buckingham-Stevie Nicks era of Fleetwood Mac are unaware that the band has had a long history with several previous iterations and leaders. They are a unique band in many ways: a UK-US fusion, most famously led by two female and one male singer-songwriters, but also with several interim phases led by brilliant musicians like Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer, and Bob Welch, all of whom led remarkable lives themselves. Their founder, Peter Green, is perhaps the least-known of all, but was at one time regarded as one of the greatest guitarists and songwriters of his generation. Born into a Jewish family in London, Green was a guitar prodigy who joined the British blues boom in the the 1960s, playing with Pete Bardens and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Green took the Bluesbreakers’ drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie to form a new band. He favored emotional expressivity over pyrotechnics; B.B. King once said Green’s playing gave him the cold sweats. In a very creative few years, he wrote the brooding, propulsive “Black Magic Woman”, covered more famously by Santana, the meditative instrumental “Albatross”, the dirty blues-rocker “Oh Well”, “The Green Manalishi”, later covered by Judas Priest, and one brilliant album for Warner Bros. Reprise, Then Play On. By 1969 he had grown a beard, was wearing a robe onstage and taking large amounts of LSD; he refused to leave a Munich hippie commune after a 1970 show. Shortly after, he quit the band. In the 1970s he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, treated with electroshock therapy, and spent the decade in low circumstances—at one point he was accused of threatening his former accountant with a shotgun to deter him from trying to send him money. Always a friend of Mick Fleetwood’s, he re-emerged to play on “Brown Eyes” at the 1979 Tusk sessions and to record his first solo album in years, the moody and mystical In the Skies. He gradually cleaned up and recorded blues-rock albums throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, attended Fleetwood Mac’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and was occasionally invited onstage to perform with them before nonplussed fans of their newer hits. Some considered his guitar work to be on a par with if not superior to that of his contemporaries Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. He died on July 25, 2020. Explore hoopla and Freegal for more of his work.

Check out the playlist we created of some favourite songs:

MF DOOM / Harold Budd / Tony Allen / Peter Green