"This is the villain."
The overture came via cellphone signal beamed out to the Utah wilderness, from behind a set of numbers that didn't betray its origin.
Rob Sissi, handling his phone as he drove through the mountains of Mormon country, thought maybe a fuzzy connection was playing tricks on him. He wasn't expecting the call.
"This is DOOM."
MF, the holder of a boulder. Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, Zev Love X before that, and Daniel Dumile (his birth name) even before that. The masked man of more monikers than there's ways to skin cats. MF DOOM, the supervillain who ruled underground rap in the 2000s, was calling to talk sneakers.
Out of that conversation with Sissi, who worked for Nike from 2003 until the end of 2020, came a shoe collaboration. The sneaker, an MF DOOM version of the retro Dunk High model, released in July 2007 via Nike SB, the company's skateboarding division that Sissi worked for during his tenure there. Recent tragedy made the shoe newly relevant: Dumile's wife shared via Instagram on Dec. 31, 2020, that he had died on Oct. 31. The style has re-emerged on social media feeds and resale markets since his passing as a memento cast in the rapper's likeness.
The MF DOOM x Nike SB Dunk High was made to look like its namesake, the gunmetal grey panels on its upper reflecting the armor of Doctor Doom, the rap villain's comic book inspiration. It sampled his album art on the soles and stamped his bubbly fill-in logo at the ankle. Like the best Dunks of SB's golden era in the mid-00s, it gave new depth to the model and cultural cachet to Nike by drawing a line from the brand to a source of inspiration that would have previously been improbable for a sportswear company.
There was a precedent for the DOOM Dunk, though, and the Nike sneaker's roots are similar to those of his music. Dumile made his debut as Zev Love X in the late '80s in the group KMD, whose style overlapped with De La Soul and the associated Native Tongues collective. His SB sneakers were a spiritual successor to De La's, who had their own SB Dunks in 2005. According to Sissi, who worked on both projects, De La made the initial link between Nike and Dumile.
"I had kept in touch with them and I had asked essentially if they knew—obviously knew that they knew DOOM," he remembers, "so I just said, 'You think he would be interested in doing something?'"
De La agreed to reach out on behalf of Sissi, who had been a fan of Dumile since the KMD days. He didn't think much about it after the request, but the villain came calling. That first conversation, in the Utah mountains, was a long one about music, sampling, and, eventually, sneakers. Dumile was down to do a Dunk, but didn't stay super close to the project.
"He was kind of hands-off in the sense of he knew what he wanted," Sissi says, adding that one of the rapper's friends handled much of the design work.
As with many of his projects, intermediaries transmitted info back and forth. Dumile would disappear into record mode on some old Buddha monk shit and communication would become more complicated. Sissi never met him in person as they worked on the SB Dunks.
"This was all just over phone calls, emails, and I would talk with his wife, Jasmine, as well," the former Nike employee says.
Still, it remained a personal sneaker. The Dunk for DOOM was originally mocked up in Knicks colors of blue and orange, an apt choice given his preference at the time for jerseys of various New York sports squads. That palette was later nixed in an email edict from Dumile's team.
"The villain only wears black," read a note from the author.
And so, the shoe was redesigned, this time in black with hits of fine chrome alloy. The logos that appeared on initial samples were also edited. In the first version, shared by longtime Nike employee James Arizumi on Instagram in the wake of Dumile's passing, the logo embroidery at the heel and ankle designated him as MF DOOM. The mark on the heel didn't make it to the retail pair. At the request of the rapper, the "MF" was removed from the ankle hit right before the shoe went into production. The partial rebrand extended to his music—his 2009 album, Born Like This, billed him as just DOOM, sans MF.
The early sample of the 2007 MF DOOM x Nike SB Dunk is not the only unexpected sneaker to surface in the social media mourning. Blake Lethem, a close friend of Dumile who did artwork for him for years, posted a sketch to his Instagram in January of a proposed sequel Dunk. The concept showed a reworked tongue, something like that on the Air Jordan 6, shaped like DOOM's mask. Lethem, who writes graffiti under the name Keo, helped make Dumile's first mask when he returned to rap as the metal-faced supervillain in the late '90s.
The second SB shoe never happened, although Nike SB did use a tongue and heel tab similar to those shown in the sketch on the FPAR x Nike SB Dunk High from 2019.
When reached via a third party, Lethem declined to comment for this story, but a subsequent Instagram caption from his account in January details a DOOM x Nike product that never materialized.
"The NIKE SB dunk hi we were pitching many years ago was supposed to have a 'metal mask' keychain usb drive hang tag which would have exclusive content with songs and videos and link back to the GasDrawls website," he wrote in the caption, which appears to reference the same Dunk shown in his sketch. "Seems simple enough, but NIKE has different divisions for music licensing, and legal etc., and all these separate teams have to cooperate, and they would have to source third party manufacturing, and the bean counters will tell you it’s too expensive."
Dumile's death gave new mystique to unrealized ambitions like that second Nike shoe. It also added allure and secondary market hype to the Nike sneaker he did put out. For years the MF DOOM x Nike SB Dunk High, which originally sold for $150 at retail, could be had for around $400 on resale platforms. Prices shot up near the thousand-dollar mark last year because of the rekindling of Nike SB hype. Kylie Jenner wearing a pair also had something to do with it. Since the news of Dumile's death broke, pairs on StockX have regularly sold for well over $2,000.
The increase in demand presents a moral quandary for resellers who are wary of making money off the artist's passing. Is it wrong to cash in on the DOOM Dunks for higher prices now that people want them that much more? Or is the price of holding heat too high? The sneaker scene faced a similar question early in 2020 after the death of Kobe Bryant caused resale prices on his models to rise across the board. Many shops and online markets halted their sales of Nike Kobes as a result, reasoning that it was gross to reap higher profits off the loss of life.
Truest, a store in Honolulu that specializes in rare footwear, stopped selling Kobes for a whole year. Store owner John Om made a similar decision with the MF DOOM x Nike SB Dunk Highs he was carrying on consignment after the rapper passed.
"We actually pulled all of our pairs and returned them back to the sellers," Om says.
The reselling of Dumile's work extends beyond his limited edition Nike sneakers and existed long before he died. As he became a critical darling with albums like Mm..Food and the Madlib-produced Madvillany, both released in 2004, new fans scrambled to collect his old projects. Original pressings of Operation: Doomsday, the 1999 album on Bobbito Garcia's Fondle 'Em Records that reintroduced Dumile as MF DOOM, could easily go for $100 on eBay at the time.
His many albums have been dropped in special editions, packaged with additional trinkets, and reissued to feed demand in releases that resemble those for retro sneakers. They created ways for collectors, of music or of footwear, to feel like they belonged to a club. This feeling for consumers was crucial to the success of Nike SB in its heyday. Sissi was there for it, but was never rabid about amassing sneakers.
"I wasn't a big shoe hoarder, but the ones that meant a lot to me I've held onto," he says. "DOOM being one of them."