The afternoon of August 15, Allen Scott, co-owner of San Francisco nightclub the Independent, got a call from underground rapper MF Doom's agent, saying the masked MC was likely too sick to make his scheduled performance that evening. Later the agent called back and said Doom was good to go.
But when the rapper finally took the stage at 11:45 that night, many in the audience did a double take: That's Doom?
"The first thing out of my mouth to my buddy was, 'Wow, that doesn't even look like him,' " says Dan Schwab, a buyer for Adidas who flew down from Portland with his girlfriend to see the show.
"He looked way skinnier — at least 30 or 40 pounds lighter than the guy I've seen before," Schwab figures. "The guy onstage was just walking back and forth, doing a little bit of the 'rapper hands' action and giving high-fives."
Though unverified accounts of "fake" Doom shows have been swirling for a couple years, the critically beloved rapper usually does justice to his brilliant studio catalog in concert. Schwab, for one, says Doom's performance on the same stage two years earlier was one of the best he'd seen.
But this guy was a joke.
"I went up to the sound guy about two songs deep and said, 'No one can hear Doom's mike,' Schwab recalls. "He looked at me and said straight up, 'I know. His mike's not on and that's not MF Doom.'"
After only a handful of songs, whoever it was abruptly ended his set and left the building as attendees booed and tossed water bottles at the stage. Doom's scheduled show the next night was canceled, as were the remaining seven dates on his tour.
Even Scott doesn't seem entirely sure what happened. "I watched the show, but I didn't see him personally," he says. "He walked [into the building] with his mask on — that's how he always does it. I can't say for certain whether it was him or not."
The concert seems to have inspired a full-scale Internet mutiny among Doom fans. Incensed YouTubers point to clips from July 29's Rock the Bells show at Randall's Island in New York City as evidence of egregious lip-synching.
Fans at his August 12 show in Los Angeles make the same charge. One even posted an "MF Doom Show Was Fake" notice on Craigslist. (Few attendees at either gig accuse him of not actually showing up, however.)
Jason Swartz, Doom's L.A.-based agent, says concerns for the MC's health cut the tour short. He wouldn't go into specifics, but the Independent's Scott recalls Swartz saying Doom was plagued by "some sort of circulatory problem, where his feet were swollen."
His agent insists Doom really took the stage in San Francisco.
"He performed in L.A., he performed in New York and he was totally at the [San Francisco show," Swartz says.
Was Doom lip-synching? Swartz says he doesn't know.
"But he's never done that before," he adds. "There's rumors about this artist all the time. The guy wears a mask. He's an elusive character. He never does merch, he never signs autographs, he never does an encore. That's just his style.
"He's a comic book character of a rapper," Swartz continues. "In a world where hip-hop has gotten so boring, it's nice that he has a style that he sticks to that's not boring."
Doom did not respond to myriad requests for comment, and mystique has certainly been central to his appeal. Born Daniel Dumile, the Long Island-bred MC's stage name is modeled on Marvel Comics supervillain Dr. Doom; other alter egos include Zev Love X, Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah.
Hardly anyone knows what Doom looks like without his metal mask. He once said he planned to release an album called Impostor, and in 2005 employed a double for a pair of photo shoots.
"He'd been calling our editor saying he wasn't feeling good and wasn't going to make it, but for the shoot he sent his hype man [Big Benn Kling-on] in the Doom mask," reports Scratch art director R. Scott Wells.
"The photographer didn't know any better, so he just went ahead and shot him. When we got the film back we knew it wasn't Doom. Benn's a much bigger guy."
"I spoke to Doom, and he tried to tell me something to the effect of, it was a new persona he was experimenting with," says Jerry L. Barrow, Scratch's editor at the time. "He had some sort of justification for it, but to me it was really unprofessional."
Entertainment or not, after such antics, Doom's name is tainted. Lip-synching is bad enough, but the possibility that he sent a replacement may sound deliciously Andy Kaufman-esque to some, but the majority of his devotees aren't laughing.
"Doom just totally shit on his fan base," says Pete Babb, who performed at the ill-fated show under his DJ moniker, Enki.
"It's hard to figure out how I feel about it," says a jilted Schwab. "He's definitely still one of my favorite MCs. I feel disrespected, because I own all his music. I don't go and bootleg it.
"It's almost amusing," he reckons. "It almost seems like he hatched a plan to see if he could get away with it. Why else would he do something like this?"