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Brother From Another Planet

When it comes to hip-hop, Dr. Octagon veteran Kool Keith is out of this world.

When I learned that Kool Keith was coming to town, I reacted with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. As a founding member of Ultramagnetic MC's, a mysterious but influential Eighties/Nineties rap act, and the voice behind Dr. Octagon's Dr. Octagonecologyst, a terrifically twisted opus issued in 1997, Keith had established himself as one of the most intriguing and original figures on the hip-hop scene. But after Octagon won a slot on last year's Lollapalooza festival, the Kool one (born Keith Thornton) seemingly vanished from the universe where he allegedly resides. Even representatives of his label, Dreamworks, claimed to be unable to find him--and if they couldn't track him down, what were the odds that I'd be able to get him on the phone?

Pretty good, as it turned out, but that doesn't mean that temporarily lassoing a guy who's been characterized as the least reliable musician since the heyday of Sly Stone was easy. My efforts began well enough: Don Strasburg, booker for the Fox Theatre (where the rapper is slated to appear), put me in touch with Keith's Los Angeles-based manager, who scheduled a forum with his client for two o'clock in the afternoon that Wednesday. But when the time came, my phone was silent. After waiting for a quarter of an hour, I reached the manager, who told me that he would contact Keith personally--and upon doing so, he called back to say that Keith would be ringing me up in ten minutes. Just short of triple that span later, I again dialed the manager, who expressed puzzlement: "He told me he was going to call you right after he got something from the kitchen," he said. (Apparently, the distance between the kitchen and the phone was considerable.) The manager subsequently made two more statements, one of which I didn't believe and one of which I did. The first was, "This is the first time Keith's flaked." The second was, "Keith's not going to call you back now. He's probably out on Hollywood Boulevard."

The interview was rescheduled for the same time the next day--and, true to form, Keith didn't call. Worse, the manager wasn't at any of his numbers--his home, his office or his pager. At a loss, I got ahold of Strasburg, who phoned Keith's agent and said that if my interview didn't happen that day, he would cancel the concert. That set a lot of activity into motion: I heard from both the agent and one of Keith's associates, Kut Masta Kurt, who offered to stand in for his boss. (I graciously declined.) As day was bleeding into night, the agent called once more to say that he hadn't located Keith but that he had spoken with the manager, who suspected that the absentee musician was at a crash pad in Torrance (a community south of L.A.) that didn't have a phone. The manager, the agent went on, was willing to drive there, and on the odd chance that Keith was actually present, he would drag him to a phone. I countered by suggesting that the interview be rescheduled for the next day--and that if it didn't happen, I would raise the white flag.

The agent promised to get back to me to confirm this plan but didn't. So when I phoned the manager the next morning in an attempt to find out what was up, I was anticipating another exercise in comic futility. What I got instead was the manager, live and in person, followed directly by the slurred voice of Kool Keith. And that's when things started to get strange.

As it turned out, Kool Keith had been on Hollywood Boulevard when he was supposed to be talking to me--or at least I'm pretty sure that's what he said. You see, Keith is not a linear thinker, and time has little meaning to him. But he knows what he likes. After apologizing for his grogginess (he had just awakened), he explained that he had been largely incommunicado over the past couple of days because "I was takin' my walks. And I was hangin' out at Popeye's Chicken. Popeye's is my favorite; I go strictly to Popeye's, all the time. Even when I have dinners with people from big, important labels, I go to Popeye's. And I always eat the chicken breast with Cajun rice, an apple pie and a strawberry soda. Every time. Every time.

"I was also gettin' my sneakers--orange Nikes with green mesh," he continued (he proved to be very good at continuing). "And I went down to Frederick's of Hollywood to buy my girl some outfits--got her some light-purple teddies and G-strings, got her a pair of boots. And then I went over to this other store where I buy my capes. Got, like, a mask--and I wore my Superman stuff on my way back. And then I stopped over by Subway, grabbed me a meatball sandwich, and made another stop at the cleaners to pick up my pants-shorts."

Pants-shorts?
"Yeah, pants-shorts--'cause they show off my new sneakers," he clarified. "It's not like I wanted to have these big jeans coverin' my shoes. I wanted you to see 'em--so I got these pants-shorts that cut off above the ankles. It's like a new funky twist, with dimensions for the summer and the winter. Pants-shorts." He paused long enough to invent a better term for the product, finally settling on "sh-pants. That's it. Sh-pants." Shortly thereafter, he declared his undying affection for "coats with a lot of pockets. Coats where I can put my DAT in one pocket; pockets for my Walkman, my CDs. I love those coats with big cargo pockets. When I look for coats, I look for at least eight to ten pockets on the outside of the jacket. I'll take a jacket back it if doesn't have a minimum of, well, a bunch of pockets."

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