Brother From Another Planet
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."
"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."
After listening to this soliloquy, I realized that getting Keith to respond directly to specific questions would be slightly more difficult than bench-pressing Chris Farley in his coffin. At least on this day, he was conversationally autistic: He would latch onto a topic so tightly that it practically required a crowbar to pry him off of it. Hence, I learned nothing new about his formative years (he was raised in a rough neighborhood in the Bronx). I gleaned no fresh information about either the founding of the Ultramagnetic MC's or the act's various recordings (its two best-known platters, 1988's Critical Breakdown and 1993's The Four Horsemen, are out of print in the States). I failed to gain insight into his (reportedly voluminous) drug experiences or his extended stay at New York's Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, where he was treated for depression. And I pulled from him only the sketchiest details about his dizzying array of pseudonyms and alter egos--Big Willie Smith, Mr. Gerbik, Ultra (a duo with rapper Tim Dog), Cyclops 4000 and MC Baldylocks among them. Returning to the subject of clothing, he announced that when he performs ditties associated with his assorted guises, "I have to wear different outfits, because I have to feel like I'm goin' someplace different. Like, I wear this one particular hat to make me feel like I'm out in the atmosphere. 'Cause when I wear a regular baseball cap, I feel more like I'm stuck on earth. But if I wear a different hat, I feel like I can fly."
On Dr. Octagonecologyst, Keith most certainly does. Made in association with Bay Area producer Dan Nakamura, who goes by the name The Automator, the disc is a sonic wet dream. Over dark, spooky backdrops and forbidding beats sprinkled with sometimes clever, sometimes silly sci-fi effects, Keith babbles like a brilliant madman. "Rap moves on to the year 3000," he announces in "3000," but his vision of this distant millennium is totally unlike the future envisioned by anyone other than, perhaps, George Clinton. He merges scatological jokes such as "I Got to Tell You" and "A Visit to the Gynecologyst" with a wide array of vivid mind-twisters, including "Blue Flowers," the disc's wonderfully odd first single, and "Girl Let Me Touch You," a lascivious come-on that's thematically in tune with Sex Styles, a slab of aural pornography that was issued independently last year. Not everything on the disc works, but its humor and its eagerness to go where no sane man has gone before make it far preferable to the unimaginative, ultra-commercial retreads that too many of today's hip-hoppers are releasing. But before Dr. Octagon's prescription could be filled, the combo fell apart--and Keith is still upset that the blame for its dissolution was left at his door.
"They painted a picture of me that wasn't me," he insisted. "What happened was, the project was a project for hire. The Automator hired me to rock, and I rocked, and he paid me my money legitimately. Then I went up there a second time and I suggested to Automator that they shop for a record deal. And he got the record deal and paid me my fee and the percentages for the deal, and everything was sorted out. But then they started havin' all these meetin's about arrangements, and I wasn't a part of it. And these remixes [issued as Instrumentalyst, a companion disc produced by The Automator] started flyin' at me like boomerangs, and I didn't even like 'em. I had no control over 'em, or what songs would come out first, second, third, fourth, fifth. I kept sayin', 'How come I can't remix?' 'Cause I was makin' this shit, and the remixes were makin' it sound like the worst stuff ever in my career. I was sayin', 'We did an innovative project--how come we're goin' out to court a lot of earth people?'"
"I was pissed off," he conceded. "I was like, 'They must be havin' a good time, because there's been like months and days goin' by, and they been hirin' all these Joe Neckbones to do different remixes, and I ain't got nothin' to do with 'em.' A lot of times, the records didn't even sound like the records I rapped on. And then it was time to tour, and they got a band out of nowhere and a bunch of mixes with my voices on top of 'em that don't even cater to me on stage. I was like, 'I got to do these records with all these other people's tastes?' And they never gave me any treatments for the videos, and if they wanted me to be at some show on Friday evenin', they'd call and tell me about it Friday mornin'. It was like they thought I had nothin' to do--no family life, no havin' to wash my clothes. It was so unprofessional. And that hit me in the belly, center. It just seemed like they thought, 'Don't call him. We don't need him for this stuff.' They made a cake, and I was the last ingredient. They did it their way--they were throwin' in fuckin' paprika, they were throwin' in fuckin' seasonin' salt, they were throwin' in fuckin' eggnog. They had all their things, but then at the end of it, they went, 'Hmmm. Somethin' is missin'. Let's throw in some fuckin' Keith.'"
These are hardly the only complaints Keith levied against The Automator and Dreamworks. He also accused unnamed parties of "intercepting" remixing assignments by asserting--inaccurately, he swore--that no one knew where he was. Moreover, he condemned these parties for implying that he hadn't been terribly involved with the creation of Dr. Octagon's sound. "All the Moog patches and the space stuff and the bubbles, the bubbly shit--that was mine. So was the stuff with the soulful bass lines; I always play a lot of my own bass lines, and that's what I did on Octagon. The violins and the harps and the loops with the flute--that was Automator. But a lot of it was my shit, even though it was marketed and shopped and represented all over the world like it wasn't."
On the surface, the Automator/Dreamworks spin would seem to present problems for Keith, particularly when it comes to convincing another company to back him. But he maintained that he had been able to overcome them. "I'm workin' on my new shit," he said, "and it's goin' to be on a big label that you've heard of--one of the big, big, big, big labels. And I'm gonna redo the Octagon thing my way, with a brand-new band and a lot of next-shit bass lines: new futuristic funk shit, but with all the alternative taken out of it. Octagon was alternative mixed with funk, which was like takin' a Rolls-Royce and puttin on a Ford Granada grille and Volkswagen wheels. And on this project, I'm rippin' off the wheels and rippin' out the grille and makin' shit that is so fuckin' pure.
"My channel is the real, real rugged funk-shit channel. Not the weird channel: That was Octagon. When I was doin' that, I was tryin' to do shit that was next and weird, but you could still play it in both worlds--like, the white people would love it and the black people would love it. But Octagon more or less catered to weirdos. You had a lot of weirdos that loved it, sayin' it was a masterpiece thing, and you had other people sayin', 'Hey, I can get with this'--like hardcore acid kids and techno kids into that Prodigy shit [the controversial Prodigy hit "Smack My Bitch Up" is based on an Ultramagnetic MC's sample]. But then you'd have funk people who'd say, 'This shit is funky, but I can't get with it.' It was kind of a selfish project musically. It was like it was sayin', 'Fuck you, listeners.' But I don't want to be selfish this time. I want to invite everybody in. I want people to say, 'Yo, this shit is dope. It's fuckin' weird, but it's just weird enough for me to get on.'"
Of course, having a reputation as a freak can be a chore at times, as Keith readily admitted. "I get a lot of people who want to work with me, but they think all they got to do is to make somethin' weird," he said. "And I like weird, but then you get people who make it too weird. They're like, 'Keith is so weird he would even rap on this shit.' And I'm like, 'Wrong. Wrong. BAAAAAH--press the buzzer. Wrong.' They think, like, 'He's Mikey, he'll rap on anythin'.' But that's not the fuckin' situation. The track is wack, take it back. I mean, I am a different type of person. Like, I'll walk into Macy's and there'll be seven blue coats hangin' up next to one yellow coat fuckin' glowin' in the dark--and I'll buy the yellow one. Different is my get-off. It's my adrenaline. But that doesn't mean that any kind of different will do. It's got to be the right kind of different."
As I was about to ask Keith to elaborate on this point, knowing in my heart of hearts that he would likely ignore my request, I glanced at my watch and noticed that I had been on the horn with him for a full hour--far longer than I had anticipated. Realizing that the clock was ticking, I tossed out one last question in the vain hope that he would acknowledge it. A lot of people are thrilled at the prospect of your playing a gig in Boulder, I told him, but they're wondering if you're actually going to show up. Are you?
"I don't know anything about it," Keith replied. "Where's it at?" And as I filled him in, I felt my excitement and my trepidation going head to head again.
Kool Keith. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 24, Fox Theatre, 1335 13th Street, Boulder, $15.75, 786-7030.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.