Kool Keith, who's playing St. Louis on Sept. 7, is one baffling subject, an emcee whose solo releases stretching back to 1996 are some of the most visionary and/or confusing available, an emcee who, in a world of one-dimensional characters and Puffy-chested poseurs, is a genuine avalanche of personae. Is he the end-of-the-century black David Bowie? Is he Sun Ra? Is he Weird Al? Or is he just a bitch-slappin' asshole?
In his various incarnations Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Sinister 6000, Black Elvis Kool Keith (born Keith Thornton) moves from imagining himself as a gynecologist to an avenging hip-hop angel, from the CEO of a multinational to a supergalactic lover. He's been a doctor and a starman, an evil gangsta and a raunchy party purveyor. He's reinvented himself as many times as he's burned bridges or maybe reinvented himself because he's burned so many bridges and has three official Web pages (all can be accessed through www.koolkeith.net) devoted to outlining not just the characteristics of Dooom, Octagon and Elvis, but also the many comic-book personas he's yet to embody: Clean Man (quote: "I've come to get rid of grease and knock out tough stains."); Keith Turbo (quote: "Man, I could throw a 100-pound walrus through the wall!"); Fly Ricky, the Wine Taster (quote: "I did a show with the Gap Band in Miami." he's the king of baffling non sequiturs, too). In a genre in which emcees create and then cling to one particular persona, Kool Keith has a handful of them.
Wait. Or maybe that is his persona: the Schizo Space Case.
If it's humanly possible to contain Kool Keith on the written page, here goes: Kool Keith used to be in the phenomenal late-'80s/early-'90s rap group the Ultra-magnetic MCs. He stands out on their records as the squirrelly one their Flava Flav. When the UMCs disbanded, he took a couple of years' break, then started birthing the alter egos. Since then, he's done the full-lengths and guested with a wide-ranging group of kindred artists: Gang Starr's Guru, Tim Dog, the Automator, the Prodigy, Hardkiss. He's got a part on Prince Paul's most recent masterpiece, Prince of Thieves, and has fallen in with the Rawkus Records crew. As much as anyone in the hip-hop community, Kool Keith is a builder of bridges among the many camps and genres; you'll just as often find him on a major-label or electronica record as on an indie or hip-hop project, as likely to tour with an Illbient brainiac (which he is, this time around, with DJ Spooky) as with a street crew. He's a perpetual work-in-progress, but you can spot his signature immediately.
Keith's style is downright ferocious, a far cry from his days with the Ultramagnetic MCs. He'll move from cramming 10 rhymes into a space seemingly reserved for, like, two to discovering a thought and repeating it: "Is the world made of plastic? Cause that's the way it seems." He'll name-check the Staple Singers, Michelle Shocked, Marilyn Manson, Slayer in the course of a rambling rant ("Neighbors Next Door"), then slap you with (ladies, cover your eyes) "I want a Kotex with whipped cream." (Kool Keith seems to harbor a particular fascination with the menstrual cycle, along with a fondness for, uh, toilet paper.)
That's where the confusion sets in. Most of Keith's personae are, well, disgusting. Two in particular, Dr. Dooom and the personality revealed on the ultramessy Sex Style (recorded under the name Kool Keith, perhaps an indication as to who the real Kool Keith is) a modern-day Dolomite party record are toughies. Here, he simply uses his characterizations as a portal into a vivid world of bathroom humor and nasty honesty. But is he just acting when he says, with pure innocence, "I'm the man of the hour/watching girls taking a shower"?
When gang-bangin' emcees in the early "90s rationalized their violent words by saying that they were simply taking on a role, critics pooh-poohed them and said that such an explanation was a copout. But there's something about Keith's manner that is so forthcoming, treating all his disgusting facets with a wide-eyed equanimity. Take this rhyme from Dr. Octagon's Dr. Octagonecologyst (DreamWorks): "Grabbing crackers out of the refrigerator/I was a terrible masturbator/I was looking at black tail in Penthouse/since I was in the incubator." Snoop Dogg wouldn't be caught dead "fessin' to that one. Nor would Cube, or P, or DMX. Keith is Keith, comfortable, unapologetic and, well, a tad off.
On the Dr. Dooom record, First Come, First Served, he introduces the persona du jour on the first cut with a skit titled "Who Killed Dr. Octagon?" As in a comic book, one character makes a cameo in another's story; in this case, Octagon, the gyno from the previous record, is paged over a hospital intercom to visit a patient. Once inside the patient's room, the unsuspecting Octagon informs him that he'll need an operation. But wait! The evil Dr. Dooom is the patient! Curses! "You that Dr. Octagon ass motherfucker, right? I'll tell you what (sound of gun being cocked). Take two of these and call me in the fuckin' morning (BOOM! BOOM!) I'm Dr. Dooom!"
Dooom then takes over the record, a menacing beat kicks in and the character announces dryly and dramatically, "Motherfuckas gonna let me go and finish this motherfuckin' album. Dr. Dooom. The name of this track is called "I don't want the motherfuckin' chorus.' Whatever the arrangements are, we're gonna go through "em,'" and the rest of the cut is a long tirade. It's rough, it's biting, it's pure evil, all narrated by the (disgusting, pyschotic) Dooom.
On First Come, First Served, Dr. Dooom is the hip-hop American Psycho, but he'll inevitably be dismissed as gangsta garbage. You can do that shit in lit and get away with it if your name's Bret Easton Ellis, but in hip-hop, where apparently there's no such thing as fiction, such character embodiment is strictly forbidden, lest the music press brand you an evil woman-hatin' emcee. Granted, it's not that simple, because Kool Keith repeatedly treats his feminine subjects with a derision that's stomach-churning, so recurrent that it's obviously raw in his psyche. But he treats his male characters with an equal amount of contempt; he doesn't dance around his misanthropy, and his skill and talent can't be argued. That, of course, doesn't make the words any easier to stomach. Each rhyme hits like a hammer; none can be dismissed.
But then he'll turn around and baffle you with a beaut: "It's raining green/It's totally raining green/I smell the bees and the birds/Different aspects of life/Blue flowers" (from the stunning pinnacle, to date, of his career, "Blue Flowers," from Dr. Octagonecologyst)
Musically, the most accomplished of Keith's releases by far is Dr. Octagonecologyst, which was produced by San Francisco producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura; it's as much trip-hop as hip-hop, a complicated mix that understands both European electronica and American rap and uses both as a musical springboard. Without the Automator, Keith's sound is more pared-down: simple, clean beats, a few textured samples, a few hooks. He tosses in a spoken sample now and then, and he loves the fuzzy bass and the vocoder (Black Elvis features the last recorded appearance by late Zapp vocalist Roger Troutman). Overall, Keith creates a rough, bass-heavy sound that sounds like a mix of the No Limit bounce and NYC intellect.
On Kool Keith's most recent release, Black Elvis/Lost in Space (Ruffhouse/ Columbia), the emcee visits a world that George Clinton and Sun Ra have visited before outer space. The funny thing about the record, which you can spot immediately as a Kool Keith project, is that he takes great pains to climb into a rocket and shoot himself into space, then steps out and starts railing on wack earthling emcees. He's hilarious in his fury ("Why are you making those mean faces in your videos with the fish-lens effect? Why?"), but he can't seem to hold his character for long; the setting can remain the same Dooom's is the ghetto, Octagon's the hospital throughout a record, but Keith constantly struggles to keep the distance inside his voice.
So who is Kool Keith? He's a messed-up genius, a bitter visionary, a confused man. He can't seem to control his brain very well, but he sure can control his diction; each line weighs a ton and each word is filled with a real fury, even when he's describing a hallucination: "Dr. Octagon, please come to the office, come now. Oh, fuck! Patient just died in room 105 psoriasis of the eye! Nurse, come in! Please! Where are you? Fuck it, he's dead! Oh, shit, there's a horse in the hospital!"
Wha? Only Kool Keith can explain that one, and he probably won't tell you a thing.
DJ Spooky who's also on the bill however, will tell you way more than you need to know about his music. He'll footnote each thought, provide a bibliography to justify each sample. This is annoying, because however intelligent and well-read he is and we're not disputing his oh-so-impressive intellect and scholarly prowess he's creating, for the most part, phenomenal instrumental music that gives the nod to cutting-edge drum & bass but ventures into the realm of curious experimental classical music (he's worked with contemporary composers Iannis Xenakis and Pauline Oliveros), funk and turntablism. But the key word there is instrumental, and though his ideas are fascinating, his liner notes are, for the most part, academic-buzzword-laden drivel. His forthcoming release, File Under Futurism (Caipirinha Records), is his best to date, a profound collaboration with NYC's Freight Elevator Quartet.