Can This Guy Be Serious? You Bet

Soren Baker writes about hip-hop for Calendar

Rapper Kool Keith looks as if he got part of his wardrobe from the hip-hop assembly line: basketball jersey, shorts and pricey gym shoes.

But the plastic wig?

It's a tip-off to the eccentric nature of a man with a seemingly unlimited imagination and an ever-changing persona.

Think of Keith as the Brian Wilson or Perry Farrell of rap--only without the platinum record sales.

Like those hugely influential rock figures, Keith, a Bronx native whose real name is Keith Thornton, is someone whose mystique is almost as intriguing as his talent--which is huge.

Several popular rappers, from Redman to Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA, have been influenced by his music and persona, and the title phrase of Prodigy's controversial "Smack My Bitch Up" single came from an early Kool Keith recording.

Rolling Stone magazine calls Keith "rap's eccentric genius." Interview magazine says he's "one of rap's greatest rhyme fighters." Spin labels him "the William S. Burroughs of rap."

Despite all this, Keith hasn't joined his contemporaries on the upper rungs of the pop charts. One reason is that much of his prolific output has been released on small, independent labels.

That's why the rap world is curious to see whether Keith will finally latch onto pop gold when his new collection, "Black Elvis/Lost in Space," is released Aug. 10 by Ruffhouse/Columbia, the home of Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean.

It'll be the first time as a solo artist that Keith will have a big-budget video and a major promotional push behind a recording.

Most important, says Kool Keith's manager Jeremy Larner, is that this will be the first time that a Kool Keith album will be widely distributed.

"A lot of people tell me, 'Listen, I love "Octagon," I love "Sex Style," but I just can't find it,' " he says. "Kool Keith's 'Black Elvis' will be in every record store in the country."

But sales don't seem to be Keith's top priority.

"At one time I did care about selling records, but it's a two-way thing," he says, in an upstairs office at Sony Music in Santa Monica. "The consumer is not ready mentally and intellectually yet. The stuff they're getting is easily digested. People are less advanced than you think they are, even with all these computers.

"When it comes to my music, it's like working with algebra or some type of complex math that people can't handle. I don't blame myself. I make records that I like. . . . I'm not making a simple formula."

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Some of Keith's musical personas are so extreme--Dr. Octagon, a demented gynecologist; Dr. Dooom, a psychopathic killer--that you would place him in a morgue or haunted house if you were doing a television documentary on him.

With his first group, the Ultramagnetic MC's, Keith rapped about outer space and his microphone skills, but his lyrics took on a warped, macabre slant on the Dr. Octagon project and his subsequent releases. His journeys always include encounters with characters whose creepy tendencies mesh with Keith's persona of the moment. His doctor characters are obsessed with bloody surgeries and sexual thrills.

Although he rhymed over fierce hip-hop beats with Ultramagnetic, Keith has shifted to sci-fi-slanted soundscapes that are as eerie as his words. The disjointed blends of synthesizers and heavy bass lines add another horror show element to Keith's rants.

So it feels strange to be sitting with him in a sterile record company environment. Keith's soft-spoken manner on this late afternoon matches the laid-back nature of the setting.

He plays with the plastic hair as if it were real, seemingly combing it with his fingers during the course of the interview. But Kool Keith never offers an explanation for his wig. It's simply there, and Keith proceeds as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

At the same time, it's clear that he takes his music very seriously. In an age when so much commercial rap focuses on materialistic cliches, he works on a much more personal level. He speaks of his rap, with its outer-limits imagery, as therapy as much as profession.

"If I didn't rap, I think I would be confined mentally," he says, scratching the wig. "People get off on me writing about space sometimes. I can't lock myself into one genre of rapping. . . . I have serious sides to myself in my life. I write songs now according to my growth and how I feel. I go into the studio and write a lot of personal songs. I don't make records for everybody. I have a lot of personal things that I like to get off my chest and I record it."

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Born and raised in the Bronx, Keith Thornton came of age during rap's genesis. He was raised in the kind of deplorable conditions many rappers have built careers on chronicling.

"I grew up around people that lived in the ghetto with shootouts and living hard," says Keith, whose publicist says he's 27 (questionable, given his long career). "It was that 'urban lifestyle.' But I chose not to just rap about what I lived. I was different. I was a dimensional kid. I would go and see midtown Manhattan.

"I wasn't mentally locked. I didn't feel that I had to rap about my urban struggles. I felt like I was a kid in 'Wayne's World.' I was into my own awareness, getting lost in different things and venturing off with myself. Half of these people that write about that they're gangsters, they never lived in those urban areas. They're on CDs making records for middle-class America to fool a lot of people that they grew up hard."

But that was never Kool Keith's way.

"Critical Beatdown," the Ultramagnetic MC's debut album, was released in 1988 and featured a groundbreaking style that had already been displayed on a number of the group's singles. Like many other popular rappers, Kool Keith and partner Ced Gee harped incessantly on their microphone prowess, but they also expanded beyond planet Earth with their rhymes.

It was something decidedly different, and it didn't catch on nearly as well as Public Enemy's aggressive political stance or Boogie Down Productions' blend of social commentary and braggadocio.

But it made an impression.

Most rappers on New York's underground scene were obviously inspired by Keith's stream-of-consciousness flow. In fact, he may be responsible--at least indirectly--for most of the independent hip-hop music coming from the Big Apple.

"It took 'Critical Beatdown' a long time to sell," Keith says. "My music is always ahead of its time. I can create something now that people may like 10 years from now, but a group may come out 10 years from now doing what I did today and they'll be so successful and big."

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Die-hard Ultramagnetic fans wondered what the quirky Keith and his comrades would be up to next, but they had to wait four years for the group to resurface with its next album, 1992's "Funk Your Head Up."

But the Mercury Records-backed album sold only about 26,000 copies. In fact, for all the critical praise, the best sales mark registered by a Kool Keith-related release is about 35,000 units. By comparison, "Flesh of My Flesh Blood of My Blood" by rapper DMX sold more than 670,000 copies in one week last year.

In 1996, Keith made the album "Dr. Octagon," which he describes as "some Walt Disney having fun [stuff]." Though the album, released on the independent label Bulk Recordings, didn't find an audience, it is widely regarded as an underground classic. It caused a stir in industry circles, and DreamWorks Records picked up the rights and re-released it later the same year.

Though it still didn't catch on commercially, the album was widely--and glowingly--reviewed in pop and rock publications, potentially building an audience for the new record.

Keith now splits time between New York, Los Angeles and other locales, and keeps recording albums at a prolific pace.

This year, there's already been an album as Dr. Dooom on Funky Ass/Nu Gruv Alliance, "First Come, First Served," about "some serious [stuff] with my life." There's at least one other album to be released before the year's end.

"I feel that I'm a genius of creativity," he says without a trace of self-consciousness. "A lot of artists are not talented enough to do what I'm doing. Everybody is the same. Ninety-nine percent of the rappers wear their baseball caps backwards. There's no theatrics with their stage show.

"Everybody is talking about the struggles of being real, the champagne, how much they've got. It's a forced concept. . . . I offer the industry maybe a good 50% to 70% of its creativity and I'm just doing it naturally. . . . Some guys, they need beer or baldheaded girls when they go to the studio. They have patterns. I don't need that stuff. I make records naturally. I may have a bowl of Honey Comb in the morning and make three songs. I've been trained to work like this." *

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