Kool Keith: Always Ahead of Time & Beyond Space
KOOL KEITH – The Dr Is (Back) In
Interview by Thomas Quinlan, Addi "Mindbender" Stewart and Chris Cromie; transcribed, written and edited by Thomas Quinlan.
"Kool" Keith Thornton debuted with now-legendary hip-hop group Ultramagnetic MC's, almost single-handedly paved the way for alternative rap with Dr. Octagon, and introduced the world to the likes of Kut Masta Kurt, Dan the Automator, Motion Man, Sir Menilik and many others. Often criticized for his recent output, which fails to equal the classic status of many of his early recordings, Kool Keith is still a prolific artist 25 years later, recording under numerous aliases and in numerous collaborative combinations. Last year included two albums to announce the return of Dr. Octagon – Mr. Nogatco and Return of Dr. Octagon – and a collaboration with TomC3 as Project Polaroid; and this year was the not-so-successful reunion of Ultramagnetic MC's with Best Kept Secret. Keith opens up about producers, contemporary hip-hop, Freddie Foxx, porn, recording for his alter egos, and the distinctive voice of Kool Keith.
URBNET Let's talk about Ultramagnetic MC's. You've reunited and have a new album.
KOOL KEITH We got back together. We were back together before, just the fact of the public knowing all this, they didn't know this, but we was working on tracks for a long time. We was doing tracks a while ago but I was traveling so much that we used to do six or seven songs and then we stop for a long, long time and then we crank up the hype again. But, we finally finished that album, we did brand new stuff. Ced is back on deck and everybody's together. We never physically broke up, we just was away from each other. Plus, they just got a different schedule from mine now; they all kinda doing regular stuff now. I was the first guy to initiate doing an album together.
What's the deal with your new album, The Return of Dr. Octagon?
I wrote the album originally to some beats that I physically rapped on. I rapped on most of what I rap on; but when I did this album, they had a problem with [producer] Fanatik, and they had so much problems and releases that I got caught up into them taking my vocals off and putting them on other songs. I physically rapped on "Trees," "Aliens" and maybe one more record. In the end, I don't know how bad they changed the music. I was shocked and surprised, but I just think the audacity of doing it was a little uncommon. They could have called me and let me know. The communication was bad. They just did the remixes. I was kind of shocked as a fan, also. But, it's a good record in its own way. It's incredible that people can maneuver vocals around.
Do you feel the myth of Kool Keith isn't strong enough for people, or do you think people see you as weirder than you actually are? Where do you actually live in the whole thing?
It's funny. My life is so regular, but people made it [the other] way. I mean, the stigma. After working with Automator and his manager, Tony, and when I really pulled out of Lollapalooza, which was for business reasons, I think that created a lot of myth, stigma, about me. People felt I was the Marvin Barnes of the music industry, like, "Don't give him his money, he'll run away. Don't pay him up front, is he really gonna come to the show? What time is he getting on? Is he on stage? Should we write him a cheque?" It became a lot of weird bets. They even had bets that I wouldn't finish the Warp Tour; I did the whole tour. You've got places and cities that feel I'm not gonna show up. I show up to all my shows, everything that's possibly booked. The public don't get the same chance to see the ups and downs, plus the bad side of the music industry. Sometimes why I may not participate in some type of activity [is] because sometimes things ain't right. Sometimes you might do a show but the promoter ain't paying for you to get there, plus he didn't book you in a hotel you asked for and he got you on a flight that's not comfortable to what you like. It's not really putting a great way for you to go out and do a show. When I back out of something, I back out 'cause of a reason. It's a business reason, but the fans don't know that. Same thing when I worked with Automator. We were together and equal on a lot of things, but then we were not equal on a lot of things. His manager was a one-side person; so when we were working on that first album, it was about me and him together, but then when they went to the record company, it was about him and his manager, and I'm monkey see monkey do, whatever. We were about to do another album together and they still try to pull out weird contracts. For a person that's been in the business as long as me, there's no way you can pull such things. And me and Automator is friends to this day. It's just that stigma passed on from that time zone right there. I ride the wave. At the end of the day, I write my own lyrics, I get my music done professional, I'm at the studio. I think that opens up advantages for people to feel in business they can take advantage, but then my business shocks them. People say, "Oh, he's weird, he's crazy. Oh, he's bugged out, he's strange, he's got different aliases; maybe we can catch him off guard and he can come to my house and rhyme for free." But, when I come, "Hey, 10, 20 grand," they start thinking something's wrong. People tend to do that. When you come to do a session, you're supposed to have the envelope, your money, and sign off the papers. "Okay, Keith, here's the studio, here's your chicken wings, give me my 16-bar verse." Sometimes I sit and wait and laugh at people, and they go two or three hours and I'll be like, "You're going to pay me, right?"
Some of them just don't know. They're caught up in the fantasy and they just don't have the knowledge.
I get it from even the fans. I don't know of any other artist like this. People feel so good, they invite me to their house after the show. I could be a killer. You've just did a big arena or a big theater and people got the nerve [to ask], "Hey, wanna come to our house, play some music?" What the fuck am I gonna just do? Come over to your house and sit down. You've got a private party, you're gonna call some more people: "Hey, I've got Keith at my house now. Get over here and bring your checkerboard when you come." People jerk off to that or something. And they never feel a party is over. You rock an hour and a half on stage, you know; it's damn near four o'clock in the morning, the sun is coming up. Hey, just go home and go to bed. There's no more party. There's not another party. I witnessed in my career, even in the groupie range and the girls, I've seen girls just laid out and I've seen nights ending with constant vomiking [sic]. I mean, if you got to party that hard just to enjoy yourself... It's good to have two or three beers, but if you've got to party 'til people got to take you home damn near through an EMS truck and an ambulance, it gets ridiculous.
It's 2006 and you're still doing it. There's only a few who can really say they're still in the game after three decades. Any insight?
I evolved so much from the past that a lot of rappers that I grew up with in my time, I really don't ever even feel from that era no more. I feel that it's non-existent. I've been on so many other tours and I've been with too many other groups touring – Red Hot Chili Peppers, me signing to Capitol, seeing Rancid, AFI, and going on other things and flipping my whole lifestyle into a whole other world of people. It seems like I forgot the past. Sometimes I'll be on a plane and I don't even remember I came to Europe in '83. I look at it like, I've been here before, I know I've been here before, I know I've walked around London before the average rapper, I have. I just feel brand new. Sometimes I feel so evolved that I don't have time to think about the past like that anymore. I just don't put the mileage on myself; I don't feel like, even when they do different time zones of rappers – old school, new school – I always looked at it as the middle school because I look at myself, I'm like, Whodini had records out before me, Run DMC had records out before me, Grandmaster Flash had records out before me, Bambaataa had records out before me, LL had records out way before me. So many rappers had records out before me. Even Public Enemy came out before us. We were the Ultramgnetic-type of group when Public Enemy came out, but we had a sound. We got out with singles, 12-inches, but Public Enemy signed to Def Jam. We was with the sound too, with the James Brown stuff and the substitution drums and everybody that was using James Brown and all that. But, we were more that type of sound first. We broke in the UK first, but they broke national first. They were just coming out of Long Island, but they surfaced with Def Jam, who put them out nationally, and they had better publicity, a better machine behind them, so their story went further than what we had.
What really started the beef between Freddie Foxx and Ultramagnetic?
We had kinda squashed that beef 'cause I saw him in Atlanta. It wasn't that much of a beef because at that time I used to use phrases in lyrics like, "I'll put a tarantula up against a turtle," and "How can you put up a fox against an alligator?" I just used to use different phrases with animals and for one reason or another he had thought that I was dissing him, but I use phrases like that anyway. It had escalated for a minor bit; he thought I was talking about him. He saw me, he confronted me about it. I said, "No, that's just the way I write." We talked about it and we got over that issue. He made a record about it, but I didn't really say nothing back to it. It was awhile ago and I think he was only doing what an emcee does.
What is the Kool Keith creative process?
My songwriting is really traveling. Just my experience going around the world, going to different places. Some rappers, you know, they travel around the world but they don't leave the room, so they're really not traveling. I noticed when I was on tour with DJ Spooky, he just takes a walk around the city. That, to me, is a lot of my visual scene, giving me an open mind to write about something. I think I have a broad writing sense. Some people only write about their neighbourhood or being on an album. I take every experience I go through, like traveling all over the world, and use it. I think by the time I write one song, that song has phrases that relate to London, phrases that might relate to San Diego, phrases of Toronto. I might say something about the Blue Jays and I might say something about the Dallas Cowboys in my rap, or I might say Houston Astros. I just have an international writing ability while some people are known for regional issues: they write about a certain zip code. That stagnates your motivation, so I put myself on a real broad writing level.
You have many different alter egos. Do you write for a specific alias or have a different process for each?
I record so much, and I have different brackets of songs. That's why I sometimes label some of my CDs. I sometimes use the colour theory; sometimes I record maybe a bunch of CDs in different colours: the red pile and the green and blue and yellow, and then I may record some stuff on plain silver CDs. I have different types of avenues of different materials. I'll be like, "This sounds like this is some Dr. Dooom shit, this is gonna go in the Dr. Dooom compartment, this is gonna go in the Dr. Octagon garage, I'm going to get into this for something later." It's like I build up the car and I park it in the Rolls Royce section, the Ford section, the GMC section, and that's what I usually do all the time, but they're all different types of records. I do have a significant break-up of certain things. I have some records that I'll never put with other records, like Octagon will never be on a Kool Keith record. It's not that it won't fit, I won't even cross-breed like that. That goes with groups. When I'm working with Ultramagnetic, it's a whole new mindframe; it's a whole new life, a whole new rhyme. You put on a whole new suit, like zip, Ultramagnetic suit – put on the helmet and you go scuba-diving. It's just a compartment. Some people want to feel like, "He's just randomly writing a bunch of stuff and he's gonna throw it together and then put it like chicken noodle soup and mix it like stew," and that's not the case.
You've produced for yourself and had production supplied by a variety of producers, including Dan the Automator and Kut Masta Kurt. What are your thoughts on present-day production in hip-hop?
The producers don't really have no feeling. He's not feeling you at the cheque-cashing place. He don't feel that, you feel that. If you look at a lot of the music industry, they got rid of a lot of the bands that make rough-edge stuff. It's like Slade, they used to play mean bass lines. They got rid of the keys that don't match and the tough bass lines. They more or less sweetened up the music, made it light. People don't mess with the left-hand side of the keyboard. And what it is, a lot of people say in more like suburban areas, they don't want to hear you. They more or less scared and intimidated, so they want to hear something less intimidating. That's really all your spirit around you when you make those records that sound hard and crazy 'cause that's like what you're coming from, your whole background of the Bronx – you know, the pissy streets and Hunt's Point Market, the trucks and the delivery and the fish on the street, the stench – and the beats are just matching. How do I look coming out rapping on somebody from Glenn Farms' track? I come from the Bronx and I'm saying a theme but the beat sounds like it's from Glenn Farms. It doesn't really match. That's the only thing that tears me down in the music industry, is that you could work with producers but they don't have a sense of feeling for what you really do. I honestly like to rap on hard shit myself. That's why, to this day, I like EPMD, people that stuck to their sound. We don't got that no more. I think sampling is one thing that really took a lot of that out. You've got your Ron Carters and your greatest jazz records to collect and sample off of, but when you listen to the loops a lot of them are really sweet, there's but so much you can do with them. But when you actually get on keyboards and make Frankenstein funky shit and it's just made with no teachings – it's not somebody going [he imitates the music scale] "A-B-C-D" – I think a lot of up-and-coming producers live by notes; they have a lot of sweet notes. I never was a fan of sweet loops. Ninety-nine percent I'm never rapping on top of a sweet loop. I would never rap on sweet loops, but I've been remixed on sweet loops because people had this thing of, "Hey, we could put Kool Keith on Bugs Bunny," and "We got a Woody Woodpecker sample that I think he will sound great on – it's hot!" People feel like that's great, they get their dicks hard with that. They'll put me on top of a Sesame Street loop, but that's their fantasy. They just feel like this is something to laugh at. I think it's corny. I really think it's corny to walk around the city and buy a bunch of records and come home with a Fisher Price record and listen to each little sample like, wow. It's like you're taking somebody's shit. I'd rather listen to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or Prince. At least they're doing something original. To me, sampling is gone. Two things that are played out for the critics: skits are played out, I think skits are gone, shove them up your ass; samples of Donald Duck and all types of records are gone, and sweet loops is done. Let's get back to some hard stuff. Also, I don't really dig the scattered producer thing. I think it sucks. I think your albums sounds like 10 people did it and it doesn't even match your whole circular of what you're about. I feel it's just a hold up. I like making original records myself. That's what I'm going to continue to do. People can't really make original stuff. At least when I go down to my fucking grave, people will say, "That guy did his own shit." I don't wanna die and motherfuckers say, "That nigga bit, he followed, he copied everybody; open his casket, look at all the people he robbed. He sampled every-fucking-body in the world." I don't even go back that far in time; I'm so far in the future I do not want to go into a dirty store and get my hands dirty with dirty records. Pick up old records with dust on them and get 'em on my hands. I want new dirt on my hands. It's just a turn-off, a big turn-off. I hate vinyl. I hate vinyl with a fucking passion.
If you could sign any label contract you want, what would be on that contract?
I sit up and think of megadeals. I was like, I'll give Puffy 10 albums for 20 million – just let him have the catalogue. While these people do bullshit little deals, I wanna start doing, like, give Michael Jackson 10 albums, just straight – I don't wanna talk about publishing or nothing. Just give me 40 million. See, I have other things in mind which I have thought [and] people are really gonna be on my testicles in a minute. I have albums that are recorded for my kids. My voice is so distinctive in the music industry. That's why I notice a lot of people in the music industry try to get my voice, no matter what level of music it is. It could be rock, it could be jazz, it could be pop, it could be house, it could be water music, it could be people rhyming underground, but they want my vocals 'cause my voice don't sound like no one's voice in the music industry. You have other people out there who've had their voice duplicated. A lot of people have run into their own duplications in this industry. What I'm doing now, I'm recording so much I'm recording my kids' albums. When my kids grow up, people that search for jazz records will be buying my vocals from my children [laughs]. I have a suitcase full of DATs, I'm just gonna give them to my daughter. Just like Marvin Gaye, let people figure that one out. By the time 2009 comes and new cars get built and motherfuckers start flying and sidewalks start moving, my music's gonna match the time. All these old sampling-ass niggas, they ain't gonna be around. Who's gonna listen to Ron Carter when we got flying saucers? Who's gonna listen to 'em? My shit is timeless. Time has changed. You don't have to use kicks and snares no more. We're really out of timing of kicks and snare because musically everything is done. A lot of the new kids now is using anything to make records. It's getting to be like the Blue Man Group right now. The Neptunes, Timbaland, everybody that's making new stuff, people is making things out of sounds. You can make music out of anything. How ya gonna go in a club with Levar Burton shades in ten years, with a Star Trek shirt on and a coat and listen to old jazz records? That shit is not gonna match. People need to evolve with the times. I'm into doing big deals.
KOOL KEITH 2019: FOOT LOCKA
How does it feel to have such a distinctive voice that everyone wants to have you on their record?
I feel good. I'm a person that can pick up a pad and give my own self a verse for free. Like, my own voice. At least God blessed my voice, I can do my own verse for myself. And that's a lot of things people can't do. Their voice is not viable, they got a lot of duplicates. You can find someone, they can go get machines and try and sound like me, they just can't catch my pitch. God gave me a distinctive voice and I love it. And I think, in the whole retrospective, the Demon is trying to revert me to rap on so much other shit to seem like they're trying to erase everything I'm doing, like they don't want me to rhyme the stuff that I do, stuff that I'm feeling. Everybody has an idea for me. Like, "Wow, we do Kool Keith's album, aw man, we're gonna blow him up. We can't wait to put our bullshit beats behind him and we're gonna take him outta here." You've got a person saying that somewhere else, you've got an alien in space saying that. You've got everybody everywhere in the world doing that. That's been the problem in the career of my music: people are trying to figure out what will make me be large, and the funny thing is that I'm already big. I travel around the world, people ask me for my autograph wherever I go. It's like American Express, people know me. I came out with a legendary rap group. I put in 25 years of raps and I'm still rapping. I made Octagon, Black Elvis, Mr. Nogatco. I've traveled. I created Dan the Automator, [who] people thought created me. I put out Kut Masta Kurt. I created the avenue for a lot of rappers to come out with their capes and be abstract: your MF DOOMs and your Outkasts. I mean, what credit are you looking for? The only credit left for me is to get killed. That's all that's left for me to be doing. Other than that, I've fulfilled everything. But, why am I not known? What do I need? Do I need to be killed? I guess it's time for me to check out. I laid big pavement. I went from the time of Kool G Rap traveling down in limos with drug dealers to shows, and the drug dealers were booking the shows with high-end hospitality, to alternative people who are just cheap; they don't even have cheese on the table. I went through different levels of the music. But, I'm not a known rapper?
How do you feel about hip-hop these days?
I think hip-hop got hypocritical 'cause, you know, for a long time the critics and the people who support the stuff – the backpackers and the so-called "keep it real" people – when I used to travel on my tour bus, I used to buy everybody's music. I had a universal purchase in my mind. I would go into cities and buy every album from all over, all different types of artists, whether it was down south, up north, I was the first. I used to be on the tour bus and buy all these CDs and scatter them on the floor and open them up and listen to them while I rode down the road all night. Rap had gotten so segregated at that point and they were always dissin' that stuff. And now you've got all these so-called eclectic artists, they're making records with the same people now. You've got people that you would never [have] thought cross the boundaries when I was listening to 'em, people had negative things to say. I say it's some different shit. E-40 was underground; he paved a lot of way, but people had segregation in their mind: "Aw, he's not keepin' it real or he's not a backpacker, how could he dare match up to a Talib Kweli or something like that?" He's his own rapper, he's his own person, he's what he represents for Oakland, but people segregated that and that's what fucked it up. It made two highways of rap, and there's no such thing as two highways of rap. You can do any collaboration you want. But now, everyone is trying to do this. What's so funny is the people you never thought as doing it is doing it now. People stick to something and they stick to it too much. It's like, people stick to Octagon. It's like, people stick to MF DOOM, but he takes off his mask, everybody will leave him 'cause they can't adapt to him without the mask. Will they like him when he takes the mask off? Will people be loyal? You have to like the artist first; you have to like the artist regardless. People like James Brown forever, they just love James Brown. People just get spoonfed too much. They just keep feeling like, "Wow, I got to taste this all the time." Sometimes, taste something different. You can't keep eating pasta everyday: "Octagon pasta, mmm, Octagon pasta, Octagon pasta, mmm." Eat something different: "Mmm, lemon meringue, put pepper on this." It's just people get stuck. And like I said, down south got their time, backpackers had their time, everybody with their gimmicks got their time. Know what it is? It's time for African rappers to jump on. Now let's get with the African thing. We did the snap. We did the low-riders, bouncing the 6-4s. We did New York with the dogs in front of the building. How about African rappers walking around with hyenas now? Let the African stuff jump off. How about the rebels and everybody rapping? Dude's rapping with the big banana peelings all around their body and rapping: "Gooka ga-mooka ma-mooka mooka ga-booka gaboo." Let's let that jump off. Let's move on, that's all. That's all this is, time for everybody to get your turn.
Was there too much hype around your porn fetish?
I use porn to my advantage 'cause in the United States I think porn is good to relax by. I watch the movies 'cause I don't like to waste my time. If I'm gonna do something with a girl, we should do something. If we're gonna go out, we gonna do something, we do it. I think I watch movies 'cause it eliminates the time I was wasting with somebody. Like I said, once we go back to the girl damn near ready to puke all over my floor, I'd rather have a clean movie, watching it with some air conditioning than having someone puking on my floor and we're not doing anything anyway. You know, you sick and I might get blamed for you being sick. Vomik [sic] is in no way sexy.
Do you have any collaborations or secret projects on the way that people don't know about?
I'd rather collaborate with stuff that's different. I'd rather do Donald Trump marketing. He should open a record company. I'd rather do something with a person like that who will get an album and have your poster sitting all on the highway to Las Vegas, all the way down the highway. Like, they keep seeing your album the whole trip, four hours, on a big billboard. All the cabs around the city are painted with your album. Like, the whole city is your album. I want to do major, major, major collab business where people just say, "Fuck it, we're gonna wrap the whole Empire State Building with your album." I don't want subway posters no more; I don't want to be on the side of a bus. Wrap the whole Sears Tower with the album. I want to do major stuff, like just stuff that normally you can't really do. Like, throw all your promotion into the whole Lincoln Tunnel, like when you ride through the tunnel, the tunnel is wrapped with your whole album. Everybody's done the same promotion for years. My whole thing is, I wanna do bigger things. You know, who wrapped themselves on the Sears Tower? People will do it, though, in a minute. I said it, and you'll see somebody copying. Whatever, I gave an idea. Send a rocket ship out into space wrapped up. That's the next level. But, some artists aren't on that level to be getting that done.