Music superlatives are almost always
subjective. But here's one that's iron
proof: Kool Keith is the weirdest rapper on the planet. The man born Keith Thornton 50 years ago in hip-hop's Bronx-based epicenter possesses an eccentricity that follows the strictures of no trend, belongs to no tribe, and is transmitted to the world with little precedent.
But to Keith, there's nothing weird about his 30-year career, which began in the '80s with experimental hip-hop pioneers the Ultramagnetic MCs. Nothing weird about rapping under a dizzying array of nom de plumes, include Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Ultra, Black Elvis, Keith Korg and Mr. Nogatco. Nothing weird about delusional, stream-of-consciousness rhymes exploring the dark promise of outer space on one album and raunchy strip club perversions on the next.
Even in the early days, when the Ultramagnetic MCs made an intelligent, positivist impression on a world increasingly enamored with hardcore gangsta rap, Keith marched to the beat of his own internal drum. "I wasn't really rushing music," Keith says. "I was watching what other people were doing, where a lot of rappers were rhyming in people's faces, like, ‘Yo, hear my rap! Please hear my demo!' I was always calm, taking my time with music ... it was a long route."
After the group disbanded in the mid-'90s,
Keith took a sharp left turn, adopting the persona
Dr. Octagon, a sex-crazed mad scientist, for his first solo project. But it was Keith's collaboration with avant-garde producers like Dan The Automator and DJ Qbert that really set 1996's Dr. Octagonecologyst apart. "That album had like four different dimensions and eight sides," Keith said. "It was pop, it was rock, it was even heavy metal. It was like Mozart mixed with funk."
That album caught the attention of major label DreamWorks, which gave Keith a real
mainstream break when it reissued Dr. Octagonecologyst in 1996. True to his baffling form, though, Kool Keith veered right for 1997's Sex Style, a self-described "pornocore" album that celebrated the man's love of all things carnal while parodying rap's bombastic visual style (the cover features Keith wearing a pink fedora and striped Greek briefs alongside a scantily clad woman, a motel sign, a Cadillac, and a bottle of champagne). Sex Style and future pornocore releases like Spankmaster went further than just riffing on sex and featuring barely dressed females in music videos; Keith actually sampled porno movies for his beats. "I went against the fake laws of hip-hop that said you had to sample a record from the 1960s or 1970s," he says. "I'll sample Jodeci, Miami bass, trap, jazz, R&B. I can loop anything I want because I don't have any boundaries in my mind."
That was clear on 1999's First Come, First Served, which served as Dr. Dooom's debut. Keith's new alter ego killed off Dr. Octagon on the album's first track, then proceeded to rap about cannibalism, rat-infested apartments, and surreal street-level poverty with an authentic ferocity lacking in the bombastic rap world. At the same time, Keith was working with another label, Ruffhouse/Columbia, to release Black Elvis/Lost In Space. The intergalactic concept album was the first for which Keith handled 100 percent of production, even though he says the label tried to undermine that effort at every turn. "The width of my writing is so wide and ranged out, and people love my voice," Keith says. "But when labels [were] in control of my music, they wanted to actually play my keyboards for me — really control my music. That just hurt 'em, though, because they couldn't do nothing about my magic funky hand. They tried to make me work with producers who wanted to give me sunny bubble berry beats when my emotions were dark."
At this point in the interview, specific questions about Kool Keith's recent predilection for performing under sequined head scarves and mini-capes, his nonstop flow of sometimes-great and sometimes-terrible material, and his otherworldly, Sun Ra-like zaniness started getting deflected in favor of rambling treatises on funk, soul and his lifelong pursuit of the futuristic. "I have thousands of songs that I listen to and I'm like, ‘I can't believe I was so ahead of my time!'" Keith says. "But I'm still writing current; only a few people made it across that bridge. I've always had a vocal cadence that was ahead of time. Time caught up with me.
"So many people lost their funk," he continues. "Rap has gotten watered down; funk has gotten watered down; R&B has gotten watered down. Everybody trying to follow the blueprint and intentionally break their necks to make pop records. Everybody want to be like Pharrell and make the next ‘Happy' when they don't have that funk, that soul, and that rhythm in they bodies. Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Leann Rimes, Dolly Parton, Rihanna — they all cool, but they don't have soul."