Q&A: Kool Keith Talks Career History, Style & Evolution

Kool Keith

Kool Keith is a New York rap legend, cult favorite, a stylistic visionary, an unintentional iconoclast, an irrepressible deviant and a real person. However, sometimes, the last part gets forgotten.

Keith can be credited for expanding the vocabulary of hip-hop, and competing with rival groups through the use of metaphor. He can also easily be credited for paving the way for artists like Tyler The Creator through explicit and surreal content, and by forging new frontiers where sex and technology were lyrical sources.

Those topics intertwined on his classic Dr. Octagonecologyst which — while overlooked because of DJ Shadow, Outkast and Jay-Z — was one of the best of 1996, and one of the most innovative rap albums in history. It was ingenious, if not degenerate and funny as hell. Keith was a hero, recording his fans’ masculine fantasies without coming off as misogynistic; because he wasn’t human. But, just as journalist Hunter S. Thompson became synonymous with his character Dr. Gonzo, the rapper was trapped in his alter-ego that encompassed a range of solo projects from Matthew to Sex Style to Dr. Dooom.

To fans, Keith was born on Jupiter, armed with seven rounds of space doo-doo pistols, skin green and silver, a diplomat of swing with aliens at his feet, a half shark, half alligator, only half man. And, that’s half tragedy, because it’s easier to think Kool Keith is from another planet than to admit a black man from the Bronx could push boundaries of the English language with cadence and wordplay.

To comprehend his silliness, his depravity and his brilliance, is to understand where he came from, so that’s what BallerStatus asked about when we sat down with Keith recently.

What did you want to be growing up?

I wasn’t even interested in being a rapper. I was dancing. I was in a popular dance group called The Shack Crew, dancing at these big parties at The Roxy in New York. When I went to school with Kenny Pounder from Cold Crush, I wasn’t even rapping. I would go to clubs and see them with DJ Red Alert and [Afrika Bambaataa]. They were making records. I was dancing. Then, I started writing lyrics, but I wasn’t battling in the streets and begging people to listen to my demo. The surprise came in high school when I met Ced Gee and we made Ultramagnetic [MC’s]. We came out with these big words and futuristic rhyming. We crossed a boundary. Ever since, I’ve stayed in the future.

Where did the word “Ultramagnetic” come from?

I made the word up. When me and Ced went to school, we were supposed to do solo albums. The group was made to get us to our solo albums. It was more cost efficient for us to come out as a group to establish ourselves. Ced’s brother Pat funded the money, and Moe’s mother bought the SP-12. I had to play with Ultramagnetic for three years to go solo. But, the group had street credibility and ended up real famous. That started my whole career.

Others rapped about life in the city. Why didn’t you?

Those who rapped about street life didn’t live the street life. We were like the only group actually living in the streets. We were in the Webster Projects — in the middle of it all. We’d never see those rappers. They had big stories, but here, we were walking though West Avenue, hearing gun shots and sirens every night, seeing crackheads, and every day people getting robbed. Washington Avenue was one of the notorious projects in the city. It was weird, we were just having fun and blocked all of that out. We saw yellow tape and bodies in sheets, but we didn’t want to rap about what we saw every day. We were writing scientific stuff, in our own worlds, in space, blocking out the sirens. But, that group was harder than anybody; established from that ghetto. Ultramagnetic was out before Public Enemy, TR had their demo tape in the car one day. I don’t know how he found it. We were riding to Philadelphia listening to “Bum Rush the Show” before it was released. I don’t know if he stole it, TR had sticky fingers. He used to always sneak back with all types of underground albums. He thought they sounded like us.

How did your life change after the first couple records? Did you finally leave the neighborhood?

I spent 11 years in L.A., starting a whole new life with Sex Style.

Were you a hard partier?

Yeah I was going out. This major label guy with a deal with Capitol Records — the reason I went out there. KutMasta Kurt wrote me a letter with a cassette tape in the package, saying come out to Santa Cruz and work on some tracks. We did “Big Eyes” and “Prepare With No Underwear,” and then went to The Gathering out in San Francisco, where I met everyone. In New York, nobody would give me beats, but California was different. Kurt had the demos and we drove down to L.A. and Capitol was like, “Let’s do this.” I had a half-million dollar budget to relocate. Kurt wanted to stay with his aunt, but I told him we had this budget to live and record on. We were living in Beverly Hills. I bought a nice apartment with one chair. There was no other furniture. It was the grind, two empty rooms in a big ass apartment, where we worked late in the night. But, I was living this life, partying with Michael Jordan and going to clubs and seeing the nightlife. The,n the record got canned, and we ended up doing Sex Style on Funky Ass Records. Kurt didn’t think it was a good idea to put a woman silhouette on the cover of the album, but it blew up. I came up with a lot of those ideas, like the hamburger on the rat.

Was there a filter?

A lot of things were vetoed behind the scenes. I was always questioned. When Octagon came out, I was supposed to be done according to the underground. People thought I lost it lyrically. I was reading magazine issues about new rappers like MF Doom, like this is what Keith is supposed to be doing. It was a craze when he came out with that mask. Then when Dr. Octagon came out, it took that plaque back again, me being the lyrical artist.

What were your criticisms of the music industry?

It was stuck on certain music. I had so many projects from Matthew to Dr. Dooom to Black Elvis, but they were locked on Octagon. They didn’t like the variety. Those albums were not made to be compared. They were whole different records, and I like every one of them.

As someone considered ahead of the curve, what were you listening to?

I would buy Master P’s album, or stop at Sam Goody, or borrow CDs of San Diego rappers, Texas rappers, Montreal rappers, listening to that on the tour bus. I was looking at regional styles before anybody else thought to, playing Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to people in New York, showing them how to be open minded.

Do people misunderstand you, even your own fans?

They get caught up in it all. The music makes people think I don’t live on Earth. They can’t see me in a hole in the wall club with friends drinking Hennessy. But, that’s what I do. Gang bangers walk up and say, “Man you’re Kool Keith, you don’t belong down here,” because they’re so surprised. Rappers, who rap about sugar mama’s fried chicken down in the hood, where someone just got killed on the corner, will come to Hollywood and just stay in the hotel. But, I do the ghettoest things. I would be down in Inglewood or South Central walking around Crenshaw Mall. I’d be at the Barbary Coast or First King strip club in Gardena (California). I’d be down there natural, having fun, having a drink, because there wouldn’t be no fans. A lot of people probably wanted me to be hanging at some lyricist lounge, but I was never into that stuff.

You push boundaries with lyrics, often perverted. Is anything off limits?

My versatility is amazing. I can do anything because I’m not stuck in one lane. I can go in the studio and make a love song or a gangsta record. I left channels open, while some groups kept with that one song. They don’t want to make any new records. They just wanted to become a legend. I never wanted that. I blocked that word out. I just wanted to be an artist.

Is it because you never sought fame that you so rarely allowed other “big name” artists on your tracks?

I’d rather be famous than not, but I didn’t want a peak. Most rappers from the “Golden Age” have a peak. They gave up. They just wanted to stay there and sing popular songs for the rest of their lives.

Why did you keep evolving?

I never felt old. You never hear people calling Green Day or Dave Grohl “old school.” But that happens in rap. You have shows honoring people like they was The Commodores. But I don’t feel there’s an ending.

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