Kool Keith

  • Kool Keith
  • Erotic Man (Spoiled Brat) 1996 
  • Sex Style (Instrumental) (Funky Ass) 1997 
  • Sex Style (Funky Ass) 1997 + 2001 
  • Black Elvis/Lost in Space (Ruffhouse/Columbia) 1999 
  • Matthew (Funky Ass/Threshold) 2000 
  • Matthew (Instrumental) (Funky Ass/Threshold) 2000 
  • Spankmaster (Overcore/TVT) 2001 
  • Lost Masters (DMAFT) 2003 
  • Diesel Truckers (DMAFT / Funky Ass Threshold) 2004 
  • Diesel Truckers: Instrumental (DMAFT / Funky Ass Threshold) 2004 
  • Official Space Tape (On the Corner) 2004 
  • The Personal Album (LiveOne) 2004 
  • Lost Masters Volume 2 (Dmaft) 2005 
  • Collabs Tape (Corner Shop) 2006 
  • The Commi$$ioner (self-released) 2006 
  • The Commi$$ioner 2 (self-released) 2006 
  • Da Beat Terrorists Featuring Big Willie Smith
  • Big Willie Smith EP (Funky Ass) 1995 
  • Cenubites/Cenobites
  • Cenubites (Fondle 'Em) 1995 
  • Cenobites (Fondle 'Em) 1997 
  • Dr. Octagon
  • Dr. Octagonecologyst (Bulk Recordings) 1996  (UK Mo' Wax) 1996  (DreamWorks) 1997 
  • The Instrumentalyst (DreamWorks) 1997 
  • Dr. Octagon Part II (Real Talk / 101 Distribution) 2004 
  • Return of Dr. Octagon (OCD International) 2006 
  • Dan the Automator
  • A Better Tomorrow EP (Ubiquity) 1996 
  • A Much Better Tomorrow (75 Ark) 2000 
  • Ultra
  • Big Time (Our Turn) 1997  (Funky Ass/Threshold) 2001 
  • Dr. Dooom
  • First Come, First Served (Funky Ass) 1999  (Threshold) 2001 
  • First Come, First Served (Instrumental) (Funky Ass) 2000 
  • Masters of Illusion
  • Masters of Illusion (Threshold) 2000 
  • Masters of Illusion (Instrumental) (Threshold) 2001 
  • Analog Brothers
  • Pimp to Eat (Ground Control) 2000 
  • KHM
  • Game (Number 6) 2002 
  • Kool Keith / Thee Undatakerz
  • Kool Keith Presents Thee Undatakerz (Activate) 2004 
  • Clayborne Family
  • Clayborne Family (Threshold) 2004 
  • Kool Keith & Nancy Des Rose
  • White Label Volume One (LiveOne / Gamelock) 2004 
  • Mr. Nogatco
  • Nogatco Rd. (Insomniac Inc.) 2006 
  • Project Polaroid
  • The Original Soundtrack Album of Project Polaroid (Threshold) 2006 

Kool Keith is perhaps rap’s most genuinely weird character. Since co-founding the seminal rap outfit Ultramagnetic MC’s in the Bronx in 1984, his rhymes and music, never quite at peace with the hip-hop mainstream, have grown progressively more strange, disturbing and adventurous. He’s the creator of more than a dozen personas, including a cannibalistic doctor, the 208-year-old half-shark/half-man Mr. Gerbik and the pompadour-wig-wearing Black Elvis — each personality with a lifespan of a single album. Most of them invariably reveal obsessions with kinky sex, outer space and violent deviance, as well as a penchant for ripping rap celebrities an unusually graphic lyrical new one.

The frenetic, stream-of-consciousness rap style Keith has maintained since his Ultramagnetic days makes him sound unhinged. He regularly misses concert appearances, behaves bizarrely during interviews, battles with producers and labels, and reportedly called Bellevue’s psychiatric ward home for a time. Despite his erratic behavior, or perhaps partly owing to it, Keith is a talented, innovative talent capable — when paired with the right producer — of making the creepiest, funniest, most original hip-hop around. Sometimes Keith’s eye for collaborators is flawed, however, and when left to his own devices he seems to put little effort into his work. He needs a sensitive taskmaster to succeed, someone who can push him to excel while handling his delicate psyche.

Keith’s first two ventures outside the Ultramagnetic fold are both rewarding and hard to find. He pressed only a few hundred copies of the Big Willie Smith EP on his Funky Ass label, although the excellent “Keep It Real … Represent” (what he’s representing is his nuts) reappeared on Sex Style and Ultra’s Big Time. The EP doesn’t hint at the uncommon stirring beats behind the warped masterworks on the horizon, but Keith’s off-kilter flow is already in full bloom, just waiting for someone to wrap equally maniacal music around it.

Cenubites (later reissued as Cenobites with two extra songs — the substandard, Keith-less “Keep On” and a jazzified remix of “Kick a Dope Verse”) joins Keith with Godfather Don and New York radio DJ/rapper/entrepreneur Bobbito. Keith dominates the proceedings, which sound like a lost, unfinished Ultramagnetic MC’s record. Godfather Don and Bobbito’s turns at the mic merely set the stage for Keith, who is in top form on “Lex Luger,” the odd travelogue of “Mommy” and “How the Fuck You Get a Deal.” His lyrics lack the far-out flair of later efforts, but lines like “I like ice cream, kid / I like Carvel / I read comics and books / Yeah Marvel” serve as a foretaste of Keith’s inspired lunacy.

Keith hit his post-Ultramagnetic peak as the “paramedic fetus of the East,” Dr. Octagon, a perverted and frequent violator of the Hippocratic oath. The tracks laid down by Invisibl Skratch Piklz turntablist DJ Q-Bert and producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura (Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Deltron 3030) on Octagonecologyst suit the absurdly cracked-up doctor perfectly, creating an ominous, pulsating, ghostly tapestry that was far ahead of its time. Keith and his musical cohorts virtually create a new world — an alien, menacing one with strange diseases like cirrhosis of the eye and moosebumps, psychedelic visions of purple ponds and yellow rain (“Blue Flowers”) and “space doo-doo pistols.” The music itself is otherworldly and ethereal, like a gory horror/science fiction movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, chasing Keith’s nonsensical but somehow apposite lyrics (“My vomit fluctuates, covers your skull like protoplasm / Lightning bugs turn pink, on my tongue catches spasms / Green elephants, I battle streets with a zebra / My mechanism is more than Dionne’s psychic voodoo”). The only thing tethering Octagonecologyst to this galaxy are the consistently solid beats. Don’t bother wondering what it all means.

Even the skits — unfunny filler on most rap records — add to the creepy world of the good doctor (“You have ptomaine poisoning on your tongue … Say ahhh … You have bees flying around your rectum … You need a bad operation”). “Rap moves on to the year 3000” (“3000”) is a bit of an exaggeration, but as Dr. Octagon, Keith influenced a new generation of underground rappers and made one of the best — and strangest — rap records of the ’90s.

Once the Octagon project earned significant critical acclaim and a wider audience, Mo’ Wax released the album in the UK and the larger DreamWorks label reissued it Stateside the following year. “On Production,” “Biology 101” and “Earth People Remix” are unique to the Bulk Recordings/Mo’ Wax edition, while “Real Raw,” “Blue Flowers Remix” and “1977” appear only on the DreamWorks reissue. In addition, DreamWorks released an instrumental version of the album, Instrumentalyst, that stands quite well on its own.

Shortly before the Dr. Octagon record dropped, Dan the Automator released his own six-song EP, A Better Tomorrow, featuring Keith on the title track. Four years later, after both Keith and Dan had earned more notoriety and respect, the EP was expanded and retitled A Much Better Tomorrow. The 11-track version boasts five more quality Keith tracks, including essentials like “King of NY” and the funny, cartoon namedropping goof “Cartoon Capers.”

For his next collaboration, Keith teamed up with Tim Dog — a former guest rapper with Ultramagnetic MC’s and the man behind the notorious “Fuck Compton” single — to record as Ultra. Once again, Keith overshadows his partner. His batty, pottymouth rhymes (“TV stars Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson / Her brother Michael / Feelin’ babies for some rectum action”) eclipse the standard issue gangsta flow of Tim Dog (Timothy Blair), who sounds like a hardcore version of Phife from A Tribe Called Quest. Tim is a capable enough rapper (see “The Industry Is Wack” and “NYC Street Corner Battle”), but he doesn’t complement Keith nearly as well as Motion Man’s frenetic, scattershot rhymes do on his brief guest appearance (“Ain’t Nobody Happenin'”). Motion Man would later work with Keith more extensively as Masters of Illusion, but the production of Kutmasta Kurt (known as Kurt Matlin to his moms) is really what makes Big Time more than an erratic collaboration. Kurt’s freaky computer funk — heard on two tracks of Octagonecologyst — would form the bedrock of Keith’s sound going forward, even on Keith records he didn’t produce.

Keith followed the Ultra project with a vulgar, pornographic record for those who don’t mind mixing scatology and sexuality. Sex Style is precisely the kind of record Tipper Gore had in mind when she co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center. For the less squeamish, it’s a hilarious, slutty, funky affair, smuttier than, and musically superior to, any Luke Campbell/2 Live Crew joint. (The hard-to-find Erotic Man consists mostly of tracks later featured on Sex Style.)

As Dr. Octagon’s popularity surged, the unpredictable Keith had difficulty handling his budding success, missing all of his scheduled appearances at the 1997 Lollapalooza festival before being dropped from the tour. Keith was so sick of Octagon he sabotaged his own career momentum by murdering the dirty doctor within the first 40 seconds of the Octagonecologyst follow-up, First Come, First Served. Keith’s latest character with a graduate degree, the cannibalistic Dr. Dooom, nearly matches the perverted grandeur of Octagon. The album opens with “No Chorus,” Keith’s greatest diatribe against subpar rappers (“Your fans are mad / Your performance was garbage bag / Look at these video tapes / Walkin’ back and forth grabbin’ your nuts like The Planet of the Apes“). What follows is the hazy story of a ghetto serial murderer — the cops want him for chopping people up and eating them, à la Jeffrey Dahmer — punctuated by funny disses like “You Live at Home With Your Mom.” “Apartment 223” — the actual number of Dahmer’s Milwaukee apartment was 213 — describes just what Dooom does to his victims (“In a cardboard box beatin’ your knees down with a bag of Master locks / Police can’t hear you with a dead body tied near you”). Keith spits dozens of lines like that to create a cartoonish, gory, disjointed Grand Guignol rap opera of sorts. Kutmasta Kurt takes a cue from Octagonecologyst and backs Keith with more eerie sounds and creeping bass lines, but the real stars here are Keith’s latest evil alter-ego and his gross comic rhymes. First Come, First Served may not be Keith’s greatest artistic achievement, but it sure is his funniest.

Black Elvis/Lost in Space is probably the best place for any new Keith fan to begin, since it’s his most easygoing, pop-oriented effort. He finally marries his science fiction sound with songs that are actually about outer space (“I’m Seein’ Robots,” “Livin’ Astro”) in a laid-back, intergalactic style that suits him to a T. Not that Keith’s Black Elvis character, complete with fake black pompadour, approaches anything resembling normal. He maintains his manic, twisting delivery, and while Keith tones down the sex and violence on Black Elvis/Lost in Space, he doesn’t sell out his style in a bid for mainstream acceptance.

Matthew (the title is Keith Thornton’s real middle name) put the brakes on Keith’s musical progress. It’s actually quite good compared to most rap records, but it pales alongside the Dr. Dooom and Dr. Octagon projects, lacking the humor, loopy themes and inspired vitriol of those records. However, Kutmasta Kurt’s behind-the-board talents give Matthew a cohesion sorely missed on Spankmaster, which was written and produced by Keith, Jacky Jasper, Esham and Santos. The quartet leans too heavily on sparse, Roger Troutman and Zapp-influenced beats, creating a monotonous funk drone that sometimes overwhelms the vocals. (Oddly, Keith castigates others in the liner notes for biting the same Zapp influence that pervades his album.) Keith’s incisive disses and freaky sex rhymes remain intact, but their effect is blunted by music poorly matched to his spastic, stream-of-consciousness style. The scant highlights include the satirical “Drugs” (Keith mocks celebrity addiction and inexplicably smokes weed with the Four Tops) and the Prince-meets-Ray Parker Jr. vibe of “Spank-Master {Take Off Your Clothes).”

Pimp to Eat is a West Coast gangsta record cloaked in Keith and Kutmasta Kurt’s freaky aura. The Analog Brothers, whose name stems from the parody of RZA’s Bobby Digital (Keith is “Robbie Analog”) on the back cover of First Come, First Served, are Keith Korg (Kool Keith), Ice Oscillator (Ice-T), Marc Moog (Marc Live), Silver Synth (Black Silver) and Rex Roland, who previously worked with both Keith and Ice-T. Old school drum machines and cheesy space-age sound effects surround the rappers’ pimpified attitudes with what could be the soundtrack to a bad sci-fi movie. As the album progresses, the ’80s mack-daddy-from-Saturn musical theme gets tired, but Keith shines, and it’s Ice-T’s most convincing rap effort in years.

Veteran underground rapper Motion Man’s fresh style seemingly reinvigorates Keith on Masters of Illusion, Keith’s best stuff since the Dr. Dooom project. Not surprisingly, Kutmasta Kurt is behind this return to form with economic, herky-jerky beats that suit Motion Man just as well as Keith. The lyrical content is normal by Keith’s standards, mostly eschewing his hallmark mental patient sex rhymes and disturbingly strange put-downs. Perhaps Kurt, Motion Man and straightforward rapping kept Keith focused.

KHM teamed Keith with Analog Brother Marc Live and H-Bomb, who went by the name Jacky Jasper on Spankmaster and a guest spot on First Come, First Served. Game is easily the least interesting Keith-related project. The turgid music only highlights the inferiority of the non-Keith rappers, and even Keith’s turns at the mic — often overwhelmed by the tracks — can’t redeem this lazy, visionless, poorly mixed effort. Treat this record like an embarrassing relative and avoid it at all costs.

The Lost Masters is supposedly a career-spanning collection of unreleased raps, although it sounds like they were all cut at the same session. It’s nearly impossible to tell which album’s cutting floor provided the fodder for any of these songs. The monotonous, one-riff music tracks themselves reveal little personality or uniqueness. Only Keith’s typically dirty, twisted style — admittedly growing a little old by now, along with his habit of warbling off-key falsetto choruses — saves this from being a mere exercise in pointless studio regurgitation. Most of the material focuses on Keith’s penchant for freaky sex, but the quality of the music is more Spankmaster than Sex Style.

Kutmasta Kurt again righted Keith’s sinking artistic ship behind the wheels of steel on Diesel Truckers. While it’s not an Octagon-style masterpiece, the very loose concept of Keith and Kurt as big rig drivers (based on a joke on the back cover of First Come, First Served) provides the atypical thematic backdrop that encourages Keith’s oddball lyrical skills. What other rapper could namecheck hockey greats Guy LaFleur and Bobby Orr (on the opening “Diesel Truckers Theme”) and make it flow? “I Drop Money” and “Bamboozled,” which features inferior turns on the mic by Marc Live and Jacky Jasper, brakes the album’s momentum, but Keith puts the hammer down toward the end of the disc with “Kenworths With Wings” and “Serve ‘Em a Sentence,” a parody of harsh justice (“They signed the legislation / Robbery: you face castration”) that ranks among his best.

Keith’s oeuvre isn’t really suited for a greatest hits collection, since he has no real hits in the usual sense, and collecting songs from his finest works blunts the force of those thematic, character-driven albums. That’s why the two-CD Official Space Tape retrospective should have been one disc of Keith’s best one-off collaborations, unreleased tracks and hard-to-find 12-inch singles. Still, the DJ Junkaz Lou-curated collection is a blessing to fans lacking turntables, who can finally hear his indispensable two duets with Sir Menelik — “Space Cadillac” and “So Intelligent” — and early, more down-to-earth tracks like “Poppa Large.”

The Personal Album is a limited-edition set of originals only available as a radio promo, at live shows, through Keith personally or on the LiveOne label Web site. Notwithstanding the title, White Label Volume One is not a collection of limited run/promo singles, but a collaboration with lyricist Nancy Des Rose.

[Jim Glauner]

See also: Ultramagnetic MC's