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Dr. Kool's Pop Quiz 

Keith Thornton, Ph.d., an old professor from the new school, knows rap is here to test you

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
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Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

HELLO, PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS

Molly’s in the beer aisle at a Ralphs grocery in Hollywood. She’s wearing a tennis skirt, pushing a cart, perusing the Bud.

A scrawny, longhaired white kid with a patchy mustache rolls by her side. He says, “Yo, what’s up, primetime?” followed by “What’s up, Ms. Tennis Skirt?” He’s wearing aspirational hip-hop clothing — no platinum, no leather, just multipocket cargo pants, canvas Converse sneakers and a stretched-out T-shirt. He hands her a card.

The card has a black man’s picture on it. The man in the picture is dressed up ghetto-fabulous, but in silly colors, baby blues and powders. The man’s wearing a nice new jersey, but has topped off his outfit with an odd, fur-covered Kangol cap. He’s standing in front of a locked-up call box at a nondescript housing complex. The card says “VIP.”

“What’s this?” asks Molly.

“That’s a VIP pass for Kool Keith Entertainment. I’m Sam Madina. I’m his right-hand man.” He parts with the words “Give me a call.”

Molly checks out of the supermarket, gets into her car with the beer and the card, and starts her engine. Knock-knock-knock. Sam taps on her window.

“Yo, call me,” Sam says, walking off toward a taxi idling in the parking lot. He slides into the cab, next to a black man in the back seat — the guy from the card: Kool Keith.

Molly goes home with the beer, and that’s where things get weird, because I’m there at Molly’s house. I flew into LAX an hour ago and am here for her party, hanging out with some old friends. I’m here to meet Kool Keith, but Kool Keith, it seems, has found me first.

“It’s a nice day, a beautiful day,” he says to me two days later when I meet him and Sam for the first time at a Denny’s on Sunset. “We woke up at 6 in the morning. We gotta patrol, see if anything new came into town. Look at those,” he says, pointing out two women across the street. “Possible APB, routine check. That was definitely a model X47, unidentified female objects. Ha-ha-ha. Those are some prospects over there.”

Throughout the day, Keith and Sam proposition a number of women: 1) the two girls across the street (“She has a nice little body,” says Keith), 2) “T-R-E-E-N-A,” a middle-aged black lady walking toward her big black Cadillac, 3) a pair of teenage blonds — “Britney-style,” according to Sam, 4) another middle-aged woman, this one toting a Louis Vuitton purse (“18 to 87,” Keith tells me, “we like the maturity”), 5) a skeptical mother with child (“I got business,” Keith says. “Your business is different than my business,” she replies) and 6) another pair of teens, two giggly black girls a hundred feet from a high school. Keith palms these two some cash with his card as Sam proceeds to explain: “Women are the inspiration for all great art.”

I ask Keith about these “prospects.”

“I do photography,” he explains. “Intimate models of the ladies. That’s my hobby. I style up the ladies, you know? I analyze a lot of my colors, a lot of my backgrounds. I give them some nice shoes and boots and stuff.”

“His theory is that he plays the odds,” says Kurt Matlin, a.k.a. Kutmasta Kurt, Keith’s main producer since 1994. “Some girls call him back from it, though.” But that’s not Keith’s only reason for spotting prospects.

“It’s my way of promoting,” Keith later admits, having given out dozens of cards, some of which bear the word “VIP,” but others that state, “In Stores Now,” each one emblazoned with his ghetto-fabulous portrait and the words “Kool Keith” — the cover of his latest album, Matthew.

See, Keith comes first. More difficult to determine, though, is what it means to say Keith comes first. Does Keith come first in rap? Does rap come first for Keith? Or does life come first of all?

 

PLEASE STUDY THE TIME LINE

A man with as many aliases as prospects, Keith Matthew Thornton (a.k.a. Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Black Elvis, Rhythm X, Poppa Large, Big Willie Smith, etc.) is most often known as Kool Keith. Since debuting in the mid-’80s as the front man for the Bronx’s Ultramagnetic MCs, he has had one of the strangest, most circuitous and, in some respects, most continually relevant careers in hip-hop.

By the mid-’70s, DJs such as Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa had laid the music’s seed in the Bronx, playing sets at every community center, block party and high school gymnasium that would have them. At the dawn of the ’80s, peers of theirs such as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five — and more manufactured but no less important artists such as the Sugarhill Gang, Run-DMC and LL Cool J — popularized the music, pushed its sonic boundaries and expanded its geographic ones.

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