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“You see other rappers expending so much energy on this, on that,” he continues. “Record labels got them gassed to the point where they’re rentin’ titties for their video, giving them the private jets, rentin’ a few Rolls-Royces and Benzes so they look so fabulous. And they’re not recouped yet. Basically they’re just getting their first taste of Similac, their first breast milk . . . But you can’t feed me cheese. I’m not putting my head in those fucking mousetraps.
“Give me four biscuits,” Keith says to the woman behind the counter, “and two orders of mashed potatoes . . . No potatoes? Give me that potato salad. Three fruit punches and . . . four breasts.” The meat bleeds butter. The hot sauce burns.
“The majors like people who are not smart at all,” Keith says. “When you’re smart, they have bad things to say, like ‘He’s smart, I don’t want to fuck with him. He knows about his royalties. He knows about his points. He knows about his publishing. He knows his quarter splits. He knows his release dates. He knows if he shouldn’t change to get to Europe or change in a fucked-up city for a connecting flight. He knows everything. He knows the business.’ They hate that.
“This is the Slauson Mall,” says Keith as we drive down the street. “The Swap Meet! They have the good sneakers, the top sneakers. That’s all I buy, a lot of sneakers. I have so many sneakers they don’t even come out the box.” Inside the mall, he begins his search.
“I want the sneaker that no one else is rockin’, the most distinctive sneaker ever made in life,” he says to the Korean shopkeepers, the Latino clerks. “You know, the new ones where the smoke come out the back, the one with the rocket? You put the real gas inside. They got like the headlights on the side. When you walk some got the sound like ‘Vrmmmm! Vrrmmmmm!’ You don’t have the lights? Okay, I’ll be back . . .”
We go to the record stores — Sang’s Records, Music Power! Keith checks the racks, chats up the clerks, talks excitedly to a guy promoting a show in Australia. Keith tracks down girls and peeps cheap panties, airbrushed nails, electric-lime-green slacks: Angel Lingerie, Cool Cool Helen Jewelry, Temptation Underwear, Queen Nails, Leather Express, L.A. Sock & Cap. Later that evening, Keith goes upscale, takes Sam and me downtown, to South Los Angeles and Eighth streets — the fashion district, merchants of brands like Tulliano, Dimensione, Angelino and Crème de Silk.
“The alternative stuff doesn’t excite me,” says Keith. “They use a cheaper material. And I’m not into the Bronx black hoodie stuff: ‘I am a Terminator Matrix robot!’ I like color: leather, silk, alligator, ostrich. A lot of people want to force the synthetic materials on the market, but I don’t think I deserve that after 15 years of honorable rapping.” Keith chatters with the salesmen, buys an expensive Coogi-style patterned shirt, picks up a pre-ordered pair of custom-made ivory pants with way-deep pockets. At M&M Clark Shoes he buys a $500 pair of citrus-yellow Maury’s, a brand of alligator-skin loafers, peeling 20s off a fat stack.
“I love the point that I’m wearing my own football jersey and my own sneakers, and MCA or Columbia or Universal ain’t going to call me and say, ‘Bring those sneakers back that you wore in the video,’” Keith says. “I’m all done with that. I’m enjoying my life, traveling places by myself. I mean, you can’t feed me cheese.”
* * *
To sum up Keith’s current attitude, I’d quote the chorus of “F-U M.F.,” the first track on Matthew. “Motherfucker,” he says, like Richard Pryor in his prime, “fuck you.” It’s an apt echo. Because, really, it’s comedians like Pryor who provide the model for an entertainer like Keith: He doesn’t want you to aspire to be him, he wants to shame and amuse you for being you. Along the way he’ll prove that he’s not only smarter, faster, funnier, but that he’s deeper, darker — altogether more real. More to the point, Keith’s as dirty as Dolemite, as moralizing as Pryor and as verbally agile as Redd Foxx. “It’s been nice being with you. I hope you had some fun out of this,” Foxx would say, closing his act on an earnest, almost penitent note. “If anyone here in the audience has been offended by anything I might have said or done during the course of my trying to entertain you, I want you to know that, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart” — bang — “I don’t give a shit.”
The problem is, no one really “gets” Keith. Granted, he doesn’t make it easy to determine when he’s being serious, when he’s commenting on the state of our culture, or when he’s making jokes. Case in point: Summer 1999, Ruffhouse is set to release his major-label solo debut. South on Highland Avenue, past Sunset, in the middle of Hollywood, hangs a billboard of a young, sloppily attired white guy standing next to Keith. “Black Elvis,” it reads beneath Keith. “White Manager,” it says beneath the other guy. It turns out that guy is ex-manager Jeremy Larner, who got Keith his ill-fated deal.