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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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But fame in the context of a hip-hop underground defined by middle-class, well-educated whites and blacks is not what Keith is striving for. What he wants is an audience among the same underground, the same “urban children,” he played to when he was back in the Bronx. He wants the type of audience that has propelled a number of regional hip-hop artists to success in the late ’90s: Detroit’s Esham and DJ Assault, Houston’s recently deceased DJ Screw, Tennessee’s Three 6 Mafia and Eightball & MJG, and the musicians on New Orleans’ No Limit and Cash Money labels, both of which have made it onto the national album charts with quick, cheap records made assembly-line-style by house producers such as Beats by the Pound and Mannie Fresh.

It remains to be seen, though, how much Keith is willing to alter his idiosyncratic style to satisfy any audience. Case in point is his Dooom album. While the record’s cover was designed by Pen & Pixel Graphics — a firm that designed many of No Limit’s gaudy diamond- and female-studded covers — for his album he had them parody their signature style: Keith is pictured next to a cockroach, rubbing his chin and holding a rat sandwich on a sesame seed bun.

One thing is certain: He’d rather not eat at Denny’s.

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Keith tells me to head south on Fairfax. “I need to go on and get me some Golden Bird,” he says, taking us to a fast-food fried-chicken restaurant in Crenshaw. “You’ll like Golden Bird. It’s really good chicken.

“Other rappers are fake,” says Keith. “They’ll come out here, stay in their Ramada Inn hotel rooms and smoke weed, and that’s it. They’ll be staying at the Mondrian Hotel, scared to death, and send messengers to run out and get them some sandwiches. You know, a lot of guys are mouses. I can’t live like a mouse. I can’t make a record to be a mouse.

“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.

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