HELLO, PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS
Mollys in the beer aisle at a Ralphs grocery in Hollywood. Shes 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, whats up, primetime? followed by Whats up, Ms. Tennis Skirt? Hes 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 mans picture on it. The man in the picture is dressed up ghetto-fabulous, but in silly colors, baby blues and powders. The mans wearing a nice new jersey, but has topped off his outfit with an odd, fur-covered Kangol cap. Hes standing in front of a locked-up call box at a nondescript housing complex. The card says VIP.
Whats this? asks Molly.
Thats a VIP pass for Kool Keith Entertainment. Im Sam Madina. Im 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 thats where things get weird, because Im there at Mollys house. I flew into LAX an hour ago and am here for her party, hanging out with some old friends. Im here to meet Kool Keith, but Kool Keith, it seems, has found me first.
Its 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 Dennys 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. Thats 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, Keiths main producer since 1994. Some girls call him back from it, though. But thats not Keiths only reason for spotting prospects.
Its 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 Bronxs 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 musics 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.
As hip-hop began courting the pop market, the Bronx was left behind. LL and Run-DMC were from Queens; MC Shans The Bridge claimed that borough was the new home of hip-hop. MCs, DJs and b-boys from the eternally blighted Bronx didnt appreciate that. So when the Ultramagnetic MCs came together in 1986, they were not only among the first generation of groups who could anticipate commercial success, they also understood that the world had some fundamental misunderstandings about hip-hop and its history.
The new-school Ultramagnetic knew that hip-hop culture had gone askew in its transition from an underground phenomenon to a pop-cultural trend; it offered ä a corrective. If in its second wave the new school brought a multiplicity of new sounds the density of Public Enemy, the jazz of Gang Starr, De La Souls alt-hippie shtick, in California the gangsta stroll of Ice-T and N.W.A the first burst brought lyrics: Slick Rick, Eric B. & Rakim and, back in the Bronx, Boogie Down Productions and Ultramagnetic.
Me and Ced went to Clinton together, Keith remembers, speaking of Ultramagnetics Cedric Miller, a.k.a. Ced Gee. That was high school. His brother Pat had a lot of equipment. And they were producing a lot of different things together up there, but basically it was Boogie Down Productions and us. KRS-One [BDPs MC] used to come up there. Scott La Rock [BDPs DJ] used to come up there a lot before he got killed. The two groups and their fans were scattered among the projects: Patterson, Melrose, Jackson, Butler, Webster, Washington. This was ghetto modernism: In the Bronx, hip-hop artists had a sense of what had come before, a sensitivity to the boroughs decreasing centrality to its native art, and a desire to take the music to another level.
Ego Trippin was hot, and it was a big hit, Keith says, speaking of the groups signature single. Every day youd hear nothing but cars pass by MC Ultra! That was all you used to hear, every day, every morning. The songs main MC is announced by name. Kool Keith, the record intones as Keith chimes in:
They use the simple back and forth, the same old rhythm
That a baby can pick up, and join right with them
But their rhymes are pathetic, they think theyre copacetic
Using nursery terms, at least not poetic
On a educated base, intelligent wise
As the record just turn, you learn, PLUS burn
By the flame of the lyrics which cooks the human brain
Providing overheating knowledge, by means causing pain . . .
Best appreciated on Ultramagnetics first LP, 1988s Critical Beatdown, Keiths raps are pinched, relentless and just a little bit crazy, packed with witty disses and wild non sequiturs. A master of focused intensity, he juggles a litany of metaphors and obsessions through each song, bringing an idea back into the mix just as it begins to fade from the listeners mind a favored topic throughout his career has been cannibalistic violence revolving around other rappers brains.
* * *
For Ultramagnetic, making money was not as easy as making records. The new school came at a time before labels like Def Jam or Priority had firmed up their relationships with major entertainment conglomerates. Hip-hop was still dominated by fly-by-night labels with names like Tuff City, Winley, Wild Pitch and Select, enterprises that often operated under the supervision of shysters, that chased trends rather than the passions of ghetto entrepreneurs.
Hot street acts such as Ultramagnetic were like currency for a small label, moving thousands of units with little promotion. Sign two or three good street groups and you could build a business, accumulating enough cash to push pop-rap acts via advertising, radio consultants or videos for MTV. Jumping among four labels in their eight-year career, Ultramagnetic was left behind as rap began making serious cash. Though they worked with celebrated hip-hop entrepreneurs such as Russell Simmons and Andre Harrell, their career got them noticed by hip-hop historians, not hip-hop accountants. The group disbanded in 1993.
Keiths solo career has been equally fraught. He moved from the Bronx to Los Angeles in 1994 after signing a solo deal with Capitol, but was cut loose a year later when the label laid off its entire black-music department. He signed with the Sony-affiliated Ruffhouse in 1998. Coming off the success of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill the first hip-hop album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year Ruffhouse seemed an ideal home; instead, the label proceeded to implode over conflicts amid its upper management. In 1999, after being delayed for more than a year, Keiths one album from that relationship, Black Elvis/Lost in Space, was released and marketed with a whimper by the curiously named Red Ink, Sonys indie distribution arm. He proceeded to publish on his Web site the names and e-mail addresses of all his contacts at Sony, asking fans to deluge them with inquiries about his albums desultory treatment. Keith was dropped shortly thereafter.
Between deals, though, Keith has remained prolific. He released his solo debut on his own Funky Ass label in 1997, the obsessively pornographic Sex Styles. In 1999, he put out First Come, First Served under the alias Dr. Dooom. Packaged in a ghetto-chic sleeve, Dooom lashed out against raps continuing dependence on misogynistic, ultraviolent hip-hop by fronting even more violent: Dooom was a serial killer who hunted down weaker rappers, i.e., all of them, including Keiths most famous alias to date, Dr. Octagon.
The story of Octagon offers proof both of Keiths uniqueness and of his inability to take advantage of hip-hops pop-culture dominance. While Keith and Kutmasta Kurt continued recording tracks for what would become Sex Styles, a friend of Kurts from the Bay Area began lobbying Keith to contribute to a quickie, one-off release. It all started in 1995, soon after Matlin had sent that friend, Dan The Automator Nakamura, a tape of two tracks featuring a new Keith persona announced in the title of one of the tracks: Dr. Octagon.
Automator started talking to Keith right at the time that things started going bad with Capitol, Matlin says. So Keith said, Okay, you want to do some crazy record, Dan, over your weird beats. Ill come up to San Francisco for a weekend and do an album with you, fuck it. Keith went up there for three or four days, recorded the album and came back and was like, Okay, I did it. And Im like, Did he pay you some money? And hes like, Yeah. Nakamura took two months to finish producing the record and got the renowned Bay Area turntablist DJ Qbert to scratch on it.
Released as Dr. Octagonecologyst at the end of 1996 on a one-off label called Bulk, within months the hip-hop intelligentsia had started to buzz over the records futuristic vision of rap in the year 3000. It was a mutant strain of hip-hop, as sonically abstruse as anything from the alternative rap movement trumpeted in the early 90s by groups such as Arrested Development and P.M. Dawn, and as surrealistic as the lyrical bricolage then being served up by Beck. (Beck and Keith are currently recording a handful of tracks together that await release.)
Halfsharkalligatorhalfman, Keith rapped, in one of his more notable logorrheic flows:
With my white eyes, gray hair, face is sky blue, yellow sideburns react my skin is colored lilac. My skin turn orange and GREEN in the lim-oh-zine, people think Im mixed with shark, drinking gasoline. Underwater I breathe with lizards on my sleeve walking down Hollywood Boulevard, room for credit card . . . LAPD through gray clouds couldnt see me, I first turned rainbow, closed my eyes, watched my brain glow. People got scared and ran away they think Im weird. I was born this way, halfsharkalligator . . . In my real world orangutans dance for Thanksgiving with skeleton bones and skunk tails, is my mission. Holding backward in raps on my power pack baboons clap and girl horses want to hit the sack with two bowls of ocean water monkeys sniffing ice contactjupiterfools Martians bring my rice . . .
Picked up in the U.S. by DreamWorks and in the U.K. by the hipster electronica label Mo Wax, the record sold well over 100,000 copies. Demands for Dr. Octagon to tour began to mount, but, unimpressed by the audiences responding to the project, Keith disappeared.
Dr. Octagon hadnt blown up, but it started to go, says Nakamura. We signed on to do Lollapalooza, and all of a sudden Keith decided he didnt want to be that alternativey. One day, he got a check it was practically a six-figure check from DreamWorks, and we never heard from him again.
Winning Keith an entirely new fan base among critics, college-radio DJs and fans of alternative rock, Dr. Octagon in large part spawned what has come to be known as underground hip-hop. Keith dismisses this new audience as corny white guys, alternative hippies or skateboard kids, despite the fact that this fan base has helped his post-Octagon records consistently sell upward of 50,000 copies.
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: Detroits Esham and DJ Assault, Houstons recently deceased DJ Screw, Tennessees 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 records cover was designed by Pen & Pixel Graphics a firm that designed many of No Limits 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: Hed rather not eat at Dennys.
READ THE REQUIRED TEXTS
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. Youll like Golden Bird. Its really good chicken.
Other rappers are fake, says Keith. Theyll come out here, stay in their Ramada Inn hotel rooms and smoke weed, and thats it. Theyll 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 cant live like a mouse. I cant 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 theyre rentin titties for their video, giving them the private jets, rentin a few Rolls-Royces and Benzes so they look so fabulous. And theyre not recouped yet. Basically theyre just getting their first taste of Similac, their first breast milk . . . But you cant feed me cheese. Im 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 youre smart, they have bad things to say, like Hes smart, I dont 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 shouldnt 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. Thats all I buy, a lot of sneakers. I have so many sneakers they dont 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 dont have the lights? Okay, Ill be back . . .
We go to the record stores Sangs 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 doesnt excite me, says Keith. They use a cheaper material. And Im 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 dont 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 Maurys, a brand of alligator-skin loafers, peeling 20s off a fat stack.
I love the point that Im wearing my own football jersey and my own sneakers, and MCA or Columbia or Universal aint going to call me and say, Bring those sneakers back that you wore in the video, Keith says. Im all done with that. Im enjoying my life, traveling places by myself. I mean, you cant feed me cheese.
* * *
To sum up Keiths current attitude, Id quote the chorus of F-U M.F., the first track on Matthew. Motherfucker, he says, like Richard Pryor in his prime, fuck you. Its an apt echo. Because, really, its comedians like Pryor who provide the model for an entertainer like Keith: He doesnt want you to aspire to be him, he wants to shame and amuse you for being you. Along the way hell prove that hes not only smarter, faster, funnier, but that hes deeper, darker altogether more real. More to the point, Keiths as dirty as Dolemite, as moralizing as Pryor and as verbally agile as Redd Foxx. Its 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 dont give a shit.
The problem is, no one really gets Keith. Granted, he doesnt make it easy to determine when hes being serious, when hes commenting on the state of our culture, or when hes 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.
The whole thought process behind that was entirely Keiths, says Larner. One day he said to me, Jeremy, youre young, youre starting to make a lot of money, you should start to become well-known. Look at Russell Simmons, he used to manage me. Look at Andre Harrell, he used to manage me. Hes like, Yo, lets do some shit, lets do a billboard. And Im like, What are you talking about? You must be out of your mind, and he kind of pressured me into doing it. There were actually two billboards, and they were up for nine months. And it worked. So many people saw it, and it was funny.
But one wonders who got the joke. Oblivious commuters and pedestrians? Keith and his management team? Or just Keith?
GUESS WHAT? ITS AN ORAL EXAM
The basis of being a rapper is called frenetics, Sam says to me at the Slauson Swap Meet while Keith is off searching for the perfect sneaker. Its being able to put words together in a rhythmic pattern, and it has a lot to do with math. Know how when you were a kid in school you would study haiku and they would tell you 5-7-5 or whatever it was . . . 5-5-7? Thats all poetry is. Besides the meaning and the soul, the actual physical content of it, the wordplay, is frenetics. And Keiths a master.
A lot of rappers do two-bar cadences, like Yeah, whats up, Im here chillin on the map/Im onna drop the shit, and Im onna tell you the facts. Keithll come with an eight-bar cadence. Hell do four lines, and then the last word in the fourth line will be the rhyming word with the next four lines. People are like, Is he even rhyming? Hes like a Carerra: too fast for a regular car to keep up with.
Today there are a lot of rappers. They stop, they stick to their one cadence. Like Jay-Z. He hit the Jiggidy-jay. Jiggidy-aye. Jiggidy-why. Im so craaaay-zeee, and then he never went any further. Or like Ja Rule: Haaeeey whut you whaaaaant/Whut you really really whaant!/Huggh! These guys are yelling, and thats all they can do.
Keith does more, as on Dr. Octagons 3000, in which he riffs on a theme, then drops it; rhymes inside rhymes as if alliteration and terminal syllable sounds were his only guide, then picks up where he once left off:
As space Ive shown participator acts walk up clog up and mess up water down the sound . . . that comes from the ghetto.
In the middle, the core, you tour explore experience what is real you feel,
Changing ways commercial raps in the grave, stuff on disc thats very wack that you saved.
You think its good wont go platinum or even turn wood. Sell the cassette your homeys tape deck is wet.
You my pet, my poodle chicken noodles on the rise. Open your eyes and see my life.
Rap moves on to the year 3000!
* * *
I been to places, says Keith.
You got people in different ghettos that sit in the same place, and I was never that guy. When I was a kid, people just sat on the block and drank beers. I think I was the only one to break away and go to DeKalb, Coney Island. People used to say you stuck, but theres no fence around the projects.
With Ultramagnetic, every Friday, Saturday and Sunday wed have some show at a skating rink. We were going to hole-in-the-wall places, spots that just been shot up the week before you got there, just real deep Vietnam spots. You had to perform for unhappy crowds and still rock people with gold teeth, and everybody was looking mean and hard. We would go to the clubs, and it would be so tense because somebody would get their chains snatched right next to you and a razor blade to the neck. And we would go to the clubs and chill. Right? Hah! Wed go to Philly, go to After Midnight, go to the Latin Quarter, go up to Connecticut, go out to Newark, New Jersey. The limos would pick me up in the projects and take me to the show.
I been to Miami standing next to the most beautiful models. Ive been out in London, Germany, walking through the subway stations looking at exotic girls from Paris, to down South in the mall in Memphis. Even Texas. I envision it: One minute Im at a truck stop, looking at real cowboys with spurs coming through. Next thing Im going through a ghetto in Houston. And then you can be in an exquisite restaurant in Paris. I got to see the world, and looked at a lot of things. The déjà vu of change.
Everyone now is just doing what I did in the 80s. Some hustler comes in with alligators on and pays you really real, 20s all in brown paper, and they say, Do what you want. Just being fly a kid making seven grand a night and splitting it with a group, and riding in limos, and taking your money, your Coogis, your chicks, and chip in together and party and stuff. Ive been through it. Those times . . . Just buying shit and leathers and jewelry. Every year I bought 10 rings for each finger. And the big plates on my neck, and the biggest pieces to the small pieces. From gold to all types of sorts of different elements of platinum to even just diamonds. Im glad I got to see a long time ago what rappers lust after right now.
See, rap is a high. But if you dont come down, it can fuck with you. You never slept. From sniffing cocaine, from that life of champagne coke days. Staying up late. Bags under your eyes. Smoking weed. Taking Ecstasy. Different shit. I felt times when my heart was gonna bust, and I just stopped. I just altogether changed my life and stopped fucking around.
A lot of these kids I work with just need patience, he says, speaking of kids like Sam, whom Keith is grooming to be a rapper while Sam serves as an assistant. Theyre entering the gates of hell. Its a roller coaster. Goes up and down, and people think its gonna be a straight line. Its a mean-ass roller coaster, but you gotta wait in line for it like the Cyclone at the park. These guys . . . take their record away, these guys wouldnt have any self-esteem left.
We pass a billboard for Disneys new film, 102 Dalmatians, and Keith riffs, They even got dogs up there now. Oh, there go the 102 Dalmatians! Give me one of the dogs autographs! Oh, give me the one with the spots! Which one? All of them got spots.
One thing I have is personality and humor, so I make the day go by just talking to people, vibing. I cant walk around serious all day with a doo-rag on my head and looking at people mean. I think that shit is for kids. Cause I grew up in the projects. I seen people get shot. I used to hold guns for people that did stickups and robberies. After a while, I didnt really care for all that shit.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Now Im more laid-back. I enjoy being a citizen more than being a star. Its like baseball. I can play nine innings, not 24 hours. Other peoples pressure is to pull me back into the business, but I cant do that. My obsession with materialistic things is at a medium level. Sometimes I go to the ghetto-fabulous spots, but sometimes Im ready to just watch a movie and eat some oatmeal cookies. I buy sneakers for myself. I take my kids to the mall. I dont even watch cartoons no more, because to me the animation is looking at them now. I see myself when I was young, as a little kid, like on the back of the Matthew cover. At the time I was smartly animated. I see my kids in that same format, like characters of me in the past. Its cool, though, you know. I mean, I definitely love looking at that reflection.
Perhaps Keith is too advanced for the hood, too much the hip-hop futurist, but he might also be too down-home and insensitive for the scientists, too much Golden Bird and Slauson Swap Meet and triple-X.
You know whats a good thing? he says. That there are people all over the United States who know who Kool Keith is. Thats a big thing to be happy about, coming from the Bronx, knowing that you circulated something cross-country. I basically remain a legendary rapper.