By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Misogynist or master-blaster satirist? Freak or freaky? Bitter wannabe or righteous savior? Voice of the disenfranchised or disenfranchised voice? Crazy or just a tough nut to crack?
Kool Keith, who's playing St. Louis on Sept. 7, is one baffling subject, an emcee whose solo releases stretching back to 1996 are some of the most visionary and/or confusing available, an emcee who, in a world of one-dimensional characters and Puffy-chested poseurs, is a genuine avalanche of personae. Is he the end-of-the-century black David Bowie? Is he Sun Ra? Is he Weird Al? Or is he just a bitch-slappin' asshole?
In his various incarnations Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Sinister 6000, Black Elvis Kool Keith (born Keith Thornton) moves from imagining himself as a gynecologist to an avenging hip-hop angel, from the CEO of a multinational to a supergalactic lover. He's been a doctor and a starman, an evil gangsta and a raunchy party purveyor. He's reinvented himself as many times as he's burned bridges or maybe reinvented himself because he's burned so many bridges and has three official Web pages (all can be accessed through www.koolkeith.net) devoted to outlining not just the characteristics of Dooom, Octagon and Elvis, but also the many comic-book personas he's yet to embody: Clean Man (quote: "I've come to get rid of grease and knock out tough stains."); Keith Turbo (quote: "Man, I could throw a 100-pound walrus through the wall!"); Fly Ricky, the Wine Taster (quote: "I did a show with the Gap Band in Miami." he's the king of baffling non sequiturs, too). In a genre in which emcees create and then cling to one particular persona, Kool Keith has a handful of them.
Wait. Or maybe that is his persona: the Schizo Space Case.
If it's humanly possible to contain Kool Keith on the written page, here goes: Kool Keith used to be in the phenomenal late-'80s/early-'90s rap group the Ultra-magnetic MCs. He stands out on their records as the squirrelly one their Flava Flav. When the UMCs disbanded, he took a couple of years' break, then started birthing the alter egos. Since then, he's done the full-lengths and guested with a wide-ranging group of kindred artists: Gang Starr's Guru, Tim Dog, the Automator, the Prodigy, Hardkiss. He's got a part on Prince Paul's most recent masterpiece, Prince of Thieves, and has fallen in with the Rawkus Records crew. As much as anyone in the hip-hop community, Kool Keith is a builder of bridges among the many camps and genres; you'll just as often find him on a major-label or electronica record as on an indie or hip-hop project, as likely to tour with an Illbient brainiac (which he is, this time around, with DJ Spooky) as with a street crew. He's a perpetual work-in-progress, but you can spot his signature immediately.
Keith's style is downright ferocious, a far cry from his days with the Ultramagnetic MCs. He'll move from cramming 10 rhymes into a space seemingly reserved for, like, two to discovering a thought and repeating it: "Is the world made of plastic? Cause that's the way it seems." He'll name-check the Staple Singers, Michelle Shocked, Marilyn Manson, Slayer in the course of a rambling rant ("Neighbors Next Door"), then slap you with (ladies, cover your eyes) "I want a Kotex with whipped cream." (Kool Keith seems to harbor a particular fascination with the menstrual cycle, along with a fondness for, uh, toilet paper.)
That's where the confusion sets in. Most of Keith's personae are, well, disgusting. Two in particular, Dr. Dooom and the personality revealed on the ultramessy Sex Style (recorded under the name Kool Keith, perhaps an indication as to who the real Kool Keith is) a modern-day Dolomite party record are toughies. Here, he simply uses his characterizations as a portal into a vivid world of bathroom humor and nasty honesty. But is he just acting when he says, with pure innocence, "I'm the man of the hour/watching girls taking a shower"?
When gang-bangin' emcees in the early "90s rationalized their violent words by saying that they were simply taking on a role, critics pooh-poohed them and said that such an explanation was a copout. But there's something about Keith's manner that is so forthcoming, treating all his disgusting facets with a wide-eyed equanimity. Take this rhyme from Dr. Octagon's Dr. Octagonecologyst (DreamWorks): "Grabbing crackers out of the refrigerator/I was a terrible masturbator/I was looking at black tail in Penthouse/since I was in the incubator." Snoop Dogg wouldn't be caught dead "fessin' to that one. Nor would Cube, or P, or DMX. Keith is Keith, comfortable, unapologetic and, well, a tad off.
On the Dr. Dooom record, First Come, First Served, he introduces the persona du jour on the first cut with a skit titled "Who Killed Dr. Octagon?" As in a comic book, one character makes a cameo in another's story; in this case, Octagon, the gyno from the previous record, is paged over a hospital intercom to visit a patient. Once inside the patient's room, the unsuspecting Octagon informs him that he'll need an operation. But wait! The evil Dr. Dooom is the patient! Curses! "You that Dr. Octagon ass motherfucker, right? I'll tell you what (sound of gun being cocked). Take two of these and call me in the fuckin' morning (BOOM! BOOM!) I'm Dr. Dooom!"