Alex Koenig got a 10/10 on the Kool Keith or James Joyce test.
Over nearly the last 30 years as a recording artist, legendary Bronx MC Kool Keith has subverted nearly every hip hop cliché whilst staying completely true to his personality. At his best, Keith comes off as an unhinged and maniacal artist whose verses are witty, creepy, and most of all, unique—a interstellar cry from the hoes, clothes, and drug archetypes imbued into the hip-hop culture.
Keith’s penchant for exploring themes that portray lurid malevolence leads critics and fans to identify his music as horrorcore– a subgenre of hip-hop defined by its grotesque, violent imagery and brooding production. And in a 2007 interview, Keith even audaciously claimed to have invented horrorcore. But while his posturing might seem bold, it actually holds weight if looked at chronologically. As a founder of the Ultramagnetic MCs (a group whose surging 1988 LP Critical Beatdown remains an essential Golden Age document, Keith stood out for being one of the first to offer lyrics that came off as far more bizarre and gruesome than his contemporaries. “Respect me, when I whip your brain, skip your brain and dip your brain/ In the lotion while I deck ya skull, I’m like a bird when I’m pecking ya skull til it hurts and swell, puffs, bleed, blood,” he raps on Critical Beatdown’s “Travelling At The Speed Of Thought”– you weren’t going to see this type of off-kilter, irascible lunacy from Chuck D or Ice Cube.
As excellent as his work was with the Ultramagnetic MCs, though, Kool Keith’s magnum opus came in 1996 with his first solo album Dr. Octagonecologyst. In this LP, Keith introduces the inimitable character of Dr. Octagon, an extraterrestrial, sex-obsessed, murderous, time-traveling gynecologist and surgeon who hails from the planet Jupiter. With hallucinatory sci-fi beats, hypnotic record scratching and absurd, gut-busting bars like “Thinking more of what they can’t explore/ like the cartoon Donald Duck is giving fellatio on the floor/ with Reed Richards, looking at The Thing’s naked pictures/ taking Ex-Lax to relax with the needle and thread sewing up all the other butt cracks”, it’s easy to see why Dr. Octagonecologyst remains a cult favorite.
Sonically, Keith’s follow-up albums don’t quite match the zenith of his solo debut, but many of the aliases their creator introduces within them—from the retro-yet-futuristic Black Elvis to the cannibalistic Dr. Dooom–exhibit quirks that make each character fully realized, distinctive, and most palpably, a reflection of Keith’s complex persona. Kool Keith’s 13th and final solo LP Love & Danger comes out on June 5th, offering fans one last chance to see one of the most forward-thinking MCs and his characters in action. But Keith’s zest for creating eccentric art will continue to live on, encouraging young rappers to let even their most peculiar and taboo ideas to come to life.
As someone who has been involved in the rap game for nearly 30 years, do you see yourself as an elder statesman?
I wouldn’t put myself as a Michael Jordan person; I would say I’m more like Kobe Bryant on the court. You know, Kobe showing em what to do. A lot of guys that rap with me or before me are on the sideline. I’m still more current with wordplay and stuff like that. My flow is in the future, still jet set. Now the competition is just getting started, basically.
How do you feel hip-hop has changed since the Ultramagnetic MCs’ debut in during the Golden Age of rap?
The main difference is wordplay. People are saying fly stuff; the kids are saying fly stuff. You know, and I was always saying different fly stuff. You know, your ears are more amazed now, like “Oh shit, he said that?” It makes you write better. It’s real good now. I’m not mad at anybody now, I’m not mad. Some people are mad because they can’t compete with that stuff. They’re maybe mad because there are a lot of new rappers that sound good; I’m not taking it away from them.
You grew up in the Bronx. How did living in that borough influence your music?
Well the Bronx is a headquarters for where it all started. I think a lot of people in the Bronx slept on worldwide talent. For a minute, people in the Bronx thought that the Bronx could rap, and they didn’t think Brooklyn could rap; they didn’t think Staten Island could rap; they didn’t think Queens could rap, and they didn’t think a lot of places could rap. And then they took a stand of not being prepared. It’s just that they slept on you know, the world talent.
It’s like the NBA: you’ve got dope basketball players coming in from Europe, China right now. So you know, they took a stand because they was from the Bronx—it’s cool but they slept on their rehearsal skills, their practice, staying sharp. Like one guy saw Kool G Rap. He told me he said, “I know you’re keeping your blades sharp.” And I was like, “Woooow.” I was like, “That was a good phrase.” I’ve heard G rap on some stuff, and he still sounds sharp.
Some people don’t sound sharp. People look at rap like it’s an easy thing to do, but it’s not really an easy thing to do; it’s just as hard as a person who played football. You got people clowning it off, going up on X Factor. The point is you can’t clown off rap like that; there are dudes out here that rhyme real. They flow and the wordplay is real professional. It’s not like Jay-Z’s showing Oprah Winfrey how to rap.
I take it seriously– I don’t clown out here. Some people clown out because they can’t do it and can’t get into it. They don’t got that mentality to go into it in a solider form, written style. Like I said, it’s a sport. They brought other things into it, party things. But it’s still (about) how you say something. You know, make it fly. It’s the thought of remembering; it’s the thought of bringing up subjects and people and pulling somebody out the hat. It’s a lot of memory; it’s a lot of arranging, penciling in, and marking out, putting a word in a spot that sounds nice. They want the average guy to be able to do it, but it’s not like that.
It’s like, Derek Jeter knows how to come up to the plate and hit a 90mph fastball, and it’s the same as rap: you gotta listen to other rappers saying fly shit and you gotta pick it up.
You’ve called yourself the inventor of horrorcore. How do you feel that the genre has evolved over the years?
Well, I mean, you got a lot of rappers out now and everybody wants to do a track with Michael Myers on it; everybody wants to do a Halloween track now all of a sudden. You know, it’s like, you got tons of rappers now who want to rap on those types of records now. I opened up a lot of doors for that but I didn’t do that to it to that extreme. I think I write grosser stuff. You know, stuff like raw sewage. The words I use, you know, urine–I use a lot of words that the average rapper don’t even touch cause they’re in more of a safe zone with their vocabulary. There’s a certain amount of vocabulary (that rappers use) to be safe, and I take it to the 3rd dimension.
Speaking of the 3rd dimension, your songs seem influenced by science fiction and space.
There are times I can write in space, times I can write down on earth, times I can write in the middle of both. There are times I write on the dark side, just a dark shadow side. Some rappers, they might just be into champagne for a whole album, or they might be writing songs about being a pimp for a whole album. Some people are stuck in like, one mold only, you know? That’s the most effective point for myself– I have so many elements go with my lyrics. My stuff combines everything: sports, horror, space, you know, but still earth. I’m on earth, but lyrically I’m in space. So people will be like, “He writes like he’s from spaceship from something, but it’s got an earth tone to it, like he’s talking about something on the street. Sometimes I come down from space and get into rodents, street shit, and rats.
I’ve also picked up from your lyrics that you’re interested in technology. Something that raised hip-hop to a new level technologically speaking was the 2pac hologram at Coachella. What are your thoughts on it?
I think 2pac is a cool person you can hologram. He’s a good person who wrote good songs, so I could see that. You got a lot of people; they’re not up to a hologram level. But you know, 2pac is kind of like myself: You might hear a song of his today and feel like he made that yesterday. He’s got that Bela Lugosi effect with his lyrics also. I wrote songs that are so far ahead of time that when I play them now I feel like, “wow, I just wrote that yesterday.” Some people can foretell a destiny in their lyrics, and then it catches up with time. He (2pac) sometimes has ghostly lyric; he has a haunted style that you’ll listen to and be like, “Oh shit, I don’t think he’s dead.” He just sounds like he wrote that yesterday.
Many of your records, such as Dr. Octagonecologyst and Black Elvis/Lost in Space center on characters you create– how much do they reflect your true personality?
Well some stuff I write in a Marvel form, as I write a comic book. Not a comic to laugh, but a comic story. I think people feel intimidated when I’m not writing about a concept, because it’s like, I get the freedom to write everything freely. Like my hand has a free spirit to say what I want. Sometimes I feel like my stuff is conformed a little bit cause I have to stay in the vein of an album. It’s like when you do a verse with somebody and they’re like, “I want a whole song about Nike shoes” and you can’t go off the mark. But I like the stuff that I have when I’m working on my own albums and personal stuff. Sometimes I get a feeling to go all the way extreme, like to explore a part of myself that I don’t know. Sometimes I write something so wild that it intimidates myself. Sometimes I catch myself saying something that I shouldn’t say.
Love & Danger, your 13th LP is set for release on June 5, and you’ve recently announced that it will be your final album. Are you truly done with releasing solo projects?
Yeah. I just needed time to get into myself. I want to start producing rappers myself. I did so many incredible things. I did so many different things with this album. I put vocals on it. I did a lot of choruses that was kind of masterful with singing and stuff. What I always wanted to do was a whole R&B album cause I wanted to prove to people that I could do that type of thing. I wanted to show people that I could flip something different. I wanted to show people some vocal exercises and show people that they can make funky records without conforming to the music society’s way of singing. You know, going out of the norm.