“I’m the USS Enterprise of the Bronx”: An Interview with Kool Keith

Reed Jackson and Kool Keith talk about rappers looking dirty, Keith's newest record, Feature Magnetic, and alternative uniforms for cops.
By    September 29, 2016

Art by Andreas Koller

For someone who got lost in outer space, eccentric MC Kool Keith is surprisingly down to earth.

That’s how the 49-year-old rapper—who’s spent the better part of the past three decades dropping bizarre and funky music under a variety of celestial aliases, including Black Elvis, a wig-adorned space traveler—comes off anyways during our hour-long phone conversation, which revolves around the release of his newest album on Mello Music, Feature Magnetic. Sure, he gets a little creative with his analogies and runs a few, uh, interesting ideas by me—“Maybe cops should get some orange uniforms” being the most memorable—but the self-proclaimed Mr. Spock of the Bronx talks with a wisdom that you maybe wouldn’t expect from a guy who once rapped that he was armed with, “seven rounds of space doo doo pistols.” This could stem from the fact that his influence on hip-hop is as apparent as ever, with the genre’s artists growing increasingly unconventional in recent years. While other old heads have publicly criticized this new, more colorful generation of rappers, Keith finds himself relating to them.

“The innovativeness is very good right now,” he tells me. “Atlanta and places like that took over because the artists look like stars.”

The stars are somewhere Keith’s been aiming for since he joined Ultramagnetic MCs in the 1980s. After the group failed to match the groundbreaking work of their 1988 debut, Critical Breakdown, Keith left to pursue a solo career, where he was able to explore more abstract concepts and ideas as an artist. From the pornographic stylings of Sex Style to the sheer spaced-out creepiness of Dr. Octagon, a homicidal, extra-terrestrial gynecologist, these projects have established him as one of the most unique voices in rap. It’s now cooler than ever to be a weird rapper—a trend that’s been on the rise since Lil Wayne started giggling like a Muppet and calling himself a Martian—making Keith’s work as relevant as ever and Feature Magnetic perhaps his most important album in a while.

While Feature’s guest list could work as a who’s who of underground MCs from the 2000s—DOOM, Slug from Atmosphere, even horrocore king Necro—its production is far more wide reaching, stretching from Bay Area funk to futuristic synth-hop. Under his Number One Producer moniker, Keith handled most of the beats himself, using his arsenal of drum machines and synthesizers to craft a record that predictably sounds unpredictable. During its creation process, he followed the same overarching mantra that he’s been chasing since the beginning of his career, which is to never swim back to shore—to always stray further away from safety in search of originality. This objective, he tells me, is why he ended up leaving Ultramagnetic, why major labels like Columbia never really knew what to do with him, and why he’ll never be one of those old-school New York MCs stuck in time.

“To be a rapper in New York I guess you’re supposed to look dirty, like you defecated on yourself,” he says, laughing. “When did rap get dirty? I thought rap was clean…Young Thug ain’t dirty. Gucci Mane ain’t dirty.” —Reed Jackson

Is the title of your new album, Feature Magnetic, a reference to Ultramagnetic?

Kool Keith: Magnetic started everything. Magnetic had evolved Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Black Elvis—everything I’ve done. The reason I left was I was kind of held back. Ultra was in on way-ahead-of-its-time beats, but I think as time went on, most artists are scared and want to fall back on something safer than what they used to do to be original. So [Ultra] started wanting to be on regular records that the average producer would make or something.

For Ultra to be known as an alternately distinctive group, it was very hard. They were more or less going back to shore instead of swimming further across the ocean. I’ve seen it happen with a lot of groups that were distinctive that was rapping on dance tracks, then just to come back safe they rapped on some normal records that the average rapper would rap on just to be like, “I’m back in hip-hop.”

So that’s why you left the group?

Kool Keith: I stayed swimming forward. I didn’t want to comeback and be on, you know, “comeback beats.” Or beats that would maybe follow the trend of basic hip-hop, basically. This shit happened with a lot of artists who came out with their own funk and distinctive sound. They [then] come with the trendy ’90s beats that were for everybody to rap on.

Speaking of artists who have their own funk, what do you think of rappers today like Young Thug?

Kool Keith: I like Young Thug. He’s got a nice cadence, ya know. Good delivery. Matter of fact, he can hop on something…one of the beats I got. I got a lot of stuff. But yeah, definitely, the innovativeness is very good right now. We need another lyrical-type person who has the new flows and new lyrics.
Atlanta and places like that took over because the artists look like stars. They go and buy ball caps and new sneakers and put on some glasses and wash they face, as opposed to another person with a Yankee hat on with a dirty T-shirt with mustard on it, wearing a pair of old Phat Farms. Young Thug looks modern; he has on his Prada shoes and it’s with the time, you know what I’m saying? In New York, you got guys that will walk up to you and be like, “Oh man I like your shit, man, when you made ‘Ego Trippin.’”

But I’m looking at the guy [and thinking], “I made like 7,000 records after that.” You’re walking up to me with a beat-up Yankee cap talking about “Ego Trippin’,” and you’re with your girlfriend and she’s fat and out of shape. People are so out of time. You got futuristic flows but your soul is trapped in like ’81 or some shit. Pull your ass into time. You would think with all this technology and computers…

Young New York artists like Desiigner and Young M.A are starting to bring a new sound to the city, but why do you think some of the city’s older artists have been so reluctant to change?

Kool Keith: Musically it’s the grey coloring. Rappers don’t wanna grow, and everyone wants to still keep hip-hop dirty and grimy. To be a rapper in New York I guess you’re supposed to look dirty, like you defecated on yourself [laughs]. I didn’t ever think that was rap. To me, I thought it was being fly with a chain and wearing some dope glasses and riding around with a dope chick. You know, like in basketball—you play ball, you gotta dope girl, you look like Klay Thompson, you shave. A lot of these guys gotta go get some Schick razors and a couple cans of shaving cream. You get with the program, and the same could be said for music; you don’t want to bob your head to beats all day. That’s what we’re trying to progress from.

What about New York’s originality in general? Artists like LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy have criticized it for losing its edge.

Kool Keith: New York lost its originality. New York lost its sound and heaviness, bass, big drums. We’re a city that don’t want to be innovative; we tend to talk about the past. Say you go to a club: People are going to play Frankie Beverly for the rest of their life. They’re playing old songs…somebody is overplaying Stevie Wonder. People don’t feel like it’s time for something new. They like Frank Sinatra and stuff—you know, the [sings], “New York, New York.”

Of course, there’s the whole [aspect] of it being a fashion town, but when you got the new building—we built up the World Trade Center—they gotta bounce back from 9/11 and the colors gotta come back. People gotta put on colors. Take off the black; take off the jobs, looking depressed. And DJs gotta start playing some new music to brighten up the city’s emotions. Everybody’s working jobs with dark colors on. Cops wear dark blue—maybe cops should get some orange uniforms. It needs a spark. It keeps an aura and a cloud over the city that makes everybody feel dark. [Says in sad mopey voice], ‘I gotta blend into the cloudy gothic city.’ You know, that’s why I never wear a Yankee hat. There’s something about a Yankee hat that’s superficial to me. It’s a dark hat that everyone wears that represents a form of depression. I don’t wear a Yankee hat. I wear an Oakland A’s hat with a big yellow brim on it.

You’ve always been really colorful in your lyrics when it came to describing things. Why did you choose to go the route of creating these space-aged alter egos as a perspective to rap from?

Kool Keith: Since Ultamagnetic came out, I’ve been Mr. Spock. In my mind, it’s just, you know, the vocabulary and inspiration of words. Even when making a beat, you can close your eyes and practically ride out to another dimension. Some beats gravitate to depression; some beats gravitate to crime; some beats gravitate to low society. And then some beats gravitate to forwardness and, like you were saying, the black hole.
I remember one time I brought Dr. Octagon up to Ice-T’s house, and Ice played “No Awareness” (off Dr. Octagonecologyst). We was up there listening, and Ice turned out the lights in the studio and it’s looking like Star Trek up there. He said it just felt like it was space and the invaders were moving in.

Did you ever worry this would make your material less relatable?

Kool Keith: I was not space Spock; I was street Spock. I was urban street Spock. I’m Spock in the Bronx, you know what I’m saying? I’m the USS Enterprise of the Bronx. I still write relatable stuff. Like with a Rolls Royce, the color I pick could be matte finish, the rims are orange. It’s not space, it’s just taking your mind to another dimension.
It could be anything…if you write about a Ferrari, it’s a color that nobody mentions. I might say it’s purple with blue wheels or something. You see it on the street all the time. You see people in Las Vegas, people in L.A.—everyone got costume cars with custom finishes. The cars look like Hot Wheels now. So there’s still a lot of things I write that are graphically true. Some people may say it’s untrue, but everybody don’t always drive a grey car with black wheels.

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