Rapper With a Thousand Faces
A quarter century in the game is a long time in any genre, but especially in hip hop. Few MCs have weathered all the so-called “ages” of rap quite like Kool Keith; the man of a thousand aliases — Dr.Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Black Elvis, Fly Ricky Tha Wine-Taster, Keith Thornton, etc.– has not only retained the vital spark that made his flows such stand-outs in his Ultramagnetic MCs days in the mid-eighties, but he’s gone on to refine his bizarre persona(s) through his solo career.
In 1996 he released his solo debut under the guise of the alien gynecologist Dr.Octagon. It was a hit, sweeping the underground and even spilling over into the mainstream, resulting in a re-release through Dreamworks Records. Dr.Octagonocologyst established a template that Keith would explore through his strange, ever expanding catalog: dark, surreal beatscapes, stream-of-consciousness flows and questionable sexual references, all from the pen of a fully fleshed out, cartoonish alter-ego. The album made stars of both Keith and producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, and expectations were high for a follow up. Feeling boxed in and eager to try something new, Keith killed off the Doctor via another creation, the cannibalistic serial-killer Dr. Dooom, on the even darker and more nightmarish First Come, First Served.
In 2002, Keith announced he would resurrect Octagon for a release under the OCD imprint of CMH Records, though he abandoned the project after producer Fanatik J argued with the label over his contract. Still on the hook with the label, Keith provided out-takes and older tracks, which were handed over to new production team One Watt Sun. The Return Of Dr. Octagon was released in 2006, with zero input from Keith, who responded by reviving Dr. Dooom to finish the job.
In 2002, Keith announced he would resurrect Octagon for an album under the OCD imprint of CMH Records, though he abandoned the project after producer Fanatik J argued with the label over his contract. Still on the hook with the label, Keith provided out-takes and older tracks, which were handed over to new production team One Watt Sun. The Return Of Dr. Octagon was released in 2006, with zero input from Keith, who responded by reviving Dr. Dooom to finish what he’d started.
This interview took place prior to the tour for Dr.Dooom 2, and Keith’s management cautioned that he didn’t want to talk about old projects, he only wanted to discuss the current situation, in order to set the record straight. In a lot of ways this interview conducted itself, with plenty of tangents and mixed metaphors from the man himself. I’ve resisted overtly editing his answers for clarity.
You’ve recorded under your name for both Ultramagnetic MCs and the Matthew record, but you’ve got a lot of aliases: Doctor Dooom, Doctor Octagon, Black Elvis, Big Willie Smith, Fly Ricky The Wine Taster, etc. Why so many?
It makes me creative. I have different things, it makes me creative. It just makes me more creative. It gives me a chance to separate my ideas and different things so I can allow more space for everything. I can’t put everything under one umbrella, so I have to space out a lot of my — not that I have multiple personalities, it’s just that I like to space out different things. It’s like one writer can write many movies.
So, what kind of work goes into writing for all of these personalities? You seem to have back-stories for a lot of them.
Uh, I have different types of directions and points of views I want to come from. I make records according to different feelings. I have a sci-fi side, I have a realistic side, I have an urban side, a cross-over side — I have all different types of sides, so there’s no boundaries of me doing a record, because people might say, “ah, did he change? Is he trying something different?” No, it’s just that I’m trying to do something naturally different, whereas people try to change for the better or they change to go pop. I just make different records, regardless of what I’m doing. I mean, I don’t have no boundaries or expectations. I don’t have people saying, “why did you do that project?” I only have trouble with people adapting to the different things I’m doing. People get locked into one thing. You get people that are locked into Octagon, you get people that are locked into certain things. They should learn about everything. It’s not like when you go to a movie you keep saying “hey, I wanna keep going to see Jason, Friday the 13th.” People go to see Leatherface [edit: Texas Chainsaw Massacre], people go see a love movie, people go see a comedy. Y’know? Treat my records just like the movies.
Fair enough — you want to mix it up a little bit. Having said that, you had Doc Ock, and then Doctor Dooom. Was Dooom created to kill off Octagon? Sort of a way to sever old from new and change direction?
A lot of people got stuck on Octagon. They thought it was my only side of making a good record. I appreciate the thought of that, but I don’t think people should think Doctor Octagon is a masterpiece. I mean, Stephen Spielberg wrote many things: Poltergeist, Indiana Jones [edit: George Lucas actually wrote Indiana Jones]. I think people should just look at the differences of things and take it from there, instead of like “hey, Poltergeist is your best movie — Poltergeist, Poltergeist, Poltergeist.” Hey, Poltergeist is written already. Let me do Indiana Jones, let me do The Sun Comes Over The Rainbow. Let me do the next thing and be a fan of everything, not just one thing. Observe me for what I’ve done, not just for one particular thing.
Right, but would you say that Dr Dooom — a dark, cannibalistic serial killer — was created to kill off Doc Ock?
Nah, Dooom was out way before then, but I had to come in character-wise and let the fans know that I can pull a movie off the screen. I do different things. It’s the same as Vin Diesel — he did a movie with kids, he did action movies. I just don’t want to be stuck in the one lane. It’s like people look at Wesley Snipes — he’s a talented actor, but people only want to use him for Blade. I think he can do many things, I think he’s an all-around person. I think people should appreciate that. That’s why I basically pulled [Octagon] off and took a break. I went on a strike. It’s not that I didn’t like the project, but I went on an Octagon strike. I feel more creative and have other stuff. I have Kool Keith stuff, and the stuff I do with Ultramagnetic. There’s a big dimension to my career, there’s not just Dr.Octagon.
So, what is the deal with the new album? I heard about the Return of Doctor Octagon album and how it was unauthorized by you. You did the tracks and they dropped a producer —
I didn’t do the tracks. I did tracks first in California and they were going towards musicians’ rights. I think the tracks got mixed up and they switched things to another producer and it got mixed up and they pulled me off a lot of songs and then they did their own remixes, which I’ve had problems with in the past, y’know, with different places around the world and people that wanna do songs for me instead of working with me live. I think a lot of people tend to try to do an economical way and a kind of behind my back type of thing or working with me but not with me. Working with me but working without me, where they try to do music with me but don’t even meet me to shake my hand. With technology nowadays you don’t have to. I like working naturally with a person. I don’t dig this electronically sending tracks over to people. If it has to be done it has to, but if you’re working with a person it’ll be much better because it’ll come out better ,but I think people do a lot of the stuff and try to get away with things I don’t approve of ’cause I’m not there. They put my voice on a lot of things that I probably would not have not rapped on.
It’s a lot different than the previous Octagon album, that’s for sure. What was it like writing the new Dr. Dooom album?
This time I got a lot of points across. Things in the business that are going on. I got a lot of points across that I wanted to get off my chest. I think it was a well written album and of course the points I got across was great. I got a lot of good points across, which people don’t think I’m capable of doing. So I did get a couple of good points across, especially in this type of step-n-fetcher type of business.
Speaking of getting points across, there’s a song on this album called “Simon”–
Yeah, it’s about Simon, and — I love Europe and everybody, but I think Simon is one person coming to America, dissing American artists, and that’s dysfunctional right there. I had to get on Simon’s case on that. Then I’ve got “Always Talkin’ Out Your Ass,” [which is] about how in the industry a lot of underground groups are going out, settling like immigrants for less and messing up the whole economic point of the rap world. It’s like, “we’ll rap for free,” but a lot of artists are good and they deserve to be paid. I took care of a lot of areas on that album and got a lot of points across on “Step-N-Fetchers,” y’know. You have a lot of rappers going out there, doing the buck-dance kind of thing, going to a lot of events that have nothing to do with the growth of rap and supporting a lot of things that have nothing to do with the rap world itself. I got on a lot of issues about how rappers tend to try to get into another lane of rap that doesn’t involve rap music. Everybody grew from rap to evolve into their whole careers. They’re trying to buck-dance their way into other lanes.
So, you’ve been making records for over 25 years. Sitting at the top of 2009, looking back on everything you’ve done and how the industry evolved, how’s it looking?
The industry changed as far as the employees who joined. They have no knowledge of history or knowledge of knowing who’s who. They don’t hire people of great background. If you’re going to hire somebody, hire someone who knows about different things and situations: when artists came out, when artists got into the business, what artists was with who, what group started this, what group started that. Don’t just come out with an act that just came out yesterday and all of a sudden you’re giving false prophecies to the world, like you don’t know what you’re talking about. You got a lot of people that’s hired in these companies, they have a lot of artists that they just coming out now and all of a sudden [they’re] a part of history and historical moments in rap, which they shouldn’t even be in, because it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t add up at the time. You have a lot of false things going on and you have a lot of people in positions that shouldn’t be there, sitting down and trying to make different evaluations of rap, like who’s the top rapper, who’s the best group, who started what, but a lot of the stuff don’t equivalately [sic] match up to nothing.
In your opinion, what makes for a good live show?
A good live show is coming up there by yourself, maybe with one guy doing a real show, instead of 99% of the shows where there’s a bunch of people up there and there’s no real focus on who the artist is and, like you said [edit: ???], everyone coming up there and grabbing their genitals and thinking that’s a good show. It’s more about presentation and not looking like you’re a person who just came off the street. I think some people tend to not separate themselves from the crowd. Instead of making a presentation professional, they tend to just go up there all raggedy, like they just came from backstage. You got to separate yourself from the people, ’cause the people watch you and that gives them something else to see. Anybody can go to a corner store and see a guy rapping on the corner. When I was going to concerts, I knew James Brown was a professional. He came out with his outfits, his band and his cape, whatever. And it goes down the list: George Clinton, Parliament Funkadelic, Cameo, Slave, Earth,Wind & Fire. Now, you come up on stage looking like a bum and that’s been a big factor in this music industry; people on stage besides the people who already gave themselves away — y’know, your step-n-fetchers [edit: check out the lyrics to Step-N-Fetchers if you want an explanation of what Keith’s talking about], they always gonna go put on a tuxedo and stuff like that. Basic proper wardrobe is always great, and a good presentation. I try to give the fans something, ’cause I don’t come to their city everyday. If I was there everyday, I’d dress like a guy who was standing on the corner in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts.
You always seem to try to throw stuff in there, what with the costume changes and your snack breaks.
It varies. Some nights I don’t throw anything, some nights I may not be visual. There’s all different types of variations of the above. Some people don’t do any of the above at all.
You’ve worked with groups in the past: Cenobites, Diesel Truckers, Ultramagnetic. Do you have any more group projects coming up?
I’m working on my album, King Service, after Dr.Dooom. And I have a few new lost masters coming out that people want to collect — little songs laying about that people behind the scenes want to hear. And I’m working on a main album, a Kool Keith album.
What are you listening to these days, in regards to hip hop?
I listen to a lot of things. I mean, a lot of stuff is really spoon fed to you. I don’t listen to a lot of stuff that’s forced down my throat. I take my time and find something different to listen to — a lot of vintage slow jams and H-Town. Just ’cause I’m hip hop doesn’t mean I can’t go out the boundaries to listen to other things. I listen to a few rock bands, but rock has gotten so monotonous. A lot of these groups have blended into a simultaneous thing that they keep coming out looking the same. They seem to be going down the same avenue, copying the same person. Everyone wants to be Marilyn Manson, put dark circles around their eyes and wear black t-shirts, so I can’t really recognize bands anymore. I don’t know how the fans differentiate these people, but for me one rock band is like 8,000. Only a few might stand out, like Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl, and just a few you can count on your fingers. The same as rap; all the rappers, they tend to be in the same lane with the same category. They’ve all got a ball cap and a chain. They don’t leave a stigma to remember.
You’re the exact opposite of that.
People that are dumb, deaf and blind, they don’t know any better. “Ahh, new group this week!” These kids fall in love with everybody. I recognize Hannah Montana better than your average pop star right now, ’cause Disney has her separated from everybody else. She’s not thrown in with a big barrel of monkeys. There’s no significance in these groups now.
Do you feel that way because what you’re doing is so out there?
They’re trying to be safe, I guess. I can’t tell at all. There’s no differentiation. Everyone is trying to be somebody else. Creativity — everyone is stuck! Ideas are hard to come by right now. People need ’em right now, they’re hungry and starving for ideas, so people will steal something and put a little bit of touch-up paint on top of it.
Do you ever have problems coming up with new things?
The only problem I have is when people copy, I’ve gotta come up with something else. It doesn’t take that long. Even the underground world: they claim they’ve got an underworld king of what’s going on and [know] who’s the best in that world. Even that world is kind of stagnated also. I’ve already done stuff that they’re now getting to do, these up-and-comers. I think I laid down a real structure for that world. Just rapping and in general. I’m not even excited that these guys are coming up. “Keep it real,” freestyle, ciphers and all that stuff. I’ve done all that back in time, so what they’re doing now looks so old to me, but it looks new to people, ’cause people are still primitive at this point, to me. I’m ahead of my time, that’s all.