Hip-Hop's Clown Heavy

Kool Keith and his multiple aliases take listeners on a real warped tour

In Kool Keith Thornton's world, the traditional rap skit often takes a turn toward the disturbing, but not via hoochie-mama sex scenes or gangsta violence (to which rap fans, of course, have become accustomed and inured). No, Keith's raps involve dramatic elements such as a quiet scene in which he coaxes a rat from the darkness, names it John, feeds it some peanut butter and Bazooka bubblegum, and then compliments it on its "pretty face" and "long tail" before grinding it into a pulp. Huh?

It gets weirder: At the climax of the video for his song "Plastic World," Keith sits down in a modest room in which he and a very convincing Michael Jackson impersonator eat bowls of cereal. What?

Then there's some of the foulest lyrics ever committed to tape: "Put used diapers on your windshield wipers/Make you eat your own feces. . . . Pull out your colon/Leave your glands swollen, uncircumcised, between your mom's thighs/That's right, with a face like Michael Myers, I clip the ears off your bodyguards with some bloody pliers."

Black Elvis: Kool Keith, crazy like a fox
Scott Schaefer
Black Elvis: Kool Keith, crazy like a fox

Throughout it all, Thornton regularly spurts out rhyming non sequiturs that are more dislocating than any since the Beastie Boys matched "Ernie Anesto" with "pesto." A recent personal favorite: "Tuna fish is ludicrous."

Taken alone, this would perhaps be a confirmation of Keith's surreal imagination, making him a hyperreferential, nonsensical and humorous version of Biz Markie. But combine this nonsense with the fact that Keith is constantly playing hard, as though he was the toughest rapper ever to make his way out of a Bronx ghetto, and you have a major threat to that previously impassable divide between hip-hop clown and hip-hop heavy. Keith's lyrics, in fact, come off like the Fat Boys with the attitude of N.W.A, or Chuck D and Flavor Flav conflated into one stone-cold-serious rapper with a wall clock hanging from his neck (Eminem doesn't count in this discussion; drowning the mother of your child in front of that child isn't comedy).

Keith is a brutal creator of parodies, and his work often brings to mind other brilliant entertainment that has been questioned owing to its violence and explicit nature, be it South Park, Lenny Bruce's comedy, or Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. When the 18th-century satirist Swift proposed eating the children of Ireland to alleviate hunger, it was a shocking idea. So why, at the beginning of the 21st century, when Keith's Dr. Dooom persona resorts to cannibalism to rid the world of bad rappers, are people still a little taken aback?

"When you look at all the rappers out there, their innovation is like at a total zero standstill, because you're just seeing one side of them," explains Keith in a burst of standard rap bravado, which takes a turn toward the irrefutable when he elaborates. "With me I'm Kool Keith on one side, I'm entertaining people in a Sprite ad on another side, and I don't even know who the fuck I am on the other side."

During the past six months, Keith has been working his identities overtime, playing out his aforementioned cannibalistic threat toward other MCs on the independently released First Come, First Served; reviving Rhythm X, an older persona (from when he was a member of NYC's legendary Ultramagnetic MCs), in a series of martial-arts-themed TV commercials for Sprite; and introducing yet a brand-new character on Black Elvis/Lost in Space, his major-label solo debut LP for Ruffhouse/Columbia (the album was released only three months after Dr. Dooom -- yet another Keith persona -- was introduced to the world via Keith's own Funky Ass label).

"I got old people that know [me as] Rhythm X, and then I got people who don't know Rhythm X but know Black Elvis," says Keith. "And then people who don't know Black Elvis are seeing me as [Rhythm X] in a commercial."

Confused? Well, as any path littered with so many aliases might indicate, it has been a long road for Keith, who has bounced from label to label over the years. He even enumerated this contractual journey on First Come, First Served via a track titled "Leave Me Alone": "[I] experienced Next Plateau, Mercury, Wild Pitch, EMI, Capitol/DreamWorks/Never got dropped/Put my lyrics away and stopped." As the words indicate, Keith's career has always been in his own hands; in fact, he has never been officially dropped from a label. But he has seen his tenure with various labels aborted time and time again, often for reasons that have had little to do with record sales.

Although the details have never been adequately spelled out, Keith ostensibly entered a New York mental ward before he first began rapping in the late '80s with the Bronx-based Ultramagnetic MCs. He entered an institution again soon after the group broke up in the early '90s. Both times he was suffering from depression. Since then rumors of his mental health (or lack thereof) have hounded him. In 1997, when his Automator-produced, underground sensation Dr. Octagonecologyst album was picked up from the small indie label Bulk and rereleased on DreamWorks, Keith's marriage to the major label became especially strained. At one juncture, he disappeared entirely, evading frustrated DreamWorks employees and bosses, dropping off a scheduled slot on Lollapalooza's second stage, and then leaking tales that he'd simply taken a break from rap to indulge his obsession with pornography.

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