Hip-Hop's Clown Heavy

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

One would think this is the kind of stuff Keith would want silenced. And yet his mental state is often used as a publicity point. In the video for "Poppa Large," a song by the Ultramagnetic MCs, Keith strutted through the entire thing wearing a straitjacket and a birdcage on his head, looking much like some escapee from George Orwell's 1984. A Spin article about the rapper concluded with a question from Keith's manager: "[Is] he crazy?" Almost every piece ever written about Keith includes at least one author's take on the man's strangeness. During one recent interview in his apartment, Keith excused himself, went into his bedroom, and then returned an hour later following a nap. Keith himself certainly encourages questions about his sanity when he raps things like "Mothafuckas think I'm crazy, right?" -- answering himself a beat later -- "I know . . . but I am."

But perhaps with Black Elvis/Lost in Space, an album that's notably less foul and disjunctive than earlier efforts, Keith has finally found a measure of sanity.

"Basically, this was the thing I've been trying to do for years," he says of the new release. "Previously, people never got my album. With Sex Styles, what they got was a [producer] Kut Masta Kurt album. Ultramagnetics did their albums. And [producer] Automator had his fantasy of doing the weird [Dr. Octagonecologyst] stuff with me, which was a good album to his liking. Don't get me wrong. It's not that I didn't like a lot of the Octagon stuff, but I think it has fooled a lot of people as to what the original Kool Keith sound is. [But] I think this year, [with me] playing bass behind the scenes, putting a lot of bass lines on different tracks, and being a strong part of a lot of my music, it shows that those futuristic sounds was me all along."

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

One of the strangest things about Keith is that his hostility toward other rappers seems to come from disappointment, a feeling that they've let down both him and the scene in general by moving from a culture that once rewarded skills and talent to one that now rewards splash and celebrity; one in which Puff Daddy and Masta P, rather than Run-D.M.C. and Dr. Dre, rule.

"I grew up in New York. But what's funny about the people in New York is that when I didn't have a record deal and was going between labels and stuff, I found that people there didn't respect me," Keith reminisces. "[Producers] who knew I was between labels wouldn't do any beats for me on spec. . . . Whereas in California, [Kut Masta] Kurt and other guys in Los Angeles and up in Oakland were willing to do beats with me, just because they were respectin' me for who I was, not because of how much money I had. Or because I had a deal. New York is very political. They tend to get on you late and then just hop on the bandwagon."

On a few of his songs, Keith speaks about growing up in the Bronx, describing himself as an inveterate masturbator but also talking nostalgically about things such as eating ice cream in a cold project apartment where his grandmother fended off the rats with which he now seems so obsessed. On these tracks, there's obviously more than a bit of a wistful spirit on display. Still, when he drops a line like "It's that old ghetto smell in the house/People coming over to borrow sugar/That's the way I like it," the listener is often bound to miss it amid the bluster of the tracks surrounding it.

Regardless of whether Keith is pining for the good old days, he clearly has made the adjustment to life in his new home, Los Angeles. "They always used to say that L.A. is plastic," he says. "Well, I think New York is just as phony." And Los Angeles is better money. "When I made the switch to California, I got more work. I got a lot of different things."

In fact, over the past few years, Keith has been a frequent guest star, collaborating with groups as varied as the Pretenders, DJ Spooky, Prodigy, and Prince Paul. He's also been featured on compilations released by Rawkus, the underground hip-hop label, and even appears on Beck's new record.

"I came out to the West Coast," he says, "and they let me just go on a radio station without a bunch of red tape. I can just walk up there, and they'll put me on for the love of my contribution to rap. People in Los Angeles really appreciate a lot of this stuff. I get respect and I get treated nice. Yet I notice that when I get back to New York, they're kinda not happy to see that I'm doing well." New York, he says, "feeds more off the negative than the positive."

He pauses before concluding the interview. "It's cool now, though. I think I have my first chance to show that I had a big influence on my own musical vocabulary."

But with the strange vocabulary he's displayed over the years, who thought these words came from anywhere but Keith's own wonderfully twisted little head?

Kool Keith is scheduled to perform on Friday, February 4, at the Nile Theater in Mesa. Showtime is 7 p.m.

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