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."

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.

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 Spinarticle 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."

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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