Multi-Personalities on the mic, all shook up

The missing link between Sun Ra and Zapp?

Kool Keith
Black Elvis/Lost in Space
Ruffhouse/Columbia

Drive south on Highland Avenue, past Sunset, and into the heart of Hollywood these days, and an odd billboard demands your attention. Two figures vibrate on a color field of Kool-Aid green, casually tensed like lazy boxers in a pay-per-view promotion. One is a youngish white guy, plump and sloppily attired in an oversized black sweatshirt. To his left it reads:

Jeremy Larner
The Manager

Next to him is a black guy dressed in a red-striped Mexican wrestler's outfit, with a canary yellow cape draped over one shoulder. Only instead of sporting one of the masks worn by the wrestlers in the kitsch paintings hung all over Los Angeles, his head is adorned with a blue-tinged plastic pompadour, spirit-gummed in place. Beside him, in a clunky font:

Kool Keith
The Legend

Stand on the corner opposite the billboard for a few minutes, and you're sure to see at least one or two motorists swerving by, baffled.

Billboards are frightfully prevalent in L.A. There are the oddball, one-of-a-kind productions: a series of billboards that attempted to rebrand God; poetry excerpts dotting the skyline; and, most recently, the Marlboro Man with a drooping cigarette slung between his lips like a limp dick—California's antismoking alternative for the sites Philip Morris was forced to vacate in April. Along the Sunset Strip, billboards are bought to promote projects to fellow members of The Industry as much as they are to woo consumers. As with everything Kool Keith finds himself involved in, his contribution to the local tradition is a puzzling mix of parody and ego-stroke. Is the billboard self-promotion, or a joke? Is Keith's music an extreme example of obscenity-laden and vividly pornographic rap, or is it satire?

"It's the Black Elvis thing, and the Mexican thing, and the hair, and it's a whole Latin feel, you know," says Keith by way of an explanation. "It's Kool Keith up there, so basically that's the Mexican Prince." This is his concept of cashing in on the Latin pop craze.

Dissociative Identity Disorder reflects a failure to integrate various aspects of identity, memory, and consciousness, states the DSM-IV, psychiatry's standard diagnostic text. "Each personality state may be experienced as if it has a distinct personal history, self-image, and identity, including a separate name. Usually there is a primary identity that carries the individual's given name and is passive, dependent, guilty, and depressed. The alternate identities frequently have different names and characteristics that contrast with the primary identity (e.g., are hostile, controlling, and self-destructive.)." Or as Keith Thornton (a/k/a Kool Keith, Dr. Octagon, Mr. Germbick, Dr. Dooom, Willie Biggs, Rhythm X, etc.) spat out on Dr. Octagonecologyst, his 1996 reintroduction to the world of hip-hop, "I'm destructive!"

Keith occupies a world devoid of trends. Coming out of the Bronx in the late '80s with the Ultramagnetic MC's, his highly associative (and increasingly dissociative) stream-of- consciousness freestyling is cited as a major influence on everything from De La Soul's contemporaneous Daisy Age outburst of lighthearted beats to today's underground hip-hop scene, where a nostalgic and lyrically dense style dominates. (Protecting his patent, Keith himself has made guest appearances on a fair share of Rawkus's underground-codifying output.)

Keith's new solo record, Black Elvis/Lost in Space—his fifth full-length since '96, second in the past three months—sounds like hip-hop might have, had producers never discovered sampling or turntables. It's a minimalist funk of beats, basslines, and spare synthesizer bites, splitting the difference between early-'80s Herbie Hancock electro-funk and—Whoomp!—Southern Bounce. Between the syncopated beats and Vocoder talkbox on "Masters of the Game," it's hard to tell if the track would fit more comfortably off the Master P assembly line or on a Zapp record circa '82. (The latter group's late leader, Roger Troutman, guested on the track.) Keith's First Come, First Served, released under the alias Dr. Dooom this past May, holds more appeal for the hardcore fan with its still spacier production, record-breaking use of the term "motherfucka," serial killer theme, total lack of sequitur, and an introduction that has the legend knocking off his most famous alias to date, Dr. Octagon (i.e., himself).

Of late, Keith's discography has been about as inscrutable as they come, a series of vivid and pornographically violent albums that sound freestyled to perfection, with repetitive chants drawn from the titles and inserted as unifying choruses. (Quite a concession for the MC who paraphrases the title of his song "No Chorus" on the Dr. Dooom album as "I don't want the mother-fuckin' chorus.") His music has been called futuristic, although it's no more a reliable portrait of tomorrow's hip-hop than Sun Ra's output was an indication of the sound of jazz to come, or than the Jetsons were a portrait of 21st-century family life, for that matter. With Keith's new record sharing an eerie titular similarity to an old Sun Ra live set, Black Myth/Out in Space, the prolific intergalactic jazz king is looking more and more like the idiosyncratic rapper's sole peer and role model. Obviously, their specialties are different: Sun Ra's forte was musical variety, where Keith uses witty disjoinders to shape his universe. But they demand similar commitments from the listener—you're either with 'em or you're not. Or to quote the title of one of Black Elvis's songs, you're either "livin' astro," or hopelessly earthbound.

Jeremy Larner, "an aggressive young kid" (Keith says) and the rapper's first manager in years, will certainly have his hands full with his new client, famed for his acrimonious partnerships. In Keith's most recent flap, Kut Masta Kurt—the DJ and producer on his three previous records—surreptitiously faxed a letter to a number of media outlets explaining his partner's recent absence from a number of European festival dates. It opened: "By now I'm sure you have heard about Kool Keith's commitment to the sanitorium. He could be there for weeks or even months." Keith subsequently released a denial, threatened to withdraw First Come, First Served to effectively deny Kurt his royalties, canceled an L.A. show under mysterious circumstances (by now a habit of his), and finally proceeded to make up with Kurt, who is now back on board for an upcoming tour.

One is tempted to encourage Keith with the same words he shares with a character in Champions, a new straight-to-video B movie about extreme fighting in which Keith has a recurring cameo role as himself. "You go, boy," he says to one of the colorfully psychotic combatants. "You's a crazy motherfucker." 

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