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Kool Keith is in a midtown diner reminiscing about his days walking around 42nd Street bumping funk from an oversized JVC boombox during the early '80s. He's supposed to promote his new album, Love & Danger (Junkadelic Music)—"It was pretty good," he sums up while fondling a copy of the CD—but he's happy to go off on tangents.
"Dudes would be looking at me crazy 'cause I'm not playing some early hip-hop that came out on a record from Sugar Hill," Keith says. "I used to make cassettes of Cameo."
Times Square has come up in conversation because of a tweet Keith sent out saying that it has been "watered down" from its vice-drenched heyday. As he slathers mustard on his turkey-and-Swiss sandwich (ordered on "the softest bread you have"), he holds court like a neighborhood old-timer who has seen the scene around him shift. He remembers the late '70s, when he traveled down there from the Bronx to catch a movie with his father. ("Superfly or something," is as specific as he gets.)
The "3-D action" all around him surpassed anything on the screen. Settling back in his booth, Keith describes a bustling menagerie of guys in Fila sweat suits hanging on Eighth Avenue, pinball spots and arcade parlors, and someone cruising around in a car made of fused-together parts from Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen models. The whole scene was flanked by a line of Jheri-curled pimps looking to ensnare girls who'd just arrived at the bus station, and illuminated by the glare of kung-fu-flick-touting marquees and LED-lit boomboxes that made the guys carrying them "look like they're carrying some big spaceship."
But the '90s brought the big cleanup. "They started to water Times Square down," Keith says. "The Howard Johnson's was gone. You started to see stores close and places like Benetton getting ready to come in. You started seeing McDonald's. You started seeing all the porno spots being moved off of Eighth Avenue to, like, the side block." Then the kicker: "You started seeing little kids on 42nd Street. I was like, 'Wow, little kids are not supposed to be on 42nd.'" With that, Keith decides to focus on finishing his sandwich.
When Keith talks about Times Square's pornography stores being shoved down side streets, he could be drawing a parallel with his own brand of hip-hop. The characters that inhabit his songs, and the many personas he takes on, come across like a warped version of the strip he recalls. He has rapped about hurling a rat with mayonnaise on it at a car's headlights and taken on the role of an inappropriate gynecologist; he appears on the cover of Love & Danger wearing a cape with a shark's fin on his back. Keith is a product of hip-hop's late-'80s golden era, but as that music has become increasingly tolerable to the masses, he has kept faith in his seedy and often abstract lyrics and unfashionable, warped-synth-based beats.
Keith picks up the thread as we enter a dive-ish bar a couple of blocks away. Standing in the corner with a glass of chardonnay in his hand—"Do you have wine that's soft?" he asked the bartender when ordering—he spends a good hour explaining the how and why of rap becoming watered down. Keith's take is based on people rapping over the same-sounding beats, in the same style, using the same slogans, and concentrating on hooks instead of verses. To demonstrate his point, he makes up a song that repeats the word "Lemonhead" 12 times as the chorus, accented by a curt verse based around the phrase "sweet juice." It's a to-the-bone parody, and it sounds not all that dissimilar to some of the songs that have become summer hits recently. "The people are taking it in, they are gobbling it up, then the artists make another one right after that," he says. Then he breaks into a new song called "Peanuts."
The way Keith explains the homogenization of rap mirrors the way parts of the city have changed over the years. Times Square is now home to big-box stores, and the most commercially successful hometown anthem of recent times, Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind," sounds like it was cut for a schmaltzy tale of big-city redemption. The rappers and the record labels, he says, are equally culpable. "The artists created it, but the labels love it 'cause people get drunk, and they love those TV dinners like Swanson. It's like Domino's Pizza—you order 10 of those songs for Monday Night Football." He mimes working in a pizza spot and adds, "But it's funny, they're cooking 'em right now—put them in the closed boxes and load 'em on the trucks." In a world of saturated sounds, it's reassuring to know hip-hop still has one guy who'd prefer to drive a bespoke car to pick up a turkey-and-Swiss on soft bread. The secret must be in the mustard.