And now, some dating advice from Kool Keith. “The girls in New York gotta go back to the ’80s, and socialism,” advises Kool Keith, wearing a cream-colored cape accentuated by an enormous popped collar made from—you know, that might actually be tin foil. As though his head were a microwave pizza. Like one of those long, conelike appendages you lock around a dog’s head to prevent it from licking itself. (There is, in truth, a constant danger of Kool Keith licking himself.)
Anyway, socialism. Pretty sure he doesn’t mean that socialism. This speech is more Carl Weathers than Karl Marx. Kool Keith is onstage at the Bowery Ballroom—Saturday night, sold out, cape/conelike appendage, etc.—admonishing women for . . . something. Resisting the notion of casual sex with Kool Keith, in all likelihood. “How many girls wanna husband?” he demands, to general audience confusion. “Stop giving guys the application. Just rent the room.”
“Most guys work for UPS,” Kool Keith continues. “He can’t be takin’ you every weekend to the Olive Garden.” We laugh. The Olive Garden we understand. “To Sizzler.” Hahahaha. “To Applebee’s.” Hahahahahahahahaha.
We laugh at Kool Keith. With Kool Keith. At Kool Keith. Either way, though, sometimes we feel bad. Are we savagely mocking a deranged, profane, helpless man oblivious to his own depravity, in the style patented by Wesley Willis and, more telegenically, Flavor Flav? Or are we paying sincere homage to a fully lucid master of emotional and conceptual disguise?
The Bronx rapper is an enigma wrapped in several Day-Glo magnum condoms. You know him perhaps from 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst, his alter ego Dr. Octagon’s pornographic alien autopsy concept album, whose deep-space dystopian hits are held sacred by the don’t-really-like-much-rap-but-I-like-this set (see “Blue Flowers”) and whose skits make splendid outgoing voicemail messages. (“Oh shit there’s a horse in the hospital!”) Every year since, he’s put out roughly 20 albums utilizing roughly 40 alternate personas (best overall concept: Black Elvis; best album cover: Diesel Truckers. Dig the leg warmers). His erratic behavior and scatological acumen (best title: Spankmaster) are as crucial to Keith’s popularity as 50 Cent’s bullet wounds are to his. Keith’s crazy, you see. Every article on the guy is contractually obligated to note that he was allegedly once a Bellevue psychiatric patient; that might be bullshit, though. This year’s The Return of Dr. Octagon is most assuredly bullshit—even favorable reviews dutifully note that this record has no remote emotional or musical connection to Octagonecologyst (the skits suck too), and is allegedly “unauthorized,” released by a nefarious country music label that fraudulently acquired raw demos of Kool Keith raps and farmed them out to a German production team. Allegedly.
This is the sort of crap fans of this guy have to put up with. It’s great. Return of Dr. Octagon, despite a few solid rants with regards to global warming and “All you motherfuckers tryin’ to be Al Green,” is not. The Bowery Ballroom crowd does not care. We’re here for the stage banter. Also, to add to the uncomfortable Wesley Willis exploitation factor, we are white. Overwhelmingly. (How white are you?) We’re so white there’s a pack of bearded dudes by the downstairs bar singing the chorus to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” a cappella. “There’s gonna be a Parcheesi tournament after the show—word is bond,” notes magnificently dreadlocked opening act Mr. Lif, whose act gets steadily more theatrical—skits, extensive dialogue, costume changes, onstage deaths—with every show. By 2008 he’ll be on Broadway. Kiki and Herb and Lif.
And Keith. After a terrible DJ interlude from longtime cohort Kutmaster Kurt, the walking microwave pizza emerges, multiple buddies in tow, and begins with a few bronzed oldies from his ’80s group Ultramagnetic MCs (“Ease Back” knocks ’em dead.) He moves into solo material. “Blue Flowers” takes a bow, original and remix back-to-back. And then the Richard Pryor banter starts. “Anybody out there got a drinking problem?” Keith asks. “Who got a bottle tucked under the bed right now?” Then Keith’s crew hands out 10 to 20 pairs of thong underwear to random ladies in the crowd, stoking demand via onstage models who gyrate suggestively as Kutmaster Kurt cues up “Girl Let Me Touch You.” As we segue into such career-spanning hits as “Spank-Master (Take Off Your Clothes),” the evening teeters on the brink of a full-blown orgy, but Keith pulls us back via more wacky banter on the subject of . . . baseball. “Who know Tom Seaver? What you know about Rod Carew? What you niggas know about Ron Guidry? Fuck you know about Vida Blue?”
The “rap” part of this rap show has more or less ground to a halt at this point—Keith indulges us with maybe 30 seconds’ worth of highlights like “Backstage Passes” or (personal favorite) “Halfsharkalligatorhalfman” in between boastful interludes wherein he compares himself to Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings or details his writing routine: “I get me a Yoo-Hoo, I get a motherfuckin’ donut, and I get in they asses.” He interrupts the jape central to “I Don’t Believe You” (“You live at home with your mom”) to cut the beat and announce, “Let me elaborate.” (Pregnant pause.) “A lot of people live at home with their mom.” He also sells copies of one of his “rare” albums from the stage, during the show, for $20 a pop, noting that eBay’s going price is $500. (I don’t think so.) By the time his sermonizing has progressed to socialism and/or dating advice, half the crowd has left in understandable frustration and the other half is absolutely spellbound. Half the spellbound folks, in turn, probably consider him a diabolical genius, the other half a raving, hapless lunatic. At about 2:15 a.m., the show finally disintegrates. Keith announces he’s going to Rio and flees the stage.
Two days later the Bowery Ballroom hosts a significantly more professional troupe: the Dears, ludicrously melodramatic Canadian indie rockers led by goth-operatic frontman Murray Lightburn (pffft), himself a nonwhite in a sea of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”–lovin’ whiteness (“This one’s for the honkies,” goes a rare bit of stage banter), battering us with arena-caliber light & sound & earnestness. Outstanding.
ce.” During the encore Lightburn (pffft) boasts that “We aren’t hidin’ shit,” playing up his band’s guileless, bleeding-heart honesty and chanting “We love you we love you we love you we love you” for 45 seconds or so. I’m increasingly fond of his band, but I don’t believe him. I believe, however, that Kool Keith partakes of Yoo-Hoo before putting pen to paper and getting in they asses. Thus is the nature of showbiz. The sensitive, stylish rockers rip their hearts out, but we react with disbelief we’re willing to suspend for a possibly mental rapper with too many aliases and backstories to count, onstage talking dirty and flinging underwear into the crowd, swaddled in a cape and a dog cone collar, concealed in costume. We just know he still ain’t hidin’ shit.