As rap music and hip-hop culture sit atop a commercial peak, it’s not all wine and roses for fans. Not the true fans, anyway. Not the ones who came up on Public Enemy, EPMD, and Audio Two, who have to sit idly by and watch the fanbase swell with rebellious suburban teenagers, whose nascent infatuation with hip-hop is conducted in the manner of electroshock therapy, administered by the market elite. To dig those wigs in the “shock your parents” aisle at the record store makes me wonder how their affinity is progressing. Odds are that MTV and the radio boast more stroke than mix tapes or shows, and naturally that leads to mass emulation. So much of what’s “good” is garbage these days, I’ve seen grown men burst into tears while reading the Billboard charts. But kids, the primary consumers of rap, aren’t so smart. They’re like little Manchurian Candidates, responding to stimuli at once subliminal and overt. Their queen of hearts is the relentless stream of brand names; it’s not called “commercial” for nothing. The only point of preaching such gaudy, unabashed jiggyality is to link the product with the consumer’s personality, establishing the rat-wheel of supply and demand that powers our economy. Advertising has invaded art, and art is suffering for it.
But worry not, for Kool Keith is here to save us from ourselves. He’s been here for years, actually, first impacting the landscape (like a falling fat chick) as a member of the Ultramagnetic MC’s. In recent years, the call of progress has led him into a solo career. His Dr. Octagonecologyst album of 1997 was an underground hit on Bulk Recordings before being reissued by Dreamworks; his musical experiments with the Automator, kut masta kurt, and DJ Q-Bert were successful enough to warrant Instrumentalyst . And now Kool Keith has prepared Black Elvis/Lost In Space (Capitol) for introduction to the masses. In the insane delirium that no doubt defines the life of Kool Keith, time is precious, so I feel exceedingly fortunate to have talked with him recently via telephone.
This new record is, what, your third album?
Kool Keith : Kind of, huh? It’s really my solo solo album, because the music I did, it’s the first album I did with my sound, the Kool Keith sound.
Was Sex Style your first, or did it come out after Dr. Octagon?
Realistically, Octagon was released first but recorded second. Kind of like a weird thing.
Kind of an inversion.
Yeah — it’s been pretty cool.
What do you think of the hip-hop scene right now?
It’s kind of stagnant. Nobody’s doing anything innovative.
Seems like one guy figures out a particular formula, and then everybody else copies it. Like now, the thing is “jiggy,” the materialistic hip-hop…
Champagne and the Mafia. That gets monotonous and redundant after a while. I mean, how much can you hear that?
When you’re doing your projects, are you consciously trying to do something other than what everybody else is doing?
All the time. I get off on being different. 99% of all the rappers are the same. I think I’m that 1% guy that’s doing the different shit. And you have a few trying to steal certain things that I’m doing.
Care to name any names?
You can go on every level. I bet you there’s one artist on each label that has done something I’ve done, ah, just doing it.
I’ve been thinking lately that the rise of hip-hop in mainstream culture is related somehow to the decreased emphasis of its political content. None of those great, highly political bands would get much exposure in today’s scene, because the fans have been conditioned to empty, thoughtless hip-hop.
In the time that we’re in, people don’t want to let the past go. Hot 97 and the other radio stations should play futuristic music for one solid day. Take everything old off the format and play one day of futuristic music. I think they need a time slot for that, like every Thursday and Friday is Future Night, and anything that’s advanced should be played, 9-12, all day.
What about the corporate influence in hip-hop?
Well, it’s very corporate now. You can buy your fame. With the media outlets we have set up today, you can buy artists and falsely promote the artist to the public without any type of information. A lot of fans will be sucked into the consumer base of this Joe Neckbone that is forced onto the public.
Do you see any hope for hip-hop? Who are the guys to restore the creative balance for the Y2K?
Me, myself, and Doctor Dooom, Papa Large, Ultramagnetic…
Is Ultramagnetic coming back?
Yeah. They’re working on an album right now.
Will you be involved?
Yeah. I might be the captain on the project.
Are you a big jazz fan? I ask only because I got a strong Sun Ra vibe from Lost In Space [which may be owing more to the space motif and ultra-fluid tempo shifts, jazzier in spirit than in practice].
To a certain extent. I’m a big funk fan, more so than jazz, I grew up on Slade, Dazz Band, Aura, Cameo [!], Undisputed Truth, so…you know, that was always funky. Jazz to me is cool. When I worked with certain artists, I rapped on it, but to me that’s another bracket. DJ Premier is the only one doing jazz right now, and everybody’s trying to be a carbon copy, trying to get his texture down.. It’s kind of hard, with people duplicating your stuff, so that’s why I didn’t try to follow him in that bracket. I just did my own thing.
Sun Ra is very different. He reminds me of an old man that doesn’t give a fuck about nothing. And I’m like that, too. I’m not into the company or the boundary image. The boundary image is, like, you get a group, a four-man singing group, and you market them with four suits on. The stylists out here [on the West Coast] suck. That’s why I dress myself up, and put my Elvis wig on, and throw my astronaut helmet on top of it, and a nice shirt. All the stylists are, just — they have no future.
I hope you’re not sick of Dr. Octagon questions…
Oh, he’s dead. I just came back from his funeral.
Condolences offered. I was going to ask if Kool Keith, Dr. Octagon, etc., are simply facets of the same personality, or if they’re specific creative devices?
To me, it just comes off the top. Tomorrow I might feel like being Billy Boy, and Black Elvis the next day. I have a good comfortability with that. I become the characters of my songs and whatever I write.
Who else is on the album?
Sadat X, Roger Trautmann, a few people.
What kind of samples did you use?
Technically, my own, and the rest with drums. The album was pretty rounded around the way I wanted to come out. Every song I did, I loved. It’s not, like, “Keith did this on his album, it looked like the company made him do that.” People are gonna ask me about certain songs. I did every song on my album because I wanted to. Even if I did a song with a girl singing on it, even if I did “Supergalactic Lover” or “Fine Girl.” I did some female records, I grew up. I felt that Kool Keith needed to talk to the girls. What happened in the past was, a lot of people got stuck into “Yo, you’re the galactic battlin’ type guy, yo, I want you to use those 50-foot words in your records.” It’s cool, but after a while it got kind of monotonous to me.
Clearly, originality is very important to you.
My whole album is new sound. It’s not stuck with the Trinity that 90% of the industry is using.
What’s the Trinity?
It’s the average government keyboard for all the R&B groups and the rappers to use, and the MPC60 drum kit. Using the MPC60 and the stock drums gives the industry normal consumer sound. It’s an automatic machine that gives the consumer the regular sound they need. Guys like me and the new guys, the European guys, the guys that do drum and bass, we’re all using advanced technology, and that’s how you get the futuristic basslines and stuff.
Do you think all this uniformity in music is planned?
It’s a uniformity conspiracy. All the groups look the same. Every label has their Boyz II Men-looking group. Everybody has their four-girl group, everybody has their solo rapper and two gangsta rappers. It’s a uniform process. They have meetings about that.
What is your opinion of Britney Spears?
It’s just a trendy thing right now. She’s a young girl that goes to high school, good gimmick for the teenagers, and she goes into locker rooms, and it’s just the token-selling thing right now. The talent level is, like, zero-point-one percent. Like when you order a Buick, you get the regular Buick, you don’t get the air-conditioning and the sunroof. You get the plain order. Marilyn Manson may be different, with the wigs and stuff. He’s the only dimensional rock star, and I’m the only dimensional rapper with the extra texture when it comes to a stage show. Other than that, you’re watching MTV and BET all day, and you’re seeing a recycled act come on and off, the same ones in rotation. And that’s just a brainwash thing.
Is there any way for the artists to get out of this trap?
No. We’re being strong-armed, politically. There’s nothing you or I can do about it. The only power you’re gonna have is a cult fanbase, not the overnight fanbase that is pop. There’s no such thing as a bunch of abnormal fans trying to get into what you do. These people would have to know what you do, and love what you do, and march through cities if they were against what the average consumer’s buying.
Indeed. One more question: If I had $100 to spend at a record store [the idealized kind that has what you want and need], what would you recommend?
You should get the Critical Beatdown album, the Funk Your Head Up , the Kool Keith Sex Style , Doctor Dooom, Black Elvis , and you have some change for a hot dog and a cold soda!