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Kool Keith Is Lost in His Own Space

Rap's greatest weirdo just quit rap — or did he?

Kool Keith quit rap last month. When he released his 13th studio album, Love & Danger, on June 5, it was accompanied by a press release declaring that it was “probably my last project. You just got the last of the vocals of me. I’m quitting the game. Goodbye, rap.” “Goodbye Rap” is also the name of the closing track on Love & Danger, and it finds Keith elucidating the many reasons why, at the age of 48 — 16 years removed from Dr. Octagonecologyst, his brilliant debut solo album under the Dr. Octagon alias — he’s giving hip-hop the heave-ho. The “sampling [of] old man records,” “open mics,” “DJs playing trendy music,” and “everybody trying to think they can grow dreads” are some of the factors he cited. So why is it that on a serene summer Friday, just weeks after this announcement, Keith finds himself in a sleepy Williamsburg recording studio? It’s not exactly clear. But then, Kool Keith has always been confusing.

By the time he released Dr. Octagonecologyst, “Kool” Keith Thornton was considered washed-up. A successful run leading the weirdo Bronx crew Ultramagnetic MCs fizzled, and Keith’s star had dimmed. Then, in the spring of 1996, at the age of 32, he assumed the Octagon identity. “That was a mission,” Keith says now. “I went into the space capsule and I wrote an album.” Rapping as Octagon, a perverted, murderous, sex-obsessed surgeon from Jupiter, Keith was received as a visionary, a crackpot genius willing and able to push hip-hop to its extremes. It’s as hilarious and jarring as when it was first released. “I get real raw — change arrangements on your face,” the Doctor tells us, staring through yellow eyes, his vocal affect perfectly flat.

It was Keith’s creative and commercial peak, and it’s echoed throughout his whole career. The rest of the ’90s were good to Keith: Albums like Black Elvis/Lost in Space and First Come, First Served — on which Dr. Dooom, a new alter ego, killed Dr. Octagon — cemented his status as rap’s leading eccentric. By the mid-2000s, though, Keith had become a legacy act. The last time he made noise beyond rap circles was 2006, with the uneven The Return of Dr. Octagon. That project was cobbled together, without his supervision, from scraps of Keith’s vocals. It came and went.

Last month, his vague retirement announcement made the blog rounds, but it wasn’t exactly news of consequence. To hear Keith tell it, he’s got unfinished business — with his legacy, with his perception, with his true calling in music. “People in general don’t want me to do what I want to do,” he says. “My own album … I haven’t done that yet in my life. I’m piecing it together.”

Keith rolls into the studio lobby an hour late, rocking long, white cargo shorts, black tube socks, and a plaid bucket hat. Over his right shoulder is an Urban Outfitters bag — as in, the bag they give you when you buy something at Urban Outfitters — stuffed full of loose sheets from a legal pad. I follow Keith, his publicist Michelle, and his hype man Cito, into a compact, spotless recording room. Formalities are exchanged, and then Michelle runs down Keith’s schedule for the week: Can you make a radio interview with so-and-so station at such and such time? “It depends what time I get out of court.” Michelle and Cito cock their eyebrows. Keith elaborates: “Hopefully they don’t take me in.” He cracks up, his chortles deep and gravelly. “Hopefully they don’t take me in,” he says again slowly, several times. It’s unclear if he’s joking or just considering the possibility.

Then Keith gets to work. The engineer, Leon, hits play on his desktop Mac and a futuristic beat drops; an urgent bass line, punctuated by wobbles and chimes, builds up, then drops away, again and again. When I ask about it later, Keith describes it as music fit for “Blade getting ready to get in his car … Batman and Robin getting in the Batmobile. You know — real melodic, superhero-sounding, on-top-of-the-city stuff.”

With the beat on an endless loop, Keith plunks down in an office chair, in a corner facing the wall, and starts mumbling. His lyric sheets spread haphazardly, half in his lap, half on the table, he fumbles through his stacks, assembling, collating. His handwriting is sloped and scrawled. The first letter of every word is capitalized. Two or three lines can take up an entire page.1 Then he starts scribbling down new lyrics, writing diagonally down the paper, and quickly flipping new pages onto his “approved” pile. At one point, he yawns in step with the beat.

Straight answers aren’t easy to come by while talking to Kool Keith. Circular logic abounds. He repeatedly tells me, “It’s like you were saying … ” about something I most definitely was not saying. Every 20 minutes or so, immediately after I lob a question, he shuts his eyes and bobs his head, and just when I’m sure he’s really out cold this time, he snaps back up and start answering. I have no idea if he’s actually fighting sleep or if he’s messing with me.

Here’s what trips him up. Nowadays, he mostly makes his money rapping on other people’s records. Mostly, it’s stuff you haven’t heard. They pay for the cred that comes along with a Kool Keith verse. And if they’re paying for Kool Keith, they’re paying for what he calls “concepted” music. (Emphasis on con.Concepted.”) He bristles at the stipulations of making more “concepted” music: [Assuming a high-pitched nerd voice.] “Oh, you have to work in the word ‘galactic.’ You have to talk about ‘Spectrum City.’ Mention ‘helmet.'”‘

“I’m under chains and shackles,” he says. “People bring me in in handcuffs. It’s the only way you gonna get paid. [Returns to high-pitched nerd voice.] ‘Did you write the song about space? So we could process your check?’ It’s cool, but after a while it gets so unnatural. You wake up in the morning and you wanna be like, ‘Yo, my dick is large. I fucked that girl last night. I stuck it in the ass.’ You feel better. You feel released.”

He makes it clear, in his own peculiar way, that the ghost of Dr. Octagon lingers: “Suppose the iPhone was concepted. iPhone, you can go anywhere — they got the navigation, you can look at website porno, you got the … time. Suppose they had an Octagon iPhone. You could only be pushing to space. You know what I’m saying?” He pauses. “I been concepted with people for years.”

It seems bizarre for a guy who releases nearly an album a year, on independent labels presumably free of much authoritarianism, to complain about not being able to make music the way he wants. Does he not want to be concepted? Or can he not help being concepted?

“A lot of producers, they live in areas that got grass growing around their house, they moms gave them a car, they walking around in they house slippers, so they make beats where they feel good,” Keith says. “I come from a darker element. It’s like you said, people are mad here all the time. I like horror music behind me. I like mysterious stuff. A lot of people, they like to take me out of that realm. They get off on that, making me go opposite. Producers should know to come with some mysterious stuff.”

And then later: “People giving me beats that are weird. I tell people, ‘Give me the same beats that you would give Ne-Yo.'”

Before it seems possible, Keith nods to Leon: He’s ready to go. He pops up to the microphone, throws on the headphones, and throws out instructions: “Turn it up in my head loud. I like to hear that loud effect.” And then he goes in: “Spectrum City, coming down / who’s that coming down out the galaxy / follow me / I’m Apollo Creed.” We can hear the beat, a little, coming through his headphones, but it’s mostly Kool Keith a cappella in here, and it turns out Kool Keith a cappella — just his discombobulated turns of phrase, detached from whatever little context the form gives them — is a strange thing to behold.

Heading into the second verse, Keith picks up steam. Delivering a line makes him think of others he wants to jot down; he sits down to scribble them, then rips the sheets off the pads and hops back up to deliver them. What began with standard Kool Keith–isms — odd space stuff, illogical boasts, ill-fitting fragments strung together — have now become inspired Kool Keith–isms, and I have to stifle snickers as I transcribe his lyrics into my notebook. “My only competition is Spider-Man / The Avengers chase me in a SUV van / beach weather, I got a SUV van”; “all rappers become cheerleaders with neon pom-poms”; “singers turn to liquids / MCs turn to cosmic biscuits”; “It don’t take Xanax to relax with a sandwich.” That last one I underline three times.

It should be noted that the Kool Keith I’m talking to isn’t First Come or Black Elvis Keith, in his trademark black plastic pompadour wig (plus, on the former album cover, he’s holding up a rat burger). Scroll through his Google Image cache and you’ll find him in Egyptian headdresses, in sparkly spaceman scarves, in circuit-board shin-guards. On Love & Danger, he’s wearing a baseball cap, reading glasses — and what appears to be a cape made out of a velvet stage curtain and the fin of a shark.2

These slapdash homemade disguises always felt right on Keith. But seeing him now isn’t so strange. His face is unadorned, yes, and maybe home to a few more nicks and blotches than I’d realized; the bags under his eyes are more deeply set, too. But mostly it’s that same strong jaw, that same unreadable expression.

When I ask Kool Keith if he’s quitting rap, he stares at me blankly. I bring up “Goodbye Rap,” and his eyes flash.

“I was taking a break,” he reluctantly admits. “I was trying to chill out for a minute.”

And now?

“Well, I’m still on a break. I do little songs, once in a while. But I used to do four tracks a day.”

Could you see, one day, making one last album that made you feel complete? One perfect album for career closure?

“No. I don’t really think so at all.” And then, a moment later: “I might take a long break. Go fishing or something.”

What about your legal problems?

“I gotta go to court. I don’t know why. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

You don’t know?

“I got mail in my mail to go to court. I don’t even know. Yeah. Yeah. I have no idea. I don’t even know. I go to court a lot. All types of crazy stuff.”

What the hell is Kool Keith talking about?

Kool Keith has spent his entire career explaining himself in interviews — including this one: “People have a mind-set like, ‘Is he weird? Is he wild? He thinks he’s Spider-Man in the song?’ Meanwhile, I just write dimensional stuff.” What chafes him is when his craft gets lumped in with his eccentricity. Whatever Keith is, that’s what he is, and it’s great.

Is that completely unhelpful? OK, how about this: Kool Keith is saying he’s upset that people think he’s a weirdo who can only make concepted music because Kool Keith is really just a talented guy who, yeah, sure, can make concepted music but also might want to do other things, like rap about desires of the flesh. Why won’t anyone let him do that? At this point you’d point out that that’s a weird thing for the guy who made an album in 1997 called Sex Style to complain about. That’s Keith. He’s misunderstood even when complaining about being misunderstood.

By way of describing his relationship with the industry these days, Keith says, “I’m so ahead of time I don’t wanna give a lot of ideas out. Rappers wait to feed off me for information, vocal cadences, tricks. I gotta be careful sometimes. They get a lot of ideas and run with it. They got enough information for, like, a half a year: ‘Oh, Keith is using that type of sound and these drums,’ and let’s look for another guy just like him.” When Keith told me this, I assumed he was referring to Lil B. Who else is following the Kool Keith path to eccentric rapper glory?3 Then I watched an interview in which Keith was asked about Lil B. He made it clear that he’d never heard of the guy: “Lil B? I don’t got too much biography on Lil B.”4

So maybe Kool Keith isn’t so great at explaining himself. But I think I know what he’s getting at. We want to freeze our heroes in their time of greatness. And we want those heroes to be at peace with that. But it can’t be that way. Once they’ve died, we can do what we want with their legacy. Before that, they still have a word or two to say about it. That doesn’t mean our heroes control their legacy, necessarily; most of the time they can’t. Doc Oc haunts Keith. But he knows why.

“People in general don’t want me to do what I want to do,” he says. “I haven’t done made my ‘own’ album yet in my life.”

What’s the closest you came to your “own” album?

He doesn’t hesitate. “I think Octagon.”

With three verses in the can, Keith takes one last pass at his ad libs. He doubles down on some words: “follow me,” “Ibaka,” “huddle.” He tries out a laser noise — “zzzzzshwoooom” — to accompany the words “laser ray specialist,” running through a couple iterations, jutting out an index finger to trail the course of the ray. Then, one last bit of inspiration: “Let me say something after ‘biscuits,'” he tells Leon. “What’s that old biscuit company?” He stops to think. “Pillsbury.” Everyone laughs, and he turns to face us with a smile. “Pillsbury!” Leon pulls the line, Keith drops “Pillsbury” in what he calls the “walkie-talkie voice.” But then, almost immediately, he decides he wants to cut it. Leon protests: “It’s hot.” Cito hammers home his support by doing a spot-on impersonation of the Pillsbury Dough Boy’s giggle. Keith, satisfied by the support, decides to leave it in. “Pillsbury!” he shouts out, again cracking up the room. “Pillsbury!”

BONUS: The world premiere of “Spectrum,” the song Grantland observed Kool Keith record for this story.

Filed Under: Music, Rap

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad