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POP MUSIC

Can This Guy Be Serious? You Bet

With his quirky and complex raps, Kool Keith has had a major influence on hip-hop, though it hasn't translated into sales--yet.

July 18, 1999|SOREN BAKER | Soren Baker writes about hip-hop for Calendar

Rapper Kool Keith looks as if he got part of his wardrobe from the hip-hop assembly line: basketball jersey, shorts and pricey gym shoes.

But the plastic wig?

It's a tip-off to the eccentric nature of a man with a seemingly unlimited imagination and an ever-changing persona.

Think of Keith as the Brian Wilson or Perry Farrell of rap--only without the platinum record sales.

Like those hugely influential rock figures, Keith, a Bronx native whose real name is Keith Thornton, is someone whose mystique is almost as intriguing as his talent--which is huge.

Several popular rappers, from Redman to Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA, have been influenced by his music and persona, and the title phrase of Prodigy's controversial "Smack My Bitch Up" single came from an early Kool Keith recording.

Rolling Stone magazine calls Keith "rap's eccentric genius." Interview magazine says he's "one of rap's greatest rhyme fighters." Spin labels him "the William S. Burroughs of rap."

Despite all this, Keith hasn't joined his contemporaries on the upper rungs of the pop charts. One reason is that much of his prolific output has been released on small, independent labels.

That's why the rap world is curious to see whether Keith will finally latch onto pop gold when his new collection, "Black Elvis/Lost in Space," is released Aug. 10 by Ruffhouse/Columbia, the home of Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean.

It'll be the first time as a solo artist that Keith will have a big-budget video and a major promotional push behind a recording.

Most important, says Kool Keith's manager Jeremy Larner, is that this will be the first time that a Kool Keith album will be widely distributed.

"A lot of people tell me, 'Listen, I love "Octagon," I love "Sex Style," but I just can't find it,' " he says. "Kool Keith's 'Black Elvis' will be in every record store in the country."

But sales don't seem to be Keith's top priority.

"At one time I did care about selling records, but it's a two-way thing," he says, in an upstairs office at Sony Music in Santa Monica. "The consumer is not ready mentally and intellectually yet. The stuff they're getting is easily digested. People are less advanced than you think they are, even with all these computers.

"When it comes to my music, it's like working with algebra or some type of complex math that people can't handle. I don't blame myself. I make records that I like. . . . I'm not making a simple formula."

*

Some of Keith's musical personas are so extreme--Dr. Octagon, a demented gynecologist; Dr. Dooom, a psychopathic killer--that you would place him in a morgue or haunted house if you were doing a television documentary on him.

With his first group, the Ultramagnetic MC's, Keith rapped about outer space and his microphone skills, but his lyrics took on a warped, macabre slant on the Dr. Octagon project and his subsequent releases. His journeys always include encounters with characters whose creepy tendencies mesh with Keith's persona of the moment. His doctor characters are obsessed with bloody surgeries and sexual thrills.

Although he rhymed over fierce hip-hop beats with Ultramagnetic, Keith has shifted to sci-fi-slanted soundscapes that are as eerie as his words. The disjointed blends of synthesizers and heavy bass lines add another horror show element to Keith's rants.

So it feels strange to be sitting with him in a sterile record company environment. Keith's soft-spoken manner on this late afternoon matches the laid-back nature of the setting.

He plays with the plastic hair as if it were real, seemingly combing it with his fingers during the course of the interview. But Kool Keith never offers an explanation for his wig. It's simply there, and Keith proceeds as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

At the same time, it's clear that he takes his music very seriously. In an age when so much commercial rap focuses on materialistic cliches, he works on a much more personal level. He speaks of his rap, with its outer-limits imagery, as therapy as much as profession.

"If I didn't rap, I think I would be confined mentally," he says, scratching the wig. "People get off on me writing about space sometimes. I can't lock myself into one genre of rapping. . . . I have serious sides to myself in my life. I write songs now according to my growth and how I feel. I go into the studio and write a lot of personal songs. I don't make records for everybody. I have a lot of personal things that I like to get off my chest and I record it."

*

Born and raised in the Bronx, Keith Thornton came of age during rap's genesis. He was raised in the kind of deplorable conditions many rappers have built careers on chronicling.

"I grew up around people that lived in the ghetto with shootouts and living hard," says Keith, whose publicist says he's 27 (questionable, given his long career). "It was that 'urban lifestyle.' But I chose not to just rap about what I lived. I was different. I was a dimensional kid. I would go and see midtown Manhattan.

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