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|The lights came down, the crowd pushed closer to the stage, and out strode "The Black Elvis," with a shimmering cape, a space helmet, and, beneath that, a slicked-back '50s ducktail. The hair, in reality, a plastic, molded wig; "Elvis," none other than Kool Keith in his latest incarnation. He began with Ultramagnetic MC's in the late-'80s, and over the past dozen years he's been one of hip-hop's most inventive rappers, and one of its most mercurial. As a solo artist in the '90s, he's created numerous personas for himself, including Dr. Octagon (for the album, Dr. Octagonycologyst); Dr. Dooom, who is "deceased;" Mr. Green, who is still alive and well at 259 years of age; and now, the Black Elvis.
In support of his new album, Black Elvis/Lost in Space, Kool Keith took his show on the road, from coast to coast. Our friend Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, also played the tour, and sent back reports along the way. Six weeks later, no worse for wear, Kool Keith was back in L.A. and Paul was glad to be in New York again. We asked him to give Kool Keith a follow-up call, and let us listen in on the conversation.
KOOL KEITH: Go ahead, Spooky.
PAUL: So the master plan, Kool Keith, aka Infinity. I'm just trying to get the overview. So just freestyle for a little bit.
KOOL KEITH: Yeah.
PAUL: What's up with Doctor Dooom? Is the Black Elvis kind of like an exploration of the different sides of what's going on with your mentality?
KOOL KEITH: Doctor Dooom is still in pocket. He's the older brother of the Black Elvis. I'm getting my sound fluctuated. I'm on some new shit.
PAUL: You've got the wig, you've got the glasses, the cape...
KOOL KEITH: I feel that everything is boring now. A lot of the stuff, sound-wise, is stagnant. We're going into the millennium 2000, but musically we're back in 1972. I can't understand that. I think I'm the only one doing something different with myself. Everybody else is trying to sound Latin, everybody is trying to make their music sound like it's Latin or Cuban or Chinese or something. I've been taking none of those routes. I think Cuban music is for the people who make Cuban music. That music is for the people of that culture. Everybody trying to act like they're making music from some other type of culture it's monotonous.
PAUL: So what about how you play with time? When you go into different cadences like the freestyle 1-2, 3-4, that kind of stuff.
KOOL KEITH: What?
PAUL: What's the story on how you play with time?
KOOL KEITH: Time is ... It's on time that I was ahead of my time. That's one thing. I've been ahead of time.
PAUL: I remember when you dropped the first Ultra Magnetic stuff ... then PE came out later with a lot of similar loops.
KOOL KEITH: Even with Ultra, I've been ahead of my motherfuckin' time, man. And it's been a criticism of me that I never really could capture time. I think the record labels can't even capture me in time. It's kind of wild and shit.
PAUL: It seems like you've had a lot of bad experience with labels, because you attack them a lot.
KOOL KEITH: I didn't stay with any label for that long because of the politics of the label. Obviously, my stuff was so distinctive, I don't think any label knew how to work anything. It's like I built some new type of car, and they like the car, the manufacturer, but they don't want to ask me how they should demonstrate to people how to work the car.
PAUL: Both the style and what you talk about, lyrically the rhythm and the content ...
KOOL KEITH: It's just that the shit is different, and the people understand that. But a company, they get too standard in a certain kind of promotion. It's like you go to a restaurant, you order a cheeseburger. They still have a standard way of making it. They're acting like a chain. They're still like, okay, the Big Mac with special sauce, whether it's cheese, onions, pickles, and the sesame seed bun. They do that for every group. But with me it's a different type of sandwich. It takes a different type of lettuce, and maybe two more slices of bread; it's a double sandwich. They have an ignorant way of going about it.
PAUL: Do you think that happens with black artists more than white?
KOOL KEITH: Well, Jimi Hendrix was black, and they still never understood him. They can understand a white guy playing a guitar. But there's a black guy playing a guitar and they couldn't relate. I feel black people have a limitation with their boundaries. Like, you can't be a black hockey player. They think we're only approved to play basketball. That's about it. You've got a lot of black baseball players, but they see baseball as a Latin sport. They see hockey white. They see tennis white. They see golf white. But you have black talent everywhere. I might as well be a black hockey player, because a black rock star is still totally obscene to black people, and that's a shame. This is a free country. You can do anything you want.
PAUL: This is something we talked about before, right. Because I'm into the computer shit and stuff like that ...
KOOL KEITH: Well, they're ignorant. I'm saying that for myself and my people. They don't want to do any research. The average middle-class kid from the suburbs now is doing research on who the first rapper was, the second rapper, the third rapper ... They know Grandmaster Flash. I mean, white kids are doing study and research, like scientists.
I think black people are just looking out for now. So they get a materialistic, visual image for this time. I think we've been in a generation of suits, Rolexes and booty for about five years right now. It's like the shit is played. That image has been going on for a long time. They try to go away from it, and then they go right back to it. Not even a year. They'll go away for a month, and then they go right back to booties, suits, and ass. Booties, suits, ass, and Rolexes. Booties, suits, ass, Rolexes, and cars. Booties, suits, Rolexes, ass, cars, and houses. It's like all we have to offer is the reflection of a monkey.
PAUL: But what about Elvis, who copied black culture? Before him was Little Richard. How would you compare Little Richard to Elvis? Because one is white, the other is black.
KOOL KEITH: Little Richard was a creative mothafucker. Little Richard is still mad today about this shit. And I don't blame him one percent. I don't compare myself to Elvis by any music ... you know, I'm not doing "All Shook Up." I'm saying that I'm the Black Elvis.
PAUL: So you're taking it back.
KOOL KEITH: I'm the Black Elvis of black people. There should be a Black Elvis. People should worship me as the Black Elvis. A black rock star in a black wig. I don't have to play a rock guitar and bang a guitar on the ground and break it in front of people. My music is black as hell. But culturally people don't even know that. They just stereotype. They look at my album cover and they're probably like, "What is this? Is this some mechanical space stuff? He looks weird. Is this Devo or something?" They don't even know my shit is just as black as any other artist. I'm not crying about that, because I can't force myself on people. I have to do what I have to do.
PAUL: Did you ever check out Sun Ra? I know you're into Parliament-Funkadelic stuff. So there's a history as well to what you do.
KOOL KEITH: The Funkadelic stuff is cool. I mean, my whole aura growing up was, I respected Roger Charlton and George Clinton, I respected James Brown, I respected Zappa. I respected the Gap and Cameo, Brass Construction, Confunktion, the Dazz Band, Mandrill, Earth, Wind & Fire, Grand Funk ... I respected all these people. But I have never based myself around them.
These groups did their own stuff. They had their own significant sound. Me, I still follow the same agenda. I don't want an album built up corporately where I have to buy a bunch of people to make my album. Like, having to buy seven of the hot producers, buy four of the top mc's ... But that's the corporate trend right now. It goes all across the board, to making movies and documentaries. They want to buy exposure as a commodity. You know what I'm saying?
PAUL: That seems to be how our culture is going at this point. But sampling is a way of breaking that up, in a way. You're almost doing visual sampling.
KOOL KEITH: They want to buy exposure as a commodity. They won't write a true book on hip-hop. They won't do a true movie on hip-hop. They'll have Ricky Martin in a rap movie. Somehow he's going to be in the movie. It's a twist. A marketing twist.
PAUL: What do you think of the whole Southern scene? You know, Master P...
KOOL KEITH: I love that. It lets people know especially in major cities that there are little towns that make noise too. I'm glad that we have other sounds to look at. I'm glad we have Oakland. I'm glad we have New Orleans. I'm glad we have Chicago. I'm glad we have Memphis and Houston. They let people know there's other extensions of rap. I mean, the South is kicking ass right now, and I love it. It lets them know that there's other shit that's bumpin'.
PAUL: What do you think about Jungle, and some of the new stuff coming out of the West Coast?
KOOL KEITH: I like Jungle. Jungle is very advanced. A lot of people ain't ready for it. But the kids know about jungle. Not everybody knows. It's still the underground rave kids and the skateboard kids. I think it's advanced next level futuristic funk. Jungle is basically black music.
PAUL: How do you put your lyrics together?
KOOL KEITH: My development as a writer has been always obscure. But I think I come up with stuff naturally. I'm always writing what a man can't really think about. I'm the type of writer who says something somebody always wanted to say but they couldn't put it into word form. And I write stuff that's obnoxious. "Oh, you heard what he said about that girl had a wig on her head, and she was bald, but she wanted to ask for money, but you know, I told her to get out of my face." And then people can say, "I don't believe he said that shit."
PAUL: What took you from New York out to the West Coast? And do you think that changed your style?
KOOL KEITH: I didn't have to change my style. I grew up on a lot of the funk groups. I wasn't a jazz collector. When I got out of New York, I started hearing funk shit from Oakland, I started getting back into Moogs and opening my mind for sound. Traveling the South was bass ... Houston had bass. I'm not just a jazz musician; I'm some Galactic Funk type mothafucker. I grew up on the records ... I grew up on the records that I grew up on The Silvers, El de Barge, and stuff like that. I couldn't leave my past. I'm black. I don't rap on Latin music or Indian music or Chinese music. That shit just doesn't fit with me.
PAUL: I know you're dealing with the Analog Brothers. That's your next project, right?
KOOL KEITH: I'm working on an Ultramagnetic album. We're doing slow research and getting our beats together. We're getting our beats and trying to take a real standpoint, real slow ... real slow. Ultra's taking the time. It's a process of our own criticism to make a better album.
PAUL: Okay, with that said and done, I've got to wrap ... So tell everybody I said hey, and I'll make sure you get a copy of this when it comes out.
KOOL KEITH: Okay, send some girls out, too.
PAUL: [laughs] All right, see you later, Keith.
KOOL KEITH: All right.