Kool Keith is a legendary rapper and founding member of the Ultramagnetic MCs. His voice is instantly recognisable, and has been frequently sampled in mainstream hits by the likes of The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers.
A larger-than-life character who draws his inspiration from the P-Funk era, comic book superheroes and Blowfly’s 70s sex rapping, he’s kept a relatively low profile since the release of his enduringly popular abstract opus Dr Octagon, and subsequent spin-off projects Dr Dooom, Black Elvis, Analog Brothers and Masters Of Illusion to name a few. Keith remains a cult figure amongst hip-hop fans – there’s a familiarity and cartoonish uniqueness to his flow that the years haven’t weathered, and his worldview is truly unique – check the recent video of him rambling about his love of bottled water, aka ’98 Year Old Refrigerator’ for an insight into how lovably nuts this man truly is.
Keith recently popped up for a couple of verses and a brilliant duet with Roc Marciano on the underrated LUV NY album, so FACT seized the chance to have a chat about the life, times and state of mind of this mighty Octagynaecologist. The conversation lasted an hour, as Keith wandered the streets of New York, lecturing down the phone like Kenny Powers dictating his memoirs, explaining why you should never rap about cupcakes, and how psychogeography is at the philosophical core of all great hip-hop music.
Hi Keith, Where are you?
“Hi, I’m in New York.”
What are you doing right now?
“I’m just working on records, recording.”
Like you did on this LUV NY project?
“Oh yeah, that’s just a project, you know, with Ray West, OC and AG from DITC, and various other artists. I just provide some verses, and stuff, on one song. It was a pretty good project to do with them. Kurious, Roc Marciano, a variety of different rappers man. Just a Bronx line-up, rappers from the area. It was a pretty cool thing.”
Do you think it’s a good time to be bringing the New York crew back together like that on a record? Some would call that a quality old school line-up.
“Yeah man, it unites rappers. Keeps them from.. [off mike ‘Yo you wanna get something to eat? Some pizza slices?’. Sound of car horn in background.] .. You know it keeps everybody sharp. It’s like lyrical sparring, and that’s one thing that I’ve been doing with my team, of course. Not with LUV NY necessarily, but with my record and my guys I work with personally, we always have lyrical gym workouts. Everybody got different gems so we work on different projects. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Did you do any of the production on the record?
“No, no, they did it, I didn’t do much production. It’s a jump off record with different songs by different people. Different artists, changing up the pace.”
I remember reading you were a huge funk fan, like Cameo, Parliament and so on.
“Oh, the funk stuff I liked back in the day? Yeah those were my influences, those were the records I grew up on. [sound of motorbike speeding off] That’s what led to me making records, inspired my music. [sound of hip-hop played through boombox, possibly in park. Keith has off-mike discussion]. The funk records were there for me.
I’m just trying to explore that theme about you, you know…you’re always playing a funky space character, no matter what the record is, whether Dr Octagon, Black Elvis or Dr Doooom. I was wondering if it all goes back to P-Funk, and the mothership connection.
“Well, you know, when I work with other people I can’t be myself, that’s something completely different. I play roles.”
So what happens at the lyrical gym workout? Who are you training?
“I’m working with a guy called Metropolis, different artists, different rappers.” [lengthy police siren in background. Keith is eating pizza slices and largely inaudible].
I’m trying to understand your lifestyle right now.
“What kind of image I’m in?”
Maybe more like what kind of zone you’re in I guess. What kind of space you’re in, mentally.
“I’m doing all kinds of beats. I’m into brand new sounds. Un-regular type of samples that I never thought I would work on. Stuff like that.”
You’ve always been into doing something different, right?
“I’m uncompromising, you know how it is. Working with Ray is different to working with Prince Paul to working with Kutmaster Kurt to working with Dan the Automator to… It’s all different. This is it, as an artist you often work on other stuff instead of your own stuff.” [more loud police siren]
I’m waiting for the return of Dr Doooom, and shit like that you know.
“Yeah, but I was talking about this to Kurt the other day.. When we did ‘Sex Style’, that was then, maybe you can’t do that stuff no more. A lot of producers evolve from an album that they used to do, or a certain sound that they used to do. People try to compromise or do something away from the edgy sounds. Make something mellow, that will catch on to a different or bigger audience, you know. I never compromise on my own stuff.”
Here’s a question for you, what do you make of MF Doom? Sometimes I wonder what would happen if Dr Dooom and MF Doom were to battle on record, who would win?
“I’ve never really cared much about the stuff that he’s doing on record. He does what he does but he’s no Dr Dooom. The difference between us is that I just exist to make stuff. I evolved so much, I evolved through the Ultramagnetic years, I evolved through Sex Style, Dr Octagon, I’m always making totally different stuff, futuristic production, I’m light years ahead of all that other stuff. I’m producing loads of beats now and not rhyming on stuff so much, producing for others and developing my sound.
“I have a very different outlook on music these days. I got singers singing on top of my stuff now. I worked with a lot of producers in the past who only wanted to work with me. They only had a limited amount of interest in doing certain things, they didn’t want to get into my ideas. Now that I’m solo it means I can explore other things. All that ‘legendary’ stuff people give me out on the street, I don’t believe it, I’m more humble now. I don’t care about the legendary status, I make records with the young kids. I feel good. I like coaching rappers. If I was a baseball player, it’s like I already won the world series. I’m not mentally or physically gone from the studio, but I’m more of an instructor now.”
I like the idea of you as an instructor. What is at the core of what you teach people? How to be a good writer?
“I never mess with people’s writing creativity ‘cos I know what it’s like to have your writing creativity messed with. When I work with rappers or singers I let them write what they write. We’ll be talking about a subject, let’s say..a girl’s ass. They can write about the ass the way they want to write about it. We writing a record about vodka and getting drunk, they write it the way they want. ‘Cos I had that before in my life: ‘Hey, we want you to write about a cupcake for 15 bars,’ that’s kinda torturing me. You have producers that tell you, ‘I need you to do a whole song about a Donut.’ Rap all about the donut, sing all about a donut. The inside of it, the frosting on the donut. The way the donut tastes.
“I don’t want to put that pressure on an artist, I know what it feels like, making a record about a Subway sandwich, like they need a whole album about a sandwich. Certain people I work with, they don’t care what I write, it’s free you know, freedom the same as writing it down on a piece of paper. That’s real freedom. Not making a song about a hotdog.”
Is there too much of that kind of bullshit in rap nowadays?
“I like people who spit what they feel, it’s a culture, let’s speak about how the world is. Living in New York, lots of people want to rap about their lifestyle, what they are going through at home, their girlfriend, their problems. A lot of producers live out in Kentucky or Winsconsin, and that producer might have a beat that doesn’t even match those guys character, their flow, some of those guys might be getting out of jail. Everyone wanna write their feelings off their chest. I don’t wanna take people’s feelings away. These producers want you to write a song about flowers growing, but it’s like, I’m not in the flower zone, I’m in a place that much more.. tense.”
A song about “blue flowers growing by the purple pond?”
“Maybe. It’s like, have you got a tense beat for my condition? Producers need to know about the condition the artist is in. The producer already got money, living in his rich mother’s home, making beats about the garden, he wants to get a puppet on the beat. I’m not into all that pressure. A song about the Taco Bell Chihuahua? Pay me enough and I’ll do it, but I’m not into it. Pay me some good money and I’ll rap about your fucking dog, shout out his dog food. Some people get off on those gimmicks, ‘ohhh! he rapped about my dog!’. It doesn’t turn me on.”
So what is it that inspires you to write, Keith?
“I just like to feel free man! New York inspires me to write. Other cities inspire me. I did a show with the Insane Clown Posse, we went to a city, and they had a festival, which was nice. It was an empty city, empty town, and we were looking at it. You know how there are parts of the states with no towns.. There must be parts of London where there are cows right?”
I think there’s one at Hackney City Farm, but in general no, it’s not rural.
“That stuff doesn’t inspire me. There’s no people, no energy. A lot of these dudes writing songs, they live up in mansions in desolated areas, with a horse and a big pool. A giraffe and acres of land. I don’t see how you write in that place. I can see it in New York or Philadelphia, or Detroit, I can see you having some writing on your mind. Some places are so desolate, it’s like, how do you write? Being in the country, you can’t get no subjects. New York is the best city to get subjects. Subjects come from different things, like…television.
“A kid in the projects makes hard shit cause he’s in a concrete jungle. He’s making the hardest, grimiest shit, cause he’s like ‘this is where I live at.’ My music reflects my element, and my lifestyle. This is what people don’t understand about rap, the climates, like in Miami, you feel good cause of the temperature, the music feels good. Rapping about booty, and how life is good and you’re living by the pool.”
Speaking of booty, what happened to your label, Funky Ass Records?
“I just changed it, I changed from there. I’m working on that too though, but I changed my lifestyle around a little bit.”
How about your photography, still doing that?
“Oh yeah man, photography is a part of my life. I record natural with my music, I still have my old lifestyle in a way, the porn stuff, taking pictures and recording. The crazy things I rap about are bizarrely in my lifestyle. I can’t be lying to people, rapping like I’m living in Paris. I can’t rap like I’m living in Costa Rica. I rap my environment.”
I wanted to return to the flowers for a moment, and ask about Dr Octagon – it’s a record that never seems to fade from collective memory. How did it come about?
[Long pause] “Well, I just wrote an abstract album about love. Not like, R Kelly love. An abstract love album, with lyrical scientifical lyrics, a sci-fi twist, people walking around eating mushrooms. I wrote an album in a rockstar way. That was like, one phase or role I played for an album, like playing a part in a movie. Like when you see Johnny Depp play Jack Sparrow. Like Will Smith in Men In Black. Like Wesley Snipes in Blade. An album is like a movie I made, a role just like Jennifer Lopez or Samuel L Jackson play.”
What sort of movies do you like to watch?
“I don’t really like movies all that much. I like the old Batman. Certain superheroes. Dick Tracy. I like stuff from the 80s that was ahead of its time. The original Batman was way ahead of its time, the Batcave, the Batmobile. Futuristic type of stuff.”
Have you got a message you would like to communicate to the world?
“I have no limitations. It’s a new era for me, I’m in another department in the musical building. I’ve moved up to the third floor. Most rappers are still stuck on the second. I’m gonna find my own Fiona Apple in the future. I’m producing my own shit, I’m producing for other people. I’m happy.”