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The Essential... Kool Keith

Of every rapper that fought their way through hip-hop’s genesis, there is rarely any dispute that ‘Kool’ Keith Thornton was the most unpredictable, and for many operating in the genre’s experimental fringes, the most influential.

Back in the late ’80s and ’90s Keith was a formidable force, with his twisted, abstract flows acting as the blueprint for Wu Tang’s RZA and Ghostface Killah, MF Doom and a laundry list of young rappers with a penchant for the surreal or the disturbing (we’re looking at you Necro). These days you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing has changed – it’s hard to imagine that the current generation’s horde of rap weirdos, from prolific Berkley outsider Lil B to Odd Future figurehead Tyler, The Creator with his vivid, often shocking rhymes would have been able to thrive without Thornton’s crucial early groundwork.

Keith shot to notoriety thanks to his tenure as the figurehead of golden age innovators the Ultramagnetic MCs, and his unique style was a breath of fresh air in a climate that almost encouraged the ‘respectful’ regurgitation of ideas. He was progressive in a way that most emcees simply weren’t, and next to Ced Gee’s equally prominent productions the band were an unstoppable force, for a time. With a barrage of boastful rhymes and a cadence and rhythm you could recognize a mile away, Keith’s chants made the band’s debut album Critical Beatdown an enduring success, and one that surprisingly still sounds essential 25 later. It was around this time that Keith began perpetuating the rumour that he had been committed to the notorious Bellevue psychiatric hospital, a sliver of trivia that sat well with fans captivated by his distorted personality. Occasionally performing in a straightjacket, he later claimed that the whole thing was simply an inside joke, but the hospital’s records still note that a Keith Matthew Thornton was indeed committed.

 

“It’s hard to imagine that the current generation’s horde of rap weirdos, from Lil B to Tyler, The Creator, would have been able to thrive without Thornton’s crucial early groundwork.”

 

This concept bled into a solo career that granted Keith’s manic personality – or personalities – the opportunity to really shine, and that career blossomed with the invention of murderous alien time traveller and gynecologist Dr. Octagon. Here was the point where Keith fully embraced the unusual surrealism that would become his calling card, and the point where we were granted access to the exemplary Dr. Octagonecologyst, an album that still stands as one of the rapper’s most fully formed statements. Hailing from Jupiter and entertaining a voracious sexual appetite, Dr. Octagon was fleshed out with a rich tapestry brightly coloured rhymes that drifted from the conceptual to the outrageously psychedelic. The success of this record, albeit critically rather than commercially at first, was something of a shock to Keith, and in a typically off-kilter move he laid waste to the character not long later by using another alter ego (Dr. Dooom) to murder him. This push and pull, and the continuous drift between the streets and the stars has characterized Keith’s career since the very beginning, and grants his seemingly endless catalogue with a rare edge of impulsiveness.

It would be incorrect not to recognize that Keith’s form was dented significantly in the early ‘00s with a run of average if not out-and-out awful releases that he never really recovered from. Still, amongst the clutter of unnecessary compilations and half-realized concepts there were always moments of brilliance if you looked hard enough. Keith’s still plowing away, operating just outside his despised record industry in 2013, and his latest album Magnetic Pimp Force Field, a collaboration with Memphis producer Mr. Sche is his finest in far too long. The following list is a selection of Keith’s most outstanding moments, and while it’s predictably a little bottom-heavy (which let’s be honest, the Spankmaster himself probably wouldn’t mind) it’s charted chronologically to allow you to follow Keith’s sprawling narrative a little easier.

Enjoyed this? Check out Mr. Beatnick’s 2012 interview with Kool Keith here.

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01. ULTRAMAGNETIC MCS
‘KOOL KEITH HOUSING THINGS’
(from Critical Beatdown, 1988)

‘Kool Keith Housing Things’ isn’t the best-loved track on Critical Beatdown (that would probably be ‘Ego Trippin’) but it does act as a decisive introduction to Keith’s inimitable style, kicking off with the immortal “Well I’m sonically, high bionically” – a line that lent a surprisingly prescient look into Keith’s sci-fi obsessed future. Ced Gee’s soul-laced production was fundamental, and along with Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded (that Gee also had a hand in) informed the wider rap world that you could actually dissect and abuse a sample, you didn’t just have to loop it and walk away. Honestly, you could pick almost any cut from the record and it would serve as a worthy introduction to Keith’s manic flow, but ‘Kool Keith Housing Things’ feels like the point where it became shockingly obvious that the rapper had the personality to carry a track all on his own.

02. THE CENOBITES
‘LEX LUGOR’ 
(from The Cenobites, 1995)

After he assisted Ced Gee with the production of Ultramagnetic MCs’ third LP The Four Horsemen, NYC rapper/producer Godfather Don teamed up with Kool Keith under the name The Cenobites (or Cenubites) and the duo issued a single devastating EP. Sporting a sound that characterizes the early ’90s NY blueprint (think 12-bit kicks, horns and organ) fluently, Keith’s ruthless, biting dissection of rap’s major label domination was not only smart, it was prophetic. “Any rapper on a major label should resign and quit” is a line from a man who knew what needed to happen to get the creativity flowing once more, and we know now that he was right on the money. It was to be a theme that would stick with Keith throughout his career.

03. DR. OCTAGON
‘BLUE FLOWERS’
(from Dr. Octogonecologyst, 1996)

It’s just impossible to have a list of Kool Keith classics without repping the insane and resounding genius that is Dr. Octagonecologyst. Produced by innovative Cali weirdo Dan the Automator and featuring some cunning turntablism from Invisible Skratch Pikl DJ Qbert and a young DJ Shadow, the album is still Keith’s best-loved and possibly most coherent collection of tales, and ‘Blue Flowers’ stands at the top of the pile. Rap just didn’t sound like this in ’96 – we were still fixated on the East/West feud, listening to Jeru’s DJ Premier-produced Wrath of the Math, Jay-Z’s debut Reasonable Doubt or Tupac’s crucial double-album All Eyez On Me.

The underground was there, but it took Dr. Octogonecologyst to give rappers the boost they needed to do things differently. It was a massive fuck you to the mainstream, and Keith’s often nonsensical, always abstract rhymes (“Cybernetic microscopes and metal antidote/Two telescopes that magnify the size of a roach”) gave a new wave of MCs the courage to do things differently. It’s hard to imagine the rap landscape making a place for Company Flow or Cannibal Ox a few years later without Dr. Octogon’s initial groundwork.

04. KOOL KEITH
‘PLASTIC WORLD’
(from Sex Style, 1997)

Whilst he had lent his production talents to Kool Keith and Tim Dog’s short-lived Ultra project (never mind having an uncredited position on Dr. Octogonecologyst’s production team), Sex Style was really the point where it became disarmingly obvious what a fruitful partnership KutMasta Kurt had with Keith. It was to be a long-running collaboration, and the chemistry is obvious throughout the album. Kurt’s beats are tough as nails, a long way from the intergalactic accompaniments of Dan the Automator or Ced Gee’s brittle funk. They serve as an appropriate backbone for Keith’s self-styled porno-core, and ‘Plastic World’ finds the rapper on familiar territory as he cuts down pathetic copycat rappers and producers (“Everybody clear with beats trying to be Premier”), stopping briefly to sing the praises of a young E-40 who was back then almost unknown outside of the Bay.

05. DR. DOOOM
‘APARTMENT 223′
(from First Come, First Served, 1999)

From the hilarious Pen & Pixel parodying artwork to the unceremonious dispatch of acclaimed alter-ego Dr. Octagon on the album’s opening track, Dr. Dooom’s First Come, First Served was maybe not the album Kool Keith fans wanted at the time, but it was certainly what we needed. Again joined by producer Kutmasta Kurt, Keith dragged us even deeper into horror and despair, and if Dr. Octogenocologyst was fixated with the surreal, First Come, First Served replaced that quality with vivid pictures of a reality that we didn’t want to know existed.

New persona Dr. Dooom is portrayed as a vicious, murderous cannibal, and on ‘Apartment 223’ Keith doesn’t pill any punches with his descriptions: “Apartment 223 with body parts under my bed/Cut your abdomen out, stab your fuckin leather coat/I chant while candles burn with robes on, you will learn.” It was his definitive answer to the fake rappers he had spent most of his career railing on, a massive horror-core statement that told stories of a street life that was not only frightening, but at times a little too real. Needless to say, the track stands as one of the finest achievements in Keith’s long career.

06. KOOL KEITH
‘I’M SEEIN’ ROBOTS’
(from Black Elvis/Lost in Space, 1999)

Black Elvis/Lost in Space found Keith again fixated on the sci-fi themes many of us thought had been nixed for good after Dr. Dooom’s slaughtering of Dr. Octagon. It marked a point in the rapper’s career where he became confident enough with his production choices to take on a while record on his own, and while he had assistance from KutMasta Kurt, it’s the album’s bizarre backdrop that really sets it apart from Keith’s catalogue of superior tomes. ‘I’m Seein’ Robots’ is, production wise, the record’s most outstanding achievement, and pre-dating dubstep by a good few years augments a wobbling, distorted bassline with a typically dusty, minimal beat. Lyrically he’s on familiar turf, calling out phonies (robots) with his usual wordy panache, but it’s the beat that’s the draw here.

07. MASTERS OF ILLUSION
‘SCARED STRAIGHT’
(from KutMaster Kurt Presents Masters of Illusion, 2000)

Masters of Illusion was a producer project at its core, and headed up by KutMaster Kurt it’s hardly surprising he managed to rope in Keith, as well as Bay Area vet Motion Man, who both share duties on the mic. It’s the beats though that make it such a crucial recording: seemingly forgotten by anyone save a few core Kool Keith devotees, they’re dripping with the kind of gloomy, neck-snapping snares and crumbling, vinyl-ripped samples that just don’t crop up any more in an era of FL Studio and YouTube. ‘Scared Straight’ isn’t the album’s most well-known cut, but it’s one of its most effective. Based around an eerie, otherworldly b-movie piano snippet, the track is grounded by the two emcees’ flawless performances, but still manages to sound as if any moment a trap door will spring open to reveal some unsightly horror.

08. ANALOG BROTHERS
‘MORE FREAKS’
(from Pimp to Eat, 2000)

Often maligned and noted as the point where Kool Keith well and truly jumped the shark, Analog Brothers’ sole full-length Pimp To Eat is still well worthy of investigation. A collaboration between Keith, Ice-T, Marc Live, Black Silver and Pimp Rex, it’s a messy collection of tracks, but one that nevertheless has its high points – and let’s be honest here it’s hardly as disappointing as the vitriolic Matthew.

‘More Freaks’ is a clear winner, and quickly blasts out the band’s concept with thick analogue synths and a beat so dusty it sounds as if it was pulled from a floppy disc found in the back room of a charity shop. Keith’s on particularly oversexed form here, out-freaking the rest of the team with a vomit of lines like “Venereal protector, automatic selector/Verbal butt taster with vanilla flavor.” They give it a good shot, but honestly, they never really stood a chance.

 09. KOOL KEITH
‘DRUGS’
(from Spankmaster, 2001)

Spankmaster is hardly Keith’s most successful collection of tracks, but produced mostly by Keith himself it stands as one of the rapper’s most eccentric and bizarre offerings. ‘Drugs’ is the record’s clear standout, and both production wise and lyrically sounds like a lube-smeared summary of Keith’s career up to this point. A brittle, cheap beat made up of plastic piano, weedly FM synth twinkles and awkwardly syncopated beats, the fact that it works so well almost seems accidental. As Keith falsettos “All the crack and the drugs, make me feel, the way I feel” you get the sense that ‘Drugs’ is his answer to the Neptunes’ lurching futuristic funk, filtered through his splintered multiple personalities. Keith’s vivid depictions of Hollywood’s seamy underbelly of excess cling to the mind like leeches, and if you find yourself wandering the streets mouthing “Freebasin’ eighteen pounds of coke with Marvin Gaye” don’t say I didn’t warn you.

10. PROJECT POLAROID
‘SPACE 8000′
(from Project Polaroid, 2006)

The mid ’00s was something of a wasteland for Keith: he released a lot of music, but very little of it had any kind of staying power. Aside from the unexpectedly good collaboration with KutMasta Kurt, Diesel Truckers, the period was fraught by vapid misfires like Kool Keith presents Thee Undatakerz and disappointing sequels such as The Return of Dr. Octagon and Dr. Dooom 2. It was a pleasant surprise then when Project Polaroid appeared on the shelves, pairing Keith with yet another unorthodox producer in Bay Area DJ TOMC3. This is undoubtedly the jewel of Keith’s low period, and finds the rapper reinvigorated alongside TOMC3’s full-bodied lo-fi beats. It’s not that he’s even saying anything particularly different, but with his head back in the clouds dropping lines like “With heavy symmetrical industrial and various impetuous construction/With adventurous introduction” it’s hard not to fall for Keith’s stargazing surrealism all over again.

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