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.
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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