ADULT VIDEO BLOWOUT: $5.99! The blazing neon sign is the mom ‘n’ pop video store’s only identifying feature. It catches the eye of Kool Keith’s music publisher immediately, Keith having jumped out of my car to return two videos, minus their dust jackets. “They don’t rent videos without dust jackets, do they?” Keith’s music publisher asks me, knowing full well what kind of videos get rented sans cover.
I don’t respond. Having only tenuously connected with Keith minutes ago, my biggest concern is getting him back in the car so we can proceed to our scheduled interview. Keith’s music publisher, Choler staff writer Joseph “Gazoo” McCombs and I waited outside Keith’s apartment building for 20 minutes before confirming, by cell phone, that he was not at home. He was out for a walk. He’d meet us at a nearby intersection — which he did, sparing his publicist a bit of embarrassment and justifying the hour that Gazoo and I spent driving to Hollywood. If Keith actually makes it out of the video store and back into the car, everything will be fine.
He does. And it is fine — after a brief diversion into a liquor store for some Guinness Stout (Keith’s favorite breakfast beverage because, he tells us, “It gets me pumped up”). As we cruise down La Brea Avenue, en route to a coffee shop for lunch, Keith is happily sipping his beer as I scan madly for cops, and everything is A-OK.
I’ll say it now, because it needs to be cleared up before we move on: Kool Keith — a.k.a. Dr. Octagon, a.k.a. Dr. Dooom, a.k.a. Mr. Gerbick, Rhythm X, Fly Ricky the Wine Taster and, most recently, Black Elvis — is not insane. He doesn’t eat rat sandwiches, doesn’t show up for interviews in a crash helmet and a cape. Although he is muscular, it’s doubtful he could throw a 1,000-pound walrus through a brick wall (as his character Dr. Dooom claims), and he doesn’t have skin like an alligator (that’s the 208-year-old uncle of Dr. Octagon, Mr. Gerbik, talking). As far as I know, he doesn’t own a monkey-green ragtop Seville (check “Supergalactic Lover” on Black Elvis).
At worst, Keith is hard to pin down. He’s also suffering from the strangest identity crisis in the history of hip-hop. While some artists spend obscene amounts of time and money trying to market themselves as something they’re not (hard-core, project-bred, bling bling — whatever), Keith has spent the past few years trying to prove to the world that he is not — repeat, not — a space alien.
“Certain fans got more into a cornball state of mind,” he says over a lunch of hamburgers and soda. “Like those Octagon fans — they were weird. And I was meeting weirder people, handing me, like, weird gifts at venues. Too weird. Just overrating who they think I am. And I think that a lot of people who live through my CDs and stuff in a negative way, they might say, ‘Well, Keith must be this weird guy. He doesn’t go shopping; he doesn’t like girls.’ You know, my personal life was stripped through my CD. They think, ‘He’s a guy who probably doesn’t eat food. He might be a space alien or something.’ That’s why I had to get serious. I found out that people weren’t taking me serious. I might present something out there, and they twist it.”
The doctors (Dooom and Octagon) are through taking appointments. Black Elvis has left the building, and Kool Keith has moved back in.
“I’m a regular guy now. I went back to that format of ‘me.’ And I think that helped me out a lot because it eliminated weird people. [During the period of Octagon and Dooom] I found myself drawing weird groups [asking] for me to do records. And when they’d see me in a studio session, they’d get a misinterpretation of me. They’d want me to do a weird record. They want me to be in there all day saying a weird chorus, and it drew weird people, which I didn’t go for, naturally. And now, I feel like I might do an album with Patti LaBelle. Who says I can’t? I don’t have to be on a Weird Al Yankovic tip. That’s not me. I go to clubs, I go to strip clubs, I buy clothes, I go to the Beverly Center, I go to the malls — I mean, how regular can I be? That’s what I think a lot of fans out there don’t understand. They lost that point about me: my reality. They think, ‘Oh, this is a guy we can mentally go on vacation with. We play the CD, and we’re mentally on vacation.’ And now it’s back to a reality thing.”
Keith has been battling the public’s perception of him ever since 1996, when the Dr. Octagon project with producer-DJ Dan “the Automator” Nakamura dropped. While praised by critics for his unique themes and subject matter, Octagon made it easy for fans to perceive Keith as an oddity unworthy of the popularity or respect given to those he’s inspired. The marketably insane Ol’ Dirty Bastard (a.k.a. Big Baby Jesus) gets more props than Keith. Never mind Keith’s massive success in collaborating with Prodigy on their double platinum The Fat of the Land album. (“Smack My Bitch Up”? That’s a sample of Keith, taken from the Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Give the Drummer Some”). Or the massive influence the Ultramagnetic MCs have had on hip-hop. (The September 1999 issue of The Source cites Keith’s UMCs work as pioneering everything from vocalizing off-beat to insisting that hip-hop lyrics don’t need to rhyme).
Despite all of this, Keith remains the crazy uncle of the hip-hop family. They’d lock him in the basement if they could.
He takes some of the blame for the misconceptions himself, acknowledging that he enjoys playing the different characters he creates but that he misjudged the ways in which his fans would perceive his role-playing. But he also believes — and he makes a strong case — that his image suffered at the hands of various record labels, most notably Sony, that he claims mismanaged him, pushing the novelty of his work while downplaying any hint of authenticity.
So Keith, burned by labels, has left them behind altogether. He’ll release his next album, Matthew, in mid-summer on his own label, Funky Ass Records (which also released Sex Style and the Dr. Dooom album, First Come, First Served).
“Now I’m back doing it myself again,” he says proudly. “I’m making my own decisions, calling my own shots, picking out my own pictures, taking my own pictures, paying for my own artwork, picking my own album arrangements — it’s a lot of stuff. And I feel great that I did it all by myself.”
Something else he did by himself was to take Sony on in a highly visible gripe campaign. Frustrated by the lack of promotion given Black Elvis, Keith went public with his anger and, in October of 1999, sent an e-mail to his fan club asking members to write to Sony Music with complaints over their inattention to and mismanagement of the project.
“The label fucked up a lot of stuff that you kids want to have access to,” the letter reads. “The video should be on TV for you kids to see. The video was done before my tour. You can call and e-mail the following people to ask them what’s going on. My project is available, but I know it’s hard for you not to get any of the material, and latest updates.
“E-mail these people and tell them why you’re angry that you haven’t seen my new video. E-mail these people 24 hours a day nonstop; you will get a response. Ask for wigs, product, posters, videos, radio, and etc. And that’s it.”
Keith’s fans responded. According to Keith’s music publisher, Sony received over 10,000 letters from angry Kool Keith fans. The label has yet to respond to his demands. And Keith has yet to relent. The label still owns the rights to KoolKeith.com, a domain name Keith believes he should have control over, and his publicist has suggested that Keith might want to run another e-mail blitz to persuade Sony to hand it over.
Keith is somewhat mystified at Sony’s reluctance to meet any of his demands. After lunch, while sitting on the tailgate of my truck and signing some vinyl copies of Black Elvis, he expresses his frustration with the label: “It’s just been a hard thing to get cooperation from the label. I didn’t do anything to Sony; I was barely up at the label. And they should respect me for being one of the most independent artists ever to come out on a label. I’m sure they have a lot of other artists begging for money, begging for a place to stay, begging for rent, and I am, fortunately, not one of the persons who harassed the company for anything. But when I do need some type of help, I don’t seem to get the response. And record labels force people to go into different exercises to get attention. And then they want to know why you’re trippin’ out. I see it as unnecessary and very unprofessional.”
“It’s a haters thing. Record companies have a lot of slick ways of making their artists unhappy, but they try to blame it on you also. And they can’t blame it on me because I’ve done nothing but participate in everything they have offered me to do, from taking pictures to being on time for autograph signings and everything. I think it’s just a point of jealousy in general. They hate to see me very successful, and they know my capability to be successful. I look at it this way — if I went double platinum with the Prodigy thing, they treated me very well. And I just went gold with a various artists thing [a compilation album for the World Wrestling Federation]; I sold a big CD over in Europe — then how come my label doesn’t see a lot of this stuff? Something’s wrong.”
So Keith continues trying to break away cleanly from Sony and, in the process, has started changing his image entirely. The costumes he used to wear during his stage shows — the Black Elvis wig, the astronaut bubble helmet, the cape — have been shelved in favor of street clothes. And despite the fact that his new album, Matthew, presents his rhymes under yet another moniker, he swears that he’s done with the personas. He’s even planning to hold a funeral for Black Elvis as part of Matthew‘s record-release party.
“I tried to give people entertainment, and it wasn’t appreciated,” he says of his decision to consign the costumes to his closet. “I did a 45-minute tour last year, and it wasn’t appreciated. Those fans were like, ‘Hey, you should’ve stayed on stage for another two hours.’ And I’m being myself this year. Keith. Wearing the clothes I want to wear — a hat, leather — not costuming up or nothing. Just being Keith. I watch TV every day, and I see so many other rappers just doing it regular. My image now is just me. Coming up with those ideas took a lot. I put a lot of energy into that stuff. And I look around my perimeters, my competition, you know — they don’t do it. So I might as well give it to ’em raw. It’s like, they don’t want their steak well done. They want it raw now. Medium rare. So I have to change my game up again, back to who I was back when I first came out. That’s the new transition for me now — giving it to ’em raw.
“And I feel great now, I feel like, [my fans] may be mad, but they have to absorb it. I’m gonna let them see what they really missed because they didn’t notice it when it was there. It’s like, ‘I gave you the chance to see something different, but now you’re not going to see it at all. Now you have to really use your head, mentally.’ I’m not going to go out and use a lot of energy that I don’t need to use. I don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of costumes, capes and stuff and wear a bubble on my head. That was just an extra attraction.”
“I think I’m a great MC,” Keith says before heading off to the Del Amo Mall with a female friend. “At the end of the day, that’s what I am. I don’t really need accessories to attach to me to make me good. Like, ‘Oh, he’s the guy that wears the wig; he’s the guy that wears the bubble. He’s the guy that wears the galactic shirt.”
And that’s how our interview ends, as Keith finishes signing the vinyl and prepares to go shopping for clothes — street clothes — to wear on his summer tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the end, hip-hop has nothing to do with what MCs are wearing or what kind of characters they play. It’s about inspiring a certain state of mind, and it’s the job of the MC to put people in that state. If your clothes have become your message, then it’s time to change your wardrobe.
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This article originally appeared on RadioSpy.com