Posts Tagged ‘hip-hop’

Best Songs of 2014

Posted: December 22, 2014 by Sean Flinn in Music
Tags: , , , ,

After a full year of absolutely NO music writing whatsoever (WEEP!), I’m crawling out of semi-retirement as a music journalist/blogger to uphold an annual tradition: posting my list of favorite songs from the past year.

This year’s mix is a slow burner. It starts off with a triple header of neo-shoegaze anthems before diving into the sublime (Spoon, in an uncharacteristic turn, and Angel Olsen’s subtle update of old country torch songs). It sort of reaches its nadir with Sharon Van Etten’s instant breakup classic (which may double as a lament for the addicted) before starting to pick up and get a little more positive with Beck’s ode to morning time and Temples’ impeccable reconstruction of Mark Bolan-era British glam and psychedelia. Ty Segall’s remarkable “Feel” marks the crest of the hill (imagine Aladdin Sane-era Bowie covering early Sabbath), and you’ll feel the wind in your hair the rest of the way down until the whole things glides gracefully to a stop via the back-half trifecta of Hamilton Leithauser (RIP: The Walkmen), Real Estate, and Sweden’s First Aid Kit.

You can listen along with this free Spotify playlist, or watch some of the performances and incredible music videos for most of these songs via the YouTube playlist below.

Some notes:

  • I decided to use the official video for Warpaint’s “Keep It Healthy,” which is actually a double-header with “Disco/Very” (also from the same album); I thought the entire video was so interesting, and such a distinct snapshot of that band, its aesthetic, and LA, that the whole thing was worth viewing. “Disco/Very” is a great song too, so everyone’s the richer, I suppose.
  • Defying all sense and reason (or maybe just reflecting the artist’s desire to get paid an adequate royalty), the Ty Segall song “Feel” is unavailable on Spotify, so I’ve substituted with Swans’ brain-burning “A Little God in My Hands,” maybe the most uncharacteristic song in that band’s 30-year catalog and one of the most subtly incendiary songs of the year. You’re well rewarded for listening in either case.
  • I’ve also had to swap slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark’s “No Pity Party” for “I Know, Didn’t I” from the same album on YouTube for similar reasons, and with similarly excellent results.
  • I could have plugged a YouTube recording of the BADBADGOOD remix of Future Islands’ “Seasons” into that mix, but the band is so incredibly compelling in live performance that I decided it deserved a showcase for those talents. You should absolutely NOT skip that remix, though.

Videos

Songs:

  1. Warpaint: Keep It Healthy
  2. Honeyblood: (I’d Rather Be) Anywhere But Here
  3. Dum Dum Girls: Lost Boys and Girls Club
  4. London Grammar: Hey Now
  5. Spoon: Inside Out
  6. Angel Olsen: Lights Out
  7. Sharon Van Etten: Your Love Is Killing Me
  8. Beck: Waiting Light
  9. Temples: Colours To Life
  10. The War on Drugs: An Ocean In Between The Waves
  11. Ty Segall: Feel / Swans: A Little God In My Hands
  12. The Budos Band: The Sticks
  13. Benjamin Booker: Violent Shiver
  14. Eagulls: Yellow Eyes
  15. The Horrors: So Now You Know
  16. Zero 7: Simple Science
  17. The Juan Maclean: A Simple Design
  18. Aphex Twin: minipops 67 [120.2] (source field edit)
  19. Sylvan Esso: Coffee
  20. Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark: No Pity Party / I Know, Didn’t I
  21. Cibo Matto: MFN
  22. Future Islands: Seasons (Waiting On You) [BADBADNOTGOOD Reinterpretation]
  23. Hamilton Leithauser: 11 O’Clock Friday Night
  24. Real Estate: Had To Hear
  25. First Aid Kit: Silver Lining

Although Coachella has become better at getting headline hip-hop acts in the big font category, the festival has typically thrown its weight behind a wide swath of rock acts and tents full of electronic music heavy hitters. Last year’s lineup (with the exception of a memorable if divisive act from Kanye) felt at least a year or more out of place, with nostalgia act Lauryn Hill, tragically late Bond villain Cee-Lo, played to death Wiz Khalifa, and a respectable set from Nas and Damian Marley (whose album had dropped a full year previous). The hyped up and “edgy” Odd Future took what could have been a signature set and turned in a clusterfuck of a performance, cursing out the sound man in a set that was more incompetent than punk. The festival that brought amazing past performances from Jurassic 5, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, MF Doom, and Roots Manuva didn’t promise to be notable in this last year of the Mayan calendar.

The 2012 lineup brought a surprise though; this year is the first in ages where I don’t have a single thing to complain about. That stems largely from my reverence for late 90’s underground NYC act Company Flow, who are emerging from retirement, but has just as much to do with the last West coast representatives to own hip-hop, Dre and Snoop. Throw in hip-hop affiliate DJ’s like Shadow and Girl Talk; leftfield (in geography and music inclination) producers Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus; forward looking soul singers Frank Ocean and The Weeknd; and up and coming acts like Childish Gambino, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, and you’ve got a ton of hip-hop gems at the polo fields. Unless you were holding out some sad, misbegotten hope for an Outkast reunion (just let it go, let it go) rap fans have a solid outing ahead of them in 2012.

Dre and Snoop: Gin and Juice

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1EaF50O-C8&w=853&h=480]

Coachella’s recent savvy in dropping a mainstream hip-hop act along with its lineup of rock and electronic acts has been admirable. While Kanye and Jay-Z brought significant star power, that was a warmup for kings of Southern Cali rap Snoop and Dre to bring their G-Funk to the desert.

Sure, it was gangsta, but with production chock-full of Parliament samples, and subject material just as devoted to weed smoke and backyard cookouts as shootouts in Long Beach and Compton, Dre and Snoop provided a more uplifting vibe than the relentless G’ed up stylings of predecessors like N.W.A.

Dre’s production chops reached beyond the West coast to unleash Detroit’s Eminem on the world and provided bounce to East coast stalwarts like Nas and Busta Rhymes; his synth lines could infuse SoCal sun into tracks like “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” or foreboding yet flippant undertones on “The Next Episode”. Snoop’s domain was less cosmopolitan and more pure West coast (let’s forget his Master P No Limit period); his laid back tales of G riding and weed smoking flexed with dextrous flows and tight delivery (his single guest verse on “Deep Cover” was sufficient to launch a sea of hype) defined Southern Cali hip-hop in the 90’s. Though Dre’s recent output has been largely limited to Dr. Pepper commercials and overpriced headphones, and Snoop’s lyrical prowess has been undermined by questionable producer collabs and lazy writing, the two rocking the stage in the Indio desert seems like a preordained classic Coachella moment.

Frank Ocean: Novacane

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMfPJT4XjAI&w=853&h=480]

Odd Future’s rise could be dissected from no surfeit of angles, whether it be the questionable influence of hipster blogs (even Tyler calls out Pitchfork, as one must bite the hand that feeds you to be properly outré); the interesting intersection of hop-hop with skate and animated culture (check that Adult Swim collab); whether they’re horrorcore or punk or just stupidly juvenile. The far reaching collective is not strictly defined by the flagrant members, and perhaps no one shows more promise than the quietly rising star of soul singer Frank Ocean.

You won’t be floored by his voice but there’s a certain informed insouciance and intelligence to Frank Ocean’s lyrics that elevate him to notable status. His two hook contributions to Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne are standout moments on an album that impresses despite (and thanks to) its indulgent largesse. If you want to get with the hip crowd and cop his unavailable mix release (if it was good enough for Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” it’s good enough for … everyone now) Google your way to nostalgia.ultra.

On “We All Try” Ocean belies hip-hop’s typical atypical conservatism by propping up love that’s not just between a man and woman, and a woman’s right to choose (rappers hate the Man but don’t mind bullshit patriarchy). “Novacane” offers a strangely wry tale of a romance originating on the Coachella polo grounds with somewhat off brand drug use and the first of several Eyes Wide Shut name drops. The highlight might be copyright flaunting “American Wedding”; Don Henley is a bit miffed as it samples (takes) the beat from “Hotel California” in whole. If he listened to it, he’d hear a elegiac track that brilliantly juxtaposes a young marriage doomed to failure before it begins with a tattooed wedding ring that he “might just die with”. Frank Ocean thinks the notion of the The Eagles suing him as “fucking awesome“; more likely it will be a footnote to a career that should afford him a better sample clearance budget in the very near future.

A$AP Rocky: Purple Swag

A$AP Rocky hails out of Harlem, the same spot that brought us Cam’Ron and the Diplomats, who dropped gangsta tales of murder and hustle while flossing with pink b-ball jerseys. That juxtaposition informs the chill vibe of Rocky’s world, rather than follow the gun clapping music of Queens rep 50 Cent, he follows the weed first, guns second vibe of Wiz Khalifa and the inventive codeine haze of Lil Wayne.

It helps the cause tremendously that he’s got solid producers including Clams Casino (also heard donating beats to The Weeknd) contributing a grip of tracks that are moody and spacey; stripping out the lyrics would sound something like the XX remixing an MF Doom Special Herbs instrumental album. Rocky doesn’t try to grab you by the neck with his hooks like Wiz Khalifa’s stoned but aggressive patter; he’s content to confidently stroll through his chorus and trust you to hypnotically bob your head along.

Today’s hip-hop world has gone more swag than gangsta (a zeitgeist that’s somewhere between metrosexual and hipster); the proving ground has moved from underground radio freestyle sessions to free mixtapes on the Internet. A$AP Rocky comes out remarkably fully formed for a guy that copped a 3 million record deal off the strength of two singles; out of any hip-hop act on the roster this Harlem rep needs to be playing at dusk, crowd full of weed smoke as the slow tweaked strings of “Purple Swag” wafts over the atmosphere.

Childish Gambino: Bonfire

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qL1B_r9nC9k&w=853&h=480]

You don’t need to be a fan of the so-clever-it’s-doomed sitcom Community to appreciate Childish Gambino, but it helps. His recent album Camp is both better and worse than you might expect from a rapping comedic actor (Donald Glover) who took his nom de rap from an Internet Wu-Tang name generator.

Glover does a lot of his own production, which is polished with choral flourishes, informed by modern electronic music (what isn’t at this point?) and wouldn’t be out of place on some of the recent emo-hop from B.o.B. or Drake. His flow and intonation is serviceable except for a tendency to drop into a squeaky growl that might be aggressively playful from Kanye’s windpipes but is cringeworthy from the Gambino.

As with a standup set you’re here for the punchlines – instead of dropping it like it’s hot, Gambino’s gonna ask you to “drop it like the Nasdaq” and will name check NPR’s Terry Gross, Carmen Sandiego, John Mayer before you hear him comparing himself with Biggie Smalls. There’s also serious tones and aspirations to outsider status, like when he points out “you’re not not racist cause the Wire’s in your Netflix queue” but ultimately Childish Gambino’s black but alternative (and relentless self-awareness) doesn’t break new ground beyond what Odd Future, or Lupe before them, or the Neptunes before them have put on ProTools. Donald Glover ultimately will settle into a middle ground; he’s not renaissance actor-rapper Mos Def, but his musical and acting chops outshines the likes of Tyrese.

Company Flow: The Fire in Which You Burn

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSvV5omRYJA&w=853&h=480]

1997 saw the stunning, sublime release of longtime hip-hop artisan Will Smith, whose Big Willie Style album and the particularly erudite “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” defined the mainstream rap music landscape. For those seeking somewhat grimier fare, an indie label renaissance was at work spreading music to a more niche audience. Fondle ‘Em brought the world the origin supervillain story of MF Doom, while Rawkus Records launched an astonishing roster including Mos Def, one of the earliest appearances from Eminem , Kool Keith sidekick Sir Menilik, and the “independent as fuck” Company Flow.

While Puff Daddy was honoring (exploiting) the fallout of the West coast – East coast beef, appearing onstage with Sting, Co Flow was kicking off their Funcrusher Plus LP with “Your eyes get wide like Tupac getting shot in the lobby”. The lyrical semantics may have been driven by standard anti-mainstream sentiment and edgy punchlines, but the paranoid sci-fi bent, noisy production, and forays into more personal material like the haunting domestic abuse tale “Last Good Sleep” elevated the album into classic realm. Prominent member El-P went on to have his own sonically uncompromising career; as to Co Flow, while the group only had one LP proper and they get small font billing, they stand as one of the most important hip-hop acts of the 90’s and should not be missed.

With the United States celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday this week (his birthday is January 15; we mark the occasion with a holiday and a national “day of service“), I thought I’d “jam” to a song that marked the occasion — and chose Public Enemy’s incendiary 1991 bombtrack “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”

There are any number of great songs from the civil rights era that one could use to mark the occasion (Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” may be my favorite) — but I was curious about Public Enemy’s more recent take because of its specific focus on MLK Day, particularly the state of Arizona’s refusal to recognize the holiday for several years after its creation. I knew from growing up that Arizona had been one of the states that originally rejected the holiday, but I honestly didn’t know if it had ever relented. This is, after all, the state whose governor, Jan Brewer, recently drew heavy criticism for signing into law some of the nation’s strictest anti-immigrant legislation.  So I did some digging.

The video to the song provides some visual clues to its historical background. In 1983, Congress officially voted to recognize the third Monday in January as “Martin Luther King Day,” a federal holiday, doing so over the protests of a handful of prominent senators. Arizona’s John McCain notably, counted among the opposition (although no one came close to matching the vigor, extent, or utterly transparent racism of North Carolina’s Jesse Helms in protesting the holiday’s creation). President Ronald Reagan, who also initially opposed the holiday, eventually relented and signed the legislation creating the holiday into law, with the United States finally observing the holiday in 1986; even then, only 27 states and the District of Columbia celebrated the holiday that first year.

Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt seems to have really lit the fuse for the political firestorm that eventually overtook his state on this issue. After the Arizona legislature failed to pass a bill recognizing MLK Day as a holiday in the state, Gov. Babbitt signed an executive order, shall we say, correcting the oversight. That order had a short lifespan; when Babbitt left office in 1987 to run for president (he lost to Bill Clinton*, who later appointed him Secretary of the Interior), his successor, Evan Mecham, made it his first official act to overturn Babbitt’s executive order, repealing the holiday.

* = Funny enough, Sister Souljah provides a spoken word introduction on the track; the same Sister Souljah whose lyrics candidate Bill Clinton would, during the 1992 election, repudiate for their apparent violence – creating what’s now known in politics as a “Sister Souljah Moment.

Three years later, in 1990, the people of Arizona voted down (by a margin of 17,000 votes) a proposal to recognize the holiday. Gov. Mecham, still an opponent of the holiday, said at the time, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.”

Cue righteous anger at a national level. In 1993, the controversy had reached such a pitch that the NFL, amidst a broad consumer boycott of the state, relocated Super Bowl XXVII — slated that year to be played in Tempe, Arizona’s Sun Devil Stadium — to The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Public Enemy deserves credit for stoking the fire in the intervening years, having released its fourth album, the (even more than usual) politically charged album Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, which included the single “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”

The song’s title is a play on the 1968 AM gold classic “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,”  a Johnny Webb-penned song that helped signer Glen Campbell breakthrough to mainstream success. The similarities pretty much end there. Chuck D had, by this point in Public Enemy’s career, reached his apex as a sociopolitical firebrand, unleashing a relentless lyrical assault that  — when coupled with intense musical production by the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk — absolutely scorches the breadth and depth of Apocalypse.

Mecham draws Chuck’s focus throughout the song in passages tinged with violence: “Until we get some land / Call me the trigger man / Looki lookin’ for the governor” leads into “I urinated on the state / While I was kickin’ this song / Yeah, he appear to be fair / The cracker over there / He try to keep it yesteryear / The good ol’ days / The same ol’ ways / That kept us dyin’ / Yes, you me myself and I’ndeed / What he need is a nosebleed.”

The “trigger man” line is perhaps the epicenter of the song’s controversy. Chuck leads into it with a common (if oblique) reference to “40 acres and a mule,” tying Arizona’s actions to a long line of injustices and broken promises made to African Americans. He then immediately toasts himself as the agent of retribution against Gov. Mecham, who he explicitly calls out as a thoroughgoing racist.

PE then brought even more noise. The video for “By The Time I Get To Arizona” depicts the group and the S1W (the Security of the First World drill team that backs up Public Enemy with military-themed dance moves during live shows and in videos) staging an assassination of the governor, contrasted against footage of Martin Luther King’s assassination. These scenes tie the events of the past and the events of the present together in one fell “by any means necessary” swoop — and, ironically, threaten to upend King’s message of nonviolent protest. The effect is to amplify America’s polite — and, to PE’s ears, easily ignored — conversation about race matters into something more full-throated, impossible to dismiss.

Trigger more righteous anger — this time, much of it directed at Public Enemy. Spin Magazine, in its excellent look back at the song on its 20th anniversary, notes that, “P.E. was reviled throughout the mainstream media, including being scrutinized on an episode of Nightline, where columnist Clarence Page said the video was ‘the exact opposite of the message that Martin Luther King died for.'”

This did little to slow the arc of history, however. Later in 1993, following the consumer boycott and the Super Bowl relocation, the voters of Arizona finally relented during a referendum and officially recognized MLK Day as a holiday.

Chuck D and Public Enemy, fight on, however. In 2011, to protest Arizona’s viciously anti-immigrant SB 1070, the group re-recorded “By The Time I Get To Arizona” with DJ Spooky (which you can download for free here). Chuck D also penned a brief but barbed editorial in the Huffington Post decrying the legislation, and created his first-ever piece of original visual art work protesting the law:

Chuck D Poster

And this year, Public Enemy marked Martin Luther King Day by leading a free live concert on the streets of downtown Los Angeles’s “Skid Row” district — site of the largest homeless population in the United States — in an effort to “Catch the Thrown” (to borrow Chuck’s own phrasing from Twitter, where he again cleverly plays title games, this time with Kanye West & Jay-Z’s celebration of material excess, Watch The Throne). Ya don’t stop, the man says.

Thanks, Chuck, for making history live.

Note: I wrote this late on January 17 / early January 18, 2012 — right about the time Wikipedia went dark to protest SOPA / PIPA, thereby depriving me of a handy research tool (not that I mind). My thanks, then, to Nadra Kareem Nittle, the author’s of About.com’s “Race Relations” article on the history of MLK Day, as well as Arizona public television’s KAET, which maintains an informative oral history of the events surrounding the state’s repeal of the holiday, for providing alternate sources of information.

Lost in Space: An Interview with Kool Keith

Posted: May 26, 2000 by Sean Flinn in Interviews, Music
Tags: ,

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