Lost In Translation: A Look at KOOL KEITH

November 26, 2012
By Jonathan Patrick

Enter Kool Keith: cowboy hat, swim trunks, ankle-high boots, tiny yellow cape, a toothy, brazen grin spread inhumanely wide—undiluted audacity on exhibit for all to see. It is the most confident entrance in the history of entrances. Hip-hop would never be the same.

In the recent wake of Keith’s supposed retirement from rap, it is high time to take inventory of what this artist left behind. Every person concerned about music should take notice of Kool Keith. To discover the work of this artist is to enter into an intoxicating engagement—an immensely rewarding undertaking—an I.V. drip of endless fascination and an unceasing source of unqualified entertainment. Keith is one of those genre-crossing apparitions that can single-handedly destroy the unavoidable staleness associated with the modern predisposition toward over-listening. Hip-hop fan or not, you owe it to yourself to listen to this music.

It is difficult to over emphasize Kool Keith’s influence, especially with respect to the hip-hop underground. Keith’s progressive class of rap served as, and is, an ideal entry point for countless audiences not customarily interested in the genre. In 1995, Keith was an anomaly in a genre full of entourages and yes-men; not merely a revolutionary reaching for great heights, but a conquistador gone interstellar, a well-traveled spaceman who brought alien nature back down to Earth—a Sun Ra among dive-bar horn players.

Keith’s solo appearance on the hip-hop scene couldn’t have come at a better time. Lands long vast and fertile had grown arid, and the once over-productive hip-hop hit machine was churning out little more than dusty leavings and dead bodies. By 1996, a boxy rigidity had come to define hip-hop. It was a grim time. Keith is deserving of praise for many reasons, but perhaps his most commendable gift is that he brought humor to an arena that had become stifled with cold, fatal seriousness.

It was an apt time for the subterranean dwellers of underground hip-hop to see the light of day, to go above ground and stir things up a bit. Who would have ever guessed that, even for a moment, one of that group would change things, become king for a day? Kool Keith became not only a flag-bearer for left-field hip-hop heads, but also a prophet of sorts, introducing a mutation of rap that could be adopted by a medley of outsiders; audiophiles, rock critics, and those generally turned off by the abrasive nature of gangster rap could all unite in a music that was as poetically challenging as it was sonically absorbing.

More than any other genre, hip-hop is determined by the personalities that swim in it. There are notoriously big fish and lil’ ones, but what separates the interesting from the forgetful are the stories that they, and only they, can tell. These unique perspectives gained over a lifetime, or granted through genius, form the backbone of a music that’s life force is the larger-than-life personalities that practice within it. It is a difficult proposition to list an artist whose name carries as much weight in the dimensions of ‘interesting’ and ‘one-of-a-kind’ as Kool Keith’s does; not to mention, you will be hard pressed to find an MC who can tell as many gripping, and devastating stories as Keith. There are few parallels.

It’s hard to understand how radicals like Kool Keith come about, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s the stuff of fables, Keith necessarily materializing from the bleak nowhere to save the even bleaker now-where. Left-field, right-field, up-field, from somewhere, from some when, Keith arrived on to the scene fully formed, and yet formless, a liquid entity whose depth, density, and shape would remain indefinable until the end of his career.

Keith’s debut solo, Dr. Octagonecologyst (released 1996) marked a considerable shift in the popular regions of rap. Forget about seriousness, at least seriousness about serious things; forget realism (hadn’t that become the problem in the first place?), Keith was a surrealist, and he sold that ideology to both diehards, and traditionalists and labeled it hip-hop. The moment the commercial sector validated this clever bait and switch Keith was transformed from eclectic MC into prophetic pioneer. It was the mist before the downpour.

By 1999 Keith was a remote island at great distance from the bulk of his peers. It is only now with an entirely new generation of followers, (Lil’ B, the Odd Future troupe, et al) that people have begun to repopulate the regions that Keith laid claim to almost twenty years ago. Porno-core, Horror-core, all the usual ill-fashioned tags only serve to confuse, and at the very best tell only a small portion of the story; but one thing is certain, numerous sub-genres, and momentary hip-hop splinters owe their existence to the largely dismissed legacy of Kool Keith.

There’s no two ways about it, Keith is a strange figure, bordering on genuinely demented (remember that stint at Bellevue?). But please be advised, his outlandishness is not devoid of guts, nor is it some empty badge of nonconformity worn for the sake of appearances. This avant-garde bent is no act; he is filled up by it, determined by it. He is it. Kool Keith’s inscrutability veils nothing; rather it gives substance to the shadows. It is via his eccentricity that Kool Keith has remained a truly unprecedented individual in the realm of hip-hop. It is what makes him tick and it is at the root of what makes him great.

The impossible task of evading categorization and remaining forever untamable is every artist’s burden (whether they realize it or not). Once one is pigeonholed, pinned down, unmasked and figured out, they become commonplace, regular, like…well, one of us; and who really wants to listen to someone like themselves? Familiarity breeds contempt, and, arguably worse, boredom. Once you decipher the simple dupery behind a magician’s mystique no one cares to see their tricks anymore. It is for this reason that, creatively speaking, the grass is always greener on the other side. The secret is to find oneself on ‘the other side’ as often as possible, and few have made themselves as at home in that place as Kool Keith. If you are someone else, you can go anywhere and do anything; unfettered freedom is always within arm’s reach. Keith is uniquely privileged in this way, a faceless figure with a reptilian capacity to shed skins, personalities, as if it were as easy as persisting through a change in seasons.

It is immensely difficult, if not altogether impossible, to frame the career of someone whose music and personality are all but unknowable. It is an intimidating task to discuss the work of a person for whom surreal is not so much a descriptor of their art, as it is an ethos on which their life is considerably based. Kool Keith is a breathing paradox, a construct of words, personas and fetishes every bit as much as flesh, blood, and bone. The refreshing, yet frightening part is that you get a sense that Keith is somehow synonymous with his output—a legion of persons meeting at one point in space and time. Each identity is a part of the real Kool Keith, just as each act is part of a play—neat slices giving momentary glimpses of the bigger picture. The artificiality and the circus of Kool Keith’s music lie, not it’s obtuse theatricality, but in the mask he wears, one identical to the face underneath it. It’s all for show, a show about a show that is reality, theatre as real life.

There are no sufficient words to convey the measure of Kool Keith’s music. It has an incommunicable poignancy. The sharpness and weight of Keith’s craft is something I could tell no one about. There is no way to share its meaning, its complexity is too esoterically dense to be understood by anyone but himself. But, it’s worth a try.

For the uninitiated, and those in dire need of a refresher, here are a few of Keith’s most accomplished moments, my personal favorites:

Dr. Octagon – Dr. Octagonecologyst

“Commercial rap’s in the grave…Rap moves on to the year 3000”

“Earth People, I was born on Jupiter”

Slipping into the ego of a degenerate extraterrestrial gynecologist, Keith produced one of the most daring and impressive debuts in the history of independent music. A sirens call that hooked countless fans and announced the arrival of Kool Keith’s solo virtuosity. It is a revolutionary release unlike anything previously seen in underground hip-hop.

The Shakespeare reference on the cover is no accident. At this point, where Keith was bound no one can say, seemingly capable of, musically, anything and everything. With Dr. Octagonecologyst Keith was challenging the very essence of rap: the style, the function, the form, especially the customary progression of the average hip hop single, preferring to dance in place rather than let the beat and rhythm drive him forward. Kool Keith would jump into tracks seemingly late, sometimes wildly early, twist the cadence, follow trails of lyrical improvisation into obscurity, repeat, leave early, and then mix it all in the production phase in a way that made a sick sort of pleasurable sense. It is likely for these reasons that, both inside and outside the community, Dr. Octagonecologyst has become such a divisive album.

Dr. Octagonecologyst is the sound of an artist wrestling with a desire for creative autonomy within the limitations of but one musical genre. For this reason it is sometimes only in a nonsensical and chaotic way that the record makes any sense at all. To expect something of this record is to invite disappointment; Keith takes pride in flaunting his eccentricities and skirting assumptions.

Dr. Octagonecologyst boasts a mind-bending blend of turntablism (DJ shadow included) hip-hop and trip-hop productions. These exceptional instrumentals serve as the perfect psychotropic backdrop to the free-associative wordplay Keith brandishes throughout the record. Keith’s lyrical twists have a cultivated unpredictability about them, verbal smoke rings that can swirl around in your head for weeks. Dr. Octagonecologyst remains the most complete vision in Kool Keith’s discography. It is a dizzying potpourri of fetishes, surrealism, dementia, scatology and sexual mania, a ‘best of’ sampling of the varieties of neuroses that would more or less serve as the building blocks of Keith’s future output.

With twisted masterpieces like ‘Earth People’, and the even more hallucinatory ‘Blue Flowers’, it is not hard to see why Dr. Octagonecologyst is the most popular choice when citing the genius of Kool Keith.

Dr. Dooom – First Come, First Served

“Yo, Fuck Octagon.
Don’t ask me about that fuckin’ shit…
I ain’t doin’ that type of shit.”

Dr. Octagonecologyst may have been Keith’s commercial and critical peak, but First Come, First Served is his finest work. It sees Keith murdering his Octagon persona and it is the key document to understanding the internal, discordant forces that drove Keith to both maddening heights and a heightened, yet corrosive, madness. The album finds Kool Keith at his most volatile. He was never more threatening and certainly never more macabre. First Come, First Served is a dark sonic mirror, a reflection of Keith’s most acidic phantom, Dr. Dooom, – a homicidal cannibal fueled by vengeance and Flintstones vitamins – Keith himself in the thinnest of disguises.

Part of the magic of First Come, First Served, Keith’s Houdini-like ability to blind with perplexity, might be traced to the filterless nature of his approach. There are no buffers between the notions that spring to Keith’s mind and jump from his tongue, and what the listener takes home. Which is to say, every time you play First Come, First Served you are treated to an unedited glimpse into the intellect of one of the most fascinating personalities in all of music.

First Come, First Served is the most biting exhibition of lyricism Keith ever put to tape. A gorgeous mess of driving insults, reeling lunacy, and mental monstrosities that dwarf the content of even his own back catalogue. It is a horrific rendition of every sinister idea that ever passed through Keith’s head. An unparalleled performance of words, sweat, hatred, confidence, and humor—explosions of ideas that are simultaneously alarming and comforting, terrifying and enticing, radical and everyday, high and low art. The record is chocked full of these moments, uncanny bouts of healthy insanity—flashes of sultry shadow that welcome curiosity and reward examination. It is through these moments of restraint, and with delayed snippets of concentrated darkness, that Keith can conjure intrigue without instilling exhaustion. It is an artful feat of lithe poetic dexterity, one that never ceases to impress.

‘No Chorus’, the opening cut on First Come, First Served, is arguably Keith’s most sharply perfected moment, on it Keith’s bottomless disgust for the content of mainstream hip-hop is laid out in ornate detail:

“What the fuck was in your mind when you rapped on that track?
Who possessed you to do that? Who programmed – that shit sound wack
Unplug your mic
You motherfuckers rap under a bunch of fuckin hype
Programmed by the company, makin’ somethin’ cheap
Vocals sound like a nigga’ with no dough and a promo;
makin’ asses out of yourselves, tryin’ to rap solo”

“I’ma tell you straight, look in the fuckin’ mirror, you wack
That shit don’t sound right, the mix-down ain’t right.
Your vocals are too low…the fuckin’ cadence is off…
Stage shows weak. Fuck You”

It should be remembered as one of the most devastating attacks in all of rap, a prodding, razor-sharp indictment of the pitfalls endemic to commercial hip-hop, and the ways in which sub-par talents are overexposed in an attempt deepen pocket books.

It is when Kool Keith is most free, free to be himself, free to not be himself, that he creates his most compelling music. Here, on First Come, First Served, Keith was on his own label (Funky Ass) and presumably granted the richest measure of creative control he ever enjoyed; it shows. First Come, First Served is Keith’s Metal Machine Music, the record he always wanted to make, his “Fuck You” moment.

Black Elvis/Lost In Space

“My game is cut through, plastic come, we can see through
Disco music, Jazz loops, I ain’t tryin’ to be you”

A clear line can be traced from Dr. Octagonecologyst to First Come, First Served; but certainly not to Black Elvis/Lost In Space. The album has no precedent within Keith’s discography; it may have no precedent anywhere. In the context of rap at large, the record is a velveteen black sheep in a herd of simpler, blander cogs. Black Elvis/Lost in Space shows Keith displaying an entirely new set of chops, a sprawl of seductive charms and technical feats that makes one thing quite clear: Keith does not have to be confrontational to be dynamic.

For Black Elvis/Lost in Space Keith channels a Technicolor entourage of influences – from (you guessed it) Elvis to Little Richard, even Bowie’s celestial guises can be found here – and, given his reputation, gears his new persona in a wildly peaceable direction.

Black Elvis/Lost In Space is weirdness as suaveness, and smoothness as ludicrousness. It is kooky, campy, kitschy, and profound. It is a joke on itself. A caricature of its own weakest moments, which are also undoubtedly its firmest strengths. For the first time in his solo career, Keith himself grabs the reins of production and in doing so clearly distinguishes this record from the lot. The production is noticeably more minimal, yet technically far more rich—a clear intention to distance himself from the gritty textures of both Octagon and Dooom. There is a glossy trait to the sound, a streamlined sheen that grants the album an elevated sonic palette. It is a most welcome breath of fresh air in a career framed by octane fumes.

Beyond the superficial themes and ego-shift there is a stark brilliant-white difference between what goes on here and anything else he did before, or after. That harshness, that immediacy that is normally tied to rap is all but muted. Instead the listener is treated to an entirely different sort of experience. It is something hard to put down on paper, something keenly crisp; an electro dub atmosphere, an all-direction aural haunt that fills every space not already preoccupied by words. It’s a beatific sci-fi ode to sex-funk and erotic jazz that while owing its tone to the past looks unwaveringly to the future. There is nothing quite like it in all of hip-hip; it is a mutation of the genre in which it is supposedly housed.

After Black Elvis/Lost in Space – Keith’s one-off excursion into pop form – each record veered further off course. The individualized path he had so exactly devised with practiced abnormality was lost to him. From here on out Kool Keith, the renegade, the innovator, the absurd lyrical painter, could scarcely be seen, absorbed by the unstable tangle of intricacies that were the world inside his head. For all intents and purposes, he was gone after this, absent from his own records, dead. Sadly, he was to be abandoned by himself and left in the lonely company of animosity.

It is said that resentment is the only thing that eats its own container. With that in mind, Kool Keith isn’t so much self-destructive as he is self-digestive. Eccentricity was Keith’s gateway to brilliance, but would also serve as an all too convenient exit door—a paved pathway to eventual disenchantment. It’s very simple, for Kool Keith hip-hop went wrong, went terribly and unforgivably wrong.

To his mind, the sounds and words he put out into the world should have changed things for good, and for the good. Lamentably, in the large scheme of things they didn’t have the lasting affect (at least on the mainstream) that he had come to expect. He made albums that set minds on fire; and he made albums that could have set the world on fire, had anyone been listening. Sure, in some rarefied corners of the world he commands numerous followers, and many cultish hip-hop elitists hold him in the highest regard, but contextually speaking his reach is puny, and grossly insufficient in comparison to what he surely hoped for.

This misestimating of rap’s fate spawned an endless stream of toxic resentment. This hatred drove Kool Keith to distraction. As time passed his frustration fermented and his resentment soured. Kool Keith rotted in his own sick. In due course, Keith’s skill and determination muddled together and grew fuzz. This putrefaction can be traced through the devolution on display in his work throughout the last decade. No more prevalent is this degradation than on his most recent release, Love and Danger; a work that is an apex of the frenzied embitterment and the unstable, incongruent material that has defined Keith’s music as of late. There are undoubtedly flashes of the raw creative power inherit in Keith’s DNA, but ultimately the result is like that of a fractured kaleidoscope—an endless stream of brilliant hues now broken together into a fragmented, jumbled anarchy. Love and Danger is Kool Keith deconstructed, an audible example of genius pushed to dementia.

Kool Keith’s unquenchable urge to invent, create, and remain virulently individual eventually succumbed to, and was outlasted by, his predisposition toward resentment. This ruinous compulsion was crippling. He was eaten from the inside out by a profound disgust for his livelihood—a cancer born from a sharpened sense of betrayal.
Keith ultimately proved defenseless against the brutality of his own ire. It was as if the slew of identities he had bred over the years finally turned on him; the personifications of self-destructive impulses cannibalized him into incompetence.

So, why should anyone care that Keith’s career is over, what of substance has been lost? The taboo truth is that Kool Keith’s species of expression is one that hits home harder than most of us care to admit, appealing to the darker, less humane, but more human, caverns of our personality, those places we try to conceal even, and especially, from ourselves. That is, the part of our psyche that wishes we could slash this tire, assault that enemy, ensnare the unwilling object of our sexual interest. It is by means of virtual exploration and mental escape that most people gratify these primal, unsocial urges that, to one extent or another, drive the human experience; and it is in this necessarily therapeutic manner that Keith’s unscrupulous and unfiltered imagination bridges the gaping void between our unsavory desires and the need to actualize them. By running the uncivilized concepts of revenge, deviance, violence, deception, arrogance, and disdain through an art form and some ill-begot humor, Keith allows, nay coerces us, to confront long-ignored realms of the self.

James Hillman wrote, “The ideas we have but don’t know we have, have us.” In his own way, Keith pulls off the social dress, and exposes the private parts of our own imaginations; and we are better for it, gifted with a previously unknown level of clarity about the nature of ourselves and the manner in which we relate with our environment—freed from the oppression of our repression. By hearing and sharing in Keith’s indulgent fantasies listeners can better understand their own. In some round about manner, it is in virtue of Kool Keith that his fans can know something more about themselves than they did before. What more could one want from an artist, from music?

“The last song, I guess was written’ wrong”

…a puzzling end.

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2 Responses to Lost In Translation: A Look at KOOL KEITH

  1. Bobby Power on November 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    This is so great

  2. Jonathan Patrick on November 26, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Appreciated

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