Ask Kool Keith what he thinks about the current state of hip-hop, and the rapper does not mince words.
"I think it's at a standstill," he laments. "We're at a very uncreative point in hip-hop right now. The videos are trendy, the music is trendy, everybody is doing the same things."
Well, everybody, that is, but Kool Keith, an artist who has been going against the grain for the better part of a decade and a half now. Keith first came to prominence in the mid-1980s as the leader of the influential and intellectual Ultramagnetic MCs. Rising out of the potent New York birthplace of the genre not long after that very birth itself, UMCs quickly became critics' favorites, though much like fellow revolutionary contemporaries Gang Starr, the group lacked the major commercial accolades many felt it deserved.
When the group disbanded in 1993 after the release of its third disc, The Four Horsemen, Keith quickly established himself as a prolific solo artist and collaborator, with a penchant for the unorthodox. Much like David Bowie a generation before, he adopted different personalities and characters, making every disc and single like a role-playing game, a disco Dungeons & Dragons, if you will.
A few projects escaped total obscurity, such as Dr. Octagon (picked up by Dreamworks for two discs) and his last-seen alter ego Black Elvis, replete with a molded King-like fake mane, under which he issued Black Elvis/Lost In Space through Ruffhouse/Columbia last year. But more projects with different combinations of his 16-odd characters wound up like his Ultra venture with Tim Dog, released on a small, primarily gospel label.
Ultimately, every project with Kool Keith's name on it could be counted on for combining deft rhyming skills with instrumentation as unique as his multiple-personalities. This included real musicians backing him up, not just two turntables and a microphone, which is a departure from the current hip-hop norm. "People are just uncreative," Keith says and shrugs. "Everyone in the past made their own music; I don't know why rap doesn't need musicians, why it's so bad. I think that sampling is lazy. I don't know how anyone could call themselves an artist if all they do is sample."
While the litany of characters did offer Keith notoriety among the more scholarly hip-hop fans and the same alternative rock audience that also grooved to the likes of Basehead, The Goats and Chapel Hill's own The Veldt, major success has eluded him.
If given a chance, Keith will complain about how he was marketed by clueless labels, though you can understand how difficult it is to position an artist who has one of his personalities (Dr. Dooom) kill off another. He even went so far as to circulate the personal e-mail addresses of several Sony executives to his fan club and Web site (http://www.koolkeith.net) and encourage fans to e-mail them asking to support the Black Elvis album. Whether this was a factor, Keith is no longer with Ruffhouse.
"I think (the fans are) just visually confused, maybe with my album covers," Keith concedes. "A lot of the visuals I have been tagged with were not the norm, and I think most of the rap audience had trouble with them right there before they ever listened to the music."
You would have to concur with this assessment even if you only looked at the Black Elvis cover, which depicts a green-hued Keith seemingly freshly beamed in from an episode of Star Trek. This is not exactly an image that appeals to rap fans who take pride in a down-to-earth vibe and "keeping it real." You might say Keith does his best to keep it surreal.
"It kind of backfired," he continues. "Everyone was asking me what characters I was going to come up with, and it became a joke vibe, a gimmick. And that wasn't the intent. I wanted it to be serious.
"I finally was like, do people like me because I'm silly, or they think I'm trying to be silly?" he asks rhetorically. "Or can people be down with me when I'm real?"
Right now, Kool Keith is trying to find the answer to these questions as he dons a persona that he hadn't spent a lot of time being lately: himself.
"I'm getting rid of the wig," he says, laughing. "I'm done with characters, and I'm going back to my original roots. So now I'm going back to Keith. I've got the Kangol, the fur--a reflection of myself, what I wear when I go to the grocery store, not a character."
Fortunately, while Keith's experimentation and eclecticity might have cost him in terms of record sales, it has done nothing to dampen the respectful enthusiasm of his peers. In the past couple of years, Keith has collaborated with artists as disparate as alternative funk-folk icon Beck, hard-core Wutang Clanster Ol' Dirty Bastard and electronica acts Hardkiss and Prodigy. (His was the voice threatening to "Smack My Bitch Up".)
In addition, the Red Hot Chili Peppers personally invited Kool Keith to open a leg of their dates with The Foo Fighters. That tour hits Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek on Sunday, June 11, although Keith is doing clubs on off-nights, and will headline the Cat's Cradle the Saturday before as well.
At both shows, expect to hear some new material from his next album, which will be released on his own Funky Ass Records. Even the title shows the introspective turn the rapper is taking. "I'm calling it Matthew, which is my middle name," the rapper who was originally known as Keith Thornton says. "I decided to get more into the music than the visuals, a decision made easier since nobody seemed to get the characters. The result was an emphasis on the music, and an album and show which is much more solid musically than anything I have done in some time, probably ever."
That Keith's personality changes actually became his personality in and of itself cannot be dismissed, however, and while Kool Keith is quite happy being himself ("That wig was hot onstage," he quips), he already sees that some people are still confused.
"I am me," he says, "and you know what? That's bugging people out too! But that's OK. When Matthew comes out, I think everyone will be real happy."