More unpredictable than Sybil, more sex-crazed than Larry Flynt, Kool Keith has released records under so many different pseudonyms that even his diehard fans have a hard time keeping track. The talented rapper/producer/instrumentalist ended the last millennium with the hilarious and inventive album Black Elvis/Lost in Space. Outfitted in a shiny plastic pompadour and bottlefly green suits, Black Elvis is the latest in a series of alter-egos that have consumed Kool Keith over the years: large-and-in-charge Big Willie Smith (a.k.a. Willie Biggs), the futuristic Dr. Octagon, the menacing Dr. Dooom. That’s not even counting his seminal work with the Ultramagnetic MCs, and his collaborations with the likes of Sir Menelik, Bobbito Garcia, Kutmasta Kurt, and DJ Spooky.
Born Keith Thornton in the boogie-down Bronx, the MC grew up to a soundtrack of Slave, Con Funk Shun, and other funk bands. His bizarre lyrical flights of fancy first made a splash in the mid-‘80s with the innovative Ultramagnetic MCs (which also featured Ced Gee and DJ Moe Love). Creating classics like “Ego-trippin’” and “Space Groove,” the Bronx trio went from block-party staples to major-label stars, releasing three albums before disbanding in the early ‘90s. The UMCs’ place in history is secure: they were the first group to use a sampler as an instrument, and the first hip-hop act to employ extensive live instrumentation. (It’s the UMCs, and Keith specifically, that The Prodigy sampled on the controversial “Smack My Bitch Up.”)
Never one to rest on his laurels, Keith immediately set to work on an EP with Bobbito and Godfather Don. The three called themselves the Cenubites (sometimes spelled Cenobites), and their self-titled seven-track debut was one of the earliest releases on Bobbito’s own Fondle ’Em label. At the same time, Keith had taken on another persona, the beat terrorist Big Willie Smith. Yet he continued to record under his original moniker, contributing to Guru’s acclaimed 1995 compilation Jazzmatazz II.
The same year, he released Earth People, his debut as Dr. Octagon, a scatologically obsessed gynecologist from the year 3000 who travels back in time, creating mayhem with his unnecessary operations. This and subsequent singles quickly became underground smashes, thanks to Keith’s warped, intricate rhymes and the beat prowess of Dan “The Automator” Nakamura (with scratching by the Invisibl Skratch Piklz’ DJ Q-Bert). Released on the small San Francisco indie Bulk Records, the Dr. Octagon full-length also found its way onto the Mo’ Wax label in the UK, which released an instrumental version as well. DreamWorks signed the mad MD and re-released his album in 1997 with extra cuts, bringing Keith into the mainstream once more. Feeling that the Jack the Ripper-like character had become too successful for his own good, Keith promptly killed off Dr. Octagon on the opening track of First Come, First Served, his 1999 album under the name Dr. Dooom. By this time, the irrepressible rapper had launched his own record label, Funky Ass, home to his seemingly endless supply of distinctive characters.
On “Operation X (John Tejada's Built To Last Mix)" a brand-new track exclusive to MusicBlitz (courtesy of Palette Recordings), hip-hop’s space wizard creates an elaborate metaphor of life as a dangerous spy mission. Over a typically unique and funky sound collage, Keith describes hiding in foxholes, dodging bullets, and wiring explosives delivered via UPS. The result is a sharply absurdist portrait of everyday life: “Cover me while I go to the store...Hold these bombs and make yourself a bowl of Honeycomb.” Kool Keith’s latest effort bears out his own assertions: he’s the master of the game, all the girls know his name -- no matter how often he changes it.
-- Jackie McCarthy
Jackie McCarthy is the former music editor of Seattle Weekly, and writes about music and other topics for CMJ New Music Monthly, Seattle Weekly, and Resonance on paper, and CDNow and Wall of Sound on the web.