Kool Keith has been the lovable weirdo of Hip Hop since the formation of the highly influential Ultramagnetic MCs in 1984. Since then, he has been making distinctive music throughout every decade of hip hop, earning him a cultish following along with iconic status. His outspoken personality and strong convictions have made him a breath of real air amongst musical smog. Fusicology got him on the phone to discuss his new album, Love and Danger, skinny jeans and the state of the culture.
Fusic: The new album is entitled Love and Danger. Are we to assume that the two go hand-in-hand?
Kool Keith: This album is different to me because instead of me just rappin’ on stuff, which I like to do sometimes, this time, I worked on choruses. The bridges. Like I could’ve just rapped on them, but I put some good choruses on these records. That’s one thing that I think a lot of rappers can’t really make, is quick choruses. I always had the lyrical part of the song, that was no problem.
Fusic: Did that come easy to you or did you have to push yourself?
Kool Keith: I used to just spit on a record for 72 bars…a lot of rappers are still learning that you can’t do a record with 80 bars with no choruses. I do that sometimes just for lyrical practice but I worked on some choruses this time so people can get more in dimension with the song. Like when you hear “Miami”, I did breakdown, some singing parts. Which I’m good at that, most of the time, I think my choruses are pretty good.
A few people can do good choruses. Like 50 Cent is good at making good choruses. I do the same thing as well. For years, I’ve been good for doing my choruses for my records. I don’t bring somebody in. Some people always gotta bring somebody in, like they gotta hire some guy to come and sing on the hook for them, I don’t do that. I can do the job of a pop R&B artist coming in and doing the chorus, I save myself the time and the headache of trying to get in touch with some R&B artist that’s stuck up and they might not wanna do it, but I do it better than them.
So it shows my flexibility. You got a lot of artists that are good at rappin’ but they can’t sing as well and still be good, it’s either they can sing or they can rap.
Fusic: In the song “New York” you have a verse that says “Can I have my own autograph please?” Have you ever given yourself your own autograph?
Kool Keith: I do it all the time. I write my name over and over on a piece of paper. Just to see…like when I’m writing lyrics, its a different type of penmanship. I used to write my songs over after I wrote them. First, I would write the song, scratch it out and write it over again, I used to write all my songs over after like three versus. Now I don’t do it no more because it takes too much time.
Fusic: You have a NY song and a Miami song on your new album. If you were to have made an LA song, what would you say on it?
Kool Keith: Well, the Sex Styles album is really about California, a lot of it. I use a lot of porn references when I make LA records ’cause you know, I’ll be sitting by the pool, porn stars feedin’ me lemonade, stuff like that. I have different perspectives cause I’ve traveled to different cities, so traveling to different places has opened my mind up a lot to write on an international level. So I have experience with seeing different places, where a lot of rappers, they can’t really rap about it too much because they’ve never had international relations. Me, I can write, I’ve been to a lot of places.
Fusic: You’ve always spoken about record labels/industry being fucked up. has the situation gotten worse to you as an artist or do you see improvements in the game?
Kool Keith: Well, the last couple of projects that I’ve put out were independents, I was more successful without record labels, so I didn’t have too many encounters with record labels. So I was pretty street the last five, six years. The last 8 years.
Fusic: Ultramagnetic came out in the early 80’s, you’ve basically been around in every era of hip hop. What was your favorite era and do you think hip hop can be saved at this point?
Kool Keith: I think the golden age was the best because it had a lot of variety, we had more variety and creativity. Everybody was comin’ with their own creativeness.
Now, everybody do one thing: either just champagne or partyin’, now everybody’s on every record, wanna be gangsta on every record. Or everybody’s smokin’ weed on every song, so that’s what we got now, so I think back then we had more variety, we had more differentiation and creativity, and everybody was more talented a little bit, I hope that comes back, but in music, everybody’s doing new stuff, which is cool, everybody’s makin’ new songs, that part of it, I don’t have a problem.
Fusic: Black Elvis vs. Elvis Prestley
Kool Keith: When i made Black Elvis, the blueprint, the record company took it the wrong way, they took it in a comedic form. I mean Black Elvis was to be the Elvis Prestley in rap, not Elvis’ music, but Elvis’ form of, just in the industry, travelin’, going to Vegas, tour bus, all the white girls (laughs), but a black guy doing the same thing. The persona of a rap star, that was it basically. The nightlife. The rock nightlife.
Fusic: One of the most special things about you that all of us as hip hop fans appreciate is all of your different aliases, that’s the most creative shit, also you’re one of the first people to come up with mad aliases. So I would like to ask you a few questions and if you could tell me which one of your aliases would do these things:
*Which one would not be a fan of Prince?
Kool Keith: I would say Dr. Octagon.
*Which one would be down to herd sheep as a side gig?
Kool Keith: Maybe Dr. Doom
*Which one would wear skinny jeans and a mohawk and which one would kill that one?
Kool Keith: Skinny jeans and a mohawk, that would be Fly Ricky.
*alright, and which one would kill skinny jeans?
Kool Keith: I think Dr. Doom would kill skinny jeans. It’s funny though, let me re-iterate. The skinny jeans thing is a part of hip hop, but…I do have a total campaign against skinny jeans, because I think they’re jeans tighter than a woman’s basically, they’re tighter than your jeans, but…I don’t root rappers wearing them.
Of course i’m not wearing baggy pants that are like “urban baggy” but I think the skinny jeans…I don’t think that rap has to qualify for skinny jeans. They makin’ it seem like every rapper that has to be approved official now, in this time, has to have on skinny jeans.
They could still be punk rock, or village So Ho with a belt and a nice shirt, whatever, a t-shirt and a snap-back and with the latest sneakers on and still be a part of the hip hop movement, but you don’t have to totally go and put those tiny little pants on your body, you look like a Keebler elf.
It looks weird when you see guys with ’em, but they makin’ rap feel like it has to go that way. It’s a cartoon character too, they got big giant sneakers on and little pants that don’t even fit over the sneaker. I never thought we would come to that era when then guys’ pants are tighter than a woman’s. Like my pants are tighter than yours and i’m huggin’ you and aggressively walkin’ up the street with you: I can’t get used to it.
I refuse to submit to that part of rap.
Fusic: I think the whole skinny jeans things is a good metaphor for all of hip hop right now. It just shows you where the jeans have gone, the music has pretty much gone down the same road.
Kool Keith: Yeah, in the fashion world, like when you go in the store, you have no flexibility, they don’t even offer boot cut, they don’t even offer flair, True Religion and a lot of these other companies, they should still have a variety cause the young kid automatically has no options, they only give them that option to pick a skinny pair of jeans, I think that’s kind of gross right there.
And it also pushes kids towards maybe another route of finding themselves…I think it pushes a lot of kids towards other ways of being other than maybe a man, they might feel like, “These jeans are tight, I sometimes feel like i can go be feminine” or something. it’s too close to be feeling, too close for comfort.
It’s almost like saying, “We makin’ panties for men now, get used to it.” I don’t think people should take that and be comfortable. I think that’s something to really think about, I mean, would you make those skinny jeans for a little baby, that’s a newborn? The guy who’s creating that should have a real optic view about that. That’s something, that’s an issue.
I don’t think that’s too positive.
Fusic: When you’re in the recording booth, say you’re in there as Dr. Octagon, for instance, what happens to all the other alter egos when you’re recording as a specific one? Do they go into other dimensions?
Kool Keith: Well, when I’m woking on something, I have a week of free spirit when I make songs that are totally not going towards the character. In the studio, I might lock into one person.
And then I’ll go back to like, making neutral stuff that can go anywhere, it’ll just be neutral. It’s like you have a different variety of sodas, one day you like grape, one day you like cherry, and one day you make some regular songs that’s clear water, they’re clear, attached to nothin’, it goes down the street and goes down the middle. Then some go right, and some go left. But I usually record regular songs, out the box, with no concept. Makin’ 20 songs about just random things, so I don’t feel like its a concept.
Then I have a concept time. But being out of concept is a vacation for me sometimes. Cause somebody will give you a project like, “I need you to write 12 songs about a lion.” I’ll be like, “its a job, now.”
Fusic (laughs): Does it go down a lot like that, where you have to do mad songs about a limited topic?
Kool Keith: I hate to meet even a rapper sometimes, when he wants to do a collabo and he’s like “I want you to write this song about a cat, I want you to talk about my black cat the whole record. Let’s go back and forth…”
That’s a job, it gets to be a job, Or, “I wanna do a song about a rat” like the whole song. It’s hard to do a whole album about a rat. And you know, I think sometimes people get a little carried away with it, it gets hard sometimes.
Its funny, the people that pay you more money are less conceptual. Like you can get a bigger sum of money from a big rock band and they’re like “Hey, just go in there and say what you like!” And then you can meet somebody that wanna give you a hard time for like, so much less. They’ll be like, “Hey, I need this song written about my hamster…talk about his legs and his eyes, and what he eats, talk about the food in his cage, and habit trail…” and you’re like, “Wow, this is a job.”
Fusic: What’s the craziest thing someone’s asked you to write about?
Kool Keith: There’s so many, some people want me you write about, like, “Lets write about SuperFly…let’s do a whole record about being a pimp.” It gets to be a little too out of order sometimes. I don’t mind…Octagon was conceptual but it was conceptual in a free way. The lyrics was all over the place but it was the skits that made it popular.
Just like with Love and Danger, it’s free, kind of. Concept sometimes holds you in a limit because you gotta stay in the range of somebody’s concept, “Ahh, they want you to write a song about a garbage bag” and you gotta write 3 versus about this garbage bag. They pick some stuff that don’t really have a lot of dimension to it, which makes it extra hard. Like how much can you write about a garbage bag?
Fusic: You must get that more than any other person, I bet people flock to you for that shit…
Kool Keith: Well, a lot of people have weird beats that the normal rapper wouldn’t rap on which they think I would rap on. Like they have a beat that they wouldn’t show the average rapper…you got weird producers and they think they got a Willie Wonka creative beat that they feel like you should rap on.
I have a selective selection of beats that I like to rap on also. Some people think that I like any kind of record. They might pick some trash, and they feel like “Let me try to get Keith on the phone for this record.” Sometimes I wanna say, “Why don’t you pass that to Rakim and see what he says?” just to get an answer, just to see what he tells them.
I usually say something like, “Pass it to KRS” and they can get the message like, “I bet you he won’t do it,” to make them see I’m different but I don’t think that you should feel comfortable that I’m so different that I would rap on this track you made that sounds totally crazy.
Like I got a distinctive music but it has a conformity of some sort that makes it listenable. It’s different but it’s listenable- different. So if some guy makes something different but it sounds so crazy that you’re like, “Turn that off, that’s not being different, that’s being crazy, that’s being different like retarded”
But you can’t even play that in the human society. You made something that sounds just so weird that maybe you and your cat should listen to it or somethin’ like that. Sit in the room with your dog and close the door in the dark and play it. You can’t sit around and play it in front of a bunch of girls, you can’t play it in front of a civilized crowd.
Like Octagon is different but you can play “Girl Let Me Touch You” in a big, packed audience of people. But if you’re making something that just sounds crazy, sounds running all through it, and the drums don’t match, and it’s like, you’re trying’ to be different, its not natural different. Like you’re trying to be so different that you made some wack music. Like you trying to say “I’m gonna make this so wack, that it’s gonna stand out.”
So a lot of people are doing that also, they’re making something so crazy that its out of whack a little bit, it’s wacko.
Fusic: There should be a method to the madness. It can’t be scattered all over the place.
Kool Keith: Well, people forget I make the records that I make, the baselines go with the drums and the stuff sounds good to the ear. Like I remember my friend one time, he told me he got some beats from a guy, somebody gave him a tape of beats, like anytime you got a producer who gives you a cd with 30 beats on it…it should be like a good 5 or 7. Sometimes producers give me like, 15 beats and I didn’t like one of them. All over the place stuff on every track. Like every track comes on, fast forward. Fast forward.
Fusic: On that note, who would you say are your top five hip hop producers of all time and why?
Kool Keith: 1. Me 2. Ray West 3. Neptunes 4. Beats By The Pound 5. Mr. Sche. Beats By The Pound to me is like the original beats from the South. And this is my top 5.
Fusic: Anything you’d like to add?
Kool Keith: It feels like it’s going to be an official solo year, my last album.
Fusic: Are you saying that this is your last album that you plan to release, did I hear that right?
Kool Keith: Well, as far as that, I mean, I’ve recorded a lot of records, I’ve made a lot of songs…but I feel like, what I do is on my twitter, I have a lot of treats that I put out, I have a bowl of what I call “candy” that I put out up on twitter, it keeps me current. I’m always dropping something fresh out the oven. Out the microwave oven. It shows how I stay up with the times.
I think this is probably the moment for me to sign out. I’m quite sure it would be a shock.
Fusic: I’m shocked.
Kool Keith: I felt like rap wasn’t competitive, I’m more into competition.
Interview by: Ani Yapundzhyan