Published Jan 01, 2006"People want to visually, in their mind, make you from somewhere else," says the elusive yet firmly Earth-grounded Kool Keith. "Like, they want to make you from space or make you from a suburban town. They want to imagine you came from Cape Cod or imagine you came from Arizona." While none of this is true Keith, who launched his career as a member of the legendary Ultramagnetic MCs in the late 80s, grew up in the Bronx his abundance of alter-egos have certainly fanned the flames of misconception. Welcome to the ego trip-acid trip reality of Kool Keith, Rhythm X, Dr. Octagon, Black Elvis, and about a dozen others.
Although consistently five steps ahead of what's going on in the next recording booth, Kool Keith's divide-self-and-conquer approach to music has contributed to the notion that any specific work is less personal or meaningful than the last. "Most of my albums are about who I am," he explains wistfully. "When people listen to Octagon and my other albums they get stuck because those were moments that played a part in something. It's like Bruce Willis I accept him in Die Hard and I accept him playing in any other movie. I can't just say that Die Hard is his career."
Tupac Shakur's allusion to a rose that grew from concrete roots seems particularly appropriate to Keith's coming-of-age experiences in the Bronx, as the rapper witnessed hip-hop's golden age glory amidst the poverty and corruption of a project unchecked. Like a vicious (sub)urban legend, the notion that a pompous, privileged Kool Keith was somehow sprawled out in a deck chair during this period is ironic at best and misguided at worst. Though the artist's tendency to rhyme off the beaten path has been his own worst enemy in the area of misinformation, the fossil record, culled from the likes of Ultramagnetic MCs landmark Critical Beatdown (1988), reveals the unmitigated break-beat truth. "In 86, we were walking past crack-heads every night and people were getting robbed on the elevator," he says, recalling the earliest Beatdown sessions. "And then we went up to the studio to record Ego Trippin.' It was crazy."
Following a much-publicised split from Ultra in the early 90s, Keith's star continued to rise, powered by such exigent solo works as Dr. Octagon's Octagonecologyst and Black Elvis' Lost in Space. While an Ultra reunion has remained the subject of much speculation and jonesing internet discussion for years now, the once even-riding Four Horsemen have yet to find any significant common ground. "It's hard because you have to marinate with people who haven't been in the music industry for a long time," he explains. "And [those same individuals] haven't even taken the time to notice that I've been out doing things and have been active."
Most recent on Keith's bustling agenda is White Label Mix Series Volume 1, a curiously crunk-laden collaboration with female vocalist Nancy Des Rose. A sort of tribute to the jiggle-pop sensibilities pioneered in the South, the disc makes no apologies for its murky keyboards and all-around more accessible sound. But this latest sonic knee-jerk should come as no surprise from the Bronx native, who has long been outspoken about too many present-day rappers doing too much of the same thing. "It's like, the underground people are mad because they say commercial [hip-hop] is trendy," he cracks. "But these same damn people wear backpacks. Same damn people burn incense. Same damn people smoke weed. Same damn people try to walk around looking like India.Arie. That shit to me is trendy." Change my pitch up, smack my bitch up, indeed.