Musically speaking, there are at least two kinds of visionaries. First there are those who, like Kurt Cobain or Chuck D., see how things are in the world and describe those things eloquently. Then there are visionaries like Brian Wilson and Kool Keith who see whole different worlds inside their heads and try to let them out.
In Keith's case, the vision began during his tenure as a member of the Ultramagnetic MCs, a space-age, intergalactic, Hip Hop crew whose 1988 song, "Give the Drummer Some," contained the "smack my bitch up" lyric that Prodigy sampled to some controversy last year.
Since penning that memorable line, Keith has adopted and inhabited various characters with aplomb, such as a serial killer on his recently self-released Dr. Dooom and the time-traveling, Jupiter-born gynecologist on 1996's critically acclaimed Dr. Octagon. Now, having "killed" the Dr. Octagon character on the Dooom record, Keith puts on a plastic pompadour wig and sticks his neck out on his latest release, Black Elvis/Lost in Space.
Keith is, to put it mildly, eccentric. In a half-hour conversation he rarely stays on topic, circling around the periphery, making his point about the record industry by discussing soundtracks and "political climates." He speaks in almost his own language, where tone and inflection are as important as the actual words he chooses. Even with the clarity of thought on his albums and his wicked sense of humor, he seems an unlikely savior of Hip Hop.
"I understand myself," Keith says at one point, before admitting he's, well, different. "I like to hang out and do regular things and go look in the malls. (But) I have weird timing. One minute I'll be going to buy a pack of M&Ms, and the next minute I'll be trying to go to anything that's totally different, time wise. I'm not predicted to eat breakfast at 9 o'clock in the morning, I might get a box of cereal at midnight. I'll go have a different taste for something different at a very weird expectation time."
He also shows his taste for something different on his records. His music gives nods to his old-school roots. Instead of sampling a song wholesale (are you paying attention, Will Smith?), Keith uses simple keyboards and organs, lots of fuzzed Moogs, and basic drum patterns to keep the mix from being cluttered. Tunes are built layer by elementary layer and centered on Keith's outlandish rhymes, which tackle lesser MCs, office work and conformity. They are sometimes nothing more than just colorful strings of words. In a Rap climate of brags and boasts, Keith really does seem like an alien.
"Everybody is programmed like a robot. I'm not trendsetting in my standards of life. Even when it comes to choosing clothing and colors and what I want to wear for the day. Even if it's an outfit or a basketball jersey," he explains. "It's like a trend. Everybody will buy a Chicago Bulls uniform, or everybody will go buy the Lakers or the Knicks jersey because they're common. But me, I'll buy the expansion team's. If a new basketball team came out tomorrow, I'm going to buy the jersey because it's different, and it looks obnoxious to the human eye.
"I prey on the alternate, I like that. I like when everybody else is trying to be wearing a bald head, I go grow an afro. I like when everybody wears an afro, and I go bald-headed or I wear a wig."
"I love the energy of it," he continues. "I love being unique. I feel that I'm doing things that, people are eventually going to follow me anyway, but it's just my way of doing it. I'm not the normal type of artist. I live in the era of (adopts nerdy voice) 'I gotta make the R&B record that's nice. I gotta wear the clothes that match the video background. It has to be a beautiful, lovely background.' (For me) it has to be unorthodox at all times. People like peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches — it's common. Milk and cereal is common. I may mix Sprite with my Hawaiian Punch. I crave a different taste. I like different things. I like to make something new. I feel good."
He may change his look and moniker as he looks for new flavors, but the concepts don't outweigh the music: They just provide different jumping-off points. While Black Elvis is not as unified as Octagon or Dooom, Keith could rap the contents of a medical dictionary and make it sound funky. As Black Elvis he addresses the real-life music industry and an altogether illusory counterpart in which he's as big as the King himself. One minute he anxiously waits for his record to come out, plans the marketing and touring and demands that his posters be as "big as the Beastie Boys." The flow of the song is choppy and fast, but Keith never loses direction, even as his fantasies begin to overtake reality. Soon Black Elvis is turning down recording sessions with Prince and drinking beer with Steven Spielberg and Garth Brooks.
"I don't need a lot of individuals to make a record; I'm a group within myself," Keith says. "Whereas a lot of groups have to collaborate and be with a lot of different people, I think I have so much energy within myself. I like Black Elvis. I think it's totally entertaining to myself. It gives Rap something different. It's not the same thing actually being seen. I'm just saying there are different compartments to choose from. You don't have to be locked into, 'I'm thugged out.' Or how much ice (diamonds) I have, how many houses I own — there's other parts of Rap, there's other subjects."
And in the background a familiar squiggly keyboard sound is heard. Keith, are you listening to your own record?
"Of course," he laughs. "I listen to my music all the time."
It's Keith's world. We're just lucky to get the occasional transmission from it.
KOOL KEITH is at Annie's on Sept. 9 with DJ Spooky.