KOOL KEITH: FUTURISTIC FUNK STUFF
illustration by angie samblotte
Kool Keith is the Greatest Rapper Of All Time. From Ultramagnetic MCs’ first album Critical Beatdown in 1988 all the way up to his latest albums, Keith has had a huge impact and influence on the culture of hip-hop and on music and style in general. When I was 14, I first heard the song “Apt. 223” in a store called Workmen’s on Melrose down the street from my high school. It was a song off of his Dr. Dooom’s First Come First Served album. I said, “Yooooooooo who is this?” My boy Jeremy Swift who worked at the shop was like, “Oh, this is Kool Keith.” Been enjoyin’ his musical creativity ever since. So jump on your favorite search engine, do your research and play some of his shit as you read this. Kool Keith performs on Mon., Nov. 13, at the Teragram Ballroom. This archival interview conducted last fall for the release of Keith’s Feature Magnetic by the Koreatown Oddity a.k.a. Dominique Purdy.
I used to walk down Melrose and see you just like, walking—like a lot, randomly walking in different directions. We wondered, like, ‘Yo, he lives around here?’ Then somebody told us that you had two apartments, and one just had clothes and shoes in it.
Kool Keith: Yeah, yeah—when I lived in L.A. I was just always on Melrose. Or Hollywood Blvd. or something. And the Beverly Center. And Melrose is like the headquarters. The center of Hollywood, the hub. You go down and meet everybody on a Sunday or a Saturday. That was like the energy hub of Hollywood. I’ve walked through there lately, and I’m like, ‘This ain’t the same, man.’ Even when I first came to L.A. with Ced and Tim with Ultra, Melrose was packed. Everybody would be at Johnny Rockets standing pullin’ girls, like—
—yeah, Jamba Juice.
Kool Keith: Yeah, that was like the Girl Pickup Juice. You remember J&J Beepers on the corner? All that shit was a pickup. It was like the Strip, but the Strip still has so much electricity to it. You could run into everybody somewhere. A few hours out of the course of the day you gonna see a rapper come through there, you gonna see a famous person, you gonna see an actor—a ballplayer gonna come through there. You gonna exchange your number with somebody on Melrose. If you don’t go through Melrose, you probably wouldn’t get a lot of information. It’s like an information center. Hollywood Blvd. was like, cool, but it was just a tourist thing where people went to take pictures. Melrose was more the people that live in L.A.—everybody that live in L.A.
When you was in L.A., which albums did you record?
Kool Keith: I recorded Sex Style in L.A. That was the big album in L.A. when I was signed to Capitol, remember, with L-O 7 Self and Malik, and they had the Range Rovers, and Channel Live was signed to Capitol. It was just a big time for Capitol, and they signed Sex Style, which they never put out. I had a half a million dollars to sign with Capitol cuz they gave a living expense and everything. What happened was Capitol never put out Sex Style—they sat it on the shelf for a while, so basically I was livin’ in L.A. through Sex Style album, but it wasn’t even out yet. But I had got the budget for it and the money and all that.
So Sex Style was already done before you came to L.A., and Dr. Dooom…
Kool Keith: No, Sex Style wasn’t done—cuz I used to live in Beverly Hills, first working on Sex Style with Kurt, so we stayed behind the Beverly Center for a long time. Then when I moved, you used to see me on Melrose—me and Kurt still together for a minute but we broke up; we moved separately, that’s all. He went to Santa Monica and I stayed in Hollywood, and I stayed with Sunset. I liked that Sunset kind of grounded feeling. Something about Hollywood had a little dirt to it. Hollywood had that little dirty feel like, you know—the 7-11 and the Rock ‘n Roll Denny’s and all that. I stayed up there right by Rock ‘n Roll Denny’s, where the pimps be. All these girls used to be on the corner at night. It was more like an electric feel, or a movie feel—all the girls working up there on the corner, and you see a bunch of pimps from Oakland, but it was cool.
Yeah, it was a lot of pimping and prostitution going on up there.
Kool Keith: Oh yeah, Sunset was the whole strip, man. That was Saturday night, Friday night. Sometimes even Sunday night. Just, Friday night, man, you’d be like, ‘Sunset is lit up with six girls on each corner.’ Sunset and Martel where I used to live up there by the Rock ‘n Roll Denny’s, you know, Guitar Center. That’s where I stayed, right in the quiet block there. Which was cool. It was like, bat cave block, and then you’d walk up to the corner and see all this action.
So Sex Style was supposed to come first, but then Octagon and Dooom came before it.
Sex Style never came out, we just put it out independently. We shopped the album—Capitol just gave me the album back.
Damn! So they just paid you and they gave it back to you?
Kool Keith: Yup. Yup. They paid me and gave it back to me, which was good.
Did you do all the beats on the new Feature Magnetic?
Kool Keith: I did, except one or two—maybe ‘Tired’ and the ‘Mac Mall’ one, which was different; I like to allow another person to balance out something with another kind of sound, but I did most of the beats. The one with MF Doom I did. I mean, like you said, it’s pretty cool. But I always wanted to change the sound of the music for a minute and rap, especially—cause it was getting monotonous with the sound, like everybody in the music business had the same sound.
You always been humorous. Like, effortlessly.
Kool Keith: I never wanted to be. You know, some rappers kinda bring you down emotional, like some rappers wanna rap more about ‘Life is hard, my dog just passed away, my cat fell off the roof’—they write in a depressing way. Me, I like rapping about like … you know, colorful. I like to put in anything. I’ll write about a yellow Bugatti, you know? I’ll just put it in there. It sounds like a good story. You’ll put you and a character in something. You might write about me and the Channel 5 News anchorwoman—Kathy whoever. Me and her riding up the street, cruising up Melrose in the yellow Bugatti, getting ready to go to Beverly Center. I try to paint a picture just so people can be like, ‘This is a vivid color paragraph.’ It’s better than, ‘I pull my glock out.’ I don’t need to do all that, or I don’t need to talk sad like, ‘My cat just passed away and life is hard,’ cuz I already saw that in my life. ‘Life is hard, you know, mom’s ain’t got no food, welfare’s coming back, life is hard, life is hard, we gotta come together, I ain’t got no shoes.’ I mean, how many people wanna hear that, though? If it’s fantasy or fun, people wanna hear ‘I’m sitting in the Aliyah jet with computer digitals and flying over the Empire State Building and passing cars, it’s a miracle, I’m drinking two bottles of Moet, I’m in the Cessna 79S…’ People wanna hear like you doing the X-Men. Like you doing a movie.
Yeah—I forget which joint this is but you say, ‘My mom used to dress me and my brother Kevin like twins.’
Kool Keith: Yeah. [laughs] Everybody had that, right?
What? Like some twin outfits?
Kool Keith: Like everybody had that experience when they was little. You was little and you get the same hat?
Yo, that’s a good concept album—you as a twin of yourself dressed the same, and you both is two Keiths on one record.
Kool Keith: That’s why like, the album cover—you know, I put my son on the album and people was kinda mad about it in general. People was thinking, like, ‘Why you put him to look at that girl at that size?’ But check this out: I was at the Jets game the other day, and the little kids were sitting on the first row watching the Jets. But they had the cheerleaders on the field, twenty of them, but the kids was looking at them jumping up and down, they dresses coming up, so I was like … they was just looking like they was little kids, two-year-old kids, and I’m like, I put the concept up. What you see now is a lotta the rappers is like the character of him. They all got the pants on, and like little stuff with they hat backwards and like —they like a toy character. It’s like his image is like a rapper, so he really believes it. He got a hat flipped up, the attire, his whole life, he got big pants—they ain’t skinny, they baggy at the bottom, you know? The image is like … I made him look like the image of the character of them: ‘We still young and this is rap. Girls jock us, our hats are backwards.’ I put him in the same thing—I just made him a replica of the whole visual.
What are you listening to right now?
Kool Keith: I just listen to the stuff that I did and I listen to a lot of the stuff that I recorded and never played in a long time that I be like, ‘Wow, I made this?’ Cause what happens is when you make futuristic funk stuff, it never deteriorates. You could make a funk record maybe two years from now and play that shit two years ahead, and you’d be like, ‘Wow, this shit sounds new!’ Those records is like wine. They get better. You put it out and people think you made that shit yesterday, cuz it’s so ahead of time and funky, and the instruments that you using… cause when you making those kinda records, you’re using the keyboards that the average person ain’t touching.
What kind of keyboards?
Kool Keith: No, I’m saying—even if you using the same keyboard like a person that make records for a normal artist, you not using the same keys. The person making the records for regular top ten artists, you not using the same keys. You using a lot of outer patch keys away from the top forty artists. You not using the same keys as Usher and them. Beyonce’s only using the ‘industry’s keys’. The industry has a certain amount of sounds allotted out to Bruno Mars and all of them, and they all using the same sound of all the commercial artists.
You know a lot about the music industry—that’s what’s dope about hearing you rap. You mention some shit about a contract or a specific term that we don’t know about in the music industry. So you learn stuff from the raps, too. That’s the key thing. That’s what I think about, too. Like, what can people get out of these raps?
Kool Keith: Like a lot of the guys now got no information.
Kool Keith: Everything’s ‘My boy on my block and talking bout my block I’m throwing up that block,’ and they rapping, ‘I’m pulling out that Hennessy and…’ After the verse is over, you’re like, ‘They didn’t even say nothing.’ Like, ‘Well, he ain’t say nothing about a contract, he ain’t say nothing about this that you might’ve forgotten about,’ like ‘I was sitting with Tami Davis, I learned a lot and I went on Jerry Seinfeld.’ Like, they ain’t saying nothing.
When it’s detailed it’s like — when you’re talking about, ‘I put lingerie on Marie Osmond, watch me ring the prophets in,’ that’s so specific. Now I’m thinking about her when she was at her hottest time looking fly.
Kool Keith: Yeah, and like you said, then it gets me into the rappers, too. I listen to the stuff that they say later on I catch it. Like Craig G said, ‘I’ll have you so browned with rage,’ you know, he says, ‘You ain’t something, you ain’t something, you ain’t coming quick, I have you so blind with rage you probably running this shit.’ You know what I’m saying? You hear them later—what they’re saying. What happened with me was I charged a lot of them rappers up—like, I wasn’t battling them, but they got charged up, like even Ras Kass. Like I got a kick out of writing first to let them hear it so they would be like, ‘Let me write something’ back to this motherfucker.’
Was there somebody you didn’t get for the album that you wanted?
Kool Keith: No, I had a couple people that didn’t get on. I sent a lot of stuff out. A lot of people did some things, but I guess they was kinda late getting it back to me. I guess not everybody knew how to respond. Everybody that I had on it responded back properly, and in the course of time I sent a lot of things out to people in the music industry, but all of a sudden they didn’t get it in the mail, or … you know how people play they didn’t get it in the mail. I sent a lot of tracks out to different people, but they play like they didn’t get it, or they probably didn’t want to get on it or something. Like you said, a lot of the beats are funky. A lot of folks and artists sometimes been rapping over unfunky stuff so much in they life that they don’t really know how to get on it. When you accustomed to getting on basic hip-hop, when somebody bring you brand new hip-hop, atomic hip-hop, they don’t want to get on it.
Yeah, that’s crazy. People don’t have an ear for beats.
Kool Keith: People ain’t used to getting on real funky beats. A lot of artists is used to a certain standard sound of hip-hop, just maybe the drums or the scratches. I always thought of beats to be like, ‘This is so funky, I could ride around with a Black chick in the car.’ You know—you can imagine Halle Barry sitting on the passenger side of a dope Benz, and you could play ‘World Wide Lamper’ and it still sound good. It don’t have to be a love song.
At least for me and people I fuck with, you’re up there with Prince and David Bowie, you know what I mean? Just from the style. But another thing that makes it is that you hit all the points. Like, you got hooks—I went to one show where you did straight hooks back to back to back, and—
Kool Keith: Right. I can write quickly. I wrote ‘Tired’ so quickly, like in two seconds. Some rappers need three, four days to write just probably that verse on ‘Tired.’ The ‘Kid Cudi blah blah blah,’ I wrote that in like, one minute. It’s so easy and smooth—it sounds like I went in the studio and put my headphones on and just said my verse, right? And Ed O.G come in next. I mean, that verse seemed more like, ‘I ain’t bring no papers and a pen with me but let’s put the headphones on and do it right now.’ It seemed like it was whipped up, but in a good way.
I wanna say you inspired probably a big wave of things that happened, like with hooks, too—the Lil B’s and all these artists, because they started doing those hooks where they just like have somebody’s name be the hook. And you always had weird hooks like that.
Kool Keith: You know, if somebody else mentions an artist’s name, it gets more sensitive. Like, people say a name and they might say, ‘Oh, he’s bugging out again. He’s bugging out on somebody.’ He might mention somebody’s name on a track and they don’t know how to take it: ‘Is he dissing me, is he saying something good about me, or … is he trying to be funny?’ They might be saying ‘Is this good? Is this bad?’ They don’t know how to take it, but they don’t say nothin’ about it. They’re like, ‘He’s been around so long that he can say it—he can mention your name.’ You know, there are artists that can’t say a name on a track.
You can say anything! It’s the way you’re saying it, too! It made me think of Matthew where you say, ‘Sign my autographs for Jagged Edge and Drew Hill on 125th Street’—that’s a visual. You’re saying, ‘I’m on another level—you like Jagged Edge and Drew Hill? They like me. They’d get an autograph from me right now.’
Kool Keith: I say a lot of stuff, but you said detailed stuff—I got a lot of detailed stuff. Like you said, a lot of rappers is too serious with … whatever field you’re doing it in. Some rappers is too serious with the political talk, some rappers is too serious with the gangster, some rappers is too serious with the life is hard. You know what I’m saying? Just the lyrical content is too serious, like it’s … like, they don’t add color and mix it with it, you know? It’s just too serious. ‘The foundation of Dr. King went this way and Donald Trump came in and since the coalition came in it was just hard and living the life and sustaining and my mom grew up with the pain and—’ That stuff just sound like botched complexity. It’s botched but it’s energy losing. Your ears ain’t cranked up for so much of the pain. It’s like even with poets—people think the best poets can tell the saddest things, like, ‘I went in the house and life just dropped down in my lap, my dog turned around and he didn’t eat no food, he went back, and life was so … I looked through the window and seen my mother crying, tears pouring down her eyes, and I saw her life went grey and the sky dropped down and …’ People feel that poetry like it’s so good, but me, I’m the opposite—I be like, ‘Man, that shit is dead.’ And every poet that they say is good tells them kinda stories, but they feel like it’s good—like, This is going to make me feel sad, it’s good.’ That’s why I don’t go to a lot of poet things. They all got like sad verses.
Exactly! Just because it’s a poem we don’t have to be that, but people accept it because it’s called poetry.
Kool Keith: Yeah—like a poet is supposed to tell the worst side of the story. ‘I came into the room, the record company’s raping me like a woman, took my soul, bleeding down, bleeding so I can’t even grab the pole and hold, life is to be untold when the man jerked me and he beat me down, verses to the kinetics of the devil, the devil took the soul from my heart, he beat me down more, he raped and I cried, the more I cried my mother started to die …’ You know, they just write, like … okay, you saying the record company beat you so bad, raped you, but you’re putting it in such a painful form—
You could tell the same story, but with some color.
Kool Keith: They think the best poet is the one who tells the saddest story. But like you said, I never told sad stories—even on the Sadat X track, I remember … you know, I listened to it, I said I like to do political records and stuff, but I kept my verse colorful. Like … I just said I couldn’t do it. I had to mix some high class shit in it.
The first line made me laugh out loud. Where you’re like, ‘The haters gonna hate, but ain’t seen them at the cookout or the pit fight.’ [laughs]
Kool Keith: Yeah, I said, ‘Burger King, Lord of the Rings, give them onion rings.’ I said a couple of words in there. ‘Now, you could play chauffeur and drive off.’ ‘Haters gonna hate with a paper plate,’ and I said, ‘I refuse to duck my head down and take showers.’ [laughs] You know—like they want to make it so I go home and take a shower, put your head down, team loss. People trying to run away with millions of dollars. Millionaire people can hold a lot of money forever and think it’s good. They think the money makes them feel—you know what’s funny? What I was thinking in ‘Life’? I was thinking in general … I look at TI, right? You look at TI, right? He’s a family person. We as Black people, like, we got a limit on rap. You might have guides … they have a limit on when rappers should quit, but you don’t see no other sport or rock bands be like, ‘KISS should quit, Gene Simmons should quit, and Radiohead should go home.’ But Blacks got that on rap. I was talking to my man on the phone this morning and I was telling him like, ‘You got football players out here that play with NFL teams. They all got studios. When they leave, they got studios. You got basketball players that got studios. You got boxers that got studios. You got baseball players that got studios. Floyd Mayweather probably got a studio.’ Like … people at some point in their life still like to record. Recording is leisure. When is there the time to say you don’t have to record? B.B. King was recording. People got a ending on recording for black people. Like you sort of go home and cut grass and cook. You know, you get with a girlfriend who’s kinda domesticated: ‘You don’t need to go into the studio with headphones on, that’s too young for you, and you need to quit—go cut grass.’ That’s Black people’s mentality.
I noticed you never really shit on the youth. You know pioneers and old school cats, they always be shitting on the new things that’s out.
Kool Keith: That’s why I never did that. I talked about that, too—I’m not hating on the young kids. Make a kid maybe raise a vocal up and that’s it. And you give them the deal. Don’t tell them, ‘No, I don’t feel it, go home, raise it up.’ People told you those things, that don’t mean you gotta do it to him. That’s what you went through. You sort of get in the door and make it better for him.
Kool Keith: But you got a lot of people in them positions now, like you said, that’s big and signing and being in the A&R positions—rappers that turned executives, and you know, presidents—they doing that same shit to other artists.
I guess they don’t like a lot of the kids’ content, you know? Or what type of production they have, or…
Kool Keith: You help them fix it. ‘It’s good, let’s fix it and do it.’ You don’t disgruntle them and you don’t let them be disgruntled and you don’t take his confidence away. Like, ‘I don’t feel that right now’ cuz it ain’t what you used to do or something—that’s what he’s doing.
Right—I didn’t grow up on hip-hop the same way, you know?
Kool Keith: Like you said, that kills me when they come like, ‘Okay, it was hard for you to get a deal and struggle and go into a record company and fucking go through hell, and then you wanna give somebody the hell you went through?’ So we do get off on that. That’s not the point. You sort of open doors for people and say, ‘I’m gonna make it easier for you to walk in as long as you bringing the right stuff.’ Like Hammer told me one time a true story—he said, ‘You’d be surprised at who’s stopping you from getting over in the music business. It be the people right around you, like all the people that came up around you, all the people that was in them positions, and all the people that was never in them positions that ended up getting positions. It’s gonna be the same people stopping you from moving. You should have the same respect for a person. You should have the same respect: ‘OK, me and you came up in the same era—fucking what you got? Let’s roll, come sign to my label, I got you, come on over here.’ And he said those people ain’t doing that. They doing the same shit as the shit they went through. Like … you being a asshole: ‘Man, I don’t really wanna hear what you got now, and I know you been in the industry, I know you know, but maybe another time we talk about it or something.’ That’s what’s going’ on. Like, man.
Did you hear the new De La album? On the new De La album, Roc Marciano has a verse where he mentions you: ‘You’re not unique, you’re no Kool Keith.’
Kool Keith: Oh, Roc Marciano’s on that album? How was the beat on the album? Nice?
It was like chill— a real chill beat.
Kool Keith: Oh yeah, cuz I didn’t hear the De La Soul album. Like you said, people always say phrases to me or something.
That’s a shout-out! I was like, ‘Oh!’ when I heard it—Roc’s shoutin’ out Kool Keith!
Kool Keith: Right. I chatted on the phone with him one time, and it was funny, I gave him a lot of information. I have a lot of conversations about somebody in the industry—you might tell them, you know, Chaka Khan told a girl they can’t sing or something. People love to hear them kinda stories. I might get with somebody that enlighten me—you might chill in the room with like, Roger Troutman or something. He could tell you something, or you could get with George Clinton and he could be like, ‘Yo, I was here one day, man, I was in the studio with such and such, and they didn’t know what the fuck they was doing.’ I’m just saying sometimes you could meet a artist that may have been in the business a little more than you or have more experience, and you tell them a little music industry stories and they love that.
I love that, too!