Taking Keith Back
“You know what’s funny?” asks MC/producer Kool Keith while sitting in an unnamed diner, alternately taking sips from a glass of ice water. “I like seltzer water. Because I really learnt that people like to steal your sodas—they like your Yoo-hoos, they like to steal your Hawaiian Punch, they like to steal your Doctor Brown—I really learned that, seltzer water, people don’t like it… And the more I have… the more I saved… I really learned seltzer water keeps people away. It’s like a twist, like, wow, ‘I really don’t like it myself, but I like it because people don’t like it.’ You have to do it that way… But then I started liking it, after I forced myself.”
And that’s the world of Kool Keith, summed up in the first couple minutes of Global Enlightenment, Part 1. The DVD is a collection of interview segments with the pioneering member of the Ultramagnetic MCs and subsequently one of the strangest and estranged characters in hip-hop; the clips include the aforementioned discourse, a meandering day in the life segment, and a collection of public access television and promo clips. With the exception of the moderately humorous first segment, what could have been a fascinating look at the performative nature of Keith’s life (a consummate entertainer, in a sense) is a complete wash due to nonexistent filmmaking and overall poor video quality. Not to mention the incomprehensibility of Keith’s erratic nature, which, when left as unedited monologues become a starburst mess of thought-farts. At roughly a half hour in total length, GE still manages to feel excessive and unnecessary.
The first segment, “98 Year Old Refrigerator”, contains the most promise because it focuses on one of Keith’s train of thoughts. From his highly illuminating comments on seltzer water as a metaphor for otherness (really, that is some funny ass shit) to his elaborations on pumpernickel bread as a deterrent to food-pilfering houseguests, the segment sums up the light-hearted and independent beauty of Kool Keith. Simple yet understandable filmmaking assists greatly as static shots keep the focus on him, while editing of his speech, and only his speech, gives the piece the feel of a Coffee and Cigarettes-style digression. What is just an extended riff of nonsense becomes a refreshing look at the inner workings of Keith.
The second and longest segment, “Always On Tour”, is disappointing due to the unimaginative filmmaking. Half of the time, the crew simply follows Keith around as he dines at Popeyes, goes shopping with a ladyfriend-with-privileges, and hangs out with old friends (who get an unusual amount of screen-time, considering how short the DVD is). One refreshing moment is caught when Keith runs into an old friend while strolling through Harlem. Upon seeing him, Keith’s character completely transforms into something… natural; he is just being himself, another guy on the block: “Tim’s in L.A. Ced, he be on 125th, you see him sometimes?” When the two part ways, it’s to the tune of “All love!” The candid and mundane encounter for Keith is something of a revelation for fans and the media, considering his self-admitted eccentricities. However, the rest of the time the viewer is subjected to a series of non sequiturs, the highlights of which are listed below for your convenience:
- “A lotta rappers out there are so corny. They don’t eat corn.”
- “Popeyes make you rhyme better.”
- “My supersonic eye fount them.”
- “I’m always touring; even when I’m walking around, I’m always on tour.”
- “I am above the streets in my mentality level.”
- “Here you go, papi.”
- “I think a lot of records that I have are sitting down on tables and suitcases marinatin’ for the time… As my music marinates, I will not stop making any records.”
- “Juan-y Lopez… Juan Javolta.”
- “I may be the hip hop Al Sharpton.”
- “I feel like Jacques Cousteau sometimes.”
- Lady: “You the King of Egypt?” Keith: “I am.” Lady: “Can I pose for you?”
Admittedly, the minimal editing casts an unflinching, and subsequently ‘realistic’, view of Keith, painful eccentricities and all. However, the segment exposes little else and does little else besides perpetuate exploitative portrayals of Kool Keith, the hip-hop kook.
As terrible as the picture quality of the remaining television footage is, a handful of nuggets close out GE. “A lot of people forgot where they came from”, Keith wonders aloud while claiming keepin’-it-real status for appearing on a low budget public access program. The question prompts another: is it difficult for Keith to forget? In one sense, he is far removed from his Bronx upbringing, but he seems to be in another diaspora—the main difference is that this is one he has created for himself. Earlier, he philosophizes that, “We, as people, sometimes, feel that we have to be stuck in an imaginary fence. But we’re not in a fence. I think I’m above the streets in my own sense as far as my broadened horizon; I feel that I can do more things.” Like a pop culture Grizzly Man, Keith appears to feel free in his own constructed reality.
Unfortunately, these are not questions the filmmakers address. Instead, in the dig for Enquirer fiyah, they run tirades about “porch monkeys” and footage of friends uncomfortably promoting Keith’s new CD. That such a brief and disjointed video can feel so manipulative and uninformative is a disservice to both the filmmakers and Keith. A word of advice from Black Elvis himself: “People need to catch up to themselves and find out what they really want to do.” Next time, please put some thought in. Or just get off the elevator.