Bragging Rights: An Interview With Kool Keith
The alien MC speaks about where he's come from, where he's going, and how many of his verses may never see the light of day.
In 1998 I was in college and I took a course in fiction writing. Early on in the semester our teacher went around the class and asked us who our favorite fictional characters were. I mentioned Dr. Octagon and explained that he was an outer space gynecologist invented by this rapper I had recently discovered named Kool Keith. Since the '90s a new Kool Keith record is always an event.
Kool Keith is a prolific New York MC who has been recording since 1988. Perhaps you know him as Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Mr. Nogatco, Tashan Dorrsett, Spankmaster, Poppa Large, Crazy Lou, Black Elvis, Matthew, Keith Televasquez, Keith Turbo, Dr. Ultra, Reverend Tom, Keith Korg, and so many others I can't recall. Then there's all the groups: Ultramagnetic MC's, Diesel Truckers, Thee Undatakerz, The Cenobites, and The Analog Brothers for example.
I once read an article where he told the interviewer he was going to make a record called "The Shopaholic" about taking women shopping. I don't think it happened but the idea album was funny enough for me. With the release of Feature Magnetic, PopMatters caught up with Keith in his local diner in the Bronx to discuss pretty much everything.
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Given that you're putting out like a record a year, sometimes two records a year, you must work a lot. What's the workday like?
I just naturally like to record. To me I think making records is very therapeutic for myself. I make records natural. I make records seriously for the time that I'm making them, but I feel good making them. I'm not phony making them. I'm really making those songs. For me I'm not trying to make them for a record label or something. It's like Prince working on the songs that end up on his album.
So do you write in a notebook and prepare your stuff ahead of time? Do you record at home? How do you do it?
I write a lot of songs without the beats, then what would happen is that the song becomes a song. But when I get to the studio I don't know what beat I'm gonna make for it. It's like the song is done before the beat. I find the atmosphere for the music.
You often do the beats on them. The ones that sound real minimal. I can tell when you're working with someone else. The beats sound really expansive on them.
Do you have a home studio set-up?
I work at a studio. The stuff I usually make is not overproduced, you can hear the vocals in the rapping.
I take a particular groove and turn it into a loop. Things might come every certain bars, it keeps coming but it's like a groove for the rapper.
You don't seem to use a lot of samples though. Seems like it's more keyboard tracks.
I have a few special songs I might have sampled. The only thing I sample sometimes is maybe a record that hasn't been used. I sample something by someone that is totally way above. I don't sample somebody where they're kind of like equal or down below me. Kind of like The Commodores or something.
I thought I heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra on one of the new songs "Stratocaster".
I played that, but I will sample something that is totally unclearable.
How does that work do you have lawyers that do that?
I rap on something that is totally unclearable but I don't put it out. I keep it for myself. Know what I'm sayin'?
Right. So if something is unclearable can you put it on a mixtape without legal problems?
You won't have any legal problems. You know I rap on "Heatwave" or something or "Ain't No Half Steppin'" or something for fun.
The new record is all guest spots: DOOM, Ras Kass, Necro, and several others. Was that the concept of it? To put together a group of guys you wanted to work with? How does that work for you?
Well, I wanted to bring a lot of guys into my element. To let them know there's a lot of different stuff you can do. So the stuff I did with them was more like we met halfway in each element. Those are some of the rappers I like, some of my favorite rappers I like. It was good to get them all on songs. It also proved me for my production. People feel like there are certain people that wouldn't rap on your songs.
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I remember you did a song with Doom quite a while ago. On his song "Doper Skiller".
I remember [KutMasta] Kurt had the beat for me to rap on. It was one of his beats but the point was like he sent the beat to Kurt. I always collaborated with other rappers but it was never on my beats. I always had to be out of my element. I think this project was a chance for me to work with all these other people on the stuff that I do. For a lot of years I sacrificed working on other people's production. Which I never disrespected. I like everybody's production. I like L'Orange, I like Automator, Kurt did stuff in the past.
L'Orange stuff was very different. I noticed longer samples with jazz loops and stuff but not in that corny way that people usually do that. You know what I mean?
I mean I didn't mind, but when you working with other people you gotta compromise to what they doing.
When you do your own stuff there's a little more flexibility.
You know, the one I liked in recent years was the one you did with Ray West.
Oh yeah. Ray West was more like basement tapes. He usually do beats for AG. I used to come over his house and hang out. That was more like he had a lot of beats. Ray West would sample a disco record or something. It didn't have to be boom bap or trap. He would just sample anything.
Whatever sounded right.
He would sample Instant Funk or something. You know, anything that just had a good loop to it. He was a good loop sampler. A lot of his stuff was more rapped on because I would be there hanging out and like the beat. It wasn't for a particular project or record. I would just rap on it because I'm a true rapper and it becomes classic basement stuff.
What do you mean by basement stuff?
Stuff like you know, you got a friend and you made tracks. The world don't know about it but you got these tracks you just record.
The stuff dudes do together when they get together to have fun? Not serious.
Yeah, not serious. Stuff you write three verses for. It's just fun. It's not for Columbia, not for Sony. Just you naturally recording. At some particular point you gotta have some artistry. You can't make a record based on what record company it's gonna be on. I think that was the problem I had with KutMasta Kurt. Kurt always made a project that had to be for something.
He couldn't just get together to just make a song?
He couldn't make a song without it coming out on something. Not like "let's get together." It has to be for a label or has to be constructed for the Dragonfly movie coming out. Some guys get too involved and the creativity drips out of them, the fun. With Ray I had like more natural records. Ultra was the same way. They didn't wanna make records for fun, naturally like Prince and just stacking records up. They all had to make twelve songs for a label, or they getting a deal or some money. Automator: even though he always behind Octagon, but he'll do some fun songs. Instead of focusing on Octagon. Know what I'm saying?
I like people who tend to step outside the box. So Ray was a guy I would do some random tracks with. There's no reason they coming out. If they come out they come out on a bootleg 12" or whatever. He might get a collab to come on it. Somebody might pop up on the song. You know, just by accident. Know what I'm saying? Kurious Jorge might come over and rap on it. It wasn't a planned record.
I recall Automator has a lot of those kinda tracks like from A Much Better Tomorrow: "Cartoon Capers" and "It's Over Now". Those are great songs.
"Starting All Over Now" by Slave.
That's a Slave sample? I didn't recognize it.
Yeah. [sings it] Certain records I rapped on. "It's Over Now" was something else. It was a cool little loop, a video of a little boy dancing on it. You ever see it? It's a little Chinese kid? There's a video for it.
No I haven't.
Those are songs we made after Octagon was finished. It was like let's make a song tonight. It's not going on a label, let's just hit it. It could end up a B-side, it could end up at a label or just something to play.
Do you find you work better when it's not so planned like that?
When you're just kind of relaxed and free? In those situations do you freestyle and improvise a lot? Do you work out of a notebook?
I make good songs with a deadline. I make good songs without the deadline. Most of these guys make songs for the deadline, I just wanted to get out of that phase you know? Sometimes I tend to do my own projects because it's like a disease to me to be stuck, when you can only make a record for money or "Hey, finish these 12 songs and turn them into Atlantic!" I don't like that. I mean I like it, hey I'm a professional. I'll do the song, but I don't always want to do my life like that.