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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: Kool Keith – Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

Robbie recounts Keith's progression from rap scientist to professional weirdo

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Kool Keith aka Big Willie Smith aka Dr. Dooom aka Poppa Large aka Dr. Octagon aka Mr. Gerbik aka Black Elvis aka Rhythm X aka Sinister 6000 aka Mr Sperm aka Tarshan Dorrsett aka Mr Nogatco aka Underwear Pissy is officially the hardest working man in rap, having released over 40 albums as a soloist and in various groups. With the release of Featuremagnetic, which pairs Keith with everyone from Sadat X to Necro to Mac Mill, it’s clear that he shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. And why should he? Mr. Thornton is both a hero to all rap weirdos and the often overlooked lyrical genius who held his own against the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and Run-DMC.

Keith goes way back to the days of The Roxy, where Frescho used to see him popping and locking on the regular: ‘We didn’t know his name so we called him Boots, because when he was popping he would always have Timberland boots on. That guy ended-up being Kool Keith from Ultramagnetic.’ After a couple of early roster changes, the line-up of Ced Gee, TR Love, Kool Keith, and Moe Love became the Bronx warriors known as the Ultramagnetic MCs. The brilliant thing about the crew was the way that they combined state-of-the-art, razor sharp beats and highly coded, science fiction Brag Rap with some of the earliest examples of trolling seen in rap. Diss records were as common as muck in the mid-eighties, but Ultra took disrespect on records to glorious new heights with a mixture of direct shots and super subliminal stabs that still have rap fanatics scratching their heads to this day.

Much of Keith’s verbal ire seems to be based upon dismantling the status quo of the day, which is why Kool Moe Dee and Run-DMC were direct targets, while RZA, MF Doom, and Rakim have been subjected to more playful jabs/jokes at their expense. To further confuse matters, Keith seems to enjoy fucking with journalists during interviews, which has resulted in him claiming everything from having invented wearing sunglasses to claiming to be the originator of rap alias’ and the short-lived Horrorcore genre (come to think of it, he may be right on those last two). My personal favourite was the time that Poppa Large pretended not to know what graffiti was during an interview with The Source to promote The Four Horsemen album, while claiming that he spent time in Bellevue mental hospital.

It was after Ultramagnetic fell apart that Keith was really able to explore the full extent of his eccentricities, focusing on a range of concept albums focusing on his love for pornography (dude was a well-known collector of smut magazines and VHS tapes), the macabre, and his all-time favourite topic—toilet humor. Never again will rap music produce so many ways to discuss poop, piss, and rectums, and there’s no doubt the music will be poorer for it. Dr. Octagon is also a keen aficionado of the animal kingdom, as witnessed by his tales of horse sightings in hospitals, foxes fighting alligators, and keeping a pet rat.

Rhythm X has always been fashion forward as well, as he was seen sporting capes, underwear, and dumb masks years before Kanye West, Odd Future, and any other rap weirdo you care to name had thought of it. Kool Keith set the stage for the current generation of hip-hop nutters to embrace their inner weirdo and be proud of their eccentricities, which isn’t always a good thing since being off-kilter does not directly correlate to being talented, but it’s fair to say that Andre 3000 owes him a couple of beers should they ever cross paths.

Beyond the wackier antics of post-Ultra Kool Keith, not enough has been written about his impact and influence as a super technical lyrical maniac. Bare witness to one of the earliest stream-of-consciousness rhyme styles on tracks such as 1988’s ‘Kool Keith Housing Things’, which would go on to influence a legion of MCs in its wake—not least of which was a young Roc Marciano, who once excitedly recounted meeting Keith at a truck stop while touring with Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad when I first interviewed him in 2008.

Even after he parted ways with Ced Gee and co. and moved into his more straight-forward and less technical modern-day delivery, Keith continued to innovate with concepts such as ‘Mommy’ from The Cenobites project with Godfather Don, which detailed the experience of being a kid lost in a shopping centre, and Dr. Dooom’s ‘You Live At Home With Your Mom’, the first rap single dedicated to basement dwellers across the globe. While my CRC beliefs mourn Keith abandoning his hardcore ’80s styles in favour of his modern flow, I always appreciate deeply sarcastic and bone-dry rap humorists. While I doubt I’ll ever take the time to listen to Kool Keith’s entire recorded discography in my lifetime, I appreciate the fact that he’s still doing his thing with no regard for trends, fads, or target demographics. And also his obsession with bodily fluids, great and small.

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