Half shark alligator, half man: The many faces of Kool Keith
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Regardless of whether or not it’s backed up by actual science, there is a persistent perception that creativity and madness are inherently intertwined. It’s not too great a leap to compare the rather mundane world around us with the interpretations presented by an artist—be it Van Gogh or Syd Barrett—and conclude that there must be something, well, special going on in their heads. In rap, this trope is spectacularly embodied by the one and only “Kool” Keith Thornton. Thanks to his outlandish personae, rambling interviews, and an offhand joke he made about being committed to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital that was quickly and widely repeated as fact, Thornton has earned a reputation for being immensely talented as well as completely crazy. Fittingly, his body of work is spread across a schizophrenic array of alter-egos. In anticipation of Thornton’s January 21 appearance at Mad Planet, we look back at the many faces of Kool Keith.
Before things get weird—or at least weirder—let’s start with Thornton’s most recognizable, plainly named rap persona. He first employed the moniker as founder and de facto leader of the Ultramagnetic MCs, with whom he made a big splash early on in his career, dropping such golden-age hip-hop classics as Critical Beatdown. Beyond being indelible figures of East Coast rap, the influence of the Ultramagnetic MCs has been felt far and wide, especially in the UK break beat scenes, a link made more visible when The Prodigy sampled the song “Give The Drummer Some” on the controversial “Smack My Bitch Up.”
When he eventually opted to pursue a solo career, Thornton decided not to trade on the recognizable Kool Keith appellation, but instead morphed into the time-traveling, extraterrestrial surgeon Dr. Octagon. Sporting green skin, yellow eyes, and a huge pink and white afro, the lascivious doctor—who was born on Jupiter, by the way—specialized in the treatment of such worrisome maladies as Chimpanzee acne and Moosebumps, and made his first appearance on the 1996 acid-rap classic Dr. Octagonecologyst. Thornton was assisted by an impressive lineup of fellow artists, including DJ Qbert, who contributed memorable scratching, and a production team consisting of DJ Shadow and Dan The Automator. The central figure in an insanely complicated mythology involving hillbilly record execs, alien abductions, and a gorilla driving a pickup truck, Dr. Octagon was eventually killed by another of Thornton’s personalities, Dr. Dooom (see below), before being revived on 2006’s The Return of Dr. Octagon. Unfortunately, that album was produced with little input from Thornton himself and failed to match the impact of its predecessor.
Dr. Octagon’s 208-year-old uncle is a deranged and violent hybrid creature composed of “half shark alligator, half man.” What a shark alligator is, we have no fucking clue.
An unrepentant serial killer and cannibal, Thornton’s Dr. Dooom character functions both as a move away from the alternative hip-hop crowd drawn in by Dr. Octagon as well as an outlandish (duh), horror-core parody of tough-guy gangsta-rap, right down to Pen & Pixel-esque cover art for his first appearance, 1999’s First Come, First Served. Among the many heinous acts the character perpetrates, the most significant comes in the very first track of the album, when Dooom relates how he posed as a patient and murdered Dr. Octagon in cold blood. A follow-up album, Dr. Dooom 2, came in 2008, but mostly focused on a wide-ranging critique of the music industry in general, and, on one track, Simon Cowell in particular.
Though the Nogatco Rd. album title hints at some relation to Dr. Octagon when read backwards, neither the actual songs nor the mini-comic and short film accompanying the enhanced CD provide many details about this mysterious persona—beyond the fact that he investigates alien conspiracy theories, engages in vivisection of other extraterrestrial life forms, and owns a jetpack. In advance of recording the album, Thornton did extensive research into UFO phenomenon, which he summed up thusly: “I went out to Phoenix, Arizona and I’ve looked at specimens and picked up rocks and took some stuff back to a hotel in Oklahoma where we examined it.”
Apparently Dr. Dooom’s less-murderous twin brother, this alter-ego’s first appearance, Black Elvis/Lost In Space, was supposed to be released on the same day as First Come, First Served but ended up being pushed back by Columbia Records. Though his plastic hairstyle certainly resembles the iconic hip-shaking hound dog, Thornton imagines Black Elvis as Presley’s complete antithesis, explaining, in a typically obtuse fashion that, “Black Elvis is the opposite of Elvis Presley, because Elvis wore white stones. If you notice, the Black Elvis guy wears regular shirts. The Elvis thing is the last level for me to do as far as the status of a rapper… It’s natural dress. I can wear a hockey jersey one day, tomorrow I can wear a leather jacket. A formal, versatile image.” If all of that is a bit confusing, you should bear in mind that this is the same guy who, in the same interview, goes on to explain why he likes giraffes.