RIP NICHOLSON TALKS SHOP WITH KEITH THORNTON, THE HIP-HOP MAVERICK KNOWN MAINLY AS KOOL KEITH AMONG MANY OTHER INCARNATIONS.
KOOL KEITH interviewed @ 17:30 AEST – Tuesday 3rd August, 2010
For Street Press Australia & Rip2Shredz Press
Words by RIP NICHOLSON
Images courtesy of
No matter which Kool Keith shows up his August show will be something never before seen and brand new. After all, for over the last twenty years he’s gone against the grain to deliver album after album from characters usually better suited for comic books, riding his own new wave of hip hop nuance. Despite being a product of the Boogie Down boom, The Ultramagnetic MCs’ frontman has battled the odds stacked against him through his career.
Labels don’t understand him and producers can’t work with him. He is custom made – from his dress code to his word flow. Dr. Dooom, AKA Dr. Octagon (the original), Mr Nogatco are a few of the many faces, capes, wigs and alter-egos to one of the all-time chameleons of eccentricity, even by hip hop standards. The premier MC, Keith Thornton simply dances to a different beat – his own most of the time.
“Back in the Ultramagnetics, we had a sound already around us,” Thornton explains, throwing back to circa 1989 in the South Bronx. Keith went solo when they dissolved, dropped Dr. Octagonecologyst in 1996 and danced with various MCs, producers and labels, many of whom couldn’t relate to how Keith wanted to record. From writing lyrics before the beat, he clocked a niche in creating beats to fit the rhyme’s emotive. Without willing producers, he began programming his own beats and taking over production.
“Most rappers probably don’t get the chance to fit the right music to their voices. I couldn’t buy a beat that really caught the full emotion of my vocals, so I wanted to write first without the music and then I’d get a feeling of getting the right music behind these words I’m sayin’. Whereas a lot of rappers are waiting for beats before anything, then go write their lyrics.
“A lot of producers just made beats that were more in the trend of what’s going on. I just wanted to have beats specifically for what I was writing and lot of them didn’t understand that. I would rather create music around the vocals,” Thornton admits.
“I wanna make custom made records. ‘Cuz if you listen to a lot of the records,” Thornton rattles off his discography of 30 plus, “a lot of those records were custom made tracks for me. I never had a lot of beats that most rappers get out of a basket.”
The many sides to Dr. Octagon, his characters and his unorthodox nature keep this creature head-to-toe, an original art form. “Yeah even down to my clothes and everything. I had custom made beats and my own basslines. I didn’t wanna just wanna follow suit, like other rappers who came out with gangsta shit or whatever’s in trend,” Thornton quips. “I try to make my music sound endless – never stuck in the trend. Brand new all year round. Through albums that will never deteriorate. I try to make my records timeless.”
“I tell you, I got a lot funkier after I left Ultramagnetic. I got more original with picking my own drums, my own keyboard instead of us going and sampling something from James Brown and using an 808 as some drum substitution. Now I’m programming my own drums, synthesiser sounds, my own kick and high-hat. A lot of recordings lately don’t fit the picture when it taken out of it’s time. By making brand new stuff I break boundaries with the funkier type of sound to stand the test of time.”
Calendar stacks have gathered since Ultramagnetic MCs dropped Critical Beatdown in ‘88 – James Brown sample-heavy Bronx raps. The seminal LP prompted the renaissance of hip hop’s youngest element – the MC. A simple format that thrived back then, but couldn’t contain Kool Keith who still ventures on to shock and deliver awe out to cult fans worldwide, his brand of new music, tailor made like Chucks.
As an artist with many layers of creativity through your work, you’re a very hard man to figure out, you like it that way? Keep us shadowed behind your next move?
I like making records, differently. I went to a lot of outside producers but then I have my own beats. You know a lot of my records I did on my own. Black Elvis, the first Dr. Dooom – the original. I was hidden behind a lot of my production. I was a ghost producer for a lot of people. A lot of producers think that a rapper can do they own music. But I’m a writer so I had to make the music to write to.
Over the last quarter of your career you came up against a brick wall in terms of getting producers to really get down with you – so you said fuck ‘em I’ll learn to program my own beats. How has that progression been for you?
A lot of producers didn’t know that when I came to Ultramagnetics, we had a sound already around us with our own production but when I went solo that was the year where a lot of producers was just linking me for my voice but wanted me to be on a lot of their beats. But through my music career I had a lot of tracks I did for myself because I wanted to rhyme on them. A lot of rappers probably don’t get the chance to put their music around their voices, like when you listen to Pete Rock, he raps on some of the tracks he likes, but he’s a producer. But me as an MC I learned to make beats myself because I think rap has never really caught the full emotion of my vocals.
So have you re-adapted into writing rhymes to the beat now, or do you still write your raps without the music?
I wrote lyrics without the music because I wanted to write first without the music and then I’d get a feeling of getting the right music behind these words I’m sayin’. Whereas a lot of rappers they write but they lookin’ for beats by anybody, most rappers are waiting for beats before anything, then go write their lyrics. I had a lot of exclusive things I wanted to put behind my vocals. A lot records that I wrote have an emotion to it. A lot of records I wanted to have a certain background for. A lot of producers didn’t understand they just made beats that were for anybody or had beats that were more in the trend of what’s going on. I just wanted to have beats specifically for what I was writing and lot of them didn’t understand that. So a lot of rappers just looked at the beats they had and worked with them. I would rather create music around the vocals so they don’t have that. They just wanted to be distinctive by being distinctive by being distinctive anyway. I wanna make custom made records. ‘Cuz if you listen to a lot of the records – listen to Black Elvis, listen to Spankmaster, a lot of those records were custom made tracks for me. I never had a lot of beats that most rappers get out of a basket. You know, a lot of rappers will get tracks that 20 rappers have already listened to, or turned down.
Well you’re really custom made by design aren’t you as an artist?
Yeah even down to my clothes and everything. I had custom made beats and my own basslines. When you listen to all the albums they’re brothers and sisters and cousins – that’s what I consider my production. My cousins are my beats and brothers and sisters are the tracks. I didn’t wanna just wanna follow suit, like other rappers who tried this, that and came out with the gangsta shit or whatever’s in trend at the time. I just stuck with something that was more stealth. I try to make my music sound endless, regardless. It was never stuck in the trend it was brand new all year round. An album that will never deteriorate. I try to make my records timeless, they not dated.
Do you prefer live instrumentation over samples and pro-Tools use?
I like both. Ultramagnetic had sampling so I don’t necessarily dislike one over the other. But I’ve always been a person to make original music, I love original music. I want people to say I made original stuff. I grew up on funk records, you know Cameo, Brass Construction, KC & The Sunshine Band, everybody.. all the funk bands, Sly the Family Stone, the Parliament Funk, Zapp, Roger. So funk was in my body, whereas a lot of people didn’t have it in their body, they didn’t pass the funk test. They wasn’t raised on funk. A lot of people grew up on Jazz, I was brought up strictly on funk. On Ultra, with Ced and Trevor and Maurice were more into they production of stuff but when I went into my own sounds and started to develop my own sounds. You know Cameo had they own sound. I didn’t wanna jump like everybody else and mix the trendy beats. That’s when we lost the location of a lot of music. We got trendy. No-one’s making new sounds, a lot of producers just made beats for for anybody.
Ultra Magnetic’s Critical Beatdown was such a classic blueprint, and being back on 169th and Washington would have given such inspiration for you guys. You’re a believer that each album should be merited on it’s own creativity, in 2010 how do you tap into that energy?
I tell you, I got a lot funkier after I left Ultramagnetic. We was sampling a lot of James Brown on the Critical Beatdown recordings. I just feel like I got more original with picking my own drums, my own keyboard instead of us going and sampling something from James Brown and maybe using an 808 as some drum substitution. Now it’s like I’m programming my own drums, I’m using my own synthesiser sounds, my own kick and high-hat. I’m brand new, for myself as opposed to sampling something. But I don’t think my fans know but I think my career has gotten better musically because I’m not using everybody else’s samples. I’m using instruments and making brand new stuff, you know. A lot of recordings lately don’t fit the picture when it taken out of it’s time. I definitely contributed a lot (to the culture) by making brand new stuff and broke boundaries with the funkier type of sound to stand the test of time.