Born Keith Thornton in the Bronx, NY. Addresses: Record company--Dmaft Records, P.O. Box 404, Redondo Beach, CA 90277, phone: (310) 791-8600, website: http://www.dmaft.com.
Springing out of the eclectic old-school rap outfit the Ultramagnetic MCs, "Kool" Keith Thornton has followed the minor hip-hop trend of adopting different pseudonyms to deliver eccentric and often totally obscure albums on a myriad of different labels. Whether he's donning a wig and assuming his "Black Elvis" character, or presenting himself as the space-traveling gynecologist known as "Dr. Octagon," Kool Keith has consistently proven himself to be one of the most intriguing rappers in hip-hop, aligning himself with some of the best DJs and producers in the business only to cut ties with them, furthering his often erratic image. Schizophrenic, hard to track down, and even rumored to once be a former patient of New York's Bellevue psychiatric ward, Keith is in a totally different league from the Nelly's and Ludacris' of the world. He once told the Boston Herald, "I can rap on any kind of beats, and I can rap on those beats better than those cats. It's like basketball."
Keith got his start rapping with the Bronx-based group Ultramagnetic MCs. Along with members Ced-Gee, Maurice Smith, and TR (DJ Moe) Love, Kool Keith and company released three albums of smart and funky hip-hop that never quite made it into the mainstream. Cited by the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan, the Prodigy (who sampled the Kool Keith line "Smack my bitch up" for their hit "Smack My Bitch Up"), and the Neptunes as early influences, the MCs debuted in 1988 with the album Critical Beatdown on Plateau Records.
As one of the first groups to employ a sampler as an actual instrument, the group came up around the same time as contemporaries like the group Public Enemy, who were also experimenting with the device. Featuring the group rhyming over James Brown-styled beats and rhythms, Critical Beatdown never quite received the praise it deserved until it was re-released in 2003 by Roadrunner Records. Upon its re-release, Alternativecuts.co.uk's Gordon Peppard said, "The rhymes are solid, the beats murderous and the samples as tasty as they come, mostly in the same vein as Public Enemy but with a playfulness that they never had. I must have been sleep walking or something to have missed this."
All Music Guide's Stanton Swihart chimed in on the praise and said, "Critical Beatdown is full of the sort of gritty cuts that would define hip-hop's underground scene, with almost every song sounding like an instant classic." The group went on to release two more records, 1992's Funk Up Your Head for Mercury and 1993's The Four Horsemen for Wild Pitch (a live album was also issued in 1996 on Ol Skool Flava called Brooklyn to Brixton). While neither of the albums performed spectacularly (though Head's "Poppa Large" did become a minor radio hit), they were successful in furthering the skill and upping the bizarre profile of Kool Keith, who was set to break out of the group a mere two years later.
After the demise of the MCs, Keith introduced the world to his first alter ego, Dr. Octagon, releasing the "Earth People" single on San Francisco's Bulk Recordings in 1995. The single caught on in the hip-hop underground, catching the attention of DJ Q-Bert, DJ Shadow, and Dan the Automator. Keith hooked up with all three, enlisting Q-Bert as turntablist, and Shadow and the Automator as producers, releasing the self-titled Dr. Octagon album in 1996. The record caught the attention of Mo' Wax, for whom DJ Shadow recorded, and was given a proper release in England. 1996 also saw the release of Exotic Man, under his own name, for Spoiled Brat.
The end of the '90s would be a grand time for Kool Keith. In 1997, Dr. Octagon was picked up by DreamWorks Records and renamed Dr. Octagonecologyst. The album's high-profile release brought Kool Keith and his Dr. Octagon character into the mainstream, prompting Pitchformedia.com to say, "Dr. Octagonecologyst is a fun-house ride in hell. All of the expected norms of G-Rap have been violently removed and replaced with a healthy dose of creative perversity. It's throbbing and wet, snickering at your hang-ups, laughing at your conventions. This record steps away from the vacant, formulaic rap that has been at the forefront of the genre in recent years, and kicks sand in its face. Breaking new ground? Irritating the status quo? Inflaming everyone with morals? Yep. And, those criteria make for a great album. Buy it. Love it. Keep it in your van for those late-night cruises." In true Keith fashion though, he shunned the mainstream acceptance, brushing off appearances at 1997's Lollapalooza festival in order to work on more odd projects.
The first of Keith's projects would come in 1997, when Keith released Sex Style on his own Funky Ass label. Then in 1999, Keith released the album First Come, First Served under the name Dr. Dooom, Funky Ass. Enlisting Kutmasta Kurt as producer, and killing off the Dr. Octagon character in the title's first track, Keith dove headlong into his Dr. Dooom character, rapping horrific involving food and serial killing. But, instead of focusing on the realism often forced in hip-hop, Keith's rhymes came off as tongue-in-cheek, humorous, and surreal.
1999 also saw the release of Keith's Black Elvis/Lost in Space. For the album, Keith recreated himself, literally, as an Elvis-type character, side-burned wig and all. Issued on Ruffhouse/MCA the album brought Keith's bizarre style of rapping to a whole new level, as he focused much of the album rhyming about the intergalactic adventures of his main character. In a 1999 interview with Djtimes.com, Keith explained the character to Brian O'Connor. "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. I'm no longer the average rapper with a baseball cap on, wearing a uniform outfit on, like a Levi's suit, or a suit for R&B. It's natural dress. I can wear a hockey jersey one day; tomorrow I can wear a leather jacket. A formal versatile image. It's not programmed. The new rappers that are coming out, I think they try to hard to be different. Like, I wear a wig naturally with a shirt, and they like, 'Oh that's some Keith shit.' But you see a lot of groups come out and they force their images--they draw their face, cut their pants' leg, put tattoos all over their chest. They try too hard. It's not natural."
As Kool Keith entered the year 2000, he would prove to be prolific, but not necessarily as successful as he was during his days as Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, or Black Elvis. 2000 saw the release of the Kool Keith album Matthew, a harder and more direct album that saw him lashing out at the music industry. In 2001, Keith hooked up with TVT records to release Spankmaster, a collaboration with Detroit MCs Esham and Santos. 2002 saw the release of Game, the debut by a group he called KHM, featuring Keith, H-Bomb, and Marc Live. A few years later, in 2004, he formed Thee Undatakerz with the Funeral Director, Al Bury-U, and M-Balmer, and released Kool Keith Presents Thee Undertakerz. Keith also rejoined with Kutmasta Kurt, and released Diesel Truckers, an album that combined rhymes about trucks with more serious and sensitive slow jams---a first for the rapper who once presented himself as a space-aged gynecologist. When the album was released, Keith told Urb.com, "I'm writing more feminine things now, for the ladies. A lot of guys are scared to write a song like that, but I have nothing to prove as far as the rap game. I've always been one of the top masculine rappers, so I don't need 16 tracks telling other rappers to step off. They can get that message with one or two and I can move on from there."
by Ryan Allen
Kool Keith's Career
Began rapping with Ultramagnetic MCs in the Bronx, NY; with Ultramagnetic MCs, released Critical Beatdown, 1988; released two more albums with the group, early 1990s; as Dr. Octagon, released solo debut Dr. Octagon, 1996 (released as Dr. Octagonecologyst, 1997); reinvented himself as "Black Elvis" and released Black Elvis/Lost in Space on Ruffhouse/MCA, 1999; released albums in 2000s with groups KHM, Thee Undertakerz, and with Kutmasta Kurt.
- Selected discography
- (With Ultramagnetic MCs) Critical Beatdown Plateau, 1988.
- (With Ultramagnetic MCs) Funk Up Your Head Mercury, 1992.
- (With Ultramagnetic MCs) The Four Horsemen Wild Pitch, 1993.
- (As Dr. Octagon) "Earth People," Bulk Recordings, 1995.
- (With Ultramagnetic MCs) Brooklyn to Brixton Ol Skool Flava, 1996.
- (As Dr. Octagon) Dr. Octagon Mo' Wax, 1996; rereleased as Dr. Octagonecologyst DreamWorks, 1997.
- (As Dr. Dooom) First Come, First Served Funky Ass, 1999.
- Black Elvis/Lost in Space Ruffhouse/MCA, 1999.
- Matthew Funky Ass, 2000.
- Spankmaster TVT, 2001.
- (With KHM) Game Number 6, 2002.
- (With Thee Undertakerz) Kool Keith Presents Thee Undertakerz CS2CD, 2004.
- (With Kutmasta Kurt) Diesel Truckers Dmaft, 2004.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 24, 2005.
- Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), December 12, 2002.
- Boston Herald, November 2, 2001; August 11, 2004.
- Dallas Morning News, September 6, 2001.
- San Francisco Chronicle, December 28, 1997; July 25, 1999.
- Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), August 13, 2000.
- "Dr. Octagon: Dr. Octagonecologyst," Pitchforkmedia, http://pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/d/dr-octagon/dr-octagonecologist.shtml (May 19, 2005).
- "Interview with Kool Keith," DJ Times, http://www.djtimes.com/original/djmag/nov99/Schizoid.htm (May 19, 2005).
- "Kool Keith," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (May 19, 2005).
- "Kool Keith, 2000" Index Magazine, http://www.indexmagazine.com/interviews/kool_keith.shtml (January 12, 2005).
- "The Long Haul," URB, http://www.urb.com/feature/diesel.shtml (May 19, 2005).
- "Ultramagnetic MCs," Alternative Cuts, http://www.alternativecuts.co.uk/rec_ultramagneticmcs_cb.htm (May 19, 2005).