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[whitespace] Kool Keith Pomo Pompadour: Spare, aggressive sci-fi soundscapes from the year 3000 fill Kool Keith's new CD, 'Black Elvis/Lost in Space.'

Kool Keith and His One-Man Gang

Hip-hop pioneer Kool Keith is already creating sounds for the next millennium

By Michelle Goldberg

IT'S FITTING that the man who has dedicated himself to bringing hip-hop into the future will be performing as this millennium gives way to the next. For Kool Keith, it's as if the year 2000 has come and gone, because he's always been a few years ahead of the competition.

Keith long ago mastered the critic-delighting pomo trick of identity shuffling. Since his start with the seminal early-'90s rap group Ultramagnetic MCs, he has assumed a host of different personas, each with distinct aesthetics--there's the rogue gynecologist Dr. Octagon, the psycho killer Dr. Doom, the futuristic Sinister 6000 and a dozen others.

He's lent his vocals to wildly diverse projects, working with the Prodigy, the turntablist and would-be poststructuralist theorist DJ Spooky and Beck. One of the most versatile figures in hip-hop, Kool Keith is also one of the smartest, fiercely defending the art form even as he launches withering attacks at rap's ghetto-fabulous mainstream.

Kool Keith's latest incarnation is Black Elvis, a pompadoured sonic prophet dropping wickedly caustic rhymes over sci-fi soundscapes on the album Black Elvis/Lost in Space. Like Missy Elliott's latest outing, Da Real Word, Black Elvis/Lost in Space comes across as a rap fantasy from the year 3000, packed with spare, aggressive funk, seismic bass and sly bits of futuristic camp (the high female voices on the song "Lost in Space" sound like stewardesses on a spaceship in some '60s B-movie). All the samples on Black Elvis/Lost in Space were created from scratch, because Keith didn't want any sonic links to the past.

He's far from shy about being an innovator. "We're going into 2000 and still listening to old samples from the '70s and '80s," he says contemptuously. "Everybody's doing the same records over and over. I stepped out of that whole vein. I updated the sounds to the future. The industry's behind me by so many decades. Groups will come out two or three years from now trying to do what I'm doing this year. Record companies will just catch up to what I did in 2006."

Music, says Keith, lags behind the rest of the culture. "We have new cars, technology, people on the Internet, brand-new aerodynamic architecture, hotels have been updated, TV has been updated--how come the music can't be updated?" he asks. "Why am I buying a brand-new futuristic Japanese component set to listen to some 1975 music? I would love to play something for the next millennium in my next millennium component set."

KOOL KEITH'S aggressive futurism is unusual in the rap world, but it has precedents in the work of Afrocentric astral experimentalist Sun Ra, Afrika Bambaataa (who helped invent hip-hop with the sci-fi sounding "Planet Rock") and Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig. Kool Keith fits within a tradition of sonic trailblazers precisely because he's so eager to break with tradition.

Speaking of his recent disdain for old jazz samples, he says, "I love Thelonious Monk and Bob James, but I let them do their own thing. I think those people should rest. We're going into a whole new time, a time for futuristic music. We're in a standstill now. I think I'm the only guy right now representing the future. I'm only going forward."

Of course, plenty of rappers dis their peers and proclaim their personal greatness, but Kool Keith goes further, critiquing the whole stagnant state of pop music and hip-hop clichés. On the intro to Black Elvis/Lost in Space, he takes aim at what he recently called "Joe Neckbone rappers, the guys with the gold chains, hooded sweater, baseball cap on backwards." "Why are looking hard with your hood on and Timberland boots staring at me for one hour when you could just walk up and shake my hand?" he asks with a drawn-out deadpan sneer over wash of gurgling, cosmic jazz. "Why? Why are you making those mean faces in your video with the fish-lens effects?"

Unlike the rappers he mocks, Keith has never settled for the conventional, preferring outlandish costumes--after all, it's hard to imagine a greater departure from the hip-hop uniform than his Elvis getup. His constant personality changes, he says, are designed in part to make sure that he never gets stuck playing any of the stale roles in the hip-hop repertoire. "I have a lot of ideas," he says, "I'm not like the average rapper stuck with an image. A lot of these rappers are uncomfortable. They're stuck with an image that they have to maintain."

When he was starting out with the Ultramagnetic MCs, Keith says, "I looked at a lot of rappers that died out quick doing the same thing, and I saw that I had to make something different to stay interesting. I saw a lot of rappers come and go because they were being monotonous, doing the same stuff every time. They were just like Joe Neckbone, the average guy with no image, nothing really interesting about him except that he has a hot record that the record company is promoting for one second. After that you don't hear any more about him."

Like Madonna, Keith saw that a single personality wasn't enough to weather the whims of a fickle culture and that to stay in the game he needed at least four or five.

FOR ALL HIS flamboyance, though, Keith says he's over the hedonistic hip-hop lifestyle. Other rappers, he admits, "probably don't think I'm enjoying myself. They think they're large, and they probably think Keith isn't doing nothing, he's home."

But he's already done it all. "I flew around the world. I went to every city. I went on big tour buses. I used to sniff coke with Ultra and drink my weight in champagne. I kicked that part of my life down. I don't have to go out and try to sleep with 20 women. Even as far as having money, every rapper has his first chance to get money. It's a high as far as the girls, going on trips, flying and buying stuff randomly. I've learned to control myself with money. I travel around the world with one or two people instead of bringing 20 people on the plane with me because I'm scared and I'm a child."

That independence is reflected on Black Elvis/Lost in Space. Unlike most other big rap releases, the album isn't crammed with guest stars and shout-outs--it's the statement of a single artist, something increasingly rare.

Even on Missy Elliott's Da Real World--an album that even Keith respects--there are a dozen singers besides Elliott, resulting in a certain incoherence. "There are no more artists," Keith says provocatively. "There are just a scattered bunch of people on one album. Rock groups are being marketed solid--when you buy a Korn album, you're going to get their music and their lyrics, not a collage of different people. On most of the stuff now, it's all about who's guest starring, having a list of names on the jacket of your album. It's so much less creative."

Typically modest, Keith says he brought creativity back to hip-hop. "I brought all that back. Cameo, they used to do their own music, Earth Wind and Fire used to do their own music; this year Kool Keith did his own music." He's right. Next year, the record industry may start to catch on, but for now, Kool Keith is one of the only rappers offering the sound of tomorrow today.

Kool Keith performs along with more than 50 other live acts and DJs at the Planet New Year's Party Dec. 31 at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds, 344 Tully Road, San Jose. The show runs 7pm-dawn. Tickets are $50. (408.235-1077 or check the Planet New Year website.)

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From the December 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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