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Apparently, when Kool Keith wakes up in the morning, he looks in the mirror and sees the Original Black Elvis. With his short leather jacket on (the one with Marilyn Monroe painted on the back), he knows he’s living the life of a huge star, and you know it, too. As bizarre as it might seem, this is far more credible a tale when Kool Keith tells it on “Livin’ Astro” from Black Elvis/Lost in Space: Kool Keith has a resume that no one can front on and adopts personas that sound out of this world.
From 1996’s Dr. Octagon, with which he stormed back into rap’s consciousness as Dr. Octagonecologyst, a perverse porno character sent from space to wreak havoc on young virgins “armed with seven rounds of space doo-doo pistols,” to the recent (but little heard) Dr. Doom, who arrived to kill Dr. Octagon on record, Kool Keith acts like such a real-life madman that even hiphop has been reluctant to embrace his legendary microphone skills.
Fueled by white kids who tripped on the stoner vibe and carnal lyrics, Dr. Octagon’s underground success led Keith to a major-label deal, and he reportedly blew a $50,000 advance on pornography. It also got him a spot on the last incarnation of Lollapalooza, for which he never showed up. He says he’s a porn actor (something I was unwilling to research) and alleges a prior career as a pimp (ditto). He also claims to be from space—Jupiter, to be specific. A few listens to his solo records make all these claims ring truer than most rap releases.
His latest incarnation, Black Elvis/Lost in Space, finds Keith assessing the modern hiphop world he helped birth as a member of the late-’80s outfit Ultramagnetic MCs. Ultramagnetic was key in turning hiphop into art, rather than a black punch line to white disco, and was considered a peer to better-known luminaries Eric B and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, and Public Enemy, owing in no small part to Keith’s mike skills. His immortal lines on the Ultras’ “Give the Drummer Some” and “Ego Trip” have seen props paid by such diverse groups as De La Soul and Prodigy, who stole Keith’s famous line for the MTV-banned “Smack My Bitch Up” single.
Because Keith says in his own press kit that Dr. Octagon wasn’t funky enough, he decided to do all of his own beats and production on Black Elvis. The decision mostly works out well; his soundscapes are both funky and unique. At times, they’re a tad uneven, but compared with the work of “artists” who use outside production by famous names or in-house label producers, this record reveals Keith’s creative strengths, as well as his weaknesses.
With the opening, “Release Date,” Keith declares that his record needs to come out because of black music’s decay. “No rock groups/I’m not alternative/Black as some charcoal…Big as the Beastie Boys/Black groups ain’t makin’ no noise.” Later on the same track, he uses his clear flow to bust on the rap stereotypes that have nothing to do with the hiphop he helped create. “Black networks want me to rent a Benz….Perpetrate and act large/Versace shirts down/With top hats/Like a ghetto clown.”
Bold, but not exactly new. De La Soul, KRS-One, and others have railed against the materialism and adoption of white-based opulence by rappers for years, but what’s remarkable is that Kool Keith does so by cleverly calling those who seek material possessions robots, on “I’m Seein’ Robots.”
Most of the tracks are built around old-school-sounding drum-machine beats, which give them a head-nod feel that was lacking from Dr. Octagon. Keith has lost the porn dialogue clips, but not the use of sampling. He adopts found sounds, sci-fi movie dialogue, and a variety of blips, buzzes, and alarms that sound as if he recorded them in the ship on the way home to Jupiter. It mostly works well because the beats are stripped-down 808-drum-machine style, so there’s room for the effects. It never sounds dense enough to draw away from the lyrics, because there was no producer trying to steal attention for himself. But, for as much as the lack of outside help worked in developing a consistently personal sound, the album is a bit too predictable. A change-up would have been nice. It seems Keith had two or three fewer tracks in him than he recorded—he should have killed the extras along with his alter-ego.
Keith’s rap style, like that of Slick Rick, stands in high contrast to those of most performers. He flows smoothly and lets his lyrics, not his voice, bite. While it’s hard to imagine DMX or Master P taking on all comers in a freestyle battle, it’s obvious from the track “Intro” that Keith would slay most famous rappers. He starts off by criticizing hiphoppers—”Why are you smirking up your face making obnoxious facial scenes like I supposed to be scared?”—before busting into rapid-fire moves that sound effortless, “I circle like sharks where ya’ll panic/I cruise the Atlantic/Y’all think I’m spaced out?/Human from the Earth planet/That’s right/Tomorrow I plan to boo your shows at the Apollo/You follow and the crowd/ The audience is hollow/Never ending while I’m mind bending/Resending you the first verse/That you was worse/A drag queen with a purse/Unrehearsed/Don’t try to reverse/Harsh words send you to a nurse.” Keith disses those who act hard but rap soft—a stance that, sadly, could get him shot.
Considering what a nookie-crazed pervert he acted like on Dr. Octagon (including skits that seemed to advocate child molestation), Keith seems particularly bothered by the macho aspects of rap, but, granted, it wouldn’t be hiphop if he didn’t remind you at some point that he’s the best rapper. He repeatedly makes that claim, but Black Elvis also raps about how he’s such a huge star that he “writes songs strictly for Elton John and Lionel Richie.” Sure, it’s a joke, but it’s a self-depreciating joke that most rappers would never make.
For all his concern about how hard everyone in the industry wants to act, Elvis could stand to lose some of the booty tracks: A few, like “Supergalactic Lover,” are about as dumb as anything by today’s mediocre R&B hitmakers—except he does go to pick his lady up in a “monkey-green ragtop Seville,” something we’d all like to drive ourselves. The equally mediocre “Master of the Game” is a standard braggart track that might have lifted a Roger Troutman keyboard riff and could have been found on a Death Row release five years ago.
Only the artist responsible for 1988’s Critical Beatdown could ask modern rappers: “Why are you making those mean faces in your videos with the fish-lens effects?” More like a black David Bowie than a black Elvis, he stands just outside the mainstream, asking serious questions of his peers and reinventing himself with mixed results. CP