Celebrity Skin

Hip hop's morph master Kool Keith raps about beauty, porn, and life without bodyguards

Ice Cube was not a gangbanger. Too Short and Big Daddy Kane were never really pimps. And despite his subtle-yet-constant hinting, Jigga Jay-Z is not actually a globetrotting drug czar. No surprises here. Bigger-than-life fictional personas are as common in hip hop as kick-kick-snare beats and homophobia. So why is it so difficult for the hard corps to handle "Kool" Keith Thornton as a galactic rocker cruising among the stars in a monkey-green ragtop Seville?

Kool Keith falls within a tradition of rappers who overhaul their image from album to album just to keep fickle fans guessing. Take recent transformations of Nasty Nas into Nas Escobar, or Prince Raheem into RZA and then into Bobby Digital. These metamorphoses aren't always believable, but we don't have to believe them to enjoy them.

Perhaps Kool Keith's imaginative masks are more disturbing than those ghetto poses because the rapper is so convincingly schizoid. Since leaving the seminal Ultramagnetic MCs, the rapper has morphed from the extraterrestrial gynecologist Dr. Octagon into the horror-hop cannibal Dr. Dooom, and now into the spaced-out rock star of his new album, Black Elvis/Lost in Space. Keith even managed to steal his scene on Prince Paul's crowded rap-opera album A Prince Among Thieves, playing a Glock-wielding merchandiser.

Thirty thousand "Original Black Elvis" fans can't be wrong: Kool Keith
Thirty thousand "Original Black Elvis" fans can't be wrong: Kool Keith

Then there's his porn preoccupation, his macabre lyrical imagery, and that black plastic Elvis wig. All of which suggest that, somewhere between the Hollywood hub he calls home and the Bronx housing projects he grew up in, the old schooler really did get lost in space. But that doesn't mean he can't come down to earth for a little conversation from time to time. On the phone, Keith has a way of making his eccentricity--and egotism--seem like common sense.


CITY PAGES: Do you think of yourself as a weird guy?

KOOL KEITH: I'm a different guy. I have different tastes. I would go to a store and buy, like, a weird color or something. Everybody else would wear, like, a Laker Jersey. I would buy a Vancouver Grizzly or Toronto Raptor. I feed off the underdog stuff. I'm not trendy.

CP: How would you feel if the track "Supergalactic Lover" crossed over?

KEITH: I think it would be good, because nothing is underground anymore. I see Talib Kweli and Mos Def on Levi's commercials, hanging up on big buildings. I'm proud of that.

CP: You talk about other rappers that have stolen your material. What ideas have been stolen from you?

KEITH: The capes, the masks, the straitjackets, the dark videos, the scary, creepy things--all that's my stuff. A lot of the music industry is people that are into my stuff. You can't help but bite something if it's in your face. When you call an artist from your label into the office and they see my picture hanging up in their promotion director's room or something, it's hard not to bite something. Next thing you know, Joe Neckbone is doing a big summer jam tour with your wig on.

CP: Black Elvis seems less explicit than your earlier solo material. Did you tone it down on purpose?

KEITH: I was thinking about my mom and stuff. I was thinking, "I never let my mom hear my albums." I tried to balance myself. I said, "I'm going to do Dr. Dooom because I'm mad and pissed off. And I'm going to let people have it. I'm going to do Black Elvis for my family." Can you imagine me cranking Dr. Dooom in front of her?

CP: What about other women in your life?

KEITH: When I meet a girl, they all have the same program: "Let's go to the movies." That's why I made "I'm Seein' Robots." That movie shit is out with me. I think it's so trendy to take a girl to the movies, get your popcorn, go eat, take a picture with a background behind you. I'd rather take pictures of a girl. I'm into my photography and my cameras. Buying my Minolta pieces and Pentax. Going to the camera store and buying umbrellas. I found that it is a relaxing hobby to me to get into my camera and colors and essences. I do want to be a photographer one day.

My best thing I like to do is take lingerie pictures of girls in nice outfits. I don't thrive on seeing a woman naked. I read Hustler and Playboy and look at the camerawork and the art.

CP: Do you consider that pornography? Are you into pornography?

KEITH: I'm into stuff like that. I have a camcorder. I've filmed footage of people, girls and stuff, but I never participated. I'm into the filming of it, the texture, what kind of film, what kind of light I've got. I'm real technical.

CP: Are there porno stars or filmmakers that you admire?

KEITH: I'm trying to get into a magazine of my own, my own Playboy with girls in it from the hood. A lot of magazines give girls a shot that has the Hollywood plastic nose, the fake hair, and the weave that's professionally sewn in, the bony legs, and the silicone chest. I'm more into the natural thing now. I'm basically trying to take pictures of the unpredictable pretty girl that lives in the projects or a girl that's from the hood showing them that they have a chance to be a "beauty."

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