The following conversation with hip-hop legend Kool Keith took place over the phone back in May of this year. Over the course of an hour, we discussed his Matthew album, which turned 20 over the summer, and some of his solo records from the ‘90s and ‘00s, as well as newer projects like Space Goretex with the Nashville punk band Thetan. He expressed mixed feelings about the Dr. Octagon project, both in how he feels fans perceive him based off of 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst and in his overall dissatisfaction with Dan The Automator’s work on the 2018 follow-up Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation.
You’ve kept this independent spirit throughout your career, which allows you to continue to be agile, do different types of projects, and work with different record labels. You're not beholden to any one place.
I had professional projects that I made money and took care of business, like Octagon and Critical Beatdown, my publishing rights and stuff like that, my points and spreads, and with Prodigy and different bands. But then there was times, you know, I did a lot of albums that made me more popular. People forgot those little things kept me in the business, me making the KHM album, recording with Esham and doing Spankmaster, all kinds of side projects, Dr. Dooom. Nobody paid for that stuff but myself. I had got a lot of label deals, but those deals came from those little things. I didn't get deals, just not doing anything. I was popular by doing more spontaneous stuff, to get me deals, to get me Black Elvis, to get me Dr. Octagon, to get me Sex Style. I was doing stuff in between to get those deals through, independent things, singles, dropping little treats here and there. People forget you have to put out something to get something.
I haven't been signed to a label for more than ten years now. I had one-off projects with Mello Music, but I haven't been physically signed to a label like when Atlantic signed me to a two or three year contract. And I was touring, working, getting publishing checks, still doing features and getting on big artists stuff and all that. But it was the interest in me doing small things. The small things made bigger things happen.
Was Matthew one of those projects that was just you investing in yourself?
Matthew, all those projects, I invested in myself. The artwork, myself. The recording, studio time. Yup, everything was me. Dr. Dooom, all those projects, even Octagon before that got to [Dan The] Automator. Automator didn’t have Octagon. I had that from the beginning, but he picked it up later and went to Bulk Recordings and then he took it to Dreamworks. The point was, I had all these projects and I had to start from scratch. Those were independent-started projects from the beginning. Like, the only thing that wasn't a pre-project was Black Elvis. But that still sprung from people seeing the action from all the other stuff that was boiling up, just me making records. That's why you don't hear a lot of these guys no more because they didn't do that. They can't make records without a record company.
It's just something you have to grow out of and realize, hey, you know, a label ain't your dad. Go to the studio, pay for your own shit. Or even just sit in the yard with your wife and cook barbecue ribs and still wait for a big deal that ain't even going to come. They never got the reality check and they never grew out of it. They became handicapped and they got stuck. They just stayed like that forever.
You've always been very critical of other rappers out there either for being fake, pretending to be something they're not, or otherwise doing something that's disrespectful. I brought up Matthew before, because that's a record where you really went in on a lot of these guys in the industry.
Well, I did Matthew after a lot of criticism. I was reading a lot of issues in magazines and people's talking shit. And then [when] I made Matthew, it was like a release of steam. Matthew was me just going after everybody that was phony. Like people with the verses—artists was just phony. I was just trying to take anybody's head off when I did Matthew.
Did you get any feedback from people after that?
Nah. I guess people felt the steam of that record. They was like, this is hard, you don't care about nothing. And I did not… It was, for me, real New York, just raw, you know. I think Matthew scared people because it was the reality of me, the Bronx, my life, my feelings, my emotions. I think people kinda got happy when they heard like Octagon or something more toned down. ‘Cause people had a different perception of me from anyway. You know, just from my peers, they didn't think I was a Bronx urban rapper and come from the streets of New York City. They thought like I’m probably a guy that was nice, living in San Francisco somewhere. But I don't live in San Francisco. I think though that album was too real for people and they never imagined me being like that on a record. They was like, this can't be Keith himself on this record. So that's what I'm saying. People still have an illusion of me by certain songs. People wanted to use me as an escape and be like, well, he makes space songs, he makes weird songs…
But that's not me all the time. I didn't ever want to be stuck in something. I was an artist of something that was good, but you don't have to make that stuff. You could do one project, call it Pink Flowers. You can do an album called Pink Roses and people like it, do a nice 15 songs about roses. And, oh that was a nice song, he talked about the park and birds and grass and green and love the earth. They think you’re supposed to make 20 of those albums. I don't have to make 20 of those albums to prove anything. I might go back to another concept. I might go back to hardcore stuff. I may go back to raw stuff. That's what happened with like Octagon. People took that and made it a pillow to sleep on it. I didn’t tell people to get comfortable and sleep on that project. That was something I made as art.
It was like, people took that record and went now that's you and you should stay him. I'm not gonna do that. That was just something I did. I brushed it off. I did that, but I'm not going to be that. And then, you know, it goes to show it wasn't the best. I mean, Dr. Octagynecologist was good, but then The Automator made another album [Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation]. But it was a piece of shit. It flopped, because he did it his way. He didn’t know what he was doing, did it by himself. He didn't want no collabs. Me and Qbert didn't get involved. Qbert, you know, he should have got more involved; he's closer to him. We let Dan do a terrible thing: make an album by himself that he didn't know what he was doing. He made a sound that nobody liked. It's cool to be different, but you can't always make an album that's totally different. You got to have some sense of understanding and comprehension in life.
Your last two projects, Saks Fifth Avenue and Space Goretex with the guys from Thetan, are very different records, but they're undeniably your work.
Well, what happened is, when you leave Automator, you gotta go back and do some straight real shit again. Sometimes you work with him, you go way out too far, which is cool as an artist to be able to experiment with a person that does things like that. But then Automator did a different kind of procedure. Sometimes you could rap on tracks for Automator and they don't necessarily be the tracks that's at the end. Like you could start rapping on something with him. Then, when it's mixed down and mastered, you'd be like, I didn't rap on that stuff. He does a total remix of everything you did. So it's like a guy taking what you inspirationally rapped on, then when you leave he's going pulling drums and instrumentation from under you and putting other shit that he clickbaited you [with] or set you up to. If I rap with any producer, I'm thinking that we're going to use the beat that I rapped on. If I did a rap with Pete Rock, I'm assuming that when he mixed it down five months later, it's going to be the shit I rapped on.
Now, how does that work when you're working with a band. With Space Goretex, did you have a sense of what Thetan were working on, musically?
They sent me the beats. I rapped on what they had. Then they mixed it down, so it wasn't like they fooled me. The other situation is you can rap on something and it's totally different when you hear the album. Everything becomes a secret and you can't hear none of the tracks till it's mixed. I’d never done the album like that. Octagon, the first one, it was originally recorded, all them records I rapped on, they came back like they were, real big and powerful. It goes to show: you could do a masterpiece project and then you could rebound and do the most bullshit-est project.
But then you just kinda gotta move forward, right?
That's what I'm saying with him. You got to move forward. You know, we did a video for that song for the Octagon record, [“Flying Waterbed”]. The karate video, with Qbert. They did the video. Everybody did all the polished stuff. They needed the RED camera and this and that, the greatest lens in the world. I told ‘em, you should do a video for “Girl, Let Me Touch You,” like just like a later video, but new. They didn't listen, but see how it goes? The video flopped, barely got what, 60,000 views. Then I’ve done independent videos, like “New York” and all that stuff with Junkdelic. Those videos got a lot of views and New York, those were independent videos, just me shooting. 200,000 views, 300,000. Me and MF DOOM did a video, 500,000, and we're not even in the video. The point is sometimes you don't need all that fancy shit.
People just want to see a nice video. People want to see sometimes you in reality, how you look walking down the street, how you look coming out of a store, you know, buying an ice cream cone off the truck. You don't have to be all hi-tech and you know, we gonna make you look like you're [in] outer space and we gonna put effects and flying saucers and all of this. Sometimes people don't want to see all that stuff. How does he just look normally coming out of the donut shop? I think people put too much extra shit.
Why do you think that is?
You know what happened is people start going on with your music and saying, okay, this is what you should be. People describe me through my music instead of describing me through myself. You need to come hang out with me and then me and you go walk somewhere in the city and then we just do normal real stuff. You'd be like, oh, I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken with Kool Keith. We might've bought a can of Colt 45. You'd be like, well, I didn't experience no spaceships with him, we was doing some normal stuff. But you ain't going to be like, Keith met me at the subway, you know, he had a helmet on and he had a chrome suit, and he had some sneakers lighter that were glowing in the dark and he walked me into the McDonald's and he was glowing and everybody was looking at him. People think that kind of shit, I guess. [laughs]
It's weird that people don't act like you're a person. I've seen you live and it’s just like, you're up there, you do your thing. You're not pretending to be something you're not. You're presenting yourself as yourself, the way you want us to see you. And if someone only knows you as this abstract concept from a record they listened to that came out 20 years ago, then they're not getting it.
Right. Like you said, some people live through my music, but they never live with me. They just be like, you know, this guy must be what he is on this song right now. He must be in a flying saucer riding around the Bronx and the flying saucer, like going into Macy's and the flying saucer is double-parked downtown. [laughs] Nah, it's just the song. It's the music. It's my mind. I used to tell people that a lot, like my mind sometimes be in other fictions, but my body’s not there.
The way people might pigeonhole or marginalize you, it reminds me of how people approach folks like George Clinton and all the P-Funk guys. They did a bunch of records that talked about space, but it's not like they lived on spaceships.
They were actors. You're not going to go downtown and look for like—what's the guy that plays Iron Man?
Robert Downey Jr.
You're not gonna go look for him down on 42nd Street dressed up like Iron Man. You're not going to walk in Macy's and you walk past Robert Downey Jr. with his wife and kids buying a shirt, but then you still looking for Iron Man as him. That's the same with myself. I'm not going to be walking around with a cape on or a doctor's uniform and you see me in T-Mobile paying a bill or something like that. I think people get besides themselves. They think that you can be animated or some shit, like you’re a cartoon walking around. I'm an artist that creates music. The art, that's what it is—art.
Purchase or stream Kool Keith’s music here.