"Kool" Keith Thornton has released more than a dozen albums under almost as many pseudonyms. On his latest, Dr. Dooom 2, the prolific, erratic rapper reanimates an old persona to complete the task he apparently didn't on the first Dr. Dooom disc—killing Thornton's best-known alter ego, Dr. Octagon. Yes, this is confusing and bizarre—and it's par for the course with Thornton, who first gained fame as part of Ultramagnetic MCs. Annoyed by Dr. Octagon's success—Dr. Octagonecologyst, made with Dan The Automator, is a milestone in weirdo hip-hop—Thornton killed the character on 1999's First Come, First Served, but events outside Thornton's control supposedly reanimated him. A seemingly shady record deal resulted in The Return Of Dr. Octagon, released without Keith's consent or production input. Recently, The A.V. Club spoke with the strangest rapper in the business about his beef with American Idol's Simon Cowell (as detailed on the new album's "Simon"), the death of Dr. Octagon, and more. In a separate interview (mixed in for clarity's sake), Thornton's current go-to beatmaker, KutMasta Kurt, gives his perspective.
The A.V. Club: What's your beef with Simon Cowell?
Kool Keith: I think for one guy to sit up and judge people and for him to be British at that—who the fuck is he to judge people? To come to America and try to judge people? I think Simon needs to get the fuck out the set and give it to someone else. Paula Abdul used to be an artist, choreographer, dancer, she needs to go back to that. I don't want her judging talent at all. Randy Jackson, he's cool, he's a buddy of mine. Let Randy be. Simon needs to get the fuck out of here and go somewhere. What is Simon's qualifications? I'm trying to figure it out. That guy wears a black shirt with a gay haircut, and he's going to walk around and judge people? I don't understand it. That show is full of bullshit. I'd respect it if they had an American artist doing the shit.
AVC: What about the similar journalistic call-out on "Always Talkin' Out Your Ass"?
KK: That song I wrote more for the music industry. The whole industry has this perspective of, like, "The show is not a show no more, now you got to have a party after." I think the fans are getting used to a certain thing. Everybody's spoiled. I've learned that people cheat—downloading. Everyone wants to have fancy jeans or the latest glasses. "Yeah, I'm hip. I spend money. I got a Sidekick." But at home, they don't even buy a full CD no more, with the plastic on it. They're official one way and artificial another. That song is about a lot of things: how people tend to do things expensive and then they do things cheap at the same time, so they have a contradicted lifestyle. At least buy a real CD, not a bootleg. You got on the latest jeans. You got antique jeans on, or some shades that cost $200. You got a phone.
AVC: You also preempt critics who'll compare this to a prior outing. Why?
KK: People tend to lock into one thing that you do that they consider to be better than the last one. I don't think it's no better than or less than, you know? It's like people who got a lot of albums—when you listen to all the Public Enemy albums, critics have to say, "Yo! Bum Rush The Show was their best album, I didn't like the next album, I didn't like Apocalypse 91." I just think they made the album at a different point in their time and career, the same as myself. All records are different. People tend to branch off all these records—when you were good, when you were bad. I think it's when you were feeling something.
AVC: What were you feeling when you wrote the chorus of "R.I.P. Dr. Octagon"?
KK: I was just thinking about Octagon in general. I was pissed off about it. Dr. Octagon 2, the way it was handled, them taking advantage of the project. Not putting it out for five years and doing remixes the way they wanted to and hiring all types of people and stuff. I was really pissed. I'm one of those artists that people take my music without my consent. People love to snatch my music and do things on their own. You got people that put me on beats I never rapped on. I just feel that it's a bad thing.
KutMasta Kurt: I wasn't really super-involved, but from what I understand, there were some sort of masters that were floating around—I don't know when they were recorded—that a label got hold of. A producer was involved with the project; for whatever reason, the label and producer couldn't come to an agreement. So they said, "Forget him, we'll just remix the whole album." So they stripped off all the vocals, found this other producer team… As a creative person, Keith's very sensitive about his art. Sort of like if you painted a painting of something and somebody went and painted over it, that's how he felt on that project. The Dr. Octagon character was rapping over sounds that were dark and sinister, but they turned the album into this dancey electro-pop. A lot of it had this Euro-dance feel, and I was like, "Wait a second, not only did they change the music, they changed it into something that couldn't relate." I think we might've been on a flight somewhere in Europe in December 2006, and he was saying, "This record doesn't even sound like an Octagon record." And people wanted us to perform some of the songs, and Keith was like, "I'm not really feeling the style and sound. They're not really related." I said, "Well, you want to bring Dr. Dooom back?" Without that album, we wouldn't have made this album. There would have been no need for Dr. Dooom to come back.
AVC: The first Dr. Octagon album has been casting a shadow for a decade.
KK: I think people got stuck on something, but I have a total dimensional lifestyle besides Doc Oc. I just made a record. I was an artist on a project, and I think people misconcepted that I was an artist on a project. Octagon wasn't my life. I've done tons of projects. I had groups. I worked with different groups and myself. Ultra. I rapped on Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up." I've done a lot of things that were totally around different things other than Octagon. Are some people just afraid to venture off into my life and see that I do other things which are great? I think people stuck me with something.
AVC: Are you a victim of success?
KK: I don't know if Dr. Octagon was successful. It was just different and new, but I've done more things. It's like Stephen King. He wrote "Children Of The Corn" and he wrote the clown [the novel It], but he's still Stephen King. I like some of his other movies. He did the car, the trucks, running by themselves. [Maximum Overdrive.] They made a bunch of Halloweens, but I'm not just going to fall in love with Halloween number one. Just like Saw. The guy made different parts. He made other movies. Some with the puppets waking up out of the box. You just got to adapt to them.
AVC: You and Kurt have had a long relationship. How does a Bronx rapper meet a Santa Cruz, California producer in the late '90s?
KK: He sent me a demo. I was like, "Wow, this was a white dude with some funky beats." All the white guys got good beats in the industry now. Just like the NBA. We got a couple white guys playing in the league. That was a big thing. I never thought we'd be making so many records together. He was opposite me. I was more into fun, I always related to shopping and buying stuff. And when I got some record deal, everything had to be partially put into my shopping, and as I worked on my albums, I'd go to Macy's and Bloomingdale's and get a nice new shirt, new pair of jeans, buy a collared shirt.
KMK: He's a challenging guy. People in the industry are like, "Dude, you deserve an award." But I have a very calm and patient personality. So I think we're sort of the like The Odd Couple in a way.
KK: We lived together. It was fun times. One time we had an apartment and Kurt didn't want to live in Beverly Hills and the label [wanted us to]. I said, "They're paying for it. We going to live in Beverly Hills." He wanted to go stay with his aunt. He was always the more conservative person. I was more the outgoing person. I'm the type of guy that wants to get the Cadillac, and Kurt wants to rent the Pinto. It's like cheap and expensive hanging out together. It sometimes got out of hand.
AVC: Why shopping?
KK: I like to smell new clothes, tags. The store has new scents. It's just motivational to me. That's the point of doing something. I always buy something to make myself motivated. It's good to feel that you can buy something and motivate yourself. That's what I do, just buy stuff. I like to buy something new and then record. It's just a mechanism, like when a batter goes up to the batter's box, some of them have to spit on their hands. Some of them have to dig up dirt. Some of them have to dig their cleats in a certain spot. That's the same thing with me rapping. I take a walk first. I look around, window-shop. Buy stuff. It's sort of the rhythm of my social life. For some people it's drugs. They got to sniff a lot of cocaine to start to make a record. They got to smoke all types of things. Me, I go do some shopping. At least I'm not abusing myself. I'm proud of myself. I stayed in all those big cities, stayed in L.A. and partied, and I didn't get caught up in that. I've had fans hand me all types of things—bags of pills, different things. Bags of coke. I take it, but I don't use it. I get on the tour bus and in my hand is a big bag of coke, or two big balls of Oxy, or something, I don't know. What am I going to do? Take them and fall out? If I took everything that everybody gave me, I'd probably lose my mind. It'd be like, "Yo, that guy can't even talk no more. He's standing in New York talking to himself."
AVC: You do have a reputation for being insane, which you've encouraged.
KK: One time I had like 75 people interview me, and they started asking me the same questions. One guy was just asking me all types of questions, and I was just like, "Yeah, I went to Bellevue. I chewed my own hand off and they had to sew it back on." And the guy believed it. I guess he printed it, and then it started to spread, and next thing you know I see things that read: "The former Bellevue guy making a record." I didn't know it would travel like that. And I looked back like, "Wow, this story traveled." People tend to coincide my music with my mind. I write weird and do things sometimes as though I'm on drugs or crazy, but I don't have to get high to do that. Even the partial things that I do. they gotta take coke up the nose and shoot needles. You got rock stars out there—they gotta get high just to make the record I make normally.
AVC: "Step-N-Fetchers" is insane.
KK: "Step-N-Fetchers" is like a lot of my people in the music industry, my black people, who are wearing the monkey suits and dancing with the cup. And they're going to all these different awards and they're dancing. They're really doing some Sammy Davis Jr.—and I think Sammy Davis is a great person. But I think a lot of my people now are dancing too much, even in the movie world. In the entertainment world, a lot of the black people are dancing too much, they're putting on them shiny shoes with sand on the floor and sliding around. They really dazzle them on the floor right now. All these events that you see, these big events, you see black people starting to paint their face black and put the white lipstick on. The Louis Armstrong effect. They're playing the tuba with their eyes wide open. What happens when the step-n-fetcher gets onstage is, they say, "You want me to dance? How hard, sir?" And then they get more of the approval and applause, so they dance more and they dance harder.
We have a big Sambo committee in the black entertainment world. There's a very large Sambo world, and they even dress like that, they wear the bow ties to the event. They wear a lot of tuxedos. And that's what we call our house monkeys. They work for Master Tom. They are our cotton-pickers. BET is a Sambo organization. They broadcast the Sambos out. They do the Funky Chicken sometimes. If you look at TV, it's just all entertainment. You got rappers out there really doing… circus things. They got top hats on! It's all one big circus. We have a big Sambo audience. They're playing, slapping their thighs—all they need is a banjo. You might as well buy that monkey with the cymbals, the one you wind up. That's what we're working with right now. We do have a very humongous Sambo organization, and got a lot of networks that are responsible for the Samboism.
AVC: When did you start using different names?
KK: I think I was in high school. I just was Kool. Put Kool in front of Keith. Keith Energy, Keith Turbo, Keith Magnetic. I used to wear my hat to the side. I created the baseball cap worn to the side, even as a little kid. I think I was the first guy that really cocked my baseball cap to the side, a patented style in New York that I've done. Most rappers wear their hat straightforward. Even when I grew older, my ball caps, I always wear a baseball cap cocked to a certain side. For performance or life. Kool Keith in general.
AVC: What's the coolest name in hip-hop?
KK: Kool Keith.
AVC: KutMasta, what's your take?
KMK: People say, "Hey, that's a cool, retro-sounding name. It's like Grandmaster Flash." And I'm like, "I actually thought of it about that same time." [Laughs.] It was the mid-'80s. I was learning to DJ, and cut-master was a name people had. I just adapted it for myself. It's your persona, your trademark, your brand. It's almost as if you're making yourself a superhero, or a caricature of yourself. A majority of these hip-hop guys have been and are still into comic books. With Keith, one guy is a serial killer, another guy is the porno guy. Basically his solo career was his hidden self. He's a caricature of himself. He amplifies his different personality facets. Black Elvis was a good one. My favorite Kool Keith name is Fly Ricky The Winetaster.
AVC: Keith isn't the only one with beef. What's your problem with Doc Oc producer Dan The Automator?
KMK: The first Dr. Octagon album started with the song "Dr. Octagon," which I produced along with the other song, "Technical Difficulties." I recorded that song and mailed it to radio stations like a teaser track, and was giving it out to DJs. I sent it to Dan because he was a friend of mine, we were music friends. Long story short, he didn't want to pay me my royalties. I'm like, "Dude, you're my friend for years." I was thinking, "Am I really going to have to sue you? You made hundreds of thousands of dollars off that record." I got the whole thing started and really got nothing directly out of it. He ran with it, but he never gave credit to the person who threw the ball. At the end of the day, I actually had to sue the guy. They settled, but I actually had to file. My reason for going public was to warn people in the industry. Dan did well and good for him, but you meet the same people on the way up as you meet on way down.
AVC: So what's next?
KK: King Service, my own solo album. I'm going back into my essence, my Bronx rap style. I want to go back to rapping and saying just regular shit again, just normal things that come up in my mind, more than a conceptual project. More urban things about normal stuff I do in New York. I want to use beats that are just rugged. I want to be very industrial and I want to come with lyrics that are just edgy. I want to write just straight off me. I got tracks done. I'm just picking out the top ones and focusing on the essence of me rhyming to give people a picture of my life. Different than Dooom or Black Elvis. I got a lot of tracks the public hasn't heard. People don't know.