Kool Keith is a man of many faces. With over 60 aliases and more than 44 albums he is both prolific and seemingly schizophrenic, as well as being undeniably talented. If you’ve never heard of him, search Poppa Large on YouTube straight away and then come back and finish reading this article. A core member of seminal East Coast hip-hop crew The Ultramagnetic MCs, I was both aroused and intimidated as I caught up with him backstage at the Project X (his current project with Tim Dogg of Fuck Compton fame and Marc Live from Raw Breed) show at Manning Bar on Friday September 5th.
The room is packed full with ladies. The rest of Project X are busy entertaining the guests as Keith and I stand to the side. He is obviously distracted and keeps asking people to find him some orange juice for his Vodka. His answers are rambling but still clear, reminiscent of how he raps.
I ask him about the long running rumour that he had been in an insane asylum before becoming a rapper. “Well, what happened was that I was doing interviews at Mercury, Ultramagnetic had a press day and we had about 50 interviews that whole day, it was like having massive meetings. I got to a point where I was so tired, I was joking around and the guy asked me a normal question and I just started saying I was in a crazy house. It was some kind of journalist and he was a funny guy and we were sort of playing a game, and I just started rambling on saying stuff like I was put in there for trying to eat my own body parts, my own hands and stuff.”
“The guy actually wrote the stuff down. It played a good part because Poppa Large came out at that time, and when Poppa Large came out, it became even more convincing you know, with me in the straight jacket and the whole mental thing and people began to believe it all. We got more of a kick originally because that one person believed us, but then it ran with my press kit for like ten years after that.”
Someone finally comes over with some orange juice and Keith sits down on a couch, while I’m standing in front of him. He relaxes and starts talking about how he inspires strange actions in his fans. “I started getting crazy gifts from people, like someone gave me an envelope with donuts in it. One guy, when I was on the road – and I’ll never forget this one, as I got off the bus he gave me a barrel of pickles with pink kool-aid in it, a barrel of pickles, but the juice was pink!”
“People begin to get carried away with their imagination. It’s like people want to meet Marilyn Manson, like, is he really mysterious crossing the street at night? Like, is he really in Transylvania? Is he bugged out when he’s making his eggs and bacon in the morning?”
“But my fans, they took it real wild, and you know my music and my writing was real Stephen King and real Vincent Price and they just believed it so much they locked it in their head and they won’t let it go. The fans that I have that live in deserted areas, you know with trees and the Blair-Witch-looking background, I think they go take my albums and they listen in the woods and they have weird feelings and things. You know I would hate to rap and have my music fuel up a child molester or something because I don’t rap about that. I don’t want people to chop people up to my music. I just want them to be themselves and realise that I’m like Stephen King, I just write a movie, you know? It’s my imagination.”
“Maybe people think I have demented thinking, but I just think 90 percent of the world writes the same stuff,” he tells me. “I can write the same about what I have and what I got, but I have a variety of writing. My writing could be things about girls, my writing could be about cannibalism, chopping people up, my thing could be writing about water related incidents, anything from any celestial space, I have a broad writing part of myself. Some people just write about maybe one or two things, you know they just write about cars or champagne, their whole album is about Champagne, they have no flexibility, they just write about Champagne”
Speaking of the Devil, a bottle is popped and Keith turns to one of the girls. I manage to catch his attention again as she gets up to go to the bathroom and his rant shifts into how the media perceives him. “People tend to put me in a certain box, they figure that I got stuck or something and maybe I went too far with my image in music, like ‘he can only be distinctively eclectic’ I’m a person of all genres, I rap on everything.”
“I just started rambling off saying stuff like I was there for trying to eat my own body parts, my own hands and stuff.”
“When you look at the street in New York, when I came out my music was still Urban, Ultramagnetic was Urban Street music. There’s no way people could erase my past career and say I’m super-away from the rappers, I’m in tone with rap from all kinds of angles. I think people have a big bracket space between certain rappers, that they feel like they’re only lyricist rappers, lounge rappers, backpack rappers, street rappers. All the rappers are segregated, everybody has a separate highway.”
“At the end of the day rap is still competitive, but I don’t know why rap has so many boundaries you know. To me rap should me more broad. They break it up, and then you got people who are stupid and stubborn who are like I only listen to backpack rap, neo-soul rap, I don’t listen to the street rappers, but street rappers are more real than backpack rap, that was the first rap that came from the street, the cipher on the corner.”
“Even DJs and the media are putting categories together, meaningless categories. ‘Who’s the top rapper?’ How you gonna know who’s the top rapper? The judges haven’t even heard a rapper in China?” he exclaims with a laugh. “Same with singing, same with everything else, in rock and pop, they use the same names, the same singers every year and that gets monotonous and repetitious.”
“You know Mariah Carey, the same, Mary J. Blige the same every year signing the same bullshit songs, give another girl a chance. The Pussycat Dolls!” he almost screams, “The Pussycat Dolls, the machine does the same stuff every year. They pay me I’ll rap on the shit, The Pussycat Dolls pay me I’ll rap on that shit, that’s real, but it’s all the same every year and it needs to change.”
The girl returns, Keith says goodbye and as he is leaving with his groupie and Champagne in hand, I have to resist the urge to take a picture of him. What can you say? He’s Poppa Large! Big shot on the East Coast!
Go to http://www.koolkeith.co.uk, to download rare tracks, watch videos or just to find out more about a lot of really good hip hop