Kool Keith - Biography
By David Downs
Underground rap icon "Kool" Keith Thornton released more than a dozen albums under almost as many pseudonyms after first gaining fame as a founding member of the Ultramagnetic MCs in New York in the mid '80s. After three notable albums with the MCs, Thornton's solo debut single, "Earth People" as Dr. Octagon, appeared in 1995 on San Francisco-based Bulk Recordings to little attention. It was the full Dr. Octagon:Ecologyst (1996-Mo Wax) LP first released on the then-hot UK label that drew international attention to Thornton and his prior work. Major label Dreamworks re-released Dr. Octagon – with its contributions from Dan the Automator and DJ Shadow – to an enthralled American public in 1997 and it would cast a large shadow over his future work. Amid an era of gangsta rap and political rants, Thornton delivered warped lyrics as and smooth as they were clever. Hilarity and complexity matched the Brooklyn MCs fearless attacks on commercial rap, as well as explorations of outer space, aliens, animals, toilet humor, serial killing, medicine and pop culture. Notable releases Sex Style (1996-Funky Ass) vaunted the invention of “pornocore” rap while the ironically boisterous Black Elvis/Lost In Space (1999-Ruffhouse) hit number ten on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. First Come, First Served (1999-Funky Ass) featured Thornton in the role of serial killer Dr. Dooom killing Dr. Octagon, while the raw Matthew (2000-Threshold) made number forty-seven on the Heatseekers chart. The much respected Spankmaster (2001-TVT) precluded a series of less notable collaborations before Diesel Truckers (2004-Dmaft) reunited Thornton with original solo producer KutMasta Kurt. Mixtapes, small run releases and unauthorized releases soon muddled Thornton's discography, culminating in The Return of Dr. Octagon (2006-OCD) – which was released without production input from Thornton; he disavows the recording in the press. The Best Kept Secret (2007-Dmaft) with a reunited Ultramagnetic MC's came out to poor reviews, and Thornton returned to character with Dr. Dooom 2 (2008-Funky Ass). Thornton continues to record and tour and remains untouchable as hip hop's strangest, most innovative MC.
Details on Thornton's birth, childhood and school years are scarce. In interviews, he is notoriously hard to pin down and reluctant to share such details, preferring to revel in his current thoughts on any number of topics. Thornton's verified story largely starts in Brooklyn in the late '80s, where Thornton emerged as a founding member of influential underground rap group Ultramagnetic MC's, whose groundbreaking sampling and deliriously dexterous lyrical flow set them apart from the crowd during rap's initial expansion.
Keith Matthew Thornton, Cedric Miller, Trevor Randolph, Maurice Smith formed the MC's in 1984 and released their first single in 1985's "To Give You Love" on Diamond International. In 1986, vinyl twelve-inch single “Ego Tripping / Funky Potion” on Next Plateau Records Inc. was among the first to deploy the classic "Synthetic Substitution" drum break. Singles “To Give You Love / Make You Shake”, the rare “Funky / Mentally Mad” (based on a Joe Cocker piano sample), and “Traveling At The Speed Of Thought” were a prelude to the now-classic album Critical Beatdown (1988-Next Plateau). The album was self-produced and noted for its trend-setting use of samples from James Brown and other sources. Funk Your Head Up (1992-Polygram) and The Four Horsemen (1993-Wild Pitch) effectively rounded out the must-have recordings from Thornton's early period.
With a solo album expected by the world, Thornton tapped Santa Cruz unknown Kurt Matlin who had been DJing in the Bay Area since the mid-'80s to produce his debut. Matlin had moved from DJing in Santa Cruz to Stanford college radio when he sent Thornton some beats and Thornton got in touch. The two did some rough demos before, in 1995, Thornton re-emerged as Dr. Octagon on single “Earth People” on vinyl twelve-inch from Bulk Recordings of San Francisco. Production credits went to Dan The Automator and scratches are credited to DJ Q-Bert (of Invisibl Skratch Piklz). Fan essentials – a “3000" twelve-inch and a "Blue Flowers" twelve-inch followed. Matlin was dropped from the production process, but went on to remix for the Beastie Boys, DJ Spooky, Luscious Jackson, Blackalicious and others. Dr. Octagon's full-length Dr. Octagon:Ecologyst (1996-Mo Wax) featured little of Matlin's contributions and most of the fame went to producer Dan The Automator and scratcher DJ Q-Bert on turntables. Part sci-fi, part horror show, the album fused a collage of samples and original bits with Thornton's impressionistic rapping, as much erudite as it was sophomoric. “Blue Flowers” became a psychedelic anthem, while “3000” and “Earth People” became a template for ten years of space-rapping. Thornton was simultaneously simple and direct in his choruses, and incredible complex and deep in his verses. His songs revealed an evanescent genius only after repeated listens.
Geffen splinter DreamWorks re-released the album in the US in 1997 with a few additions but Thornton was already moving into his most creative period. In 1996, Thornton self-released single “Sex Style / Don't Crush It” on his own Funky Ass Records, produced by KutMasta Kurt Matlin. Matlin says Thornton was inspired to make a “pornocore” record as result of his affinity for New York's pornography stores. Thornton had become a self-taught porn expert, says Matlin and amplified the aspect of his personality into a full record. Released independently and far from the axe of commerce-minded record executives, Sex Style (1997-Funky Ass) defy description – a hugely provocative album for an artist on the verge of mainstream success. “Stuck On Pussy Drive”, “Lick My Ass”, and “Little Girls” are intercut with graphic, hilarious audio of intercourse – effectively ending any shot at a normal, mainstream career. That year, The Prodigy gave Thornton the most exposure of his career as the voice of “Smack My Bitch Up” off The Fat of the Land (1997-Maverick), which would go multi-platinum.
The major label Dr. Octagon persona had cast such a shadow that in 1999 Thornton killed his character under a new guise -- Dr. Dooom. The serial killer-themed album First Come, First Served (1999-Funky Ass) was also released independently and in small numbers at a point in Thornton's career where his erratic reputation may have been costing him access to larger labels. He had once joked in a press interview that he had been admitted to the Bellevue Mental Hospital and chewed off his own hand before doctors had to sew it back on – a rumor that persists and colors Thornton's legend to this day. The “Who Killed Dr. Octagon? (Intro)” kills off his old character, leading to a dark tour of Dr. Dooom's world in “Neighbors Next Door”, “You Live At Home With Your Mom” and “Housing Authority” featuring Motion Man. Black Elvis / Lost In Space (1999-Ruffhouse) amplifies Thornton's ego into a new character as well as love of sci-fi in material for an entire album with stand out tracks “I'm Seein' Robots”, “Black Elvis”, and “Keith Turbo” featuring sparse beats, and now-standard instrumental weirdness, produced by Matlin and Thornton.
Matthew (2000-Threshold Recordings) again unites skeletal beats and harmony with dense, scatterbrained raps that had some reviewers questioning Thornton's quality control and desire to continue innovating, while Spankmaster (2001-Overcore) overcompensates. Detroit's Esham and Santos added an even more psychotic, lo-fi soundscape while Thornton doubles down on his reputation for sleaze and eccentricity. "I Wanna Play," "Drugs," and "Spankmaster" guaranteed the record would lack radio play, while gaining more obsessed fans. Kool Keith's music became to rap what William Burroughs' writings were to literature – illicit, deviant, and absolutely uncompromising outsider art.
Kool Keith's The Lost Masters (2003-Dmaft) preceded Personal Album (2004-Kool Keith Enterprises) which was limited to 500 hand-signed copies, and self-released. Thornton and Matlin teamed up again for Diesel Truckers (2004-Dmaft) which has significantly more fans the Thornton's horrorcore album of the same period Thee Undatakerz (2004-Activate). Tracks like "Break U Off" had reviewers comparing Truckers to Sex Style, though the concept of gangster truckers is only sparsely maintained.
In 2006, The Return of Dr. Octagon (2006-OCD) came out as the result of shady record deal and was released without Keith's consent or production input, he says in interviews. Producers One Watt Sun were handed less than a half-hour of Thornton's vocals, which were whipped into a full album with singles “Ants” and “Aliens”. The album's thick production and sparse vocals from Kool Keith should've tipped off critics, who mostly enjoyed the fake album. Thornton has said in interviews that he does not perform the songs and considers its release one of the most bizarre experiences in his rap career. Project Polaroid (2006-Threshold) from producer TomC3 and Thornton is a much better, more indicative release from the year while Best Kept Secret (2007-Dmaft) – an Ultramagnetic MCs reunion album -- proved wildly underwhelming. Dr. Dooom 2 (2008-Funky Ass) came from Thornton's discontent over the Return record. Matlin and Thornton returned to the serial killer Dooom concept and killed Dr. Octagon again, while other tracks “Simon” take aim at American Idol and “Step-N-Fetchers” skewers the state of African American performance in the 21st Century. In 2009 he released Tashan Dorrsett, followed by The Legend Of Tashan Dorrsett (2011), The Doctor Is In (2011), and Love & Danger (2012).
The breadth and weirdness of Thornton's side project may never be fully known. In addition to work with The Prodigy and a number of UK acts, he has worked with electronica group Hardkiss on "Abandon Ship" (Sharks & Mermaids mix) on the Astralwerks imprint as well as 2006's self-titled Peeping Tom on the Ipecac label, and 2009's N.A.S.A. collaboration with Tom Waits. His pseudonyms include Reverend Tom, Mr. Nogatco, Poppa Large, Keith Korg, Rhythm X and Mr. Gerbik. As late as 2008, Thornton has said he resides in New York City and upstate, where he lives and works.
Thornton has never made a gold record, yet his influence far outweighs many platinum-selling artists. Instead of exploring a personal narrative, like so many rappers do, but Thornton fractured his personality and amplified its facets into literally dozens of alter-egos. Black Elvis, Spankmaster, Dr. Dooom and Dr. Octagon pushed rap into new worlds, leaving their indelible stain, while the real Thornton remained elusive. Any unhinged rap album of the future that focuses on sexual perversion, serial killing, or travel through space and time will eventually encounter comparisons to Kool Keith's journeys. And for that bold trepidation – he remains a certifiable icon.