November 30, 2019
As we venture into 2020, it’s only fitting to do so with an artist who’s always projected the future of Hip Hop, the legendary Kool Keith interviewed by Israel "IZ-REAL" Vasquetelle.
I suggest that the true measure of success for an artist in any genre of music is longevity. Some will be able to shock their way into the consciousness of social media for a fleeting moment with viral flukes. However, it's likely that spotlight will fade fast and the notoriety won't even live as a distant memory on the fringes of viewers' minds. Today, many consider that stint of attention success. In reality, it’s more than that; it's staying power--always being sought out by fans, even if those fans' numbers are minuscule in comparison to the view counts of spectacle artists on YouTube. What counts in a music career is what lasts--something worth remembering and cherishing, even if just by a small group of die-hards who carry the torch and continue to spread that fire decades into the future.
If civilization as we know it were to end, and I had a bit of advance notice to put aside just a handful of artists' albums for storage in an indestructible time capsule for whoever happens to emerge from the rubble to learn about the essence of this thing we call Hip Hop, it would clearly be a difficult task. There are so many artists to choose from, and of course, only a finite amount of space in any hypothetical time capsule. I would certainly have to include the obvious masters of the craft, including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run DMC, Rakim, Public Enemy, et cetera. But really, what self-respecting Hip Hop head wouldn't include these names from the golden era? These acts gave the genre its edge, beats, scratches, flair, and the development it needed to reach the masses. However, others have pushed creativity in Hip Hop far; these are rappers' rappers. One such emcee, in particular, has propelled far enough to reach celestial bodies during his more than a third of a century in the industry, yet he's far from celebrated by the masses. For this reason, I would be negligent in curating a theoretical time-preservation container that fails to revel in his contributions. This is not just to give him his just due, but to enlighten those who haven't yet been tainted by the mediocrity that Hip Hop has become, and so that they may discover an utmost practitioner of an essential virtue from the genre's inception-- originality. Over the decades, this performer has taken it further and further, transcending the genre's sound without selling out the essence of the culture. To some, he's a superstar, to others, his name is not known. Beyond those who will discover his presence within the time capsule, I present to anyone aspiring to learn about what it takes to become a true one-of-a-kind, this enigma. He's an unsung legend whose career demands both acknowledgment and reflection from those inspired to delve into the essentials of what it means to be a Hip Hop original. An innovator and in a class all to himself, some know him as Kool Keith.
Since the mid-eighties, he's made music for love of the art. Through the golden era, the infancy the underground, and into the profliferation of the genre into pop culture's consciousness and beyond, he's maintained a dedication to the craft and has persevered. No matter the label or how off-beat the sound, music fans have continued to discover Keith Thornton throughout the decades. Whether old or young or those that didn't even know they were listening to Hip Hop, they have been captivated by the man of many aliases, one with immense creative energy and extraordinary genius.
Unlike most rappers who've taken on aliases derived from famous criminals, drug lords, dictators, and notorious gangsters in an attempt to raise their status and achieve fame through perceived association, Keith has effectively transformed into an alternating gallery of alter egos of odd, bizarre, out-of-this-world personas. His approach has gone well beyond the use of aliases, instead, for the prospective projects, he's morphed into each of these well-defined and life-like characters.
What well-known performer in his right mind would change his identity to that of an obscure entity? This goes against any logical approach to branding, which dictates the importance of maintaining consistency. However, he's never appeared too concerned with giving anyone what they've expected. At the core, he's been a pure artist and entertainer. After the initial breakup of the '80s conceived Ultramagnetic MCs, Keith was involved with a string of projects with no major label affiliations, limited promotional efforts, and unlike the majority of rap releases from well-known artists, no slew of superstar guest appearances; yet, he was able to capture the imaginations of both true Hip Hop fans and at the time, those who wouldn't know DMC from DMX.
What helped differentiate him from the masses of rappers was simply being different. From his rhyme delivery to his topics and themes, even his physical presentation was distinct. Some artists are so unique that they stand out in almost every environment. Keith fits the bill, whether taking the stage wearing a cape and donning a rubber wig, or throwing lunch bags packed with fruit juice and snacks to the audience, even those that expect the unexpected are generally taken by surprise by this underground icon. However, don't mistake the zany antics for mere shock value or gimmicky ploys, he's multidimensional. Keith has been mimicked by many and he's influenced even more in various genres. His voice has been sampled by electronica bands, he's toured with Platinum-selling rock bands, and his music has been used in major motion pictures. In many ways, he's provided a road map for rap artists to break free of the stereotypical and cover new ground.
Keith's abstract lyrics have lead listeners from the corridors of other galaxies through fantasies of Hollywood life, and back to the hardcore streets of the genre's birth, the Bronx. Each project is like a welcome mat to Keith's world, a place where the plastic gets melted, the blunted get sobered, extraterrestrials are embraced, and wack emcees get served every time. Don't believe me, just take a listen to one of the most well-known artists in the genre. In his hit song "Monster" featuring Rihanna, Eminem referenced the legend of Kool Keith. Find your favorite rappers and ask who influenced them, then get those rappers' inspirations. Chances are, Keith is on those lists. -Israel "IZ-REAL" Vasquetelle