We’re talking old-school hip-hop, and Kool Keith Thornton thinks the world could use a history lesson. The Bronx rapper broke out in the mid-80s as hip-hop crossed over from urban streets to the pop charts.
“I played through the second phase, the golden age,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “But a lot of people don’t have proper knowledge of what’s going on from group to group.”
In particular, he’s bothered by the omission of Ultramagnetic MCs, his first crew, from many chronicles of the era. The group introduced many elements to the genre that are sometimes credited to followers.
“The mix of that whole time zone, before A Tribe Called Quest, before De La Soul and all that, the writers went into a devilish move of changing all the history books around. New York is the only place I know where they will rip a page out of the Bible,” he said.
It continues to this day.
“A lot of these programs on the television seem to ex out Ultramagnetic MCs discography and library for some apparent reason that don’t make sense. Programs put the wrong groups in the wrong places and times — who’s a legend now, that kind of deal.”
Encomiums are tossed around, but details are often wrong. For example, the violent debut album of Boogie Down Productions is regarded as a prototype for East Coast gangsta rap. However, few accounts reflect the contribution of Cedric Miller, Kool Keith’s partner in Ultramagnetic MCs, to shaping the record’s sound. But Kool Keith claims he’s moved on.
“A lot of these groups live off their old status, they give thanks for that and smile like a monkey from ear to ear,” he said. “Me, I don’t care.”
As a solo artist, Kool Keith moved from persona to persona with an alacrity that made him one of rap’s most baffling figures. He introduced the sex-obsessed Dr. Octagon on Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996) and continued the character on 1997’s Sex Style. In 1999, serial killer Dr. Doom was the centerpiece of First Come, First Served – the first murder victim was, fittingly enough, Dr. Octagon. Kool Keith also released the pseudonymous Black Elvis/Lost In Space the same year.
His latest disc is Love & Danger, a mix of often-caustic rhymes – the music industry lambasting “Supremacy” is a good example – and romantic tunes like the soulful “I Never Hurt You.” The most talked about new track is “Goodbye Rap.” Lines like “I quit rap/couldn’t find competition/I threw rap in the garbage” and “I’m going back to the Bat Cave and take off my cape/be a rock star” led to speculation that he’d retired. Not so – Kool Keith is simply moving forward.
“My classmates from the golden era are still kind of jealous of me being current,” he said. “I have no pity for the old school – most of them are miserable.”
He’s determined to stay ahead of the game, make new music, move with the times.
“I can always make records the same way as the next person coming up tomorrow,” he said. “I was always the future; then the future caught up with me, but I don’t resent performers like Timbaland and Flo Rida.”
The many moods on Love & Danger reflect this multifaceted nature.
“People want to put you in a basket – ‘you’re just a hard scientific rapper’ or ‘you can’t write a song about a girl,’ [but] my music has a lot of differentiation,” he said. “I don’t have one lane I gotta be in, like I’m gonna be gangsta all the time, or political with this or that issue … I’m not gonna pop champagne and make it rain on every record … most of these rappers are locked in lanes — I don’t have a lock situation.”