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Space Invader

Kool Keith is the world’s oddest and most innovative hip-hop artist -- just ask him.



Kool Keith doesn’t get any love—well, not in his mind, at least. See, the frantic, ever-morphing rapper—he’s gone by the monikers Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Rhythm X, Black Elvis and a few others—has gotten critical praise dumped on him since he founded the Bronx-based Ultramagnetic MCs back in the ’80s. He’s a hip-hop junkie’s vice, a beat guru’s best friend. He’s king of the underground, ruling with a tongue laced with spikes and shrouded in multi-layered metaphors. But gooey critics and serious street cred don’t exactly equal a hit. He’s disrespected from above. His material gets lifted quicker than CDs at Wal-Mart. And it’s got Keith (real name: Keith Thornton) more than a bit pissed.

Sound AffectsWith such a ridiculous horde of bands performing on the Vans Warped Tour every year, choosing which ones to write about is always a headache—they’ve got to be damned interesting to leap out of the towering press stack and grab some attention.

New York City’s perfectly-named Bottom grabbed more than that with their new album, Feels So Good When You’re Gone (Man’s Ruin). The deceptively sweet-looking female trio churns out righteous bass-heavy desert metal thunderously reminiscent of Kyuss, Fu Manchu, vintage Sabbath and a cement mixer full of subwoofers. While the endless parade of neo-punks will be ripping through abbreviated sets on the main stages, Sina (guitar, vocals), Nila (bass) and Clementine (drums) will be ensconced in the Ladies’ Lounge, Warped’s girl-power groove tent. If due to X-sports distraction, lack of funds or simple refusal to wake up before sunset you happen to miss the daytime set, Bottom will haul their scorched-earth fuzz-buzz riffage over to Burt’s Tiki Lounge in the evening, where they’ll sonically crush your skull for no cover whatsoever. As the ladies say, “Only pussies play above the fifth fret.”

Direct from the It’s-Such-a-Stupid-Idea-Why-Didn’t-I-Think-of-It? file comes Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, a dapper San Francisco punk band covering AM-radio pop hits with methed-out spunk and Vegas flair. If you’ve ever wondered what punk vets in gold suits and Fez caps could do with Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” or Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” look no further than Blow In the Wind (Fat Wreck Chords), the band’s third (!) album of karaoke-ready revamps. Is it art? What-ever. Is it entertaining? You know it, hepcats. Plus, you’ve gotta admire guys who take the stage in the middle of July wearing such mod threads, all in the name of show biz.

Not all Warped Tour sporting events involve wheels: Also from the Bay Area comes something called Incredibly Strange Wrestling, which is exactly that. Featuring Mexican lucha libre-inspired grapplers like Ku Klux Klown, El Pollo Diablo and El Homo Loco, ISW takes the sweaty power back from fat cats like the WWF—it’s the indie-rock answer to Vince McMahon’s corporate monopoly; Backyard Wrestling with a punk soundtrack. It’s ugly, it’s loud, and the tortillas fly faster than the irony and the insults. Do you smell what Macho Sasquatcho is cookin’?!

—Bill Frost

“See, I’m hated by a lot of people. I’m public enemy No. 1,” he rants at hyper-speed. “My albums don’t sound like 90 percent of the music in the industry. They hate me because I don’t conform. But I’ve been one of the most innovative rappers ever. I’ve been ahead of my time since I came out. People are just now doing the music I did in the ’80s.”

Ego aside, Keith’s right. Ultramagnetic’s early underground hits like “Space Groove” and “Something Else” are directly responsible for the interstellar funk of Outkast and the mellow grooves of DJ Shadow. The group also helped automate hip-hop—the MCs were the first to use samplers as real instruments. And then there was Keith: the first former psych patient on the mic (he did some time at Bellvue, which explains a lot of things).

But it was Keith’s Dr. Octagon persona that made him an underground legend. With beats provided by DJ Q-Bert, Automator and longtime student Shadow, the Dr. Octagon disc, Dr. Octagonecologyst, was a bizarre look at the world’s most disturbing gynecologist. While porn samples slithered next to carefully crafted drum loops, Keith showed off his still-unmatched skills—the guy basically turned a medical textbook into a Shakespearean opus. It was one of the most twisted, spaced-out records hip-hop has ever seen. It was so damned revolutionary, three separate labels released it: San Francisco indie Bulk Recordings took the first crack in early ’96, quickly followed by Britain-based Mo’ Wax (also Shadow’s home), and then DreamWorks in early ’97.

Yet, rather than try to build on the success of Octagon, Keith morphed into the mega-evil Dr. Dooom, who quickly killed off Dr. Octagon on the first track of his second solo disc, First Come, First Served. It became a pattern. While no other characters ever met the same fate as Octagon, Keith replaced each of his identities like they were boxes of baking soda in the fridge. Basically, if it smells old and funky, throw it out.

“I’ve never wanted to take something and run with it,” Keith says. “Why do the same thing over and over? Why would I want to top Dr. Octagon or Dr. Dooom or Black Elvis or Matthew? Those are all classic albums. They’re perfect as they are, so why not try to do something else? I get off making each album different. No one else can say that. They have to keep their record labels happy and pump out the exact same shit over and over. I’ve made seven albums you can’t even compare to each other. I think that’s a pretty big feat.”

Keith’s latest incarnation is the Spankmaster. It’s his naughty side, the one with fur-covered handcuffs next to the bed and a case of KY in the closet. The problem: You never know if Keith is being serious or just mocking all the booty-knocking hip-hop that has dominated the charts since 2 Live Crew’s Luke Skywalker made sure everyone knew he was horny. Tracks like “Girls Would U Fuck Tonight” and “I Wanna Play” would make a porn star blush. But they’re delivered with a wink and slammed up next to songs about semis (“Mack Trucks”), Rick James (“Drugs”) and weak-ass basketball stars (“NBA”). Beats, bleeps and keyboard burps swirl around underneath Keith’s frenetic flow. It’s like some lo-fi pop-culture orgy, with Keith skewering anything that comes within his scope. He says this is just something he had to get off his chest.

“Yeah, this one is a bit of everything,” he says. “But this is the truth. I always make songs full of the truth. I don’t wanna gloss anything over. I don’t want to lie to people. I ain’t gonna tell a girl I wanna love her and hold her. I’m gonna take you out to get a hamburger at McDonald’s because if I took you to some fancy restaurant you won’t know how to act. You’re fat. You’ve had liposuction. And I want to fuck you. That’s the truth. There’s no bullshit in that.”

He’s also hoping that this disc might help him shed his reputation as a spaced-out schizo and make people respect him for what he is: an ever-evolving rapper who can handle his own. “People think that I walk around L.A. or the Bronx with a space helmet on. But that’s not me at all,” he says. “I think I’m more the futuristic Herbie Hancock of rap. I can do anything I want. I know what I want for myself. I know what I want to hear. All these other albums, they sound like they’re all different parts. There’s a piece of a Volkswagen, a piece of a Ford, a piece of a Mercedes. And the car don’t work. Those pieces don’t go together. They’re building albums like fucked-up cars and the artists don’t care. I don’t want that shit. I want to do my own shit. And that makes people nervous.”

No kidding.

Kool Keith performs on the Vans Warped Tour, Utah State Fairpark, 155 N. 1000 West, Saturday July 7. Tickets available through Smith’sTix: 467-TIXX, 800-888-TIXX and