Well, hip-hop isn’t dead. It hasn’t gone the way of rockabilly or prog-rock. Yet. Despite an ecstatic engagement with a culture industry that shows off Puffy Combs on the New York Post ‘s Page Six while disregarding esthetic responsibility, the genre has been on life support for the last couple of years–just like rock back in the days of Deep Purple and Emerson Lake & Palmer. Money, after all, ends up a genre murderer, once the first flush of success goes down. We kill what we love and then prop the corpse up at the dinner table. As Spin put it in its April issue: “Viva Rock Stars!” Or, to rephrase the sentiment: Screw you, serf, and pass the Cristal!
But apocalyptics like me can always use a cool, bubbly slap in the face, and the first half of this year has brought a series of solid hip-hop releases, a few of them better than that. Full-lengths from Defari, Prince Paul, the Roots (who would have thought?), Peanut Butter Wolf, Roots Manuva (limeys!) and many others have done much to remove the ocher taste of the bizarrely praised and massively popular works of such acts as Outkast, Lauryn Hill and the 5,000 cousins of Master P.
To single out the glitterati may be unfair–they apply a different set of values than the underground, and you don’t scream at Joey McIntyre for not being Iggy Pop. Yet one expects the supporters of teen witch Brandy and turntablist Q-Bert to sup from the same presweetened iced tea.
Quite the opposite. Hip-hop’s recent diversification has brought about an indie rock-style subculture that has allowed artists to embrace weirdness, screwed-upness and obscurity for its own sake. (Not that the hash hasn’t helped.) Record companies and entrepreneurs may have almost killed the art form by not fighting in the courts for the right to sample. But Kid Koala can still get his Scratchcratchratchatch –a masterpiece of innumerable, unclearable samples anchored around the spiritual transfiguration of Charlie Brown’s dolorous “I got a rock” into the elevating “I gotta rock!”–out on endlessly bootlegged cassette, and become a living (and employable) legend. And Kool Keith can get signed to more than one major label, despite the fact that he is, quite possibly, totally insane. Which in art, as opposed to on Wall Street, or at Bad Boy Productions, can be a plus. Though not always.
Like Daniel Johnston and Antonin Artaud before him, Kool Keith–a.k.a. Keith Thornton, a.k.a. Dr. Octagon, a.k.a. Dr. Dooom, a.k.a. Black Elvis–has thrived in a sympathetic artistic company that he often rejects in the name of an unreachable purity. Despite being twice as old as much of his audience, he’s become the figurehead for a newish rap underground that looks to hip-hop’s uncategorizable hiccups for inspiration–things like Keith’s 1980’s group, the Ultramagnetic MCs, the Jungle Brothers’ 1993 nose-thumbing album J. Beez Wit the Remedy (sonic inspiration for Brooklyn’s avant-mumble Wordsound label), Divine Styler’s 1991 Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light , and all the other glorious financial failures that hip-hop created before it figured out how to produce hits with gliding, banal effortlessness.
This newish rap underground is generally represented MC-wise by New York’s retro-looking Rawkus Records (their new Soundbombing, Vol. 2 compilation is a good intro) and northern California producer Peanut Butter Wolf’s label Stone’s Throw, and musically by Bay Area spliff-dadaists the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and San Francisco’s Bomb Hip-Hop Records (which put out both seminal Return of the DJ compilations). These are the “Playa Hatas,” oft castigated by those who value solidarity over beauty. It’s no wonder Keith identifies in his lyrics with rats and insects.
Keith’s interest in matters sexual and otherwise have often kept him busier than his musical pursuits. But when he teamed up with Bay Area producer Dan the Automator on the Dr. Octagon project in 1996, the air lock clicked in tight. Dr. Octagonecologyst , originally released on the tiny Bulk label, quickly became the Naked Lunch for B-boys, with Keith’s Benway-esque Dr. Octagon persona preparing listeners for “A Visit to the Gynecologist” and explicating about “Halfsharkalligatorhalfman” over the Automator’s claustrophobic yet lush rhythmic backgrounds. Dr. Octagonecologyst is the most important hip-hop release this side of the Wu-Tang Clan in the last half-decade, although Dreamworks (which now distributes the album) has Soundscanned under 55,000 copies.
The album’s evidence is everywhere. Disregarding Keith’s adoption by the Prodigy, his nasal, rapid-fire, almost robotic free associations about anal sex revelry, alien mutilation, record company woes and his breakfast menu made the uncanny respectable. It also underlined how much of the “reality” in the finest hip-hop, from the Geto Boys’ legendarily violent debut album to Chuck D’s jailbreak “phantasies,” is the result of a creative imagination that often goes unacknowledged in African-American artists. Jean Genet can write about sucking Nazi dick all he wants, but when N.W.A. recorded “Fuck tha Police,” all hell was supposed to break loose. (It did, but you can blame the Los Angeles police for that.)
Keith’s deal with Dreamworks fell apart when he split with the Automator and allegedly spent his entire advance on pornography. He released the movingly lewd Sex Style on DJ Kutmasta Kurt’s Funky Ass records, and seems to guest on every third release out there, hip-hop and otherwise. Now Keith delivers two new albums. Under the guise of Dr. Dooom, there’s First Come, First Served , a collaboration with DJ Kutmasta Kurt on Funky Ass. And come July, Sony-Ruffhouse releases the much delayed and still incomplete Black Elvis/Lost in Space , which, minus cameos by Brand Nubian’s Sadat X and the late Roger Troutman of Zapp, is pretty much a one-man show.
The micromanager in Keith’s brain often gets in the way of a good tune. We pay to hear a schizophrenic and instead get an obsessive-compulsive. On parts of Black Elvis , Keith seems concerned with just getting the thing out. (Repeated refrain from the opening track: “I need a release date.”) The clipped precision of Keith’s delivery can be piquantly unsettling, even when he’s delivering lines like “Supergalactic lover coming from the projects on the hill in my monkey green ragtop Seville.” But the rhythms–a lot of similar, if slightly off-kilter, bass patterns–don’t change much through the pieces. The Automator would have remedied this. More often than not, it’s Keith’s voice that provides the hook. In many ways, it’s highly competent business as usual–funny but not completely thought out (typical title, “I’m Seein’ Robots”). Though “The Girls Don’t Like the Job” is pretty catchy.
The more cohesive Dr. Dooom project seems to confront Keith’s resentment toward his newfound semi-fame, not an uncommon theme for someone who took 15 years to become an overnight success. He kills off Dr. Octagon in the first track then spends the rest of the CD as a goofy, rat-eating evil mastermind, the sort of Dr. Mabuse-like captain of industry that Tom Wolfe should take the time to write about. As on Black Elvis , Keith has a knack for spinning the primal and commonplace into sci-fi. Check out “Welfare Love,” which is built around a riff from the Moments’ “Sexy Mama”; Keith melds inner-city romance and nostalgic recall, twisting each physical and behavioral description so that it’s the reality of the situation that seems strange. His lyrics run roughshod over the rhythm track, imagining a time when he read Black Tail in the incubator while staring at his nurse’s ass crack and watching girls eat onion rings.
There’s enough incremental detail on First Come, First Served to convince the listener of a real universe, both inside and out. It’s certainly no less believable than a world of bumping jeeps that don’t overturn, expensive champagne that doesn’t destroy your liver, and cell phones and breast implants that don’t give you cancer. Which is to say, a sick society could use a sick doctor.