Photo by Heather Hunter
"I make more songs than I can remember."
Kool Keith isn't lying. The prolific Bronx-based rapper born Keith Thornton has at least 26 albums to his name. Add endless collaborations, compilations and one-off appearances, and the number of musical contributions from the emcee and producer far exceeds expectation from someone 32 years in the game.
As a co-founder of pioneering New York hip-hop crew Ultramagnetic MCs, Thornton quickly became known for his distinct delivery, offbeat production and abstract, often sexually explicit lyrics. His long-running solo career, now more than 20 years old itself, has only added to the unique legacy through an unparalleled cast of alter-egos and aliases he's created with near-method fervor. Whether as Dr. Octagon, Black Elvis or Dr. Dooom, the pseudonym-happy performer never fails to engage listeners with tales from his idiosyncratic bizarro world.
On his latest, the September-released Feature Magnetic , the rapper's most compelling role is behind the scenes under the alias of Number One Producer.
With an all-star cast of rappers including MF Doom, Ras Kass and Atmosphere's Slug guesting on every song, Feature Magnetic has no shortage of distinct and hilarious wordplay. But it's Thornton's tailor-made beats that steal the show.
"I customized each track for the person on it," he tells CityBeat from his longtime home in the Empire State. "Most of the stuff that's out there right now is the same. And it's time for something different in the rap world. There needs to be a real drastic change musically. People need to know there are different sounds to work with than what's been in hip-hop for the last 10 years. And originality means a lot."
While that last statement could stand as Kool Keith's career mantra, his journey to full-fledged beat maker was actually born of necessity.
"For a long time," says Thornton, "I had to beg guys for beats. I got tired of that. It's a scenario like when I always had to ask people to drive me places. I ended up having to buy a car. It's the same thing with beats."
It wasn't just the supply and demand chain that drove Thornton into production, he adds. "It was the politics of it as well. A lot of producers want you to feel handicapped. When you don't have a way of making beats, people don't want to give you any. And as a rapper, that's my food. My mind and creativity has to have that food."
Self-sufficiency and sustainability are assets to any artist. But for a 53-year-old emcee who refuses to retire the mic, it's like the gift of eternal life. Fueled by an undying passion to create, the rapper's unshakeable persistence also burns with the refusal to follow rap's systemic ageism.
"Rap is the only style that has an age limit," says Thornton. "It's still seen as urban hood music and people don't respect it as art. They respect jazz. People respect rock. But stereotypical rap protocol is five or 10 years before throwing it away to 'move on' to something else. A rock star can have a family and play guitar until he's 99 years old. But there's a limit on rap."
Surprisingly, Thornton believes a pair of unlikely sources is responsible for the lion's share of the problem.
"Most of it comes from black people," he says. "They're the only demographic that puts an ending on it. And it's not just the audience but the rappers themselves. People just use rap to go on to do other things. They start acting, they get into television, do radio. And when they make it, they never have any compliments back about how rap is why they're popular. But they used it to gain these things. It kills me how people take the art and abuse it."
Thornton cites T.I. as an example of a successful rapper who not only juggles a massive family, multiple revenue streams and an ongoing creative output, but someone who didn't forget what got him there in the first place.
Yet the lack of like-minded peers is anything but a deterrent. If anything, it's just another thing that helps to stoke his creative fire.
Inspired equally by Curtis Mayfield, the Ohio Players and New York street artists creating aluminum menageries from Dr. Pepper and Shasta cans, the rapper is content funneling it all into his singular passion as long as he's able.
"Some people need a bottle every morning," says Thornton. "I'm a record-aholic. I like making records. I like going into the studio. And even though Feature Magnetic just came out, I feel like making more music right now. It's my cause. My creative technique never dries up."
As can be expected from an artist as prolific as Thornton, there are plenty of Kool Keith projects in the works. While he's anything but a predictable artist, that all-inclusive role of rapper/custom producer is likely to be around for many years to come—probably until the day someone is able to pry the microphone from Thornton's hand.
"I never feel like there's going to be an ending," he says. "Recording is what makes me happy. There are a lot of people out there who don't like their jobs. And it's not like a basketball player that can't dunk no more. People can do this in a wheelchair. Music is in your heart. The creativity and dedication keep me going."
Kool Keith plays November 27 at House of Blues