Kool Keith has more than 50 albums and mix tapes. (Kool Keith)
Kool Keith doesn’t understand the obsession with dead rappers — or, as he calls them, “used-to-be-alive rappers.”
“God bless the dead, rest in peace, but who gets off on rappers that used to be alive?” says the eccentric rap legend, on the phone last month from New York. “That’s the most sickest (thing) I’ve ever heard of. People is waiting for they turn to die, so they can probably be like [deepens his voice], ‘I’m one of those used-to-be-alive rappers.’ (People) is worshiping that, like they can’t wait to put a rest in peace T-shirt on.”
Keith then goes off for an unbroken four minutes on the topic — which he brought up totally on his own — by impersonating fans, record label head honchos and A&R men weighing in on the subject. He avoids specifics, and if he makes a coherent point, it’s difficult to discern. But the whole soliloquy is, unquestionably, classic Keith.
Kool Keith, born Keith Thornton, is likely the most prolific rapper of all-time. Since debuting with the Bronx hip-hop crew Ultramagnetic MCs in the mid-1980s, the New Yorker has assumed a number of aliases and performed under many guises, releasing more than 50 albums and mixtapes in the process. That figure is according to KoolKeith.co.uk, the closest thing to an official website for the rapper, who performs at this weekend’s Michigan on Mute festival at Rocky’s Pub in Riverview.
Keith’s commercial and critical peak came in 1996 with “Dr. Octagonecologyst,” which he recorded under the alias Dr. Octagon, a homicidal surgeon hailing from Jupiter. The album touched on many of Keith’s favorite subjects: sex, outer space and gruesome violence. The summer after the album was released, Keith-as-Octagon was set to tour the U.S. as part of the Lollapalooza lineup, but he never bothered showing up to the opening date and was subsequently dropped from the tour.
He’s since been on hip-hop’s fringe, releasing albums on tiny labels to a small fanbase of hip-hop nerds and oddballs. But he’s always there, even despite a retirement claim in 2012. Earlier this year, Keith released the disjointed double-disc set “Demolition Crash,” which sounds like Keith’s free-associative lyrics — about the NBA, about other rappers, about sex — were recorded without ever hearing the accompanying instrumentals.
With Keith, it’s always been about quantity over quality. “I don’t think anybody made as many songs as me, ever,” the 50-year-old says. “My recording rhythm is off-the-chain. I probably make like 30-40 songs a month. Most rappers, it take them a month to write a verse. Everybody want to be like Michael Jackson and work on an album for 20 years, and then when it comes out it still sounds normal. I think music should be made when you feel good, when you feel the rhythm to make records.”
Like always, Keith is highly critical of the record industry and other rappers. “I don’t want 80 men in my video!” he says, sniping at others who “don’t even like girls in their videos anymore.” (Again, he doesn’t cite specifics.) He also says hip-hop has lost its competitive drive, saying rappers should battle more and not take lyrical beefs so personally. “You got BET calling 20 rappers on stage together holding hands. That ain’t rap,” he says. “You spar, and that’s what the sport is. Who wants to go see the soccer team and they’re all kicking at the same net?”
Despite those professional concerns, Keith considers himself happy. “I feel good about my career,” says Keith, who was mentioned by Eminem in his smash “The Monster.” “I travel, I do videos, I go to California. I take pictures with girls. I chill out, I live the life. I drink a bottle of Bel Air, I drink a bottle of Moet. Soda pop, ice cream cones, whatever it takes. Might get some Chinese food from the hood, go to Red Lobster if I feel like it one day. Everything.”
And the music keeps flowing. Keith says he’s working on a new album called “Controller of Trap,” and he mentions one more album that may or may not be forthcoming.
“We might come out with ‘I Used to be Alive.’ That one,” Keith says, “they gonna love.”
Michigan on Mute
with Dead Prez, Kool Keith, Black Milk and more
Rocky’s Pub, 12850 Sibley, Riverview
Tickets $15/day, $30/weekend