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Kool Keith Is Taking 'Mind Steroids' with a Side of Ketchup

We chatted with the cult rapper, who has been busy directing porn, designing a clothing line for strippers, and filming a web series with George Clinton.

by Zach Sokol
Mar 30 2015, 4:00pm

All photos by the author.

It was telling that rapper Kool Keith asked me to meet him at Tick Tock Diner near Penn Station in New York City to talk about his recent projects. The restaurant is idiosyncratic. It isn't decorated enough to be a Jack Rabbit Slims, but it's over-lit with neon lights, contains a handful of art deco kitsch, and is filled with tourists who just got off the train. The scaffolding obscuring the outer façade has probably caused many of the New Yorkers who walk by to forget that the decades-old grub hub is still there. Tick Tock can be busy, but it's seen busier days. It was also opened back in 1997, the year Kool Keith dropped his second studio album, Sex Style, the first solo record he put out under his own name.

"I'm not stuck in no time," Keith eventually told me while pouring me a glass of Cupcake wine under the table. "I'm future. I'm future-past. I'm future-future. Beyond future. Past the future."

This sentiment feels on point. The musician, born Keith Thorton, has been obsessed with space, time, and all things sci-fi since putting out Dr. Octagonecologystthe bona fide cult classic where Keith assumed the guise of nymphomaniac, serial killer space surgeon Dr. Octagon. The rapper and his many alter egos have always been described as eccentric and even legendary, though anachronistic or timeless may be be a better fit. His music sounds like the creative output of a singular brain—one that probably doesn't absorb any recent cultural input that was made outside its own skull.

But outside the occasional hip-hop listicle, Kool Keith doesn't get much press these days, even though he hasn't stopped making music or hustling on other entrepreneurial endeavors. He's put out an album or mixtape annually for the past seven years, and has recently been touring, directing porn, designing clothing for strippers, and even creating an unscripted web series for Funny or Die that features bad sex jokes and cameos from George Clinton. Although the rapper hasn't made anything as unforgettable as his imagined identities like Dr. Octagon, Dr. Doom, and Black Elvis, he insists his "dreams are fulfilled." He lives in the Bronx these days, but still frequents Tick Tock Diner.

I met up with Kool Keith at the tail end of his recent East Coast tour, which finished with a sold-out set at Public Theater near Astor Place in Manhattan. At Tick Tock, we chatted about his favorite sci-fi shows, modern hip-hop bugging him out, and how he's been taking "mind steroids" to keep his lyrics up to par. He also proposed that we start a new musical group called the Ketchup Boys and write songs about said condiment.

The man may be out of place and time, but there are few artists as spectacularly weird as Keith.

VICE: What have you been listening to these days?
Kool Keith: Elements of new people or stuff that sounds brand new, you know what I'm saying? Satellite radio has a lot of new stuff, I think.

Are there any rappers you like?
I'm not impressed with what the rappers are saying these days. I'm hearing a lot of the same stuff. I'm excited about new sounds. I'm excited about new sounds. I'm a fan of new, new sounds. Basically, new sounds. New, new sounds. I'm a fan of new sounds.

You're 51, now right?
Me? No, I'm about 21. In the music, at least.

What makes you rejuvenated and youthful? What's different about the Kool Keith today from the Kool Keith when you were first making music?
I'm doing new music, doing some listening, keeping my flow up to point. You notice I don't sound old. I write a lot, and practice a lot. All these rappers are reading from their phones... It bugs me out that they're reading from the phones. I like writing on paper. I feel it naturally on paper. The paper can tell me how long the verse is. It tells me how long to rap for.

What are you writing about these days? Tell me about a recent song you made.
I made one today called "Frank Sinatra." I'm trying to make songs and just name them after a person. People whose names you normally wouldn't use.

Then I have more direct songs. I think when I came back to New York, I started writing more direct songs about what I see in New York: the culture, the streets, the people, the projects.

When I worked on Octagon, I sometimes felt trapped within a concept. I don't want to be stuck in the concept. I just made those various characters to separate the albums so I could make more records and feel free. I write so many songs, man... I write so many songs. The goal is to feel free to write about whatever I want.

You've got this new web series show where you're playing a million different characters. What's inspiring them?
I was in LA, filming stuff. I always film in LA—just making movies and mini movies, like random street comedies without written scripts. I like those. I never took it totally serious, I just did it randomly to have fun. I want to get it on TV probably.

It's good to have a non-scripted show. Like, everyone's seen scripted. Mine's not scripted. I like to just have fun and make people bug out in the street. Remember how Benny Hill used to be? It's like Benny Hill.

How do you keep it all focused? Your rap stuff , TV projects, lingerie line—even those Dr. Octagon action figures you're making.
I'm real patient. I just get to it when I get to it.

You've been making porn too, right?
Yeah, I directed some masturbation tapes, but I'm not in them. I'll give you one, they're called Masturbation Sessions. They're pretty cool and are shot in HD. They're really about my clothes, a way to show off my clothing line. I'm not impressed by strippers' clothing, so I've been trying to introduce a new clothing style. I design, sketch it out, everything. It's a way to keep my mind sharp and ideas flowing. I use lycra.

Can you tell me about your ever-present love of space?
I grew up with space. I was always rushing home to watch Star Trek, Speed Racer, Gigantor, Lost in Space , which was one of my favorites. Mr. Spock passed away and that was really serious for me. Leonard Nimoy was a big part of my life. I always used to watch Leonard Nimoy from back in the past. He was a real inspiration to me while making records.

Are there any modern pop culture figures who are inspiring to you?
No. Only Star Trek was big to me. Buck Rogers , maybe. And Dr. Who!

What about today though? Is there any new shit that's influencing you?
I'm my own information-inspiration. I don't got nothing new really good to watch, to feed off. There are really no good sci-fi shows on. I mean I see a lot of these sci-fi shows on now that are more like mystery and vampire stuff. They don't relate to space, man.

But you don't write about that stuff right now. Can you elaborate on what inspires your ideas for rhymes today?
I'm writing in a style that's steroided up. I write about fantasy. Fantasies are what I feel in my life. Just fantasies. I don't care if it's about celebration or space shit, writing about a limousine, or elegance. I've been writing about elegant stuff lately a lot, though.

Like what—living large?
Yeah, living large in my way. I can rap about anything 'cause I traveled around the world, so I feel like I can write about anything. I feel steroided up. I'm taking steroids. I'm taking mind steroids and then creating these lyrics.

I feel like in the past, you were focused on being the most unique or eccentric. Why steroid-up your music now?
Everybody wants to hear wild stuff now. I don't think nobody wants to hear about bad things—poverty, the struggle. People want to hear something and say, "This is wild." I like to write about this life, like, a limousine with ten wheels on it and reclining seats, as opposed to me talking about a go-cart that's made of wood. I get off on steroiding everything up. I steroid up all the stories.

I've already advanced my music and production so far ahead of my lyrics that everything sounds so future. The lyrics automatically sound future, as a result, even if I'm talking about something that's more basic. I could have a song that's like, "Ketchup is red," and the song is all about ketchup. I'm making it easy for you, I'm giving you futuristic music and the truth at the same time, but I'm making it more fun to listen to. I'm an artist who can do anything.

When young people hear your new work today, and maybe aren't familiar with your past stuff, how do you want them to feel?
I want them to feel that this guy's timeless. A timeless person, like you can't put him in a bracket of a genre. They don't have a box for me yet. It's just I'm a in a unlimited box, but that's what I want them to see. I'm not stuck in no time. I'm future. I'm future past. I'm future future. Beyond future. Past the future.

Do you ever wish you were a more mainstream or famous rapper?
I traveled around the world, I feel like I can go anywhere I want. I learned that sometimes fame can be dangerous. You can't travel, you gotta go around with a lot of people, you gotta go around with 20, 30 people everywhere. It's not safe, you have an unsafe crowd, you know your life is in danger all the time. You can't sit in the diner and have a cup of tea. I think that that bothers me a lot. That bothers me a lot. I think I feel good because I always wanted to do normal things.

Are you happy now?
Yeah, I'm happy. My dreams have been fulfilled. My dream was to see LA as a kid. And I lived in LA for 10 years. I felt I lived out my dream. I didn't have a desperate goal to reach, whereas a lot of rappers today do.

Which of your creative endeavors makes you happiest these days?
I can go in the studio right now and make a song tonight, just on a whim. We could write about ketchup, we could make a band called the Ketchup Boys, or just something we wrote freely. Freedom. Writing freedom. Writing freedom has been my greatest happiness. It's not like a record company is breathing on my back, it's not like a big executive is sitting in the room watching me.

Two hundred years from now, 3,000 years from now, how do you want people to remember you?
I want them to remember me as a person that wasn't scared to be daring, a person that wasn't scared to be original, a person that took chances, a person that didn't care about the laws of music, a person that could take anything and turn it into something good.

Follow Kool Keith and Zach on Twitter. And check out Kool Keith's Instagram.

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