Dr. Octagon gets down
I did this interview way back in 1998, when I was The Music Editor for MONDO 2000 and a contributer to Getting It, an edgier, West Coast version of The Onion.
Getting ahold of Keith Thornton was no easy feat. Talking with him appeared to be almost nearly as elusive.
Looking back at it I am struck by his honesty and trust, a trust that almost borders on naivete’. He’s extremely complicated, really trying to define himself against the grain of his culture, genre and music industry. Kool Keith, Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Me. Gerbik, all his various personas comprise a strategy; part marketing, part psychological survival tool kit.
I caught up with him on the back end of his tour with DJ Spooky.
GETTINGIT: How was the tour?
KOOL KEITH: Oh, it was cool, yeah.
GI: How was it working with Spooky?
KK: He’s an eccentric guy. Takes walks. Every city he would get off the bus and say that, “he wants to feel the city.” [Chuckles] Then he comes back three hours later.
GI: Where are you now?
KK: Los Angeles.
GI: Is that where you’re living now?
KK: Sometimes. I stay in Miami. I’m in New York for a minute sometimes.
GI: When you were in San Francisco, did you go to the Mitchell Brothers [XXX-theater]?
KK: I didn’t go there. But I like it. But I also like the Pelican in Miami.
GI: Were you ever in a porn film?
KK: Nah, that’s what people say. A lot of porn stars are my friends. I’m basically a cameraman — a photographer for models with different looks.
GI: If you could star in a porn film, who would you want to do it with?
KK: Stephanie Swift.
GI: What’s special about her?
KK: She looks real pretty, her eyes and stuff. She has a real different type of look. She has an innocent look. I get turned on by girls that aren’t actually acting sexy. They are turned out by stuff like that.
GI: Is it the concept of turning them out and getting them freaky that turns you on?
KK: Yeah, like if I met a regular girl who got into something for the first time, something new… it’s like if I had an exclusive photo of the girl instead of someone in Hustler that fifty thousand guys get to look at. It destroys the secret. It’s not exclusive. I get more girls who are not fully exposed in the industry; they’re more a collectible type item. It’s like if you had a picture of Britney Spears in lingerie for yourself, versus her stripping in Playboy. It’s something like that.
GI: Is that why you have all the different personas — keeping the identity fresh, exclusive?
KK: Well basically, I enjoy the music industry in a different way. I have to constantly break myself down. One side of me wants to go to the mall as Kool Keith, and then there’s another side as Black Elvis that I can show the world and they can take pictures and camera me. I have an image so that I can go to the mall and shop. I’m not obsessed with being recognized. It saves me from a lot of hassle. I want to be known for my art and creation of music.
It’s like a Batman and Robin thing. With Alfred and them, they were always upstairs chillin’, havin’ cups of tea and talkin’. When they went to see the Joker and stuff, they were Batman and Robin. I kinda like that. I don’t need the world in my business. I don’t need secret cameramen walkin’ around takin’ pictures of me like “hey there’s Keith in his baseball cap eating cake.” That’s why I wear the Black Elvis wig and glasses. I’m givin’ that energy out to the world. It’s like Peter Parker, Spider-Man, and Adam West.
GI: Why Black Elvis?
KK: The height of my career. I have to give my own self credit and props. I had to give my own self leverage so people could write me up in issues and columns and books and stuff. I had to fill my own time, blow my own horn. At the end of the day they might not put me in categories. They might not put me in categories and rate me high up as the top or greatest rappers or top MCs. I had to do it myself. Because if I hadn’t done it, people would have acted like they couldn’t see it. They see me as Black Elvis, cuz I had deserved to be Elvis, not Elvis Presley, but the Elvis of rap.
GI: Have you been to Graceland?
KK: I need to go over to the auction and get some stuff.
GI: If you could get anything of Elvis’, what would it be?
KK: The car and the belt.
GI: The Cadillac?
GI: Have you ever been in a movie?
KK: I did one movie, Champions with Ken Shamrock. It was on Showtime. Danny Trejo was in it. It was a movie about kickboxing — fighting Octagon-style. Remember when it was that type of fighting, when dudes had to die?
KK: So it was a movie like that. It was kinda crazy. You can rent it at Blockbuster.
GI: Nothing other than that?
KK: Nothin’ but those Sprite commercials.
GI: What kind of movie would you want to be in?
KK: I would want to play a role other than a typical rap guy. I want to play roles that people wouldn’t think I would play. I want to be in action films… do somethin’ different. Like a horror film, a lawyer, an ill doctor or somethin’ like that.
GI: Did you really get a million dollars from Sprite?
GI: What did you do with all of that money?
KK: I enjoy my life.
GI: On Spooky’s Riddim Warfare, you did a track called “Object Unknown.” It was about seeing UFOs in Brooklyn. Did you really see one?
KK: [Laughter] I seen different shit walkin’ around the Bronx at night. I mean I’ve seen different things. But I had no witness to cover me.
GI: What did you see?
KK: I seen some flyin’ shit. It wasn’t no airplane.
GI: What did it look like?
KK: It was round, like some Saturn shit around it. It wasn’t no blimp either. It was ill; it was like, “what the fuck was that?” It wasn’t a fuckin’ airplane.
GI: So when you saw that object in the Bronx, was that your inspiration?
KK: It was some fuckin’ crazy shit. It bugged me out. I thought it was some kind of naval testing thing. They have stealth shit. But it wasn’t that.
GI: Have you ever met David Bowie?
KK: No. I’ve seen him a lot. Different places. He goes with Iman right?
KK: He’s lucky he came up on Iman. I had a girl like that once in Amsterdam. She was an Ethiopian girl — little smaller.
GI: What was she like?
KK: She was nice.
GI: Do you like bowlegged women?
KK: It depends. I’ve been with a lot of different culture type people — from black girls to white girls. There’s a difference in both. Some girls are open-minded, some are very standard. Women have an American standard that’s boring sometimes. The corny movie thing, the going out to dinner, that proves to me that you like me. Nobody goes to do something different, like play pinball. Everybody’s family-programmed.
GI: What are some of the differences between black women and white women?
KK: From my experience, black girls are more materialistic and wantin’ to know what you have — what you own. And they have big expectations, which makes it hard for a black guy because he has to go to extremes to impress. They’re more into the name of what’s on the back of your shirt tag. You can’t wear nuthin’ without inspection,[femme persona] “ooh is that made by Calvin Klein?”
White girls are very open. I notice a lot of [black] guys datin’ white chicks. A white girl might help you out because you don’t have to go to the far extreme to impress with clothing. You could drive a Ford Pinto. They could care less. It’s a total difference. Like with black girls, you could be a college football player and they won’t know nuthin’ about you. But when you get in the NFL, now they know you.
And then there’s geographic differences — like between California and New York. These girls in New York expect to be with NBA players and they have these bullshit weaves sewn in. In California, you’re talkin’ to a beautiful model — you’re used to talkin’ to beautiful at like the Beverly Center, and then you go to New York and see some ugly girl with high expectations. I was just in Miami. I just left a beautiful place with beautiful fuckin’ models and they were talkin’ to me, treatin’ me nice, givin’ me respect and havin’ drinks. Then you get to New York and there’s some ugly bitch with a messed up weave with some bullshit shoes on, fat stomach, out of shape. And she’s actin’ like she’s the shit. It takes you down. I learned that from music and travelin’ around the world.
By me bein’ Black Elvis, it’s like some algebra problem [black women] can’t solve. That is so hard to comprehend — a black rock star. I’m not a materialistic person. Just because I’m not like Boyz II Men, that doesn’t mean that I’m not black. Or I’m not runnin’ around murderin’ everybody — they’re materialistic. I just think it’s ignorant.
GI: Did you ever see [John Sayles'] Brother From Another Planet?
GI: What did you think about it?
KK: It was just some different shit. It was a nice movie. Like maybe blacks didn’t support that film either. He didn’t do a typical simple-assed movie. It was just low budget. He was just walkin around — [laughs to himself] kinda like me.