The Persistence of Rhyme: Why Kool Keith Matters PT2

Photo : Kool Keith from the Internets

Diving Deeper: Notes on Kool Keith's so real surreality…

Written by Shanghai-based digger/DJ BO

It's easy to point to Keith as the godfather for surrealism in rap: The Dali with a doo-rag, “The Persistence of Time” with rhyme. It's true the guy rapped about being an alien years before Lil Wayne would “hover, hover” over hip hop. But that ain't right, and misses some of the crop circles that paved the way in the cornfield for the explicitly strange/strangely explicit rapper we know today.

Here's some keys to understanding Keith's crazy stances.

1st Photo : Guests at the “Kool Keith N Cheese Party”, Shanghai (Photos Courtesy of Co. Cheese Shanghai // 2nd Photo : Kool Keith concert poster // 3rd Photo : Coloring book artwork of Dr. Octagon from the “Kool Keith N Cheese Party”, Shanghai (Photos Courtesy of Co. Cheese Shanghai)


Kool Keith emerged from the mish mosh of syntax that underlines the rhymes of original hip hop.

No rapper is as good as Melle Mel from the original class of hip hop MCs. His gritty tales and soulfulness give his raps a resonance that resounds today. Beyond just the oft-cited “The Message,” or even “White Lines,” dig “Step Off.” 

But then we get to “Pump Me Up” from 1985. We're not sitting on the stoop talking to a street, hearing urban lore from a street prophet…we're in the sea?

“Then I met this shark and his name was Jaws
He was biting my rhymes like y'all bite yours
I starting writing my rhymes the shark grew and grew
But I was writing more rhymes than the shark could chew”

Wait, what?

That sort of flight of fancy infuses many rhymes, and is a built in feature of the fun of many of the genre's party raps, fashionable at a time when disco ruled the dance-floors and airwaves. In their efforts to grab bag a word salad to get to their end rhymes, rappers would clearly take liberties with a straight narrative to get to matching end syllables of their lines. And if this so happened to lead them to take a left turn into a cul-de-sac of weirdness, it just added to the novelty of their raps. At a time when most raps were padded with “yes, yes y'alls” and “put your hands in the air,” rapping about all sorts of insanity is at least a way to stand out. 

Top Photo :  Kool Keith by Michael Benabib // Bottom Photo : Guests at the “Kool Keith N Cheese Party”, Shanghai (Photos Courtesy of Co. Cheese Shanghai)

Besides, this novelty aspect finds itself in any new genre. Artists in these undeveloped forms are more likely to take things from a silly stance before the claws of seriousness lock in like Pinky The Cat. Rock N Roll had Bobby “Boris” Pickett sing “The Monster Mash,” hip hop had duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde (see their doo-wop pastiche “Jeckyll And Hyde Dance”); rock had Billy Riley's “Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll” and hip hop had Blondie rap about Martians munching on cars (in “Rapture”).

These raps might have been a way of filling space and notching rhythmic meter before more established lanes were set. And they are that, period. But in accomplishing this, they could touch on the bizarre, and it's easy to see a direct line between what a young Kool Keith heard in them and his eventual rap sheet.

Read : The Persistence of Rhyme: Why Kool Keith Matters PT1 here!

Photo : Kool Keith and reading material

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Kool Keith carries the flag of the bearers who also established a nation under a groove.

Before hip hop was funk. With funk you have two fathers: James Brown and George Clinton. 

Brown was from the old-school and came from the era of suits and shined shoes. While there's some braggadocio (“Sex Machine”) he kept the real freaky stuff backstage (or perhaps in crystal meth pipes on the highways while being chased by the police). 

Clinton? He came from the tail-end of that era, and his first major record label, Motown, was known to put its act through the paces. But hanging out and dropping acid at gigs with The MC5, Alice Cooper, and other Detroit freaks quickly shed those vines. And while much of the sound of hip hop comes from his disco-fied second group Parliament, the philosophical side is traced to his earlier music unit, Funkadelic.

Top Photo :  Kool Keith and chicken chow mein mane! // Bottom Photo : Skateboard of Black Elvis, action figure of Dr. Octagon

And that philosophy was shunning the frigidity of coolness for not giving a flying fuck. This pertains to many levels, but particularly here we can focus on the deeply personal area of sexuality. The band said “Free your mind, and your ass will follow” and that's ass in a corporal sense – but also carnal. 1974's album “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On,” features two tracks back to back revolutionary in this way. 

Track 5 (the title track) opens with a tape-manipulated squeaky voice (a la The Chipmunks) saying: “Hey Baby why don't you be my dog, and I'll be your tree, and you can pee on me.” Yes, watersports...look it up. Or don't…

Track 6 is titled “Jimmy's Got A Little Bit Of Bitch In Him” and is clearly about a homosexual associate. And while not PC by today's standards, the fact is, it acknowledges the situation. And while teasing in nature, it's nowhere near gay-panic, and that should be commended. And this is coming from The African American community, not largely known for progressive views on sexuality. As Pat Patterson would say: holy banana.

Photo : Kool Keith at a Futura art exhibition


From the shadows…Rammellzzee

From the shadowy realm is Rammellzee. Rammellzee was a samurai robot who slung a shotgun in the streets and put Jean-Michael Basquiat in his place. He's a whole other trip. We'll visit the world of Rammellzzee some other time...

DJ BO's Deep-Dive Kool Keith Playlist:

-The Analog Brothers – “Bionic Oldsmobile” – The Analog Brothers was an overlooked group project featuring Kool Keith and Ice-T rapping over beats made by vintage synthesizers. If Shaft went to space instead of Africa, it would sound like this.

Photo : Kool Keith, Ice-T, Ced Gee

-Dr. Octagon – “Halfsharkalligatorhalfman” – If “Bionic Oldsmobile” is Shaft, then this is a lost Ed Wood classic. From the ridiculous vintage horror theremin and exaggerated movie-style voice over delivery, this is my favorite Dr. Octagon.

-Kool Keith – “Make Up Your Mind” – From Keith's porno-rap album “Sex Style,” Keith starts his verse by yelling “Freak mode!” and doesn't turn back. And the title? It's NOT the start of an innocent question…

-The Ultramagnetic MCs – “Travelling At The Speed of Thought” – Perhaps The Ultramagnetic MCs most electrifying single. That “Louie Louie” sample though! Years after it was released, Chuck D would reference it on “Shut Em Down” by counting number by number from 1 to 9.

DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid f. Kool Keith – “Riddim Warfare” – Kool Keith drops killer raps over a drum and bass glitch beat, proving how expansive his universe is. The whole album is Space Invader inspired, so why not get a king alien to rap on it?

Don't miss the introductory playlist and PT1 of the article : The Persistence of Rhyme: Why Kool Keith Matters here!

Photo : Author DJ BO in action on the wheels of steel

Additional Articles by DJ BO :
The Persistence of Rhyme: Why Kool Keith Matters PT1

Dig That! Jimmy Cliff, Another Cycle LP
The Hip Hop of Things EP5. Masia One


  • Fizzmaster

    I love Kool Keith and he is my number 1 favorite MC of all time. That said, I feel like the author got some things wrong in this article. MCs before Keith went pro weren’t “rapping crazy” to fill the meters of their rhymes. The bugged out, very exaggerated aspects of hip hop have always been there. Go back to Dolemite and Blowfly. Its an extension of The Dozens, where people were trying to outdo each other with the most ridiculous put downs they could come up with. Keith is the Salvador Dali of rap, but the canvas, paint and brushes were there for him to use.

  • mike

    “first come, first served” is one of the greatest rap albums ever. needs to be more dr dooom on this list

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