“I’m only 19 years-old,” said the 49-year-old MC known variously as Dr. Octagon, Black Elvis, Keith Matthew Thornton, and (of course) Kool Keith in a recent phone conversation with Billboard. “I’m 19 in music.”
Depending on who’s counting, even his musical self might be able to legally buy a drink. Keith has been releasing music consistently since the Ultramagnetic MCs — the Bronx hip-hop ensemble he founded — dropped “To Give You Love” in 1985. Undaunted, he’s releasing his 22nd studio album, Feature Magnetic, on Sept. 16 via Mello Music Group, which he produced almost entirely himself under the alias Number One Producer.
Below, Billboard premieres the project’s third single, “Super Hero,” featuring MF Doom, and chats with the doctor himself about what it means to make hip-hop for more than 30 years (and have fun in the process). Download the new single (exclusively for Billboard readers) here.
You’ve had some moments where it looked like you might quit music altogether in recent years — what made you decide to put out this album?
I was into production this time. I’ve done a lot of projects, but the music was always done by somebody else. This was the first time I had more musical control. I still rap good, but I’ve recently really been into production and making beats — learning more equipment, different kinds of keyboards and sounds. Right now, everyone’s doing one thing. Everyone’s Autotuned out — there’s 23,000 records with the Autotune. Then it’s the same drum program, and the singers are the same — 10 or 20 girls trying to sing in the same octave. I just wanted to do something different. I think more people should do unpredictable things.
That’s sort of your calling card, right? Being unpredictable?
The industry’s too big to be cliché. There are so many flexible and different artists out that I don’t think everything should be a formula. It gets to be monotonous. In the music industry, we have this imaginary boundary. But there’s no such thing. There’s no limits, basically.
After so many years in the business, how do you stay inspired?
I’m natural. I like making records regardless — some people make 12 songs for the company, I make songs for myself. I build songs like cars: they’re all in the lot, parked together.
A lot of artists got into the Michael Jackson thing, where you had to make a record every five years. When the rappers started doing it, that’s when it got kind of corny, to me. As a rapper, you’re supposed to make music all the time. Having the big gaps [between albums]… all the anticipation, and then when the stuff comes out, it’s just what was predicted. It’s nothing fantastic to wait five years about.
The title of the new project is Feature Magnetic — I’m assuming that’s a shout-out to your first group, Ultramagnetic MCs?
It’s about the evolution, that’s all. Forward movement. Of course, it has a relationship — just one inch. That’s it. One inch of a relationship.
There’s real nostalgia for the era hip-hop was born (the late 70s and early 80s, in the Bronx) right now — and you were part of that period. What was it like, especially compared to today?
Everybody was distinctive in the 80’s. You had so much variety, and it was all hot. Now, hot is the same. To be hot, you have to sound like another artist. It seems very microwaveable — it doesn’t really stick. You pull it out of the microwave oven, and it’s good for that day. It’s a million, billion, katrillion kids making records. I listen to it, because it’s comedy — you’ve got grown people that like that stuff. But people like silly stuff now. You could film a roach crossing a piece of bread, put it on YouTube, and two billion people will watch it.
Then, people made serious music, but it was fun. A Tribe Called Quest didn’t sound like Ultra, Ultra didn’t sound like De La Soul, De La Soul didn’t sound like Jungle Brothers, Boogie Down Productions didn’t sound like Public Enemy. When Run-DMC came out, they were using 808s! New York left a lot of its music culture behind. I look at it and wonder what happened — you just don’t give up the crown. You’re supposed to keep going.
Still, I like New York for creativity. Most artists moved to Jersey, then they moved to Long Island, then they moved to California. After California, they moved to Europe. That’s the cliché, for artists who grew up in a metropolitan area. I’ve done that — but you still have to come back to New York to be creative. When you live in [those places], there’s nothing to write about — you lose touch with culture and what’s going on. You’re living somewhere that might not have a lot of visuals. What are you gonna write about, Walmart and Kmart?
What parts of the city do you find the most inspiring?
I keep a pen and paper in my hand — I walk through Manhattan, I walk through Brooklyn, I walk through Queens, I walk through the Bronx. I’m like a walking journalist — I’m seeing so many things. A lot of artists ride behind tinted windows, go from hotel to hotel, and close their curtains. They’re traveling, but they don’t necessarily go outside their room. That’s not really traveling. They’re living an inside life. When I travel, I go outside and take a walk in the city.
What do you listen to when you’re not working?
Certain kinds of rock and stuff… but even rock’s gotten cliché. Everybody wants to be a love band. They might sing a little slow song, and then they go into banging the drums real hard and going crazy. I like KISS better. At least they stuck to themselves — they kept their flaming pyrotechnics and costumes going, looking like they came from space. I can relate to that. They were entertaining.
Now I can’t tell which rock group is different — they all have black t-shirts with skulls on them. You turn the page, and there’s another six guys with black t-shirts with skulls on them. I don’t know what’s going on. Should I get six guys with t-shirts? It’s not like, a dynamic outfit — they’ve got a pair of Wranglers on. Everybody’s trying to look like The Sex Pistols.
I’ve noticed that you’re pretty active on Twitter though, especially for someone who’s been in the game for as long as you have.
What happens is, a lot of people from a certain time gave up. They’re in the Amish time. They carry an Amish lamp and stuff like that. They can’t really relate, or be more modern. They meet up at functions and want to talk about when the first Star Wars came out. I call that a deformity — a slight handicap. You’re stuck in time. It’s like growing an afro, and walking up Broadway with a big box on your head, and saying, “This is right now.”
I’ve always been ahead of my time anyway — time just caught up to me, but didn’t pass me. It’s never gonna pass me.
But the modern age can mess you up too. I see people buying a banana with a credit card. This guy’s filling out all this paperwork, holding up the line. And you’re like, “What is he getting? Oh, a banana.” He’s so advanced, he bought a banana with a credit card. [laughs] Does it really take swiping the credit card for a banana? Would you fill out all that paperwork? Can’t you just throw 75 cents up there and keep on going? I mean, I’ll pay for it! I’m way in the back, but I’ll throw some change on the counter. Some people are too far back, some people are too far ahead. Smart in one way, but dumb in another.
A lot of your lyrics have shout-outs to different athletes — are you a sports fan at all?
I am a big sports fan. I like basketball a lot — I use a lot of references to that in my music. And I’m a guy that knows sports. A lot of artists just go to the games because somebody else is going. Everybody wants to be Spike Lee now. If you’re at the basketball game, and you start saying, “Where’s the field goal?”…In L.A. and New York, you get a lot of fans for the night, who just want to be on TV.
I’m a 50/50 Knicks fan. The front office…the Knicks, they’ve made some of the wildest trades. They’re known for giving up players that go to championship teams, or teams that enter the playoffs. That’s their forte: giving away good players.
Who’s your favorite player right now?
I like underdog people. I like J.R. Smith — even when he won, he broke down and confessed all the things about what he’d gone through being in the NBA. He couldn’t believe where he was. But I always had faith in J.R. Smith — since he was with the Knicks. He’s a person who’s been underrated, but came out to prove himself.
I honestly think a lot of people were just jealous of Cleveland — people need to take their hats off to them, because they won. This is not a star game no more, this is real basketball. That’s the way it should be in rap also — just play who sounds good. You’ve got all this silly stuff playing everywhere, people making funny sounds with their voices…it’s like, come on, man. This is what’s in the way. It goes back to that guy up in the front, with the banana. Get out of the way! You’re holding up good music. Let’s keep it moving.