Fans of ’90s and ’00s underground hip-hop were treated to a special performance of Kool Keith at The Joint on Thursday. It got pretty weird, as was to be expected from an eccentric performer like Keith.
A member of late ’80s underground hip-hop crew Ultramagnetic MCs and a prolific recording artist who has used several different monikers to release albums over the past two decades, Keith made a stop in North Little Rock on Oct. 9 to celebrate his “birthday” (everywhere I’ve seen has his birthday listed as October 19, but hey, close enough).
In high school, a friend introduced me to ‘Dr. Octagon,’ one of Keith’s many alter egos, and I immediately went to Anthropop records to buy the CD. What struck me was the combination of the experimental production by Dan the Automator and scratching by DJ Q-Bert with Keith’s truly bizarre and memorable lyrics, exploring themes like time travel, mutant animal hybrids, and plenty of freaky sex. For myself and many others it was an exciting first foray into the world of underground hip-hop.
The setting at The Joint seemed a perfect complement for the surreal Keith, with bold red curtains reminiscent of a David Lynch dreamscape. Local producer and turntablist DJ Swift provided a great opening set to get the mood going, though not many were around to hear it.
Keith, with Swift sticking around on the turntables, opened up the set with a few numbers from his Ultramagnetic days, before moving straight into the ‘hits’ from his more popular albums like “Dr. Octagonecologyst,” “Sex Style” and “Black Elvis”. Swift and Keith took the audience on a tour of his extensive career with a couple of collage-style medleys, fluidly jumping from track to track. It was somewhat disorienting but fun to see all the styles and forms of a master shapeshifter.
He closed out with several lengthy freestyle bits. I really can’t understate Keith’s lyrical genius. Even as a somewhat visibly exhausted vet en route to A3C in Atlanta, his prowess still made itself known in little bursts of creative and funny rhymes. He’s tapped into the music of the interplay between words and knows how to string together lines that seem incomprehensible but make sense on another level as pure sound.
DJ Prophet served as an emcee in the traditional sense, doing his best to hype up the strangely undersized crowd for a brief encore. Someone told me they had sold 90 tickets to the show, though I don’t think even half of that were actually there. Given the hefty (but fair for an underground legend) $30 price, it was surprising and disheartening that so many failed to show. Nevertheless, there were a few hardcore fans making noise and having fun up in the front as Keith responded to a few special requests.
I got a chance to speak with him briefly after the show. Again, he seemed pretty tired but amiable, munching on some breast-shaped cupcakes (Happy Birthday!). He told me he hadn’t seen much of the town, and asked about the Capitol Building.
There were other folks backstage getting autographs signed and striking up conversation. Eventually the subject of drinks came up, and Kool Keith revealed his favorite concoction: Olde English mixed with orange Gatorade. Given the enhanced hangover effects of OE, I can imagine the Gatorade would go a ways to help with rehydration in addition to providing a nice citrus complement to that classic malt liquor taste. I think I’m going to have to try it if anyone wants to join me: YOLO!
Some fans seemed a bit bummed by the set, which was maybe a bit low-energy, but I enjoyed getting to see Keith do his thing. All in all it was a pretty weird night that was representative of the appealing weirdness of this place we live in and part of what makes me stay here. (Visit beautiful Central Arkansas! Eat sexually explicit cupcakes with the stars!)
Thanks to the folks at The Joint for making this happen, it was a special night.