From his days with the new school pioneers Ultramagnetic MC's to his psycho-sexual forays into the ego of Dr. Ocatgon, Kool "Keith" Thornton is in a category – if not a world – of his own. This June, Thornton releases Love and Danger on Junkadelic Music. With nearly 30 years of making off-the-wall hip-hop behind him, he's toying with the idea of retirement. Thornton talked to Rolling Stone about his inspirations, his multiple musical personalities and why he's so darn weird.
Love and Danger is your new album. A lot of your albums are very conceptual or based around a character, like Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom or Black Elvis. Does the new one have that kind of approach?
If you listen to a lot of the songs, they're not as conceptual. I just felt like I did every song by the feeling that I felt instead of me creating a phony feeling to make it link together. I have more freedom to do a lot of things and expand on the choruses. I could do stuff that was a little more branched out for myself, instead of me being conformed to just rapping and a chorus, rapping and a chorus.
But you do have a lot of personas. Why do you keep changing things up?
I don't want the fans to get caught up in one thing. Some people got different records, but they gotta be a gangster all their life or they gotta be a lover all their life. I don't wanna get caught up in an image that I have to stay with. I want people to feel good when I don't do Octagon. I want people to feel good when I'm not making a record that they might predict I should make. I want people to say, "Oh wow, he did a record about Mickey Mouse. It's cool." I want people to feel like if they goin' to a boutique or a shopping mall that they can buy all different types of things.
You got credit way back in the late Eighties with Ultramagnetic MC's for bringing a very far-out lyrical style to hip-hop. You're often described as weird or bizarre. Before you were an MC, were you odd as a kid?
As a kid I was just naturally different. I always had different style. Like if all the kids wanted strawberry ice cream, I wanted chocolate. If all the kids wanted green marbles, I wanted a purple one. Everything was just odd with me naturally. If everybody wanted a pink egg, I wanted like a lilac egg. And that's how I felt with my approach to all my theories of making records and music. It's the same theory.
So how do you come up with the more surreal stuff you do?
I get off on writing obnoxious or graphic because I like to say stuff that people don't wanna hear or wanna say or are scared to say. Like you might wanna write a song and say "That girl's feet stink." But a lot of guys won't say that because they're scared – because they feel that it's not cool. I get off on sayin' it because I know it bothers people. I take the perspective of a homeless person sometimes. A lot of groups write from the rich perspective – like they're rich and they write to a rich person. I write for the person that don't wanna hear that.
Do you think your eccentricity has been better accepted in the rock world than it has in the hip-hop world?
I do have a big alternative audience and rock fans. With Ultramagnetic, we were urban when we first came out. We used to do the clubs with all the hustlers, the drug dealers, the street kids and all that. And we played all those spots that were the dangerous hardcore street places from New York to Washington to Philadelphia. But I just thought that the golden age [of hip-hop] turned rock in general without being pushed towards rock. We are rock.
How has your audience changed since those early days with Ultramagnetic?
It's changed drastically. I think the street audience still doesn't have an open mind yet and they still may be stuck in a certain time era. A lot of people just haven't moved forward. You got some people that just think Critical Beatdown is my only album ever made. They don't know my biography. You have a lot of DJs out that don't want to educate people. They want to jump straight to new artists and skip over the truth.
You name drop a lot of old-school funk artists on your records. Is that what you listened to growing up?
I grew up in the funk era. I grew up on Slave and Brass Construction and Instant Funk. That's my inspiration for me makin' my records. I didn't grow up on [jazz artists] like Ron Carter, I didn't grow up on Stanley Turrentine. I didn't grow up on Freddie Hubbard. I stick with Slave. I follow Captain Sky, Trouble Funk, Undisputed Truth, Sun, Lakeside. I was inspired by funk, just to be original. Just the way they approached music. My music wasn't like their stuff, I just took the essence of the originality of them being who they are, and I just started makin' my own brand new stuff. Like Roger Troutman, Zapp, stuff like that was original funk. So those are my mentors.
Certainly Ultramagnetic's production was very sample-driven, drawing from a lot of funk music, like James Brown and the Meters. But in your solo work, you've moved away from that golden era sound.
It's like basketball: you got two divisions. You got the western division and the eastern division. You got Premier, you got Pete Rock, you got Easy Mo Be, you got Alchemist, you know, down that bracket of producers. Then you got the other side, you got Timbaland, you got Pharrell – all the producers of the future beats that don't sample records. They make original records. Now I'm going through a crisis with my group [Ultramagnetic MC's] because I'm in the league of creating music and making stuff from scratch. I'm not knockin' the sample era, that league on the other side. I just don't wanna be on that side.
The last track on Love and Danger is called "Goodbye Rap." Does this mean retirement for you?
Well I did kind of mentally quit rap for a time, 'cause I did a lot of songs in the past, did a lot of songs this year, came up with a lot of albums already. I did so much stuff that I don't have to physically make songs right now. I could just stop making songs, because I have enough. I would rather sit back and consult. There's times that I do maybe one verse on some stuff that I find another rapper to put on, which I would love to give a kid in the street an opportunity. And that's what I'm doing now basically, is consulting, like coaching. I'm not mad at the art or quitting, but I just said I'd rather take a coaching standpoint. I retired from working so much. Will I come back? Maybe. I don't know how long my dismissal is.