The last time Kool Keith performed in Kansas City, at Czar in April 2011, the Bronx rapper did not bring along a DJ. The music tracks backing his rhymes reportedly came from a guy pushing the tiny circular buttons on a Sony Discman that was hooked up to an amplifier. That struck me as pretty hilarious when I heard it recently, so I made it a priority to get to the Riot Room last Friday to see what obsolete technology he might have in store for us this time around.
Kool Keith, if you are unacquainted, is probably the craziest rapper alive. He is now 49 years old, and his heyday was the 1990s. That's when he created absurd alter egos like Dr. Octagon and Black Elvis, and found his niche spitting stream-of-consciousness lyrics about performing disgusting sexual acts in some futuristic landscape — Philip K. Dick by way of Caligula. He's now essentially a legacy act, but he remains an elusive character about whom there are no clear answers. Did he really spend time in a mental institution? (He told a journalist that he did but later denied it.) Does he realize how ridiculous a lyric like I got my silk underwear for the atmosphere/Piss in your face and urinate in your hair is? Is he aware of how preposterous it is for a rapper of his stature to tour the country with just a Discman? How in-on-the-joke is Kool Keith?
I am no closer to answers today than I was a week ago. But I can report that things did get a little bit nuts at his Friday show.
As we waited for Kool Keith, DJ Stevie Cruz, who spins around Westport and plays in the local metal band Hammerlord, was buzzing around onstage, playing songs behind a laptop and decks, and doing thumbs up and thumbs down with the sound guy. I assumed he would scram once Kool Keith arrived. But then Kool Keith and his hype man, Cito — a sort of horrorcore Joe Pesci — took the stage, and Cruz stayed on as DJ. Apparently, Kool Keith has a strong aversion to bringing his own DJ along on tour. I don't know how well this has been working in other cities, but it did not turn out so hot here. More on that in a second.
Kool Keith was wearing sunglasses, a sequined scarf, a hat with earflaps, and a yellow Polo shirt that had "69U" stitched onto the back. Among the songs he and Cito touched on were "Girl Let Me Touch You" and "Two Brothers With Checks," one from Kool Keith's former group Ultramagnetic MCs.
There were a few high points — "Blue Flowers," from Dr. Octagonecologyst, remains an oddly beautiful song — but mostly what I took away from the show is that Kool Keith is really fucked up on something or just has zero enthusiasm anymore for his music (or both). Much of it felt like a half-assed karaoke performance, an impression deepened by the fact that Kool Keith was holding a mixed drink in his left hand for the first few songs.
At the same time, the dude is funny, whether or not he intends to be. How are you not going to laugh at lines like I take that bitch to get new hair, or an entire song called "Pussy on the Beach" whose only lyrics are Pussy on the beach, pussy on the beach, pussy on the beach, they sellin' pussy on the beach? At one point he tried to freestyle, failed, and then started ramble-rapping about building a giant condom. The subtext, as I understood it, was that Kool Keith's penis is too large for ordinary condoms, so he has to build his own extra-large rubbers.
Midway through the set, Kool Keith removed his jeans, then removed the long johns he was wearing underneath his jeans, then put his jeans back on. To keep the momentum going, Cito turned this into a call and response.
"His long johns is hot," Cito said. "Now you say, 'My long johns is hot.' " This went on for about a minute.
It was around this time that the relationship between Cito and Cruz began to show cracks. I didn't notice any technical difficulties because the performance was such a shitshow. The whole thing was just kind of terrible. But during "I'm Creepin'," Cito kept looking back at Cruz, annoyed.
"We're gonna put you on the milk truck outta here if you keep playing around like that," Cito said after the song.
Cruz smiled and took it in stride, but a few minutes later, there was some kind of electronic hiccup and a track wouldn't start. Cito got on the microphone and started saying typical boring hype-man filler while the problem was resolved. I went to get a drink and when I came back, Cruz had the mic and was talking up Kool Keith and trying to rouse the crowd. Uh, hey, Stevie Cruz: If you are on the same stage as Kool Keith, and Kool Keith has a mic, you probably should not be talking into a mic.
"You're talking too much," Cito said. "Why don't you fix the problem instead of talking all this shit?"
Then Cito did a new call and response with the crowd: The DJ/Is a jackass.
On the next song, Kool Keith looked back at Cruz and said, "Don't touch that turntable. I don't want to see you touching that turntable." Cruz tried to play along, holding up his hands as if in a stickup. But he must have been really sweating up there.
There was no formal indication, after another few songs, that the show had ended. Instead, there was Cruz again, center stage, holding a mic, as Kool Keith and Cito slowly moved toward the side of the stage. Cruz was saying what an honor it was to DJ for Kool Keith and that he'd been asked to do it only a few hours before. "I'm just a party DJ," he said. "I'm no DJ Qbert."
He went on: "So we're gonna have a good time tonight. Kool Keith is gonna party here at the Riot Room, I'm going to play some more songs for you ..."
Then somebody in Cruz's line of vision shouted something or booed, and Cruz, without really missing a beat, shifted gears and started talking shit to the guy. "Yeah, dude, if you have a fucking problem, get the fuck out of here. Nobody gives a fuck what you think. No, no, don't kick him out" — a bouncer had approached — "don't kick him out. We're gonna have a good time, right, as long as he shuts the fuck up."
In a way, Cruz was upstaging Kool Keith because the only way to upstage Kool Keith is to be crazier. Kool Keith seemed to recognize this. He and Cito headed down to the green room, and I didn't see either of them again the rest of the night.