KutMasta Kurt Reflects on His Career and Legacy with Kool Keith

The producer says his partnership with Kool Keith "was like the sensei and the student at the beginning… Then we started sparring more.”

kutmasta kurt interview

KutMasta Kurt is a producer and DJ best known for his collaborations with rapper Kool Keith. Together, Kurt and Keith are one of hip hop’s most innovative duos. The prolific pair have created groundbreaking hip hop albums including Sex Style, First Come, First Served (featuring Keith’s character Dr. Dooom), Masters of Illusion, and many more (the Dr. Octagon concept also originated with Kurt & Keith’s demos; read the story of Dr. Octagonecologyst here). Kurt is also the founder of Threshold Recordings, and he has produced remixes for Beastie Boys, Linkin Park, and Dilated Peoples.

In the following interview, Kurt reflects on almost three decades of hip hop. He unveils the forthcoming EP of late-90s Kool Keith archives titled Your Mom is My Wife (see artwork), tells a hilarious story about Keith’s porn antics, and recalls the time Keith told him he didn’t want MF Doom’s spot in the game because “MF Doom doesn’t get any bitches.”

Dan Redding: What are your first memories of making music?

KutMasta Kurt: My dad was a struggling musician and he had some basic equipment. He had a four-track tape machine, a Roland 505 drum machine, and a Yamaha keyboard of some kind. I remember tinkering with his equipment.

That sounds like pretty sophisticated equipment for that time, right? I’m thinking that a lot of hip hop’s founders – especially DJs – probably had access to maybe a turntable, if anything.

Yeah. The thing is, I didn’t live with my dad, so I didn’t have access to that stuff often – just if I visited him. But that was one of my first attempts at making music. After that, I got a foot pedal sampler that was designed for guitar… I would make a little drum beat, and you could put it into a loop. I had two cassette decks, so I’d play through one tape, go through my DJ mixer, and go back and keep adding stuff over it with my foot pedal sampler. That’s how I made my first beats… I was probably about fifteen, sixteen.

It’s interesting that started making music right at the dawn of hip hop in the mid-eighties. You came up with the genre itself.

Yeah. The electro sound was big, and breakdancing, that’s what drew me in. Soulsonic Force in the early 80’s, and then Run DMC. Sampling hit in like ’86. That’s when I started getting more interested in production, when sampling started. That’s when I was playing around with that foot pedal sampler. I was DJ’ing gigs and saving my money. By ’87 or ’88, I’d saved up enough money to get some recording gear and start making my own stuff.

During those early years of your musicianship, did you have an awareness of Ultramagnetic MCs and Kool Keith?

Yeah… I heard ‘Ego Trippin’ in New York when I was there, and I was like, “What the hell is this? This is the dopest shit ever.” I ran out and got like two copies of it… The sound was futuristic and funky. It was right when sampling had started. The drum beat was one of the illest drum beats ever.

When (De La Soul’s) ‘Plug Tunin’ came out like a year or two later, I was like, “This sounds like they were influenced by Ultra.” I started hearing their influence on people – I noticed Ultra’s effect on the hip hop world as far as sound, and styles of lyrics and flows. They took some rules away or made room for people to think outside the box.

What was your first record release?

I put out some independent stuff in the late 80s… this group called Red, Black and Green… I was doing radio at Stanford in the late 80s. A lot of artists used to come through the radio station. Lauryn Hill came through before anyone knew who she was. She was like sixteen or something. MC Hammer. Everybody came through our show because at that time, you didn’t have blogs or podcasts. College radio was basically the thing.

What was your radio show called?

There was this show called The Drum… These guys from the Members Only Crew started the first hip hop radio show in the Bay Area. I got to know one of the members of that show, Mark, through King Shameek. I took over the show… That was my connection to doing remixes. In the nineties, I did an edit for Tim Dog for ‘Fuck Compton’ called ‘Forget Compton.’ I did something for Tung Twista, who later went on to just be called Twista.

When did you meet Keith?

I met him in ’87.

What do you remember about that?

I was at this thing called the New Music Seminar in New York… They used to have an MC battle, and Keith was in the MC battle. I remember approaching him and talking to him. He was not that interested in talking to me… Later on, I saw him hanging out with MC Hammer. In 94, after Hammer got really large, Keith and I were invited to a party at MC Hammer’s house, when he had that crazy house up in Freemont. At the party, Keith went up to Hammer and said, “Hey man, remember me?” Hammer looked at him like he didn’t remember who he was. Keith was like, “Man, I was one of the only guys in New York who hung out with him and gave him respect back then. Everybody else was laughing at him!”

When did you and Keith start to record demos together?

We started recording right around Fall of ’93. I had a relationship with Loud Records… They did a demo deal with me for a group called Zero Tolerance… I was in New York, and I was like, ‘Hey Keith, I’m out here working with this group.’ Dan the Automator was out there with me, helping me record, and doing something else of his own. Keith came over to where we were set up… in ’94 we did an official demo. We did like seven songs that got us a deal in LA, and we moved to LA.

“Everyone has ideas of who Keith is – but Sex Style is really who Keith still is, to tell you the truth. That’s the real Keith.”

You guys shared an apartment together in LA, right?

Yeah, for a short time, for like six months.

What was the living situation and lifestyle at the time?

It was pretty funny. We had a big two-bedroom apartment with a giant living room. We used to play Sega Genesis and work on music. These guys called Raw Breed stayed with us – we had like five people sleeping on our living room floor. Sir Menelik was sleeping on the floor, TR Love from Ultramagnetic, and the three guys from Raw Breed. The superintendent was like, ‘I’m not gonna renew your lease, you guys gotta get outta here, this is too crazy.’ We were staying in Beverly Hills… they didn’t really want hip hop dudes in their building. (laughs)

At the time, Keith was going through this transition, looking for his voice post-Ultramagnetic MCs. You guys were working on these demos – the first demos that spark the Dr. Octagon concept happen at this time, and you guys are also working on the demos that will become Sex Style, right?

Yeah… The Sex Style project was pre-Dr. Octagon. ‘Dr. Octagon’ was a song that we made because, at that time, Keith and I liked to just make songs to give to DJs to play on the radio… A lot of people were approaching Keith to work on stuff that was what we called ‘elevation style,’ which was the first Ultramagnetic stuff, with the big words and scientific crazy stuff to it. Keith was like, ‘Man, I already did all that stuff.’ There was a big movement of people starting to do that more. ‘Dr. Octagon’ was our satirical response to that. Menelik was at the house, and he was on it too.

And how did you know Automator – were you guys old friends?

I met him probably around ’89, when I put out my first records… Later on, people in the music industry told me, ‘Watch out for that guy.’ I said, ‘Really?’ People who worked with him kept [their relationship with him] distant. They said, ‘Be careful with that guy, man.’ I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’

And you ultimately had to take legal action against him for Dr. Octagon royalties or credit. Were the two of you ultimately able to make peace?

Not really. To me, there’s no peace really – there’s nothing there. It’s not like I’m gonna punch him in the face when I see him, but there’s no reason to be friends.

You and Keith were working together, and then this Octagon record comes out, did you kind of feel like that stole the thunder in a way?

Not really. [The Octagon demos] were something that we did for fun… When I gave Dan a tape of the Octagon stuff, he was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I wanna do.’ Keith was like, ‘I don’t really wanna do that style, this is just something we did for fun.’ … Later on we did stuff more freeflowing, but when you’re on a label, and other people are involved, you have different ideas in your music that you might not have if you were doing it totally on your own… When Octagon started doing well, Keith was surprised. I was trying to champion Keith to do some more cutting-edge or iller kind of stuff… Keith was like, ‘Do you think I should do that project with Dan? I dunno, I don’t see what the point of it is.’ I was like, ‘I like Dan’s beats, I think they’re dope, I’ll do another track or two if you guys want me to. I think it’s cool.’ Keith was like, ‘Yeah, it’s just something for the heads, it’s not gonna blow up.’

Did Keith ever have the intention of mainstream success? Was that ever a goal for him or you?

Not so much to me. I was kinda fighting him on it. I was like, ‘Man, you have a good fan base, just do you and build on what you have. You may never be a millionaire, but you’ll be successful… You might be the kind of rapper who makes a hundred grand a year, but you’ll be able to do it for twenty years. Some rappers, they make a million or two in a couple years, but they don’t make nothing after that because nobody wants to hear from ‘em.’ I was trying to tell him to take the route like that. Being on a major label, there was some pressure to get them something to be played on the radio. To be honest with you, Keith had fantasies of that. (laughs)

Fantasies of being on the radio?

Of being a guy who you saw in videos. It’s funny, because he mocked that, but he secretly had a fantasy. He acted like that in LA – he used to go to clubs, and dress in suits. There was a club called the Century Club where people like Shaquille O’Neal and Dr. Dre would hang out. A buddy of mine knew the promoter at that club, and he asked if I wanted to check out the club. I was like, ‘Dude, we’re wearing shorts and t-shirts.’ He’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter, I know the promoter. Wanna go check it out? I betcha Keith is in there.’ (laughs)

Sure enough, we go over there, we get in, and we’re walking around this club in shorts and t-shirts. Everyone else is dressed up, they’re looking at us crazy. And there’s Keith sitting there with a bottle of champagne, wearing a suit… Looking like a total dork. Me and my friend went over and we’re like, ‘What’s up Keith?’ He tried to act like he didn’t know me! (laughs) He was with some girls, he was with a buddy trying to pick up girls. He looked at me like, ‘Leave me alone man, don’t act like you know me.’ (laughs)

That’s a funny thing about Keith. He talked a lot of trash about people in that realm, but he actually had a secret fantasy – not a secret to me, but to the general public – of being one of those guys.

That’s funny, in the song ‘Plastic World,’ he went out of his way to criticize that flashy Bad Boy nineties lifestyle.

I think as an underground artist, at that time, he didn’t appreciate himself.

Continued on page 2

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