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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.”

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kool keith live

Kool Keith live in 2011. Photo by Jason Persse

Your next two projects with Keith were Sex Style and the Dr. Dooom album First Come, First Served. As a fan, the way that you guys were jumping around from style to style at that time was so fun. Sex Style draws inspiration and style from California pimp and pornography culture. What do you remember about the sources of inspiration for that project – were you guys hanging out with pimps and prostitutes?

(laughs) Keith was. One of his best friends is a pimp in LA – I don’t know if he’s still a pimp but he’s still one of Keith’s best friends. Back in ’93 when I was in Manhattan with Keith walking around, he said, ‘I need to go run some errands. Come with me.’ He spent literally hours and hours at the porno shops over by 42nd Street. I was like, ‘What are you doing? I know you have porn in your songs, I figured you’re into porn – but dude, this is crazy. You’re spending all day here, let’s just go record!’ He was like, ‘No man, this is how I get my inspiration. This inspires me to make music.’

We started talking more, and Keith was saying that gangsta rappers rap about fantasies, but he’s just gonna rap about himself. I said, ‘So this is who you are, and this is what you’re gonna rap about?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ That first song we did was called ‘Time for Sex,’ and his whole rap was about porno stars and everything. (laughs) I was like, it’s cool, it wasn’t what I thought, but it’s definitely interesting.

I figured, this guy’s a veteran, and I may have my own ideas about what I wanna do, but I’m gonna go along for the ride with him and see where it takes us. That’s what Sex Style was. Sex Style was him saying, ‘This is my first solo album, and this is me.’ Everyone has ideas of who Keith is – but that’s really who Keith still is, to tell you the truth… Sex Style is him. That’s the real Keith. I know his parents, I know his family. That’s Keith.

“I figured, this guy’s a veteran… I’m gonna go along for the ride with him and see where it takes us.”

Speaking of Keith’s personality – he has this reputation as an eccentric, and you seem like a down to Earth, humble guy. What is it about the partnership that makes it such a good working relationship?

Two people with big egos and out-of-control attitudes are not going to be able to get any work done together, right? It was like the sensei and the student at the beginning. Later on, when we started arguing, was when I had graduated and got my black belt. He would’ve been a fourth- or fifth-degree black belt or whatever. Then we started sparring more.

When would you say that was?

That’s like, by Dr. Dooom time.

That album might be my favorite of yours – I love that album.

Oh, cool. We did that record in literally a week.

Where was that record made?

That was made in my studio. What happened was, when we got the deal with Capitol Records, Keith took his money and bought porn mags, and I took my money and bought studio equipment. I was like, ‘I don’t know what’s gonna happen with Capitol, but I’m gonna invest in myself.’ Now, you just need a laptop. Back then, you needed like twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment to make some good-sounding recordings, if you wanted to put them in the market. So that’s what I did, I invested in myself. I built a studio. From about ’96 to the early 2000s, that’s how I was paying my bills.

I was doing sessions with people… Everybody recorded in my studio. Xzibit recorded in my place, Zach De La Rocha from Rage Against the Machine recorded in my place… I recorded and mixed for Dilated Peoples… Then at a point, I was burnt out and my health had suffered from being in studios all day. My neighbors hated me. I wanted to focus on my own career as an artist, and went into doing mixes, or being more selective… The Beastie Boys had me do remixes… Me and Mike D made an MPC tutorial for Grand Royal magazine. I was one of their in-house remixers for a while. I think I did like five remixes for Grand Royal.

I want to go back to Dr. Dooom for a minute – how did that concept come about?

Dr. Dooom was interesting because it wouldn’t have come about if things hadn’t gone the way they did with the Black Elvis project. After Sex Style, there was this buzz that we created. Keith got this shady manager who got him a record deal. In the fall of ’97 or ’98, we recorded Black Elvis… It was a cool experience for certain aspects of it, but Keith was still trying to make this hit pop song… I did some of the production on that record, some of it was uncredited, and some I was credited for… But the label put Keith in limbo. They didn’t know what to do with Black Elvis. Dr. Dooom was really a response to that, and to Dr. Octagon. Everybody was like, ‘When you gonna do another Dr. Octagon record?’ We said, ‘Why don’t we just kill Dr. Octagon, then people can stop asking about it.’ So we did Dr. Dooom.

The funny thing was that Sony was sitting around on Black Elvis. Keith was like, ‘I want you to go meet with the A&R guy and play him Dr. Dooom, and tell him that we’re putting it out, even though I’m signed to Sony. They can put it out if they want, or maybe it’ll motivate them to put out Black Elvis.’ I went and met Tim Devine… He was like, ‘Kurt, this shit is crazy, there’s no way we can put this [Dr. Dooom record] out. I’m not gonna stand in your way – it’s a different name, technically. Keith is signed to Sony, but I don’t really care.’ … Shortly after that, Sony got motivated to put Black Elvis out. The promotion of the Sony efforts helped us with our independent effort [for First Come, First Served].

So it sounds like there was a lot of frustration in the Dr. Dooom record.

Exactly. Honestly, that record was like a therapy session. It was Keith on the couch. Same thing with Matthew. I guess I’m kind of an in-house music therapist.

Masters of Illusion is another one of my favorite projects of yours. How did that come together?

I was always conflicting with Keith creatively about stuff. I became more vocal about it later… I was trying to go in a different direction. I was like, ‘Look Keith, I’ll help you do your projects the way you wanna do ‘em, and why don’t you do some rugged hip hop tracks the way I wanna do ‘em.’ It was kinda like a trade-off thing. So Matthew was sort of a trade-off for Masters of Illusion with him. I helped him make Matthew as a trade-off for him to do his vocal contributions to Masters of Illusion.

The vision of that record was totally my vision, and the sound conceptually and creatively. That’s why I made it ‘KutMasta Kurt presents Masters of Illusion.’ I wanted people to know this is how I wanted to do stuff with Keith, and Motion Man, who is my ace, and who I thought people needed to hear more of… It accomplished what I wanted. People who have similar taste as me would probably say that’s one of the better quality records that we’ve done together.

I’m a huge fan, especially of the track ‘U Want Freestyle,’ which is one of the illest and most aggressive tracks that you guys ever made together. How did that come together?

On that album, I wanted to do two solo tracks by each of them. For each pair of solo tracks, I wanted one of them to be just one long verse… The idea behind ‘U Want Freestyle’ was something that was an ongoing joke with us. Every time Keith did an interview, everybody was always asking for a freestyle. That was an ongoing topic that we had.

Especially during the nineties, one theme that I have noticed in your production work is dissonance: eerie, clashing sonic textures and discord. Was that a style that you ever consciously pursued?

I think I was influenced a little by Keith in that direction. On the sample side of things, I was starting to go into this darker, dissonant sound… Hip hop in some ways going in that direction anyway. The keyboard element was something that Keith wanted in the sound. I figured if I’m gonna use keyboards, I’m gonna use ‘em in a way that’s not, like, Parliament. Using keyboards and layering keyboards made it more acceptable to what I was trying to do musically. The dissonance and darker sound kept it raw.

How did the changes in the music industry during the 2000s impact your career? Did you feel like you constantly had to struggle to adapt?

As an independent artist at that time, we’d put out a record and it’d sell X amount of copies. After the early 2000s, our sales had diminished a lot. A lot of that had to do with the fact that people were like, why pay for music if you don’t have to? Also, in the music industry as a whole, and especially in hip hop, it was flooded. There was too much stuff.

Most artists had to start touring more. From about 2004 to 2009, I was touring a lot, especially with Keith. I was even doing tour management, and coordinating a lot of his tours between like 2006 and 2009. [Touring] is what most artists have done to survive and make up for the gap in diminished sales.

“It was like the sensei and the student at the beginning… Then we started sparring more.”

What’s a typical tour like with Keith? What are you guys like together on the road?

After 2009, I actually took a step back from being as closely involved with Keith’s touring… the touring life is pretty painful and tiring. The schedule is crazy. For instance, we did four shows, four days in a row in four different countries.

When you’re on tour with him, do you have to spend a lot of time dealing with Keith’s eccentricities? Or is it just chill, quiet, and you’re just working?

(laughs) I wish. It’s more of a professional babysitting, basically.

Really? Can you expand on that?

It’s just like, ‘C’mon Keith, it’s time to go to the show. C’mon Keith.’ You know. He’s like, ‘No, I have to go look at porno mags.’

Still, with the porno?

Pretty much, yeah… We were on a plane once, it was probably mid-2000s. I think we were in America. He had this idea of taking Sharpie pens and drawing lingerie on the photos of naked women in porn magazines. He wanted to start his own line [of lingerie]. I think he did a few prototypes. He’s sitting on an airplane with his tray table down in front of everybody, drawing. Some older lady or somebody got offended. The stewardess came over and said, ‘Excuse me sir, can you please put your magazine away?’ He was like, ‘No.’ She’s like, ‘You know, this is pornographic material, it’s not appropriate.’ He goes, ‘Hey, I bought this in the airport, don’t sell it in the airport then.’ I was like, ‘right on Keith.’ He was being crazy, but it is the truth. He was like, ‘I’m a grown man, I have the right to read my magazine. Don’t tell me what to do.’

He didn’t say, ‘Listen, I’m a visionary genius and this is my art’? (laughs)

(laughs) Pretty much.

What are you working on in 2016?

The last few years, I’ve transitioned my career into more into music mastering and vinyl mastering… A few years back I did a project with a young kid (Retrogott) who’s probably one of the best German rappers out there… I’m having fun creatively again… Speaking of Keith, we have a project we’re gonna put out later this year, which is recordings from after Sex Style but before Dr. Dooom.

That is fucking amazing that there’s still more material from that time!

Oh yeah. Keith has endless songs, of his own stuff, too. I’ve selected six songs that I’m gonna release. The title track is called ‘Your Mom is My Wife.’ (laughs) It’ll come out this year at some point.

your mom is my wife kool keith

‘Your Mom Is My Wife’ EP, Kool Keith and KutMasta Kurt

That’s amazing – especially considering that you already released archives of Sex Style, which is full-album length and it’s really high quality.

Thanks. That’s the Sex Style-era stuff, this is post-Sex Style era stuff.

When you guys were recording all of that material during the Sex Style/Dr.Dooom era, were most tracks first takes for Keith? I’m trying to comprehend how you guys made so much material. Is he just dropping a verse, and then it’s onto the next?

It’d be like a few lines, and then punch in a lot of times, to be honest. His rhyming style is very spur of the moment, stream of consciousness… He always hated to have to have a budget, or to have [a specific project he was obligated to work on]. Other people didn’t go to the studio if there wasn’t a budget, nobody would wanna pay their own money to go to the studio. The fact that I had invested my own money in a studio – Keith would be like, ‘Hey, what’s up, you wanna record?’ He’s a record-aholic. You have no idea how many songs he has, unreleased. Prince probably is the only guy that has more unreleased songs than Keith.

We were talking about therapy… It was a matter of therapy – music therapy – that we recorded what we did, and so much of it.

Now that you’ve worked with Keith for a couple of decades, and it’s one central part of your career and legacy – what does your partnership with him mean to you?

Like I said, when it started off, I was probably an orange belt. I wasn’t a white belt, ’cause I had done some stuff already. But I was maybe an orange or green belt. Through working with Keith and my own efforts, I got to be black belt. The point that we’re at now, I might be at the same or couple belts lower than Keith. But there’s still a need to spar back and forth. He wants to smack me around more as like, ‘You’re still my student! Smack!’ (laughs) And I’m kinda like, ‘C’mon old guy, let’s keep sharp here.’ He’s like, ‘I’m still sharp!’ (laughs) Something like that. …

I was trying to tell Keith, around the Masters of Illusion era, when MF Doom was starting to gain steam, I was like, ‘He took your spot, man. That was your spot.’ Keith was like, ‘I don’t want that spot! MF Doom doesn’t get any bitches.’

(laughter) Yeah, people bring up that comparison a lot. MF Doom is a beloved guy who has made some great records, but yeah, Keith’s fans accuse Doom of taking inspiration from Keith.

I just think [DOOM] took over that ‘king of the underground’ thing that Keith had for a moment or two.

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