LOS ANGELES -- Kool Keith is wearing a neon green polyvinyl outfit, large
silver Elvis glasses and a plastic Elvis wig.
As the hip-hop artist stands in front of a sparkly emerald backdrop, he bends his knees and
holds out his hands, which are covered in huge faux-diamond rings. He completes his
boxer stance by forming his bejeweled hands into fists and sneering at
The former leader of the pioneering '80s New York rap crew Ultramagnetic
MCs is best known for supplying the sampled chorus to electronic rockers Prodigy's
1997 hit, "Smack My Bitch Up." Keith later went on to adopt the persona of Dr. Octagon
for his critically acclaimed 1997 album, Dr. Octagonecologyst. But he's now
dropped the scrubs in favor of a more retro-futuristic look.
"That's great. That's really great," says photographer F. Scott Schafer, who has shot
bands ranging from veteran rockers Aerosmith to such relative newcomers as thrash-rap
ensemble Limp Bizkit.
Kool Keith's neon-green, "Black Elvis" ensemble is the last outfit of the day, following
seven hours of costume and set changes for a photo shoot for the cover of his upcoming
album, Black Elvis/Lost In Space (June 1). Many of the looks jumble together
several different references. One such get-up, for instance, offers a sporty Black Elvis, as
Kool Keith wears his wig and glasses along with a red jersey shirt, lime-green shorts, shin
guards and soccer shoes.
"I look like I'm playing soccer, but I'll go like this and play basketball," Kool Keith (born
Keith Thornton) says, while wearing that costume during a break. "I'll go anywhere and
do what I want to do. I can wear a soccer outfit and go play some basketball. Who says I
can't play baseball like this?
"I'm the opposite guy who's gonna make it happen," he continues. "I'll make red go with
But there's something to make clear -- the subject before the camera on this day isn't
exactly Kool Keith -- the notoriously eccentric, old-school MC. The rapper is here at a
West Los Angeles studio as his alter ego: the Black Elvis.
The Black Elvis character is all part of the performer's well-established knack for
reinvention, tweaking images and transforming personae, says Kool Keith.
The premise of the shoot is to capture both sides of the double-concept album by portraying
Kool Keith as his new persona, based on the King of Rock, in outer-space surroundings
that reflect the interstellar theme.
"The two kind of collide in the perfect way because they both have these futuristic concepts
attached to them, " Schafer says later. "[Kool] Keith's very visual, very theatrical -- he
plays a good character, and the image he portrays looks very sophisticated and powerful."
But Kool Keith, currently based in Los Angeles, feels being Black Elvis takes his
chameleon tendencies a step further -- in a direction that can't be co-opted by other rappers
who, he claims, ripped him off in the past. "I came up with the Black Elvis thing after a
bunch of my images was stolen in the music industry," he says. "I figured, for my past,
Kool Keith being a legend, I might as well wear an Elvis wig. It's more like I'm living up
to myself now, so I might as well be Black Elvis. I just started wearing this wig and no
one's gonna try to copy that."
Kool Keith's Black Elvis character follows numerous other aliases and alter egos --
including Sinister 6000, Clean Man, Mr. Gerbick, Willie Biggs and, more recently, Dr.
Octagon. The latter persona involved a collaboration with San Francisco DJ Dan "The
Automator" Nakamura and spawned the album Dr. Octagonecologyst, featuring the
track "Bear Witness" (RealAudio excerpt).
Kool Keith says he decided to "kill" Dr. Octagon after "the whole circumference of the
project became a nightmare," but an equally significant explanation was his need to move
on. "I'm against the norm," he says. "I get off on being different."
As the follow-up to his 1997 solo album, Sex Style, the 20-song
Black Elvis/Lost In Space delivers hip-hop that is alternately
danceable, rockable, soulful and experimental. Subjects range from love
("Super Galactic"), to individuality in the rap game ("I Don't Play"), to
combat ("Rockets on the Battlefield").
For Black Elvis, Kool Keith had even more creative control than on his previous
recordings. "All the other albums -- the Dr. Octagon thing, the Kool Keith solo joint [Sex Style] and
even the Ultramagnetics -- were just other people's things that I rapped on," he had said
previously, referring to the producers who laid down the beats for those albums -- the
Automator, Kut Masta Kurt and Ced Gee. "This [new album] is all me. I did the drum
programming, a little keyboards, almost everything. It's all Black Elvis."
"Black Elvis is going to be like nothing you've heard from Kool Keith before," the
"Something different had to happen -- it's all too monotonous.
I don't want to make a living rapping over old stuff that people have done
before. I want to make records that are brand new with time," Kool Keith said.
The photography crew has set up the backdrop for the next shoot, and Kool Keith is called
in for his costume change. He gets up and moves to his dressing room, where he changes
into a silver space suit and helmet.
When he's fully dressed, he practices his poses in the mirror, moving from one to another
in robotic movements, all the while maintaining a satisfied smirk.
"It's so nice to work with someone who likes to be a star," stylist Estee Ochoa says
"All right, Dr. Octagon, let's go," jokes Schafer, calling out from the next room.
But in comes the Black Elvis.