Kool Keith Transforms Into 'Black Elvis' For New LP

Former Ultramagnetic MCs rapper portrays futuristic alter ego in photo shoot for cover of upcoming album.

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 camera.

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

purple."

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

rapper promises.

"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

admiringly.

"All right, Dr. Octagon, let's go," jokes Schafer, calling out from the next room.

But in comes the Black Elvis.