Introducing ‘Notes from Mr. Sandman‘ – a column slapping a spotlight on lyricists overlooked, under appreciated, or just plain criminally slept on. Or like a man named Nas once said, “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death.” Enter Mr. Sandman with what y’all missed while chasing the REM dragon; Photo: Bandcamp/Kool Keith

Of all the characters that have graced the pages of hip-hop lore no one has come close to matching the bizarre chemistry of Keith Matthew Thornton a.k.a Kool Keith (a.k.a. Dr. Octagon a.k.a. Black Elvis).

His style is undefinable, rooted in off-the-cuff antics; a methodology that embraces the nonsensical and abstract. Kool Keith’s contributions to rap is an oversight that suites his subterraneous state of mind, he is neither interested in or swayed by public opinion.

Keith’s lineage runs deep; as a member of the Ultramagnetic MC’s he had a front row seat to hip-hop’s inception into popular culture. Even then he was experimenting, expanding the borders of rap to ensure that he would never be boxed in. As a member of a group he shined, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that the Kool Keith universe was too big for one singular incarnation.

Dr. Octagon is an alter ego that allowed Keith to expand his vision to the furthest reaches of his imagination. It was an opportunity to distance himself from the Ultramagnetic identity, and start his own wild campaign. Instead of coming to the table with standard formulas he adopted the Dr. Octagon persona, a space/time traveling gynecologist with a penchant for medicine.

Keith understood that to embark on a mission of that magnitude he needed to have proper co-pilots which he found in Dan the Automator and DJ Qbert. Dan the Automator took Keith’s vision and brought it to life with a smattering of funk, soul and every odd piece of pop culture ephemera he could muster up, including dialogue from a sloppy porn flick. The final product, Dr. Octagonecologyst, is one of the most creative albums of the past 25 years. Keith took all the familiar themes in rap and burned theme with rocket fuel, using what he didn’t like about the culture to launch himself into a different galaxy.

Earth People” is the lead single. Automator blazes a synth-heavy runway for Dr. Octagon to take off, and it’s Kool Keith’s chance to shed away his previous identity and start anew: [LISTEN]

Earth People

When Kool Keith is not busy traversing the cosmos he’s laying out filthy raps under the alias Black Elvis. Black Elvis is just as insane as Dr. Octagon, but under the Black Elvis persona he breaks matters down in more practical ways. He leaves behind the wild abstractions and goes straight for the jugular. Black Elvis/Lost in Space was the first appearance of Black Elvis, and it left an indelible mark on the scene; clearly influencing labels like Def Jux and Rhymesayers.

Master of the Game” is the synthesis of Keith and Dr. Octagon. Roger Troutman can be heard in the background fumigating the scene while Keith stands at the forefront, talking smack and laying down ill verses with authority: [LISTEN]

Master of the Game

Keith is a workhorse; he’s released 25 albums in just as many years and each is a bugged-out carnival. His latest project Feature Magnetic is yet another journey through the mind of a madman. It’s heavy on the features, which is a testament to his ability to change with the times. For Keith, rap is more than just a job it’s an art, where money and fame have little bearing on how he conducts his affairs.

The level of creativity that Keith exhibits is off the charts, and few have characterized rap the way he has. He is an abstract, a future funk pioneer who has had the same impact on rap as George Clinton has had on funk. He may not be the most celebrated lyricist, but his contributions to the game shouldn’t be overlooked. He is an iconoclast who has reshaped the parameters of rap, a counterculture hero with the mind of a maverick.