Meredith Graves’ artist recommendation: “Kool Keith’s Black Elvis / Lost in Space came out in 1999, but I didn’t hear it until my junior year of college, almost a decade later. I had been studying English with fierce dedication for two years, and had just spent the summer away on my first US tour. I saw the West Coast for the first time. While in Portland, I met a friend of our singer, a commanding, elegant and funny financial dominatrix who couldn’t wait to tell us all about how she had recently been bumped into the ‘Top 8’ on Kool Keith’s Myspace. I recognized him from Ultramagnetic MCs and vowed I’d study his back catalog when I got home.
I returned to a semester that was heavy on James Joyce, Bataille and the Beats. Everything was semen and fireworks. And I keep my promises, so Kool Keith became the soundtrack to my academic exploration of texts that, while startlingly similar, paled in comparison to what he was doing on record. Black Elvis / Lost in Space was an elaborate, consumptive dream the likes of which could never have been conceived by the Beats of fifty years prior who, despite attempts to live fully in their own highly accessible fantasies of poverty and debauchery, couldn’t escape the limits of that line of sight, the open road that only went straight ahead of them. I was buried up to my neck in works written by men basking in the glory of their own supposed outsider status, their inversion of cultural norms. But nothing about these men or their work seemed to touch the heavens from which they supposedly sprang forth.
The themes presented by Keith, in contrast, began outside the limits of gravity and atmosphere. I understood that his rumored stay in the Bellevue asylum branded him not as crazy but as vulnerable, that his having been through the fire would have left him with less impetus to care how he was perceived. His self-imposed alienation from an unfair scene spoke, in otherworldly ways, to my experience at the time. He was fully free, and that combined with his disorienting, scansion-and-internal-rhyme-driven pacing placed him in my mind as an historical precursor to my only other reference points for the intelligent, mouthy, sign-driven rap I’d come to love — MF Doom and Busdriver, constituents of a great constellation with Black Elvis acting as polaris.
Keith, performing here as The Original Black Elvis and other notable alter-egos, was gone, lost in space even before the record begins: an introduction has him calling out the rappers of 1990s earth and their apparently confusing adherence to the conglomerate of social and capitalist practices that had piled up at the door of their genre over the previous decade. -Why?, he questions over and over and over, as if he can see them lined up in front of him, -Who are you?, as they stammer for answers that will never suit Black Elvis, who decides somewhere near the middle of the track to write them off as “the monsters of the original Mister Softee Ice Cream trucks,” at which point I really can see him turning on his heels like Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element and marching back to his cockpit, dignified and stubbornly strange. The open road and all its domestic mysteries had served only as a tarmac for his shuttle.
From then on, his eyes stay fixated on the stars. The dominant themes of science fiction, creative and intellectual superiority, and fucking that predated ‘Black Elvis’ on earlier records like Dr. Octagonecologyst come to full flower in songs like Livin’ Astro. The video for this (below), in typical Keith fashion, functions almost as a challenge to the music: what would be the adequate visual to accompany a song that covers so much ground, from Detroit to San Antonio all the way to Tokyo through ‘time and potential through instrumentals,’ a trip so fast it could only be made in some sort of extraterrestrial craft? Instead, his video is almost like an alien’s reinterpretation of the visual candy preferred by other rappers of the 1990s — various bright-colored characters dancing against an array of equally bright backgrounds, Black Elvis appearing in a plastic wig against a shifting green-screen grid, a moving version of the album art. It’s uncomfortable, as if made by someone from another planet, with no prior knowledge of music video as a genre. He appears as other aliases too — though silently, letting Black Elvis declare himself and act as narrator — including the fucking mind-blowingly incredible image of Light Blue Cop, a policeman wearing light blue from head to toe, with light-blue painted skin and a light blue flashlight. This iteration seems almost like a childhood imaginary friend — like, if you say anything bad to me, I’m going to call my friend Light Blue Cop.
The rest of the record is an outstanding achievement in terms of production, with interstellar beep-boop beats that barely contain Keith’s surreal, disjointed wordplay. Girls Don’t Like The Job is a highlight, a relatively slow jam painting a picture of Black Elvis as the handsome manager of what might be a bank, hiring and firing a rotating cast of secretaries, too busy having fun to take care of himself. We move through the intergalactic banking system to the cell phone store at the (sky?) mall on Clifton, where we meet the minimum wage pimp Cadillac Clifton Santiago. By the time we reach the relatively conservative, beat-adherent I Don’t Play, we’ve become accustomed to the overarching idea of Black Elvis, no longer requiring constant references to galaxies and robots to envision the world that surrounds the voice.
And like space itself, this record is truly bigger than what can be dreamed by the average human brain. At some point in his career, Carl Sagan asserted that “it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” Keith’s lyrics, however delusional they may seem at first listen, hold true to the idea that in order to play with a subject or practice, you must first have a comprehensive understanding of it. His complete disregard for the conventions of language on this record, from beginning to end, is completely confident. And no matter how far out the subject matter becomes, he instills that quality of confidence in his listeners; we’re along for the ride, we believe his depiction of the universe, even as he steers the ship inward into an unending, indefatigable darkness. He is committed to the universe being exactly as he sees and feels: “Every morning I wake up looking in the mirror. I am the original Black Elvis … I’m livin’ that life. I’m for real with this. That’s what I think about.”‘
About our guest author, Meredith Graves: To understand the genius of Meredith Graves and the sound coming from the band that she fronts, Perfect Pussy, all you need to hear is a few random moments of the mix from their debut EP,
I have lost all desire for feeling (below and on Bandcamp). Graves’ lyrics are buried and muffled, sounding like something between mocking jabs from underwater in your local YMCA swimming pool and cries for help emitting from a broken intercom at your local White Castle. Coupling obscured vocals with noisy guitars and drums is a dangerous dance, but Perfect Pussy pulls it off beautifully. The mix forces the listener to really listen. This isn’t music to cook by, to shop by, fold laundry by. This is get-yet–best-headphones-and-sit music (or, print out the lyrics to the EP here, and you’re free to mosh, but the headphones need to stay on). In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Graves credits Perfect Pussy for being “the nicest fucking band in punk,” but they also may be the smartest. From her recommendation of Kool Keith above, she mentions that she’s well read on the Beat poets, but lyrics like “I’m awake and awakening. I’m awake and I have died. I killed the parts of me that said that I know. I killed off all the parts that keep me awake,” prove that she’s is an accomplished poet in her own right. Perfect Pussy (which, by the way is made up of Ray McAndrew (guitar), Garrett Koloski (drums) and Greg Ambler (bass), outside of Graves on vocals) is gaining fans daily (thanks in part to the Pitchfork feature above and them making the 10 Best New Discoveries of CMJ List over at Rolling Stone). Now’s the perfect time to see them live and buy the debut EP. The collision of poetry and punk may never sound better.