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Kool Keith and Nas: Missing tracks

By Alex Pappademas

AUGUST 16, 1999:  On "Release Date," Kool Keith flips one of his many wigs. Keith -- who's calling himself "The Original Black Elvis" this week -- wrote the song for his major-label debut, Lost in Space/Black Elvis (Red Ink/Columbia). It turned up on promo copies of the record -- that's where I heard it -- but was axed before the disc landed in stores.

In the lyrics, Keith rages against his street team, snapping, "No rock groups, I'm not alternative/Black, yes I'm charcoal/Want my posters hangin' up over Roscoe's/Big as the Beastie Boys." Then he does a Bill Clinton backflip: "Black networks want me to rent a Benz, sport more whips/Show my face and act hard/Perpetrate and act large/Versace shirt down with top hats like a ghetto clown."

It's the outré rapper's dilemma laid out in 12 lines: sell crazy or dumb down. Play ball with the terminally uncool rap mainstream or be a cartoon brother from another (Digable) planet and spend your career cracking up white college-radio DJs without ever cracking BET. The off-key Casio violin on the chorus is Keith throwing his hands up, like, "These are my options?" The hook, a falsetto "How you feel, bay-bay?" (addressed to the already flummoxed listening audience, or the men in Keith's mirror), is Ol' Dirty Bastard doing Al Green on his bail bondsman's voice mail.

The song spins out into a celeb-studded freak scene, as if the black King had dozed off reading InStyle on the john. Keith drinks brew with Steven Spielberg! He cruises Beverly Hills with Stephanie Mills and ropes the wind with Garth Brooks!

(Meanwhile, Brooks -- no joke! -- has pulled a Kool Keith of his own, assuming a fictional identity to record In the Life of Chris Gaines. The "Gaines" album drops September 28; there's already a video, for the Tracy "Cougar" Chapman-ish single "Lost in You," in VH-1 rotation, and Gaines's "Behind the Music" doc -- mix-and-matching biographical details borrowed from Paul McCartney and Keith fave Kurt Cobain -- is in the works. It's Wal-Mart imitating art. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing -- if Garth's Dr. Folk-rock-tagon foray leads him to don a rubber pompadour and tell interviewers stuff like "Man, I could throw a 100-pound walrus through the wall," I'll definitely start watching more TNN.)

I'm not sure why the famously unpredictable Keith nixed "Release Date." Like "Leave Me Alone," the Joe Pesci-esque "How the fuck am I funny?" sucker punch buried near the end of Keith's mid-'99 indie album First Come First Served, the confessional insight of "Release Date" could have lent the weak-in-the-beats Elvis some much-needed context.

This stuff keeps happening. Review copies of Nas's recent I Am: The Autobiography (Sony Music) featured songs like "Poppa Was a Player," on which Nas remembers catching his jazz-musician dad snorting coke and screwing around. Dad promises to buy his silence with toys, then tells him, "Little me, what's in you's inside me." It sounds like a curse.

I got chills, but when I Am went on sale, "Poppa" was missing, as were several other tracks from the promo version. Grousing about "Internet bootlegging," Nas's camp had given the album a radical last-minute overhaul. Most of the songs reviewers had praised for their visceral, personal storytelling had been shelved; the Nas of I Am was just another aloof ego-tripper. (The deleted tracks may turn up on Nastradamus, a cornily titled I Am "sequel" slated for November.)

Nas and Keith edit themselves, struggling to stymie bootleggers or worrying that they've said too much. But it's hard to keep a legacy tidy -- just ask Tupac Shakur. Hip-hop's back-catalogue champ, 'Pac is said to have left behind as many as 700 finished songs. Three years after he was gunned down in Las Vegas, he has a radio hit (the Bruce Hornsby-sampling "Changes") and yet another album of new material, Still I Rise (Interscope), on deck. But that's only the beginning -- on dozens of pirated albums sold on tape and CD, at swap meets or over the Web, 'Pac's body of work has developed an unruly, sprawling afterlife. Often worlds away from the upbeat stuff Interscope's been stingily doling out, "unofficial" albums like The Resurrection, The Music Lives On, Thugs Live 4Ever, and I Ain't Dead capture every aspect of Shakur's profound, nasty discography -- the prayers for peace, the name-naming Biggie disses, the St. Ides commercials.

Think about it for a minute. In life, Tupac enjoyed numerous comebacks, and he recorded songs that creepily foreshadowed his doom. His death is shrouded in conspiracy theory and tabloid speculation. He continues to put out successful albums from beyond the grave. His vault stuff frequently feels fresher than his "real" releases, which suffered from way too much managerial input. And many of his fans, unfazed by autopsy photos and police reports, won't accept that he's gone. Maybe the real black Elvis has already left the building.

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