By even the most conservative measures, 1996 was a standard-setting year for hip-hop. Over the course of those 12 months, the Fugees released The Score, Jay Z released Reasonable Doubt, De La Soul dropped Stakes is High, and the Roots made a name for themselves with illadelph halflife.
Yet no other rap LP released that year had the same impact on modern music quite like the first LP by Dr. Octagon. Released May 7th, 1996, it marked the next phase in the career of “Kool” Keith Thornton, a key member of The Ultramagnetic MC’s, who emerged from the Bronx new school rap scene in the mid ’80s alongside Boogie Down Productions and Slick Rick (albeit by way of England). The group’s utilization of chopped beats, early James Brown samples, abstract lyrical techniques, and unorthodox vocal patterns helped the Ultra Mags stand far above the competition during rap’s “Golden Age.”
But the tongue-twisting pseudoscience Kool Keith was spitting on such classic albums as Critical Beatdown and The Four Horsemen was taken to a whole new plane when he started writing for his first proper solo album under the alias Dr. Octagon. On Dr. Octagonecologyst, Keith’s writing took a sharp left turn into raw, metaphysical intelligence and vulgarity. The resulting work is a fever dream of “sci-fi, medical and sex,” as Keith himself describes it, punctuated by the rapper’s championship-caliber combination of quixotic cadence and Oxford-level lyricism.
Providing the progressive, otherworldly sonic bedrock for the album was producer Dan the Automator and legendary turntablist DJ QBert of the San Francisco turntable crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz, along with longtime Kool Keith associate KutMasta Kurt. They proved the perfect foil for the psychedelic lyrics delivered by Keith and his associate Sir Menelik, a wild sprawl of non-sequiturs about psychedelic lotuses (“Blue Flowers”), Autechre shoutouts (“No Awareness”), intros cut with dialogue from the 1994 cult comedy Cabin Boy (“halfsharkalligatorhalfman”) and odd alter egos with names like Mr. Gerbik and Chewbacca Uncircumsized.
Never one to kowtow to the code of New York City hip-hop parameters, Keith was one of the few rappers who traveled freely between both coasts— this during a time of great unrest that would ultimately claim the lives of Pac and Biggie. It was in the Bay Area where he linked up with Automator and QBert, forming a hip-hop power trio that not only defied, but transcended intracontinental beef. Shortly after Dr. Octagynecologist, Kool Keith played a role in nurturing the talent-rich underground hip-hop scene in New York City during the mid-to-late ‘90s, co-hosting the first volume of Rawkus Records’ groundbreaking series The Lyricist Lounge.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, we spoke with QBert and Keith about the creation and impact of the Dr. Octagon album, as well as a host of musicians who were inspired by this masterpiece of a mad scientist space rap opera that helped to change the course of underground hip-hop.
DJ QBert: Being a DJ in the late ’80s, I would hear a lot of Ultramagnetic MC’s music. I would listen to them and be like, ‘Damn, this is pretty insane!’ Every time that Keith came on, he had such a unique style that was an octave over everyone else in the group. He was so funny on those albums. When I was young, I always thought New York was the mecca of music, and I would go there to study music and watch all these bands play. And it was intense; they definitely don’t fuck around in New York. It really helped me learn how to be in a zone—like how Jimi Hendrix plays as if he’s possessed. I just let myself go and let the music take over.
Kool Keith: New York City was cool at the time, but I wasn’t too impressed. It seemed a lot of cities stayed within the realms of their local sound. But where other cities evolved into doing other shit, in New York, we stayed the same. It seemed like the city was never one to let a style go. We got too conformed musically. Where the other places might have gotten a little more experimental and willing to take chances, New York got so comfortable being a b-boy that they couldn’t deal. From the times of the 808 and Run-DMC, it seemed like you couldn’t get beyond the use of those basic hip-hop drums, which gave you only a limited window to work in. It was hindering New York.
Plus, we were kind of stuck writing the same kind of stories, the same kind of rhymes. New York got too local, subject-wise. Rappers weren’t rapping about traveling to different places; everybody was talking about local issues within a mile radius of their block. Maybe even just a half a mile from their house. It was always the same thing about ‘around their way’ and ‘on their street.’ That got me kind of bored. Everyone had the same image, the same ballcap and Carhartt jacket. It was like New York was creating these urban robots. It got so monotonous, which is why New York took a big fall in the ’00s. Image-wise, the South beat us to a lot of things. They started putting on jewelry and rocking different colors, making themselves into stars. I remember seeing Goodie Mob shopping here in the city once, and they were fixing up with different colors and stuff. Meanwhile, in New York everybody was basing themselves on Jay-Z, with the Timberland boots and the Yankees ballcap. But Jay-Z could get into a Maybach with Timberlands and a Yankee cap. These other dudes who were trying to go for that were looking like just regular T-shirt motherfuckers. Jay-Z could pull off making that image look very classy, but that other dude doesn’t have a Maybach.
Meanwhile, the South had those cars with the big rims and the candy paint, they became more fascinating and interesting so the magazines and the publications began making them stars. They had an image with the clothes and the jewelry, looking like the Ohio Players or something. They were sugarfootin’ the game, and became individual, recognizable characters. But in the city, with everyone wearing that simple blue Yankee hat, everything was toned into one look. That black-on-black everything was some street corner hood shit. And nowadays, the artist looks like the crowd.
Colin Langenus (frontman for The USA Is A Monster, The Colin L. Orchestra): Somehow, I missed Ultramagnetic MC’s. Me and my buddy got the Dr. Octagon LP right when it came out. I listened to it constantly. It was everywhere. At that time, I wasn’t listening to much rap. But this record, both the futuristic beats and the outer space rhymes, totally spoke my language.
Hasan Atiq (from electronic hip-hop act ḂАЅМᾺLА): When Dr. Octagon came out, it was a very interesting and productive time in California for indie hip-hop. I was moving a project called USEPHASAN, which featured production from POMO of Blendcrafters. We recorded the track “BADASBROTHERS” in KutMasta Kurt’s bathroom in Santa Monica. At the time, he mentioned working with Kool Keith on a new album. It caught my attention, due to the fact that we were bumping the Four Horsemen LP all of ’94 and ’95 while recording in L.A.
Kool Keith: I met Dan the Automator through KutMasta Kurt. Dan would come down to Kurt’s house to help him troubleshoot things that were going wrong with his equipment. He would show Kurt different things, and help him with stuff he was having trouble trying to figure out on his own. Automator was a genius with hooking that stuff up. I wound up meeting Automator at Kurt’s house. But how he and I got to talking about Dr. Octagon goes like this: Me and Kurt would go to the supermarket and share the same basket. Kurt would buy stuff like Stella D’oro bread and all this expensive shit, while I’m buying Chips Ahoy!, frozen pizzas and Honeycombs. So when I looked at my basket, I saw all this expensive stuff, and the bill would come to like $65, yet we were still chipping in half and half, even though I only got, like, five dollars’ worth of stuff.
One time, we were with Automator, and Kurt actually got mad because I had stopped chipping in. He left us out in the street with the shopping cart. So me and Automator had to walk back with our groceries down the street, people are greeting us like, ‘What’s goin’ on, Keith!’ Through that, me and Automator became friends, and he told me to come out to the Bay Area to record. That’s how we started Dr. Octagon. By taking the car and leaving us to push that shopping cart down the street, Kurt brought me and Automator closer together.
DJ QBert: Dan the Automator put the whole thing together, and asked me, ‘Q, can you scratch on this new album I’m working on?’ He told me it was going to be an album about an outer space gynecologist, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s really different.’ [laughs] When Keith was in the studio, he’d usually want to go out and go shopping. So we’d go with him and take him shopping. And then he’d go, ‘OK, I want to check out all the porn stores and all the shoe stores.’ So that’s pretty much what we did all night long was take him out for sneaks and videos [laughs].
Kool Keith: Automator at the time was doing beats in the Bay Area. We recorded the album at Automator’s house in San Francisco. He had a studio upstairs in his attic. It was cool, it was nice and private. We could just crawl up in the attic and do our thing without bothering anybody. He was working in the studio with that 440 drum machine. He was the first person I ever got to see use it. The funny thing is, I didn’t really have any of those concepts in mind before I went up into that studio and wrote out those songs with a pen and pad while listening to Automator’s beats. It was such a brand new sound—something really different he and QBert were doing in their own way. Automator has always made distinctive records that were perfect for someone like myself to rap on.
Ches Smith: Kool Keith’s phrasing was really surprising—how he’d make his entrances, and how he’d leave things hanging: “Yellow black and red and green…purple.” He phrased over barlines in a manner similar to a jazz musician or Haitian Vodou drummer. On “3000,” his flow could be an Anthony Braxton composition, rhythmically speaking, with its free use of polyrhythm and odd subdivisions of the beat. Or a Haitian lead drummer playing Petwo, compressing and expanding otherwise basic rhythms to give them energy. Then, a second later, he is coming at you with a traditional deep funk pocket. I hadn’t heard rhymes in that way before. There are plenty of cosmic references in the African diaspora—Sun Ra, Haitian Vodou, Parliament. But a concept album in hip-hop, with that level of fucked-up humor was new to me. It made sense of the absurd, and was hilarious. The production tied it together, making the whole thing a complete statement.
Aesop Rock: Kool Keith had been on my radar for a long time due to Ultra Mag being amazing. In ’96, I was in college in Boston, and my friends and I always picked up new hip-hop vinyl and stuff of that nature. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I remember it was a record that everyone just kept asking, “Have you heard this thing?” People didn’t even know how to describe it.
Kool Keith: I made up [the character] Mr. Gerbik on the spot. “Halfsharkalligatorhalfman” was the last song we recorded for the album, so by that point, I was really starting to get wild in what I was coming up with—some real animated shit. By the time we were wrapping up Dr. Octagon, I had already dove into another project, and the start of that album was supposed to be the end of Octagon with Mr. Gerbik.
DJ QBert: Whenever I listen to it now, all I can think of is, “Man, Kool Keith had some amazing lyrics on here.” Recording in the studio with Dr. Octagon was like being on a space ship with Captain Blowfly, decorated by a genie from an alternate reality of the ’60s—complete with purple and green women slithering on poles to psychedelic beats from the future. I even used a wah-wah pedal for one track. That’s what we were going for with Octagon. The root of it was to create an album for people to listen to while taking mushrooms or acid.
Kool Keith: A lot of people used to say I write rhymes like I was on drugs. And there were people at my shows who would hand me drugs. I would always ask them, “Why are you handing me these drugs?” And they’d be like, “Well, you write like you’re on acid and pills and stuff!” I would always tell them, “I write this stuff naturally.” So they would be shocked that I turned down the drugs, even though the way I rapped made them feel like they had to be all PCP’d up to get to my level. That’s why a lot of rappers can’t really handle my dimensions, because I’ll write some wild shit in my verses regardless. I’m not on drugs writing my shit, but I don’t wanna kill that fantasy for anybody who thinks I’m, like, Timothy Leary with a pen. If they want to believe I’m taking a mushroom while I’m rapping on “Blue Flowers,” they could. But I don’t need a mushroom to write the way I write.
L’Orange: As a listener, I’ve always craved originality. From the very first track, the production on the album shows what kind of innovation is possible, while still approaching the craft from a traditional method. And, of course, Kool Keith’s rhymes are as absurd as they are familiar. The album is beautiful and grotesque, ludicrous and lucid. The album is flowers growing on a grave. What Dr. Octagon taught us is that nothing is sacred, and rareness is genius.
Kool Keith: There was a big gap of time between The Four Horsemen and Octagon, and a lot of magazines tore me down and said I fell off, and they was all about that new person who was supposed to take my spot. So I read all that press, which made it seem like it was over for me. When Octagon came out, that shit revived my name and shut up my critics. If I didn’t do Octagon, I don’t think I would have stayed in the business. It was like a champion regaining his belt after being taken out of the boxing federation. Dr. Octagon renewed my license to rap. I had to gain my throne back—and this was at the time when Rawkus was hot, and cats like Talib Kweli and Company Flow were on the come-up. I felt like the captain of the underground again. Nobody could touch me with an 80-foot pole.
Mr. Lif: Once I heard that record, I realized that it combined damn near all the things I love. I’m a big time horror flick fan, so the Dr. Octagon character totally appealed to me with his unorthodox practices and absolutely reckless surgical procedures. The original “Earth People,” with that granular, dragging-your-face-over-sandpaper beat, had me sold.
Hasan Atiq: Dr. Octagon became a cornerstone to the growing underground indie hip-hop movement that was blossoming on the west coast at that time. Dan’s Bulk Recordings, and the fact that he would launch 75 Ark shortly thereafter in the Bay Area, helped bridge the gap between LA and The Bay, creating a major pathway that was a distinct and legitimate industry for us to follow.
Aesop Rock: You could tell on first listen that it was just one of those projects where the beats and rhymes were coming together perfectly to elevate the entire thing. 1 + 1 = 3. I think the timing was perfect. It happened when this new, indie hip-hop movement was bubbling, and I think for the kinda people attracted to that scene, Keith was rap royalty already. I mean, the project is kinda insane, and it was line after line after line of, “This dude is on some shit!” I wasn’t familiar with Automator at the time, and he just served up such a strong debut that it felt special. It really felt like the entire thing was something that we hadn’t seen before.
Kool Keith: It was an album that crossed over to alternative, rock, techno, experimental music, college radio, metal. It didn’t have to have the right tempo, it didn’t have to be trendy. It didn’t have to be 100 bpm, like that music that was coming out back then. It didn’t have to be electronic, like everybody trying to rap over—what’s that shit called, ADP? Oh, EDM!—I didn’t have to jump on EDM or dubstep or trap with that first Octagon. That album was itself. I didn’t have to be claiming some other genre of music just to make it. But the EDM people love that album! I didn’t have to be on one genre. We discombobulated heads, because we defied category.
Aesop Rock: I think the major takeaway from a project like that was to just be yourself. Kool Keith has always been a dude that just does him. There is no other, no compromising. He wore his peculiarity on his sleeve, and had the skill set of a seasoned NY rhyme vets to back it all up. Rap can get stiff, and people put such rigid rules on what is even acceptable. That whole era was birthing rap projects that really pushed what we even knew was doable. Dr. Octagon was certainly at the forefront of that.
Colin Langenus: This record was the next logical progression for psychedelic folks who grew up on the Butthole Surfers and Yo! MTV Raps. Sun Ra, world music, Killdozer, and Dr. Octagon. It all made sense, yet was totally next level mind expanding.
L’Orange: While current music becomes more and more produced, the content has started to lean towards a kind of post-modern absurdity that was pioneered by Dr. Octagon. It’s an album that will always be preserved in history and stand out uniquely as an unaffected and unhindered piece of art. It’s the perfect synergy of creative flow, the perfect combination of insanity and brilliance.
Mr. Lif: For the cult followers of the Dr. Octagon project; those who truly appreciate what Kool Keith, Automator and QBert put together at that time; it is a point of reference that we can all return to whenever we need to be reminded of what’s raw.
Colin Langenus: This record could do great today. Thundercat and his LA scene around him can get silly and also have spiritual goals, pushing forward. It’s definitely a genre. It’s definitely underground. Real music. I file it under genius. And genius is always around.
DJ QBert: The Dr. Octagon album was like this little seed that grows, and after a while people get word of it and it becomes a cult following. It’s amazing. If it’s something different and new and it’s not commercial, of course it’s going to take a while. But if it’s true art, it will be known. It was a perfect little album, and I think great artists should do more of that kind of thing in hip-hop—get a good MC and a great producer and have someone do some scratching on it and make something truly beautiful instead of mucking around with all these other guys that are just doing something to follow the trends. More people should make something out of the ordinary. I’m really feeling the idea that all three of us should get together and do a true Part Two. It’s kind of getting to that. We’re all mentioning it to each other. I’m pretty sure something will happen one of these days.