In the spring of 1996, an interstellar gynecologist with dubious medical credentials docked on Earth and announced himself to polite hip-hop society. Going by the professional name Dr. Octagon, the deviant medic was an alias of Kool Keith, a maverick whose science-fiction-inspired lyrical abstractions sprang from his formative years as a lead force in the Ultramagnetic MCs during hip-hop’s late 80s golden era. Backed by producer Dan The Automator’s space opera soundscapes and embellished by turntable sorcerer DJ QBert’s scratches, Dr. Octagonecologyst became one of hip-hop’s finest exercises in exploring the creative potential of the persona.
“My skin is green and silver, forehead looking mean/ Astronauts get played, tough like the ukulele/ As I move in rockets, overriding levels/ Nothing’s aware, same data, same system,” raps Keith by way of introduction on the agenda-setting “Earth People.” Backed by twisting lines of Automator’s wormy synths, Keith proceeds to employ “supersonic bionic robot voodoo power” and practice a brand of mutant medicine that takes in non-typical conditions including moosebumps, rectal rebuilding, and a curious case of chimpanzee acne. (Naturally, at one point a horse gallivants through the hospital.)
Presiding over the “church of the operating room,” on “Blue Flowers” Dr. Octagon openly outlines a set of strange professional priorities: “With blood pouring down your mouth/ I come prepared with the white suit and stethoscope/ Listen to your heartbeat/ Delete! Beep, beep, beep/ Your insurance is high, but my price is cheap.” Meanwhile, Automator’s blend of rustling drums and a crawling violin line play the role of a particularly unnerving waiting room jingle. Fittingly, the song ends with Qbert’s scratches revealing themselves to be a petrified human cry for help.
Kool Keith was already ready with a skewed turn of phrase, but Automator’s production on Dr. Octagonecologyst animates the MC’s lyrical eccentrics. Armed with nuclear LinnDrums and megasonic bass, Automator musters up a distinctly retro sci-fi atmosphere with grand sweeps of celestial synths and lonesome strings. Dr. Octagon’s realm is futuristic, but it isn’t slick – Keith’s eccentric experiments take place in dimly lit operating rooms decorated with blood splatters and crusted bodily fluids.
In a hip-hop year that would ultimately be defined in mainstream pop culture by Jay-Z’s hustler’s playbook Reasonable Doubt, the pop ambitions of The Fugees’ The Score, and 2Pac’s personal All Eyez On Me, Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon was strictly outsider stuff. Appropriately, a version of the album was released in the United Kingdom on James Lavelle’s influential trip-hop label Mo Wax, nodding to the album’s leftfield appeal. But gleefully going against the grain has always been Kool Keith’s motivation and the charm of his music – even if, in this case, it means listening to the details of a particularly grisly case of bees around the rectum.
In celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, uDiscover Music is publishing 50 album reviews throughout 2023 that highlight the breadth and depth of the genre. The Hip-Hop 50 logo was designed by Eric Haze, the mind behind iconic graphics for EPMD and LL Cool J.