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Dr Octagon Is 'A Freak Who Attracts Freaks'

12 April 2018 | 12:31 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"A couple of years ago he was like, 'Can we do this? Let's do this!' I was like, 'Are you serious?'"

The year 1996 was a watershed for hip hop - with Tupac Shakur killed in a drive-by. But, in 1996, Kool Keith (aka Keith Thornton) also unleashed his classic solo debut, Dr Octagon (subsequently retitled Dr Octagonecologyst). He'd introduce that outlandish cartoon persona Dr Octagon - a time-travelling extraterrestrial surgeon and gynaecologist from Jupiter with a licentious and murderous streak.

Now, over two decades later, Dr Octagon has dropped Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation - and it's a full group project with Thornton joined by Dr Octagonecologyst producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and champion turntablist Qbert. In fact, Nakamura is releasing Moosebumps through his own Bulk Recordings. And, with Thornton infamously elusive, the mild-mannered San Franciscan is conducting promotional interviews.

So why revive Dr Octagon? "Well, all these years, we've seen each other and we've worked together a little bit - but Keith is a free spirit," Nakamura rattles off. "A couple of years ago he was like, 'Can we do this? Let's do this!' I was like, 'Are you serious?' He's the loose cannon of the whole equation. [But] he was really serious about doing it. So I was like, 'Yeah, I'll do it' - and we did it. That's really the reason. We had talked about doing it a while back and he wasn't as dedicated to doing it at the time - and this time he was."

The Bronx-bred Thornton emerged in the '80s as a member of Ultramagnetic MCs. Drifting to California, the underground MC demoed early Dr Octagonecologyst tracks with KutMasta Kurt - but ultimately collaborated with Nakamura. The West Coaster had already served as an engineer on DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... Labouring out of his folks' basement, Nakamura was determined to develop a distinct sonic hybrid for Dr Octagonecologyst - psych-hop. But, lyrically, the album combined hip hop, comedy, porn, sci-fi and horror - Thornton pioneering rap's horrorcore genre.

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Dr Octagonecologyst found a receptive audience in alt-rock circles - and, here, it proved pivotal for Nakamura's studio career. "It was a record that musicians liked, so it got me the opportunity to meet and work with other musicians because it was like my calling card. It opened people's ears up." In 2001, Nakamura was lauded for co-producing Gorillaz' eponymous LP. He's continued to follow Damon Albarn's virtual band. "Some of it gets a little bit too dance and pop for me, but Damon's really very talented, so I listen to it for what it is in that respect." Nakamura himself conceived Handsome Boy Modeling School with Prince Paul to satirise America's upper-crust, issuing two cult albums. Then, he formed the supergroup Deltron 3030 with Del The Funky Homosapien and Kid Koala.

Meanwhile, Thornton announced a sequel to Dr Octagonecologyst, to be helmed by the unknown Fanatik J. Nonetheless, he fell out with both Fanatik and his new label, CMH Records. Thornton would brush off CMH with various vocal outtakes - which, oddly, the quasi-Australian collective One Watt Sun set to music. Thornton disowned 2006's ensuring LP The Return Of Dr Octagon. "I never listened to it," Nakamura says. "I mean, those guys, some label, tried to just make something happen. They actually tried to get me to mix it. I was like, 'I'm not mixing this - I'm having nothing to do with this.' So I just never listened to it."

Long ambivalent about Dr Octagon overshadowing his other endeavours, Thornton had a secondary alter-ego, Dr Dooom, bump him off on record - twice. Yet, in 2012, the MC hit Oz to perform Dr Octagonecologyst (and the next year cameoed as Dr Octagon on Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Mosquito). In 2017 Thornton, Nakamura and Qbert finally gigged together as Dr Octagon - their inaugural show in San Francisco.

In the press blurb for Moosebumps, Nakamura stresses that Dr Octagon is neither "retro" nor "contemporary": "It's always looked to the future." If anything, the album - prefaced by the epic single Octagon Octagon - sounds like a big beat reboot. However, Nakamura has advanced. After liaising extensively with bands, he understands guitars. "On the first record, there's a song called I'm Destructive, which is very punk. It's thrashing guitars, amped and stuff like that. But I was doing that out of exuberance, not experience. Whereas now, if I was using a guitar like that, I'd be doing it with some experience." He's more adept as an arranger, too. "I think part of what made [Dr Octagonecologyst] good was the experimentation - and that's something I'll never have again, because I've had the experiences. But, on the other side of it, I think I have a bigger tool belt so I can do more things. So it's a different time."

And it's a different time for hip hop. Nakamura is not only switched on with the scene, but also surprisingly benevolent about today's 'mumble rappers'. "I think it's funny because, all these years, I've always wanted more melody and more personality - like that's what I would always ask for. Now, these new rap records, there's a lot more melody and there's a lot more personality, but a lot of them tended to forget the skill part." He appreciates Migos, who've "redefined rap for a lot of people". Plus Nakamura praises Lil Uzi Vert, Future and Drake for coming up with hooky bangers - even if he's not necessarily into them. "I just think emo-rap's not my favourite thing." Still, Nakamura reckons that any rapper chasing "YouTube hits" is unlikely to endure. Of Lil Xan, he says, "I think the skill level's low".

Possibly the million dollar question is whether Keith's wacky Dr Octagon character belongs in the #MeToo era, post-Harvey Weinstein scandals, given he's seduced nurses and patients. "It is what it is," Nakamura says of the "pervy gynaecologist". "I guess the best way to put it is he's a freak who attracts freaks."

Dr Octagon will launch Moosebumps in New York with - OMG - a reunited Handsome Boy Modeling School as supports. Nakamura confirms that the duo are progressing with a third album (RZA has pleaded to guest). "We've started doing some stuff and we've been working out plans to make something. I think it's probably gonna be [an] end of the year or next year kind of thing, but maybe a little sooner. The feeling's good. We'll just see how it all ends up. It's gonna happen, though - hopefully."