Jupiter-born freakstyle physician Dr. Octagon was the product of one of most fruitful and shortest-lived collaborations in hip-hop history, between polymorphic emcee "Kool" Keith Thornton, West Coast producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, and turntablist and Invisibl Skratch Piklz member DJ Qbert. After Nakamura received a tape of two tracks featuring new Keith persona "Dr. Octagon," he hired the emcee to appear on a quickie album to be released on underground San Francisco imprint Bulk Recordings. The vocals were recorded over the course of four days and Nakamura's post-production took two months, with DJ Qbert being brought on to provide his inimitable scratchwork.
First released in 1996, the eponymously named "Dr. Octagon" took the underground hip-hop scene by storm; the good doctor's virtuosic free-association and effortless juxtaposition of medical, pornographic, and science-fiction motifs garnered accolades from both hip-hop clerisy and the mainstream music press while spawning a host of imitators (whom Keith would deride in subsequent albums). UK-based Mo'Wax Records released the album in Europe later that year, also releasing an instrumental version ("The Instrumentalyst: Octagon Beats"). The album was acquired and re-released as "Dr. Octagon[ecologyst]" in 1997 by Geffen sublabel Dreamworks; this version excluded tracks "On Production," "Biology 101," "Earth People remix," and the indispensable introduction to "Halfsharkalligatorhalfman" while adding "Real Raw," "Blue Flowers Remix," and "1977."
What had begun as a one-off release was threatening to become a crossover smash, but Keith was disenchanted with his new fanbase of "corny white guys," "alternative hippies," and "skateboard kids." After infamously disappearing from scheduled Lollapalooza appearances, Keith (as new alter-ego Dr. Dooom) killed off Octagon in 1999. Reportedly frustrated by Keith's unreliability, Nakamura has ruled out any future collaborations with the eccentric Thornton, apparently ensuring that the union of three of hip-hop's seminal talents will remain forever sui generis.
The surface appeal of Dr. Octagon is undoubtedly the stylistic combination of Nakamura's superlative mixing and Qbert's scratch-mastery with the plain old weirdness of Thorton's inventive lyrics. Listeners jaded by the banal self-aggrandizements of lesser emcees will be delighted by the "paramedic fetus of the East's" boasting that he "got cosmophonic: / press a button, change my face. / You recognize, so what? I turn invisible. / Make myself clear, reappear to your visual." Similarly, the incongruous jingling of sleigh bells underlying "3000" is a soothing balm to ears assaulted by the endless sample recycling of hack producers. The bizarre medically themed interludes are alternately humorous, pornographic, and genuinely chilling (or all three at once), and the Automator's sampling of Pachelbel's Canon in D while Dr. Octagon advertises his rectal rebuilding and saliva-gland relocation services is a bona fide coup.
Listeners dismissing the album as sonically interesting fluff, however, are missing out on the album's true majesty. Keith's maunderings aren't just crazy-talk; Dr. Octagon's brilliance is in capturing and then drastically reconfiguring the gestalt of an era ruled by invasive medicine and dehumanizing technology. By literalizing the alienation of living in the shadow of inscrutable forces, Dr. Octagon recasts the horrors of modernity in terms of limitless personal agency. Being injected with radioactive dyes might fill an ordinary human being with dread, but Dr. Octagon delights in letting us watch his brain glow "five colors: yellow, black and red and green, purple." Instead of fearing the uncontrolled electronic diffusion of our identities, Dr. Octagon takes infectious joy in sending himself to Earth through the fax machine.
In that light, the most unfortunate omission from the Dreamworks rerelease is Biology 101, in which Dr. Octagon reveals his ultimate aims. The track contains his pseudo-scientific stream-of-consciousness at its most dense, but in its hooks the cogency of reductive systems of knowledge is called into question. "Can science achieve a unified theory of complex systems?" His answer is noncommital: "Maybe so." But science, he reminds us, is not a monolithic knowledge, and in the end its taxonomies can't describe the nature of something as basic as water: "Is H20 a gas or a liquid? Perhaps concepts could not explain."
Most tellingly, Dr. Octagon insists on an acknowledgement of emergent properties "Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry" suggesting that we transcend what fails to contain our experience. Ultimately, his allegiances are not to abstractions but to things closer to the bone. "Touch my delicate instrument," he implores us, and the pornographic subversion of the technical jargon tells us where his final sympathies lie. For Dr. Octagon, then, medicine and technology then are not ends unto themselves but tools of liberation. In Dr. Octagon's vision of the year 3000, surgery is still ghastly and science is completely out of control, but instead of being oppressed by the demons we have unleashed, we too are set radically, dizzyingly free.
- Bemis, Alec Hanley. "Dr. Kool's Pop Quiz." L.A. Weekly, December 8, 2000.
- Kool Keith Discography, HipHopSite.com.