Kool Keith Talks New Dr. Octagon Project 'Moosebumps' & Why the Group Finally Returned After 22 Years
In 1996, the weird, wondrous underground hip-hop concept album Dr. Octagonecologyst earned its creators -- rapper Kool Keith (Keith Matthew Thornton), producer Dan the Automator and DJ Qbert -- critical and fan kudos for its groundbreaking creativity, heaping adjectives including “startling” and “original” on its auteurs. From the hallucinogenic, haunting soundscape of “Blue Flowers” to bizarrely humorous asides about “cirrhosis of the eye” and horses in the hospital, Dr. Octagonecologyst was truly unique.
Then, 22 years of silence from the Doctor, although the talented trio behind Doc Oct continued to innovate and create individually. On April 6, via Dan the Automator’s Bulk Recordings, Octagon returned in a big way with Moosebumps: an exploration into modern day horripilation. Less about doctory subjects of the first album (“rectal rebuilding” anyone?) the new 11-song, 45-minute outing has, Keith explains, “sci-fi aggression” and the at-once comical and cool verbal spewings that made Octagon infamous. Musically, “Power of the World (S Curls)” boasts Prince-worthy guitar solos; “Operation Zero” serves up scratching that sounds like aliens talking; while “Flying Waterbed” is a sexy slow-jam that references Barney the dinosaur.
Kool Keith spoke to Billboard from his New York City home about this audacious aural exploration.
It’s been 22 years since Dr. Octagonecologyst came out. Has the chemistry among you, the Automator and QBert changed on this album?
It was the same. Nah, we like friends, socially, in our regular social lives. Me and Automater joke around, me and QBert can call each other and talk on the phone. It’s not like we just see each other for the music. I went to [Automator’s home in] San Francisco, we talked and decided to do an album. It’s not like I ever had any personal disagreements with him or Qbert. I do a lot of other projects. I kinda got tired of the monotonous music that was out there, so it was good that we got together to do something different again, you know what I’m saying? An album like the first [Octagon ] lasted; it was OK to take that kind of break.
Did you have lyrics to bring into the studio?
Nah. Automator made some beats, I just wrote the lyrics right there on the spot. I stayed in the house and wrote the jams. It was fun. I’m a fast writer, very professional. I’m very different from everyone. I don’t get writer’s block. Some people take a week to write one verse.
Moosebumps is 45 minutes long and covers everything from Ernest Borgnine to tampons. How does your mind work?
My mind ventures from TV shows in the '80s to whatever millennia we’re living in… to Buck Rogers to Star Trek. I’ve been a fan of shows like Bewitched, Hogan’s Heroes, any kind of wrestler, from Andre the Giant to John Cena. My prolific boundaries. Most of the music paints the picture. Whatever sound I hear in the track I start making the songs. A lot of beats are custom-made for me.
How has the growth in recording technology over the last two decades affected Octagon?
The Automater was definitely ahead of his time. The first Octagon album was definitely ahead of its time as far as engineering and sound and the equipment we were using. Maybe a lot of people are just catching up to the modernness of that first album. The sounds were were using on “Blue Flowers” is probably now. We took a lot of old things and mixed it on new boards, which made that first album so futuristic. The first album is basically still new. Moosebumps is just a topping on the cake.
That album is a bottle of wine or French cheese, it got better. It was always better. It’s still a classic bottle of wine that you don’t have to open. The first album--you buy an album to listen to, but you buy one to keep one in the plastic. When Tower Records was open, I bought the album from Sunset [in Los Angeles] with the sticker price on it, on vinyl. I still have mine in plastic. A lot of people still have the first Dr. Octagon in plastic.
How do you listen to music at home?
I listen... headphones into my phone. A lot of the kids now, the phone is everything. ... People downsize their lives into the computers, they took their hands off actually playing the synthesizers. Now people play their Mac Pro. The kid doesn’t really have a chance to be Billy Preston. Never sit behind an organ. Never play a xylophone like Roy Ayers. It’s kinda too cool and kinda a buzzkill because the kid doesn’t have an experience with an actual instrument.
Did you play an instrument in school?
I came up during the time when Slave was out, and Cameo and Brass Construction and Mandrill. All those bands inspired me to make records...to make the records that I made to this day and to stay in that lane musically. Went I went to [DeWitt] Clinton [high school in the Bronx], I went to play trumpet, but I never bought the mouthpiece. When I went to LA, I started going to Guitar Center, I bought a bass guitar, two basses and a lead guitar. I played bass on a lot of the Ultra [his mid-90s hip-hop group with Tim Dog] stuff. I played bass on “Blue Flowers.” Sometimes I play bass and don’t even put my name on the credits.
Do you give the Automator any guidance?
I think sometimes Automator looks at my lyrics like as a picture. A painting. I add the sketching, he adds some coloring to the lyrics. When I wrote “Girl Let me Touch You,” and others…. sometimes for me to rap, I would put the bass line on it first. Sometimes I’m driven by the bass. Later on, Automator might strip something off that I needed to write with. If you need a rug to float on, then he’ll pull it from under you after the song is finished. I think if my lyrics were on a screen they would have a lot of colors. I write very humorous.
A lot of guys write too serious—over-serious. The world needs a little bit of humor. Even me, growing up in the ghetto and living in urban life, my experience with ‘hood and project life; I didn't take that route to write. Everybody has that story; a hard-time life. Their mother was on this, they had a brother who sold drugs. It’s becoming a common story. They couldn’t see beyond that. I grew up in all that stuff. But my whole path of my writing was never based on the streets. My life was to give people a relaxation and total escape.
Hence songs like "Flying Waterbed" that has a video featuring Kung Fu and a tea service.
I choose to write in a way to give people’s minds a rest. We don’t have no escape. Once you get back to the radio, everyone has the same ‘life is hard, there’s gotta be a better tomorrow.’ To me, it’s overkill. You can walk outside and see the story everybody is going to tell. I didn’t want to add any more to the millions of “life is hard” records.
The world has changed since Dr. Octagonecologyst came out, with #MeToo and political correctness. Will this record offend anyone?
I wrote kinda pleasant this album. When I made the album, I told Automator, "I do want a record that appeals in a way for the ladies, somehow, also." I have a lot of sci-fi aggression, but I wanted to take this record in another direction. I think that record has a balance of both, for the man and lady also.
You had guests on the first album, including Kut Masta Kurt…
Kurt was involved in the first album. We have Paul [Banks] from Interpol. He’s a great friend. I did some stuff with him in the studio, he worked with the Rza. He’s a good person. Some extra frosting. Del [the Funky Homosapien] is on this record ["3030 Meets the Doc Pt. 1"]. He’s very talented, and to have Deltron... he’s one of the nicest people, a pleasant person to work with. Goosebumps is a totally great album. It’s a breath of fresh air.
Has age mellowed Dr. Octagon?
I figured Octagon was rap, then I figured it was real rock and super-high on a pedestal of being a rock star. Rap rock & roll, I crossed the lanes that no other rapper probably ever did in that first swing with Octagon. I think made it possible for rappers to be different and do rock….of course, Run D.M.C. was first in their time. I think I was first as far as [Octagonecologyst was] a whole album of being different. I did a whole album. I also reinvented myself on records quite a few times. Black Elvis, Matthew. I change with the times, that’s one thing a lot of rappers didn’t do or couldn’t do.
I was just thinking the other day, the genres of rap, there aren’t too many; when you look at radio, everything is limited. With Octagon, you have it’s own lane by itself. It doesn’t depend on a genre; it’s its own genre. It’s a piece of pie that everybody can take from the outside. It’s not locked in. All kinds of people can get with Octagon. It’s not labeled into punk rock, trap, old school, gangsta. It has its own identity. It’s distinctive. The hardest thing to do in the music industry right now is to be distinctive.
Octagon going out to perform live is brand-new.
We’re touring for the first time. Chicago, Baltimore, San Fran, Los Angeles, all the shows were big. I’m glad I did the Octagon thing live. People claimed I was lip synching for years, so I’m glad I got to do a lot of live different things to show people. People thought I never knew my lyrics, I would never do “Blue Flowers” without the TV track, but sometimes I like the TV track. Sometimes. But I do live shows and really rip them, so people never bother me no more.
Sometimes I like the vocals to let me know where I’m at on stage; a word coming in sometime. I wrote a lot of songs in my life. Songs I record every day and never put out. My recording rate is high. I do 10 or 20, 30 songs a month. Some people make an album just for the quota: ‘OK, I have to make 12 songs to turn into Clive Davis this week.’ I don’t do that theory. I record for my inner self. They’re picking the hottest person at the time to be on their track. Octagon--we don’t have a theory to try to be hot. It’s just natural. It’s not like, OK, we’ll watch the Grammy’s: ‘they won five Grammy’s, let’s use that person and get a quick feature right now.’
I don’t want to crowd people out with the negative stuff. I don’t need to write about when I give money to homeless people. There’s a lot of hypocrisy, and I’ll add my two cents. You walk past these liquor stores and you see a lot of these guys on posters, advertising all kinds of wine and liquors. Rappers and stuff. They be the same guys trying to do political movement songs. How can you, when your picture is hanging in the liquor store? You’re holding up Cisco, then Black History Month you want to make part of the record?! I walk past the liquor store, see the posters, but next week you want to be Marcus Garvey, and ‘the black movement, killing our brothers on the corners.’ I don’t get it. That’s why I write what I like to write.