Abe Beame wants you to consider to “The Infamous Prelude” before reading this.
It’s incredible that this was my first time going through Kool Keith’s 96 classic, Dr. Octagonecologyst. It arrived smack in the middle of my burgeoning love of underground hip hop. Sure, there was Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, P.E., all the obvious cultural touchstones for a New York Jew. But as an upstate product, there was also Necro and Cage, Non Phixion, The Bronx Science collective with Apathy, Celph Titled, Apani B and Louis Logic, the giants of Def Jux, Co Flow and Can Ox.
I even remember tenderly cradling Octagonecologyst one afternoon in a Wiz in the Bronx as an eager 13 year old. Yes, there used to be a variety of department stores that sold media in bulk and people used to pay for music. They were recorded on CDs and we would keep them in Case Logic books with pages and pages of square plastic sleeves and listen to them on Sony Disc Men. Back to the story — so there I was in the Wiz, staring at the booklet in its jewel case: a mash up of Ed Wood, Edgar Alan Poe and Hamlet anticipating a Banksy wheatpaste. Somehow, I never made the purchase.
What strikes me now, finally coming to Keith through a non Ultramagnetic avenue, is how much this album influenced many of my beloved early indie idols. There’s not only his union with The Automator, which eventually spawned the latter’s collaboration with Keith’s west coast counterpart, Del the Funkee Homosapien. There’s also traces on Madlib’s aesthetic, the reinvention of Zev Love X, the vague dystopian futurism that hung over the work of Def Jux and Non Phixion — the horndog sadistic weirdness that has long made the underground a natural home for societal malcontents.
That Keith was one of several architects in this movement is no less striking. This was a Bronx teenager who founded the Ultramagnetic MC’s in 1984 and gave the world Critical Beatdown four years later. Keith was born in 63, a relic of park rhyming and lunchroom ciphers. There was no precedent for such a violent left turn. Keith re-emerged as a solo artist under an assumed name with a fully fleshed out science fiction back story.
My immediate reactions to the album are difficult to separate from the context that followed it. Keith’s high pitch ramble is quite deliberately off and on beat. But there’s an undeniably thrilling impact on those rare moments when he elects to wander into a pocket and spit with authority. He often sounds like he’s reading his lyrics off a page, but it also paradoxically sounds freestyled. The rhymes are pure Phillip K. Dick in their lack of polish over fairly compelling concepts. Many of the one off ideas that flit through “Earth People”, “Dr. Octagon” and “halfsharkalligatorhalfman” play like the work of an awkward young student who knows his way around H.P. Lovecraft and Joe Haldeman novels.
Behind the boards, the Automator was the top of his game. He incorporated a sonic palette largely absent from hip hop during the mid-90s. As Dan said regarding his inspiration putting the album together: “Everyone wants to be Dr. Dre, no one wants to be their own thing anymore. Everyone now wants to have a Lexus and deal pounds of drugs.” In no way is this an imaginative critique, particularly in the heat of the East/West maelstrom. But while this impulse led groups like De La Soul to their worst album in the preachy, school marmish “Stakes is High”, it led Keith and The Automater to show rather than tell, with an album that sounded like nothing Hip Hop had ever heard before. He captures a plastic, shining, terrifying future with a masterfully orchestral and sinister sound. It’s simultaneously smooth, evocative and perverse. You can imagine El Producto wore out several vinyl copies as he was composing Fantastic Damage and The Cold Vein.
DJ Qbert edited and scratched a menagerie of bizarre porn dialogue snippet skits, Jefferey Dahmer interview clips and other disturbing ephemera on the skits. While De La and Prince Paul were the clear antecedents, Octagon successfully moved the album skit in a very different direction. They don’t propel story or stand alone as humorous concepts, so much as they help create and sustain an atmosphere of apocalyptic postmodern dread. You sit in your headspace with the uncomfortable clunky dialogue echoing, and imagine you’re being forced to watch it inter-cut with Death camp footage with your eyelids taped open.
Keith was a wholly original stylist . In his embraced weirdness and lackadaisical approach to time and meter, he plays the role of the snarling nihilist. He’s a character more at home in an Anthony Burgess novel than a hip hop album released the same summer as Reasonable Doubt. Keith doesn’t lack his clunky moments, but in his defense, he’s fearlessly clunky, and really just fearless in general. Every so often it takes a Kool Keith to let his freak flag fly and move the needle so far in one direction the rest of us no longer need to fear rejection or disdain.
It’s an album that can be captured bia my favorite passage from the novel Keith references in “Blue Flowers.” It reflects what I believe must have been Keith’s motivation, it reflects his impact and it reflects my feelings towards Dr. Octagonecolygst itself:
“It had to end, and it did. Now in the dark world where I dwell, ugly things, and surprising things, and sometimes little wondrous things, spill out at me constantly, and I can count on nothing.”