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Holy Hell! Dr. Octagonecologyst Turns 20

Holy Hell! Dr. Octagonecologyst Turns 20

Dr. Octagonecologyst represents the work of an iconoclastic performer who followed his own idiosyncratic muse.

Listening to Kool Keith-as-Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst for the first time was a bit of a mindfuck. At the time, it sounded like nothing else. Its subject matter ranged from the pornographic to the horrific to the absurd to the bizarrely scatological and beyond. Despite all this, and the potentially alienating lyrics, Keith/Octagon’s delivery is so effortless and lyrical it borders on the hooky. From “Earth People” to “Blue Flowers,” he relies on the hypnotic effect of vocal repetition to create hooks out of little more than simplistic phrases—often little more than the track’s title repeated over and over.

Even more fascinating are the spaces in between, loaded with menacing synths, random porn and sci-fi samples (who else at that time would not only drop Stars Wars references, but also utilize samples from the franchise’s storybook records?) atop skittering beats and DJ QBert’s frenetic scratching. Viewed within its original context, Dr. Octagonecologyst feels all the more revolutionary, sounding unlike anything else then populating the rap and hip-hop racks.

From its grimy, horror-sourced/metal-inspired cover image down to its scatological sci-fi, Dr. Octagonecologyst is unlike anything released before or since. So singular and unique is the work of Kool Keith under the Dr. Octagon moniker, with the assistance of Dan the Automator and DJ QBert, that when faced with attempting a follow-up, they failed to reach anything even close to its predecessor’s revelatory heights.

In an era full of theatrical and often deadly rap feuds played out both on record and in the real world, Keith’s B-movie horror and graphic, sexually-charged language was a clarion call to those outsiders who felt passionate about the form but were unable to reconcile the direction it had taken when adopted by the mainstream. While the majority of listeners were gravitating to the likes of Biggie and Tupac, Keith’s scatological nerd-rap, laced with off-the-beaten-path references and hallucinatory wordplay offered an in for those put out by the more mainstream fair dominating the airwaves.

Because of this, in many ways Dr. Octagonecologyst helped usher in an entire generation of underground and alternative rap artists and listeners. Released during the height of gansta rap’s domination of both the charts and general public’s perception of rap and hip-hop, the album offered a bizzaro alternative that helped renew interest in rap’s potential as an underground art form that could deal with all manner of lyrical content, not just that of hyper-stylized street life.

Furthermore, Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon persona proved a savvy move allowing for the former Ultramagnetic MCs word-slinger to deviate from his admittedly limited public perception and explore an entirely new underground realm heretofore unknown and uncharted. By breaking with himself he was able to create an all-know, utterly unique persona, one without precedent in the world of rap and hip-hop. In this, Dr. Octagonecologyst plays like a reverse negative or alternate reality version of hip-hop: vaguely familiar in form, but revolutionary in function and presentation.

Not since the halcyon days of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s—during which Keith arguably delivered his best work up to that point as a member of the Ultramagnetic MCs—had any sort of underground hip-hop had an impact on pop culture as a whole. By chopping up and mixing a broader swath of pop culture’s more prurient and absurdist elements and spitting them back out in a series of demented, otherworldly rhymes, Keith laid out what would become the future of underground hip-hop, freeing it from the rap stereotypes and overblown caricatures that saw the form ultimately becoming little more than a sort of modern minstrelsy. Rather than relying on a street-based fantasy, Keith helped open the door to innumerable lyrical and thematic possibilities that had previously gone unexplored and/or altogether avoided.

Through this unbridled, heavily scatological whatthefuckery and absurdist non-sequiturs, Keith ignored prevailing trends in order to follow his own decidedly deviant and subversive muse. By using a sci-fi and horror derived backdrop, his bizzaro wordplay helped open up new and different avenues that would be explored in greater detail by the likes of MF Doom, nearly the entire Stones Throw crew and scores of others over the intervening decades. In this, Dr. Octagonecologyst functions as a sort of latter-day Sgt. Pepper for the hip-hop generation, opening up the endless possibilities for the form beyond the usual street violence, drugs and misogyny. And while Keith’s Dr. Octagon persona—not to mention his work as Kool Keith proper—retains the genre’s seemingly requisite misogynistic tendencies, his approach is played more for humor and absurdity than any sort of narrow-minded statements on gender politics.

Ultimately, Dr. Octagonecologyst is not meant to be taken as any sort of profound or major, declarative statement. Rather, it represents the work of an iconoclastic performer who followed his own idiosyncratic muse and, with the aid of a pair of like-minded travelers, returned to earth with a startling new map of possibilities, sounds and themes to be explored. Indeed, it seemed with Dr. Octagon at the helm, rap would be moving on to the year 3000, outbreaks of moosebumps or chimpanzee acne notwithstanding.

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