A few minutes after walking into the Gold Club, a fancy strip joint in San Francisco's South of Market district, Kool Keith is approached by one of the venue's many salacious dancers. The petite, dark-skinned girl with the affectionate smile and pearl-colored lingerie slips into the seat next to his and the two settle into a sly exchange of whispers for several minutes. Then, without any discernible provocation, the dancer leaps out of her chair and, with an utterly distressed look on her face, accuses the rapper of freaking her out. In a flash, she is bolting for the sanctuary of the dressing room.
Keith just lowers the brim of his baseball cap and mumbles something about asking her "personal questions" as explanation for the sudden departure. He then polishes off an order of chicken strips and calmly gets up, walks over to another girl sitting by the bar and, after a brief conversation, disappears upstairs with her.
In situations like this, the man should wear a warning label. Keith--a former member of the influential East Coast-based rap outfit the Ultramagnetic MCs--is better known through his alter ego, Dr. Octagon: a cracked hip-hop surgeon who specializes in kinky sex and sci-fi-fueled lyrical misadventures. Guided by the far-out ambient soundscapes of his partner, San Francisco-based producer Dan "Automator" Nakamura and the immaculate turntable wizardry of DJ Q-Bert of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Dr. Octagon is the perfect vessel for Keith to spin his bizarre tales of lechery.
On Dr. Octagon's self-titled debut album, released last year on San Francisco indie Bulk Recordings, Keith divulges his wildest fantasies. In songs like "Real Raw" and "Girl Let Me Touch You," he takes hip-hop's diabolical tendencies to new, biologically gritty extremes. Galvanized by Nakamura's startling musical work, the disc quickly became an underground hip-hop classic, spawning the club hit "Blue Flowers." However, due to the constraints of a small label, Dr. Octagon quickly became a rarity.
Geffen off-shoot Dreamworks reissued the disc last month with five new songs and a spruced-up title, Dr. Octagonecologyst. The label also released a limited edition instrumental version of the work, Instramentalyst.
When Keith reappears from the stairway leading to the Gold Club's VIP lounge, he immediately walks over to the table and signals to Nakamura--who has been sitting patiently deflecting lap-dance offers for the past 30 minutes--that he is ready to leave. Details of his upstairs encounter are not immediately forthcoming, but after a little prodding Keith does outline the fundamental problem with the establishment.
"You spend a lot for nothing," he grumbles. "I couldn't be satisfied by spending $500 there. Later on, when you leave there you see the prostitutes on O'Farrell Street and you're like, 'Why did I go to that strip joint?' You can see your wife at home dressed. If you got a pair of shorts on, that ain't really doing anything, then you might as well go get dressed. That's why those commercial joints be empty."
Instead, Keith offers a glimpse at the places he prefers to frequent. Places that are overrun with gangsters and where flashing your cash can be a fatal mistake, but the clients' needs are met to the fullest. "The key is to give off the illusion that you have money," he advises. "I pull girls out of the ghetto strip clubs easy. Plus, the outfits are more provocative."
Keith, it turns out, is a bit of an aficionado on such matters. He lives on Hollywood's infamous Sunset Strip, "Just around the corner from the hookers," he says.
By default, Nakamura serves as the anchor to all this ribald lunacy. Within his Dr. Octagon capacities, he is responsible for creating a soundtrack that is as innovative as it is warped. However, keeping up with Keith's demented thought process is no easy task. When we get back to the Bulk offices in San Francisco's 11th Street nightclub district, Keith tilts his head down and nods off periodically while Nakamura fields most of the questions.
Nakamura lives in San Francisco. He met Keith in the late '80s, but the duo did not get down to business until just four years ago. Keith, having just left the Ultramagnetic MCs and the established record industry as a whole, was enthusiastic to "take a break from all this corporate stuff" and begin work with Nakamura.
And so Dr. Octagon was born. While Keith was conceptualizing the bugged-out medic character, Nakamura laid the foundation for what would become the most mind-boggling hip-hop record of 1996. "When it got down to it, we had a very conceptual album," Nakamura recalls. "The songs aren't the same or anything, but there's a continuity that kind of makes them all relate. The only thing I did consciously on this record was to try to use different kinds of music so it wasn't all like a jazz record or a rock record. It still has the same consistency."
Citing hip-hop's frontier-crashing progenitors--Run DMC, Mantronix, Eric B and Rakim--as his primary influences, Nakamura was intent on making Dr. Octagon stand out from the usual production-line record. "Hip-hop was always inventive," Nakamura says. "Then the '90s hit and everyone wants to be Dr. Dre; no one wants to be their own thing anymore. Everyone now wants to have the Lexus and deal pounds of drugs. We don't do that. That's not our lifestyle. You don't see us coming out with the fur coat. There's more to music than that."
Our conversation is briefly interrupted by the band's manager so that she can inform them that a writer from Details desperately wants to set up a meeting. Keith and Nakamura are not even phased. Ever since the first version of the album came out, journalists have been in hot pursuit of the elusive pair. Even though the initial round of interviews were filled with spaced-out balderdash, the high praise for the duo's work was legitimate.
It was not long before the major labels came sniffing. "When we did this record we thought of it as an underground joint," Nakamura says. "We got a bunch of offers for record deals, but none of them sounded that attractive or exciting."
Nakamura met Dreamworks A&R rep and Dust Brothers member Mike Simpson at a local music conference last year, and the two of them hit it off. When Simpson heard that Dr. Octagon was considering signing on with a major, he notified his superiors at the label and a deal was struck shortly thereafter.
"It was a very friendly environment," Nakamura says of the Dreamworks situation. "They let us do our thing. Keith would come up and say, 'I think everything is going to be green today,' and they'd go, 'OK, you're feeling green.' They let us be us."
More importantly, the deal will give the previously hard-to-find album a second chance to bloom. "The record was always selling good, but we didn't have the promotional staff," Nakamura says. "We didn't have records in every store. We'd have 10 copies in Tower and the next day they'd be sold out, and then we wouldn't get another copy in for another month. That's the main difference--we actually have people working on the record now."
The true test for Dr. Octagon will be in finding a place within the mainstream market. Major labels have certain financial expectations when bringing a new band on board, and the perverted product that is Dr. Octagonecologyst will not be the easiest pill middle America has ever swallowed.
Nakamura understands this predicament, but is willing to work around it. "We made the album for the people that miss Public Enemy," he says. "It was all the college, alternative white kids that bought their records and they had a rap audience, too. We see ourselves fitting in that same area. Some rap kids like us, some alternative kids like us and a lot of college kids like us. We're not exactly making Mariah Carey records."
Not by a long shot. Combining stream of consciousness poetry with elaborate hip-hop beats and a bevy of exotic live instruments--Moog, violin, flute, classical strings--Dr. Octagon hardly fits into any established genres of music.
"We want to do a little bit of everything," Nakamura says. "We don't want to wear blinders and see in one direction. Music is all around you; sound is all around you. We just took the opportunity to explore different avenues that are not typically explored. We didn't do anything experimental just for experimental sake. We made solid records."
"Different people understand," Keith says. "I can't do the same thing every time. I want to do something different, but great."
"You can always do the status quo record and get the monthly audience," Nakamura says. "We're doing stuff that hopefully transcends that."
Even though the record was made over a year ago, both Nakamura and Keith still stand by it with unbridled enthusiasm.
"Nothing is outdated," the latter declares. "The record will sell forever."
"What is good about the record is we never made a record for the time, so it doesn't really date itself," Nakamura says. "There's no song on the record where you go, 'that's a 1985 rhyme.' Our stuff is not time-frame referenced. This record could have been made in the year 2000 or it could have been made 20 years ago. It doesn't really have a mark."
The duo is happy that the album is finally getting the attention it deserves. While they have not yet started working on the next Dr. Octagon project, they are preparing themselves for the collaboration by making weekly trips up and down the coast and beyond.
"We want to go to Jamaica or something and get some different vibes," Nakamura says. "It's good that we had a little time to let this record grow. It's not like it took a lot out of me or him to do it, but it is taking a while to generate some new ideas."
Dr. Octagon was recently added to the Lollapalooza bill for several East Coast dates. Their set will include appearances by the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, a full live band and an on-stage breakdancer. Keith has also collaborated on a track called "Diesel Power" with headliners the Prodigy for their hotly anticipated upcoming album.
Meanwhile, Nakamura, De La Soul producer Prince Paul and Simpson have joined forces to found the new hip-hop project the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Already confirmed to appear on the trio's forthcoming album are luminaries such as Beck, De La Soul and DJ Shadow, along with members of alternative groups Cornershop and Spain.
Nakamura is most proud of the fact that he can now keep such esteemed company. "If you think about it, this group has made three of the more conceptual albums of all time with the Beastie Boy's Paul's Boutique [Simpson], De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising [Paul] and Dr. Octagon," he says.
Nakamura expects work on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly to wrap up in July and anticipates a Fall release for the album. Meanwhile, he has filled his time lending studio assistance to the likes of Ziggy Marley, Cornershop, Gus Gus and Primal Scream.
"Octagon is one facet of life," Nakamura says. "We love music. Not everything we do is outer space or crazy or anything."
Keith agrees and then pulls a remote control out of his jacket pocket, which he says controls the moon.
First appeared in BAM magazine 5/30/97
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