In 1996, Hip Hop had reached new heights, achieving crossover success with music coming out of the East and the West. With labels like Bad Boy and Death Row leading the way, the Golden Age of Hip Hop was about to enter the Age of Bling. In many ways, ’96 was a turning point: the culture, now 23 years old was had begun a schism between the mainstream and the underground, with the more innovative cats keeping close to the roots of the movement, creating something entirely new.
That extra fresh style and sound was the hallmark of Dr. Octagon, a group so innovative it left many confused for it went beyond Hip Hop’s outer limits. Dr. Octagon came together in 1996 through an unusual combination of fate and serendipity.
In the seminal Hip-Hop history book, Check the Technique (Book 2) (Wax Facts Press) by Brian Coleman breaks it down. New Yorker Kool Keith [Thornton], who had achieved success in the Ultramagnetic MCs moved out to Los Angeles. At that time, he was signed to Capitol Records and was waiting for the release of his solo album, Sex Style, which was on hold.
Although he was unable to release music under the name “Kool Keith,” he kept creating tracks. One of those was had a fast-rhyming flow that recalled his Ultramagnetic days, featuring Sir Menelick and produced by Kutmasta Kurt, that they called “Dr. Octagon.”
“It was some spaced-out, crazy stuff. We were in a real elegant part of no-man’s land,” Keith told Coleman.
He sent tapes of “Dr. Octagon” out to radio DJs who were the first to break new music to the world, including Stretch & Bobbito in New York, Sway and King Tech in the Bay, and Mike Nardone in LA. The tapes did not list a group name, nor did they identify Keith, so the DJs referred to them as “Dr. Octagon”—and it got play.
Enter Dan “The Automator” [Nakamura], a young producer who came up as with the Solesides crew. He was feeling the vibe. He reached out to Keith and pitched the idea of making an “outer-space gynecologist” theme album as “Dr. Octagon.”
Keith told Coleman, “With Kurt and the Octagon stuff, I think he thought we were just joking. But Automator was serious about it, he wanted to run with it. When Automator heard those first two songs, that was his fuel right there. There was no looking back at that point, we went up the ladder from there. Everybody was there for the party, and it was one weird party. We knew that no one was going to try and sneak anything normal in.”
The result was Dr. Octagonecologyst, one of the most trippy Hip Hop albums ever released. Memories differ to the exact time frame, but it was put together in the space of two to six weeks. It was a concept album, and the concept was to push the boundaries, not only of Hip Hop, but of music and art as a whole. It did this by using ever element known to the form including the cuts of San Francisco’s DJ Q*Bert [Richard Quitevis] of the Invisibl Skratch Picklz crew to give it that out-of-this-world sound.
Keith told Coleman, “I knew that the record wasn’t going to be an ‘urban’ record, I knew it was above a lot of heads. It was going somewhere else, although I didn’t know where that was. To a lot of people, it was like a haunted house. You go up the steps and something pops out. Then you take a left and something else pops out.”
The album dropped in early ’96 on Dan’s Bulk Recordings in the United States and James Lavelle’s Mo Wax in the UK. For an underground group out of nowhere, they sold somewhere between 200 and 300 thousand units without ever once performing live. But all that is about to change this March.
Kool Keith, Dan The Automator, and Q*Bert have just announced plans to perform as Dr. Octagon live for the first time. They have set two dates: March 6 at The Independent in San Francisco and March 7 at the Telegram Ballroom in Los Angeles. For those who cannot make it, a 3-LP, 28-track deluxe box set reissue of Dr. Octagonecologyst (Get On Down) is set to release online on this Spring.
The album, which was unlike anything the Hip Hop scene had ever heard before, has gone on to be one of the classics of the era. Kutmasta Kurt told Coleman, “Once people started to understand what it was about, it became a lot more influential. Like the movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I think that people in the Hip-Hop underground started making weirder and more experimental stuff after [Octagonecologyst] came out.”
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.