Even in a genre where having multiple aliases is practically a job requirement, few hip-hop artists have cycled through characters as frenetically as Kool Keith. Over the course of his 30-odd-year (emphasis on “odd”) career, he’s rapped under the names Black Elvis, Big Willie Smith, Dr. Dooom, Keith Korg, Poppa Large, Mr. Nogatco and (my personal favorite) Underwear Pissy, to name but a few. But his weirdest and most beloved alter ego is the one under which he recorded his now-classic debut solo album, Dr. Octagonecologyst, in 1996: Dr. Octagon.
Produced by Dan the Automator, who would go on to work with everyone from DJ Shadow to Gorillaz to Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom project, and featuring turntable wizardry by DJ Qbert of Invisibl Skratch Piklz fame, Dr. Octagonecologyst sounded like nothing else happening in hip-hop at the time. Over trippy sci-fi beats that were as likely to sample Kraftwerk or Bartok as Whodini or Kurtis Blow, Keith rapped seemingly stream-of-consciousness nonsense that, upon closer examination, revealed the mythology of his Dr. Octagon persona: a shapeshifting alien surgeon and gynecologist from Jupiter, with green and silver skin, sent to Earth to perform medical experiments on humans and bang the occasional nurse. It’s surreal, filthy, funny and as dense with pseudo-scientific jargon as a William Gibson novel.
Ever restless, Keith killed off Dr. Octagon just a few years after Dr. Octagonecologyst with a new, harsher character, a deranged serial killer named Dr. Dooom who murders Doc Ock in the first 40 seconds of his “debut” album, First Come, First Served. Keith stepped back into the Octagon, so to speak, with the The Return of Dr. Octagon in 2006, but Dan the Automator and Qbert weren’t involved and the good Doctor, unhappy with both the production and his label at the time, disassociated himself with the album before it was even released.
But this week, the dynamic trio behind Dr. Octagon reunite to bring us Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripulation, the first proper Octagon album in 22 years. Are they as unhinged as ever? Damn right they are.
A little more about Kool Keith, for those not familiar: Born Keith Thornton in the Bronx in 1963, he came up in hip-hop’s formative years as part of Ultramagnetic MCs, whose 1988 album Critical Beatdown is one of those records you probably know even if you think you don’t. Even in those early days, he was always considered slightly unhinged — so much so that when he once joked during an interview about spending time in a mental hospital, everyone assumed he was serious. In addition to being a dizzyingly nimble rapper, he’s also a gifted producer and multi-instrumentalist — and of course he does all that under yet another pseudonym, Number One Producer. He allegedly once said that because of all his otherworldly alter egos, “I don’t even feel like I’m a human being any more.”
Speaking of those alter egos, it’s worth noting that Dr. Octagon is hardly Kool Keith’s only outlet for weirdness. He’s also explored sci-fi themes under his own name (for example, on Black Elvis/Lost in Space, his only major label album), dabbled in cannibalism and necrophilia with his horrorcore group Thee Undertakerz, and indulged in some serious scat play as Underwear Pissy — remember him? (“Leave a bag of horse shit on your dresser” has to be one of the greatest, most random threats in all of hip-hop.)
Moosebumps is streaming over at NPR (we’re sure Ira Glass and Terry Gross are big fans) and available for pre-order (or purchase, depending on when you’re reading this) here. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with an amazing video from Keith’s last solo album, 2016’s Feature Magnetic. This track, “Super Hero,” features another brilliantly weird rapper called MF Doom, one of many MCs Keith has influenced over the years (a list that also includes Eminem, Busdriver, Del the Funky Homosapien, Atmosphere and even Insane Clown Posse — and yes, Keith has played the Gathering of the Juggalos).