Brother From Another Planet

When it comes to hip-hop, Dr. Octagon veteran Kool Keith is out of this world.

After listening to this soliloquy, I realized that getting Keith to respond directly to specific questions would be slightly more difficult than bench-pressing Chris Farley in his coffin. At least on this day, he was conversationally autistic: He would latch onto a topic so tightly that it practically required a crowbar to pry him off of it. Hence, I learned nothing new about his formative years (he was raised in a rough neighborhood in the Bronx). I gleaned no fresh information about either the founding of the Ultramagnetic MC's or the act's various recordings (its two best-known platters, 1988's Critical Breakdown and 1993's The Four Horsemen, are out of print in the States). I failed to gain insight into his (reportedly voluminous) drug experiences or his extended stay at New York's Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, where he was treated for depression. And I pulled from him only the sketchiest details about his dizzying array of pseudonyms and alter egos--Big Willie Smith, Mr. Gerbik, Ultra (a duo with rapper Tim Dog), Cyclops 4000 and MC Baldylocks among them. Returning to the subject of clothing, he announced that when he performs ditties associated with his assorted guises, "I have to wear different outfits, because I have to feel like I'm goin' someplace different. Like, I wear this one particular hat to make me feel like I'm out in the atmosphere. 'Cause when I wear a regular baseball cap, I feel more like I'm stuck on earth. But if I wear a different hat, I feel like I can fly."

On Dr. Octagonecologyst, Keith most certainly does. Made in association with Bay Area producer Dan Nakamura, who goes by the name The Automator, the disc is a sonic wet dream. Over dark, spooky backdrops and forbidding beats sprinkled with sometimes clever, sometimes silly sci-fi effects, Keith babbles like a brilliant madman. "Rap moves on to the year 3000," he announces in "3000," but his vision of this distant millennium is totally unlike the future envisioned by anyone other than, perhaps, George Clinton. He merges scatological jokes such as "I Got to Tell You" and "A Visit to the Gynecologyst" with a wide array of vivid mind-twisters, including "Blue Flowers," the disc's wonderfully odd first single, and "Girl Let Me Touch You," a lascivious come-on that's thematically in tune with Sex Styles, a slab of aural pornography that was issued independently last year. Not everything on the disc works, but its humor and its eagerness to go where no sane man has gone before make it far preferable to the unimaginative, ultra-commercial retreads that too many of today's hip-hoppers are releasing. But before Dr. Octagon's prescription could be filled, the combo fell apart--and Keith is still upset that the blame for its dissolution was left at his door.

"They painted a picture of me that wasn't me," he insisted. "What happened was, the project was a project for hire. The Automator hired me to rock, and I rocked, and he paid me my money legitimately. Then I went up there a second time and I suggested to Automator that they shop for a record deal. And he got the record deal and paid me my fee and the percentages for the deal, and everything was sorted out. But then they started havin' all these meetin's about arrangements, and I wasn't a part of it. And these remixes [issued as Instrumentalyst, a companion disc produced by The Automator] started flyin' at me like boomerangs, and I didn't even like 'em. I had no control over 'em, or what songs would come out first, second, third, fourth, fifth. I kept sayin', 'How come I can't remix?' 'Cause I was makin' this shit, and the remixes were makin' it sound like the worst stuff ever in my career. I was sayin', 'We did an innovative project--how come we're goin' out to court a lot of earth people?'"

"I was pissed off," he conceded. "I was like, 'They must be havin' a good time, because there's been like months and days goin' by, and they been hirin' all these Joe Neckbones to do different remixes, and I ain't got nothin' to do with 'em.' A lot of times, the records didn't even sound like the records I rapped on. And then it was time to tour, and they got a band out of nowhere and a bunch of mixes with my voices on top of 'em that don't even cater to me on stage. I was like, 'I got to do these records with all these other people's tastes?' And they never gave me any treatments for the videos, and if they wanted me to be at some show on Friday evenin', they'd call and tell me about it Friday mornin'. It was like they thought I had nothin' to do--no family life, no havin' to wash my clothes. It was so unprofessional. And that hit me in the belly, center. It just seemed like they thought, 'Don't call him. We don't need him for this stuff.' They made a cake, and I was the last ingredient. They did it their way--they were throwin' in fuckin' paprika, they were throwin' in fuckin' seasonin' salt, they were throwin' in fuckin' eggnog. They had all their things, but then at the end of it, they went, 'Hmmm. Somethin' is missin'. Let's throw in some fuckin' Keith.'"

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