April 6, 2018

My Gut Reaction: Dr. Octagon - Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation (April 6, 2018)

Less than two months ago, DJ Q-Bert casually announced live show dates for a reunited Dr. Octagon, a group made of Q-Bert, rapper Kool Keith, and producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura. This was, in and of itself, quite the story, as Keith and The Automator had stopped working together roughly two decades after the release of their only album, Dr. Octagonecologyst due to creative differences (Keith really hated Dan back then, is all I have to say). But as aloof this announcement was, it was accompanied by another important tidbit that was provided in such a nonchalant fashion that one would think they accidentally left it on the first draft of their show flyer: these performances were in support of a new album. Yes, the alt-hip hop gods have smiled upon us, as the world is currently burning at the hands of white supremacists, deplorables, wealthy assholes, and a self-aggrandizing orange McNugget dragging the name of the United States through the mud in his quest to somehow become the worst human being in all of existence: Dr. Octagon had reunited, they were actively touring, and new music was coming our way sooner rather than later.

The question that immediately popped up in the mind of the average fan was, of course, “Hey, isn’t Dr. Octagon dead?”

A brief rundown of the history:

“Kool” Keith Thornton is a rapper-slash-sometime producer who is the literal definition of the phrase “acquired taste” for hip hop heads of a certain age. His beginnings in the crew Ultramagnetic MC’s and his prolific solo career, a good chunk of which is credited to one of his many many alter egos, has been well-documented, including on this very blog. His rhyme style has been described as “abstract” by some and “nonsensical” by others, but it really lies somewhere in the middle: the average listener will be able to understand every word, but not necessarily the thought process behind them. Dr. Octagon was not Keith’s first time playing a different character on an album, but it’s likely the role he’s best known for aside from just being himself.

Dan “The Automator” Nakamura is a producer that has seemingly spent the last few years rebuilding bridges with former collaborators. He’s worked with the likes of Damon Albarn (he was one of the original members of the Gorillaz), Prince Paul (as the duo Handsome Boy Modeling School), Mike Patton (alongside Jennifer Charles in the group Lovage), DJ Shadow, Del the Funky Homosapien (as a part of the group Deltron 3030, alongside Kid Koala), and also acts such as Ben Lee, Primal Scream, and Kasabian. He’s been commissioned to remix tracks by Interpol, Depeche Mode, and the Beastie Boys, among others. He’s definitely still on my list of the best producers in hip hop, even though he certainly doesn’t limit himself to just that. Having brought back the Deltron 3030 project for a sequel, Event 2, in 2013, Dr. Octagon is the second notable reunion for The Automator, with a third, the next album from Handsome Boy Modeling School, allegedly dropping later this year.

Richard “DJ Q-Bert” Quitevis is a San Francisco-based deejay who has released several albums of his own, the best-known being 1998’s Wave Twisters, Episode 7 Million: Sonic Wars Within the Protons, which inspired a short animated film entitled Wave Twisters. That title alone qualifies him for the abject weirdness a project like Dr. Octagon resides in.

The first Dr. Octagon album, originally self-titled but later re-released on Dreamworks Records as Dr. Octagonecologyst with additional tracks, told the tale of an alien gynecologist (Dr. Octagon, duh), played by Kool Keith. There’s no real narrative, however: Dr. Octagonecologyst plays like a fever dream in several parts, Keith’s demented rhymes mixed into the broth alongside The Automator’s production, which pulled from many different sources (including classical music, old school hip hop, the Chris Elliott film Cabin Boy, and porn, among others), and Q-Bert’s scratching. DJ Shadow makes an appearance on the Dreamworks version, as does rapper Sir Menelik, and Keith’s friend Kutmasta Kurt lends a hand on the production side, having first formed the concept of Dr. Octagon with Keith years prior: the story goes that Kurt and Keith recorded two songs, including the obviously-named “Dr. Octagon”, and sent it out to deejays, and it ended up in the hands of Nakamura, a deejay himself, and he was inspired to contact Keith.

Although Keith welcomed the collaboration, he assumed (rightly, I feel) that Dr. Octagon was simply a character he created, an alias he could perform under whenever he felt the need to talk about stupid space shit, horses running about in hospitals, and interspecies mating. (Opportunities like that come up more frequently in Keith’s life than they do in literally anybody else’s, I’ve found.) Nakamura felt differently: he believed Dr. Octagon was the name of a newly-formed band, including himself, Keith, and Q-Bert (but not Kutmasta Kurt), and went so far as to book live shows as Dr. Octagon even when Keith himself wasn’t available. This formed a rift between Keith and The Automator, and Keith was so upset that he went on to “kill” the Dr. Octagon character off multiple times (most famously on the debut album from Dr. Dooom, another alias). He never could truly get away from what’s likely his greatest creation, however: one of his alter-egos was named Mr. Nogatco (“octagon” spelled backwards). He brought back the creation himself for The Return of Dr. Octagon, a critically-panned outing that isn’t worth the space I’m using to write about it, and Keith popped up in character for a cameo on the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s last album, Mosquito.

The brilliantly-titled Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation is now the second album to be released by the current configuration of Dr. Octagon, which is now apparently the group as a whole and not just Kool Keith, even though I’ll continue to refer to Keith as “our host” throughout the post. For his part, Keith is embracing the reunion, and in return it’s generated the most press a Kool Keith project has received in fucking years. Unlike Deltron 3030’s Event 2, on which The Automator relied too heavily on his former and then-current collaborators to fill out the guest list, Dr. Octagon’s second proper album (we’re pretending the others don’t exist), their first after a twenty-two year hiatus, goes light on the cameos, and also runs for approximately half the length of Dr. Octagonecologyst.

This is going to be the first Kool Keith album I’ve actually listened to in fucking years, and he’s a taste I had acquired a long while ago. Fingers crossed!

I don’t honestly believe anyone checking for this project had forgotten about Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon persona, so the sheer amount of times the word “octagon” is repeated on album opener “Octagon Octagon” was both egregious and frustratingly unnecessary. The Automator’s instrumental isn’t as full as his best work has sounded in the past, but it creeps up on you, successfully underlining the forgotten fact that, while Thornton may come across as an eccentric goofball in love with the sound of his own voice, the character of Dr. Octagon is supposed to be fucking terrifying to you, and Keith’s repetition grows more and more unsettling from one bar to the next. One half-expects the camera to pull back, exposing the bathtub filed with blood and body parts which was just outside of frame the entire time, if that was how music worked. Q-Bert throws in some pleasant scratching toward the end, as well. This song was only alright (although I did like our host’s line, “living that Octagon life”, which sounded strangely appealing), but honestly, it’s probably the best reintroduction to this concept that the trio could ever dream up, so there’s little wonder as to why this was Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation’s first single.

This one I liked quite a bit. Kool Keith’s tendency to string random words and phrases together for his choruses is put to good use on “Polka Dots”, on which his rambling sounds fucking fire. His verses mine similar territory as every other Keith track you may be familiar with, his boasts-n-bullshit more abstract than everyone else in the game, and they sound great over Automator’s musical backing, which ramps up the dramatic intensity during the hook but knows well enough to stay out of our host’s way during his stanzas. Q-Bert’s scratching toward the end is much less successful, but overall “Polka Dots” is a worthy addition to the Dr. Octagon canon.

The third song released from the project is “Black Hole Son”, which aims squarely at the hip hop heads who are familiar with Kool Keith’s place in the old school hip hop pantheon, thanks to its Automator beat featuring elements that will remind some listeners of EPMD’s “You’re A Customer”, a song Keith had already put to his own use on a hidden track on one of his approximately eight hundred and seventy-three solo albums. All of this occurs while our hosts attempt to rebuild the Dr. Octagon mythology: he is supposed to be an alien gynecologist, after all. Thankfully, “Black Hole Son” avoids any direct throughline to the Soundgarden song of a similar name (R.I.P. Chris Cornell), instead settling for three Kool Keith verses that are as calmly unhinged as Thornton’s best work. The chorus is a nonfactor, but it’s whatever at this point. Darker than the previous two songs, at least. Not bad.

Dr. Octagonecologyst found The Automator forming, for the most part, traditional-ish hip hop beats sourced from all over the musical spectrum, but for Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation he’s stopped giving a fuck, creating the music he wants to listen to, time signatures and accessibility be damned. Luckily, Kool Keith is fairly malleable as an emcee, able to find pockets to hide within nearly every beat he’s been gifted. Our host sounds the most engaged I’ve heard in fucking years on the goofily-titled “Power of the World (S Curls)”, a phrase only uttered during the hook: perhaps he felt invigorated by Automator’s use of guitars and how little this shit sounded like a rap song.

Holy shit, “Operation Zero” is flames. Nakamura shifts back to more of a hip hop mode, with a banging beat with some hints of melody seemingly intended to remind listeners of Dr. Octagonecologyst’s “Blue Flowers” (or, more accurately, “Blue Flowers Revisited”), and Keith sounds as focused as possible for him, his playfully obtuse non-sequiturs piling up on one another, somehow defying gravity. “Operation Zero” is the best track on here thus far, but that’s not to undercut the rest of the project we’ve been listening to: it’s just that fucking great. Exactly the type of updated sci-fi horror shit I was hoping for when this album was first announced, and, not coincidentally, the type of beat I had hoped would have been included on Deltron 3030’s Event 2, but ultimately was not.

Although “Bear Witness” was a track on Dr. Octagonecologyst, the next two entries in this unlikely series appeared elsewhere: DJ Shadow’s “Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)”, the only volume Q-Bert has nothing to do with, popped up on Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So… How’s Your Girl?, and “Bear Witness III (Once Again)” was released as a twelve-inch single, ostensibly promoting an Automator album that never came to pass. Kool Keith sits this one out, as he’s done before, so “Bear Witness IV” gives our chosen genre something it’s been missing: the deejay cut. The Handsome Boy Modeling School entry is the one that stands out the most of the four (to me, anyway), but this wasn’t bad: it’s a nice break from the proceedings that allows the audience to catch their breath, and there’s certainly enough here for longtime fans to grasp on to. Kind of hated the sound bite they used to repeat the phrase “bear witness”, though.

7. AREA 54
“Area 54” resurrects another feature of Dr. Octagonecologyst: the dialogue sample lifted from a porno flick, which then leads into an Automator instrumental that is upbeat as fuck. A leisurely approach is taken on here, the musical backing fairly bare-bones but melodic, kind of like his version of the Serial theme. Kool Keith’s lyrics, as per usual, are nonsensical, but unlike on most of his self-produced efforts of the past, they still sound really goddamn good on “Area 54”, the presence of a master behind the boards aiding our host in his quest not for hip hop dominance (as that ship sailed two decades ago), but for respect within our chosen genre. This was the second single leaked for a good reason, folks.

I believe the three members of Dr. Octagon dropped a video for “Flying Waterbed” just last week. This falls squarely in the same “song for the ladies… well, sort of” vein as their first project’s “Girl Let Me Touch You”, in that Keith’s talking about female companionship over an Automator beat that skews differently than the rest of the album, but this is still Kool fucking Keith we’re talking about, so the bars aren’t going to be a straightforward come-on. Our host is assisted by Paul Banks, of Interpol and Banks & Steelz (a duo formed by Banks and The RZA, whose debut album Keith actually worked on), on the vocal side of things. Not my favorite song, but it was a nice change of pace. Along with “Operation Zero” and “Area 54”, though, “Flying Waterbed” has me hoping that an instrumental version of this project drops sooner rather than later.

Welp, that song title seems to imply at least one thing: Danny Boy is hoping to produce a sequel, possibly for another Dr. Octagon or Deltron 3030 project, but maybe he’ll throw us all for a loop and sneak it onto the next Handsome Boy Modeling School album, or possibly even an as-yet-unannounced second Lovage record? This journey into the Dan Nakamura Cinematic Universe doesn’t make much sense if you read too deeply into the “facts”: Del the Funky Homosapien’s Deltron character clearly resides in the year 3030 and beyond, while August Octagon, M.D. (not his real name) is supposed to occupy the same earthly realm as myself and those of you two who made it this far into the write-up. But nobody gives a fuck about technicalities in this case: this is very much fan service (if one forgets that Kutmasta Kurt once released a twelve-inch single credited to Dr. Octatron, a temporary duo made up of… huh, that’s weird, Kool Keith and Del the Funky Homosapien), which is why I wish this song were better than it is. The instrumental skews more toward Del’s side of the woods than Keith’s, but it keeps things moving, allowing both rappers to deliver ridiculously entertaining verses that don’t really mean anything when it comes down to it, because life is a cancer, and it eats away at all of us eventually. But enough random darkness, which this track certainly is not: however, it also never truly gels, and the hook is trash. Still, I like the idea of these two together on an Automator beat: maybe the next step is for Dan to make up with the Gorillaz and bring both of these dudes along for a song or two.

“I can put one leg in the future” is simultaneously the dumbest and the most hilarious thing Kool Keith utters on the album, and there is competition on these other tracks. “Karma Sutra”, which isn’t a typo, is a sex rap that is graphic, and yet fairly chaste, especially when compared to our host’s past pornographic tracks. It isn’t great overall, but Nakamura makes good use of the guitar (brought to you by Slayer guitarist Gary Holt) throughout, and Q-Bert’s scratching toward the end sounded great to me, anyway.

“Karma Sutra” abruptly ends to bring you “Hollywood Tailswinging”, the final song of the evening, which comes complete with the return of Mr. Gerbik and a slow burn of an Automator instrumental that could fucking bang in your car’s speakers if you’re cruising down the street alone, because I can’t imagine anyone bumping any Dr. Octagon songs in a group setting. This shit was nice, as was the project as a whole. Did not see that coming, by the way, especially after Event 2 left me cold.

The physical release version of Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation contains an additional song, "Avaitor Hype", as an enticement to support older media formats. I don’t have that version, as I couldn’t be bothered to wait: let me know in the comments if the song is worth the search.

THE LAST WORD: I’m just as surprised to write this next sentence as you are to read it: Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation finds the three members of Dr. Octagon successfully revisiting their classic debut, upgrading their sound for the modern era while simultaneously mining hip hop nostalgia, like Ready Player One but with a much more narrow frame of reference. It takes a bit of adjustment to get behind The Automator’s production work on here, but once everything clicks (likely during “Polka Dots”), you'll find this to be some of the best work he’s done in the better part of a decade. Q-Bert’s contributions may be limited (aside for “Bear Witness IV”), but when he does pop up, it’s welcome, and for his part, Kool Keith relishes the chance to revisit his most famous creation, the bars as ridiculous as ever (that’s a compliment). Not every track completely works, but the majority of this album is shockingly entertaining as shit in 2018, much more so that the second Deltron 3030 project. I’m happy that these three were able to put aside their differences and craft a really good album that, sadly, will likely play only to music critics and older hip hop heads (two categories I fit in, sigh). The Automator’s previous projects tells me that an instrumental version of Moosebumps: Now I’m Just Using Random Words is forthcoming: I hope that turns out to be true. This project has left me looking forward to both Kool Keith’s next project (maybe something with Kutmasta Kurt and/or Motion Man? Please?) and the next Handsome Boy Modeling School album (because I’m always about Prince Paul getting paid). Again, Dr. Octagon is an acquired taste, but if you’re of a certain inclination, I think you’ll enjoy this a hell of a lot more than you originally thought you would.


You can read up on Kool Keith and Dan “The Automator” Nakamura by clicking on the respective links. Enjoy!


  1. Gonna have to check this out. Im glad to hear the album is great, I really had no expectations with it being as the the last few Look Keith records I couldn't stand.

    1. Whereas I had zero expectations because The Automator's most recent work was kind of disappointing. I think you'll find a lot to like.

  2. having only heard the first two songs off this album, polka dots damn sounds the best I've heard Kool Keith sound since literally sex style. you may be on to something here

    1. Let us know when you've heard the rest and tell us what you thought.

  3. (sadly not related to this) Max have you read U God's new book, or have any intention of doing so? would be interesting for Max's book club discussion for sure

  4. Definitely didn't see this album coming (although I can't exactly claim to follow Kool Keith religiously).

    Will track it down for a spin, but after I revisit the original album to set the mood!

    I like the album art, they've kept the original theme and modernised it - sounds similar to your words on the musical content.

  5. Last year I saw Dr. Octagon at Soundset. Their set was only 30 min, but they did a great job. Afterwards I could see Kool Keith goofing around behind the stage, it was hilarious when he was sitting with his wife (I'm assuming)on a golf cart and then he stood up next to her and started humping the shit outta the golf cart. Then I saw the Automator walking thru the stage exit walkway which was about 15 feet directly in front of me. It looked like he was in a hurry and I had nothing for him to autograph so I just quickly shouted his name(Shouting "Dan" didn't get his attention but "Automator" did!) He looked at me but still kept on walking and I had just enough time to tell him that he is the fuckin man and I recited the first few lines of the Look At That Face skit from the first Handsome Modeling album. He didn't say anything back, but he laughed, nodded, and pointed back at me. I thought it was pretty cool to get that response from him, since he seems much more reserved than Kool Keith. Oh, and the album's not too shabby. That it even halfway met my expectations is amazing(unlike Deltron Event II, where "The Return" was the only song that met my expectations, and there was a demo version online of City Rising From The Ashes that was called "Brother's Gonna Fight" and the demo beat is dope as fuck! Automator tinkered with it too much and the beat on the final song doesn't sound as good.)

    1. I'm going to have to track that demo down. And yeah, I've always had that feeling that Dan is reserved in that "he could potentially come across as a dick but isn't necessarily one" way.

    2. There were two deltron event II demos on youtube that I think were uploaded by the same user. You can still listen to one, it's called Planet of the Hard Headed Holograms. The other one for some reason disappeared off the face of the internet and I can't find it anywhere, not even a reference to it. It's too bad... other than "The Return" I thought that demo sounded better than anything on the final album.