20 Years of Dr. Octagon with Dan the Automator
After 20 years since the birth of Dr. Octagon, Dan the Automator and Kool Keith are reviving the hip hop persona with a tour. We sat down with Dan the Automator to discuss music and the upcoming tour.
by Eric Nakamura
Photos by George Ko
In 1996, I bought the Dr. Octagon album at Aquarius Records in San Francisco. The double vinyl was released by an indie called Bulk Records owned by the album’s producer and Bay Area legend, Dan the Automator. Knowing nothing except for the emphatic staff recommendation coupled with the Pushead cover art, the package became an instant desert island disc. The sound was unique and blended elements of trip hop and unexpected musical elements backing deranged rhymes voiced by Kool Keith from Ultramagnetic MC’s that told the story of a filthy Doctor with candor and cadence. Dr. Octagon was infectious and spread into a major album by DreamWorks Records a year later.
The songs flowed via iPod headphones more than club DJ needles and was proliferated by the Internet. There was never a tour. Yet a simple testament to the magic is proven by the strength of concept. After more than three decades, Jenny still waits at 8675-309, and Dr. Octagon? He’s reachable at PP5-1DooDoo and is still “in your corner.” How many phone numbers remain in your head because of a song? As far as I know, it’s only these two.
The album is now a seminal classic and milestone in the history of hip-hop. It lifted Kool Keith’s career and launched Dan the Automator into indie-music stardom. The duo including DJ Qbrt are currently re-aligned and are embarking on their first live shows to support the album twenty years later.
GR: Bands are doing reunions and reunion tours for specific albums. It seems to be a “thing” now. Is this a reason why you're doing Dr. Octagon live?
Dan the Automator: I’d say it's for a different reason. Basically it's a not a reunion thing. We've been doing stuff together and we thought about doing it for many years, and doing it right. It's going to be a bit more involved. We have the 20th anniversary release coming out, and we just thought it was that time since we never did a show. It's not really a band reunion at all.
GR: There's the Warped Tour and festivals. Were there ever offers for you guys to actually do this? Whether it was years ago or recently?
DA: I know there's always been a misconception that me and Keith don't get along. But we’ve hung out over the years. Not constantly by any means. But we've hung out in these years. To be honest, it takes a bit of effort to get a show together. There's some wildcard aspects and I just needed to get to the point where I thought, "Okay, this will be the time to do this where some of the ducks are in a row." We pull off what we want to pull off, like we’re in the process of building new equipment for the first time to showcase a whole new way of working because rap actually has a lot of drum machine tracks. We built a multi-track live machine. It allows me to push it to that funkier space.
GR: So where did that misconception start? Is that an Internet thing that you and Keith don't get along. I haven't heard that in a long time but I know I read it somewhere like 15 years ago.
DA: Keith is a free spirit personality. When we were doing the record, a lot of success came that he wasn't used to having and that included a variety of things. I saw in an interview last week, “Dr. Octagon was the record that got me into tax trouble.” As you think about that, all that means is you made money. Keith is a wild dude and he's a sweet dude. Sometimes things would come out here and there but the other side of that story is we've never had an argument and we've hung out since. We don't hang out all the time but it would be funny if people would catch us together. "You guys don't like each other." No. We've never had a fight ever. It's not like we hang out every day but doesn't mean we're enemies.
GR: I guess he’s used to hip-hop being like a cash economy?
DA: You would have to ask him that. At the time , it was a bigger record than both of us, me for sure, were used to at the time. It comes down to money. I think, if left to run to his own devices, he would put a bunch of money in his pocket. You get the chance to go a little crazy. Some of the things like taxes fall to the wayside.
GR: Why was there never a tour?
DA: Because opportunities got pushed in front of him. He wanted to take this opportunity, then the Ruffhouse guys came around trying to offer money. He just rolled with what was happening. The Octagon record opened up a whole lot of opportunities for him right at that moment. As opposed to riding The Octagon to the end, he grabbed a couple more record opportunities.
GR: So what did you think you had when you made that album in '95 or '96? Did you think this one was special?
DA: That's a tough one because when you look in hindsight, you’d consider the fact that you’d think it's special or you wouldn't make it in the first place. There were other records I thought were special that didn't do as well; you know with the public's conscious or whatnot. But I think at that moment, and even right now more so than ever, because of the way the radio and record labels are pretty constricted, I'm not going to do what everyone else thinks they should be doing to make a record album. I'm going to do what I feel like doing. Now that I listen to the record, at the time I think, "You're cool because I was rocking the drum machine." I actually thought that was cool usage of strings on The Octagon record. But as I listen to The Octagon record, especially in preparing to do stuff, I realized The Octagon record leans a lot on analog synths, specifically a Memorymoog Plus which was the keyboard I was using. Maybe four or five songs were really based around Moog stuff and analog synth. That is interesting because now I realized that's what gave it its texture and what was different about it. It wasn't like that period of Wu-Tang or A Tribe Called Quest. It wasn't sampling a jazz record, although there was some of that in there. There was a lot of analog systems being used. Maybe the word is more grimier - synth grimy.
GR: Did all that make for extra hurdles to play this live?
DA: Yes and no. This is more of a drum machine synth record than anything else. For example, with the Deltron album there's a lot of orchestration and strings involved, but this one is a different mentality. It's more like a drum machine synth. You get down to business with turntables, it's a little more sinuous. I'm looking forward to doing this. It's a departure from the past couple years of a little bit more lush arrangement.
GR: That that means it's you, Kool Keith and Qbert and it's only two shows?
DA: We get two shows because we wanted to say we're back and want to see if anyone cared. We didn't want to arrange a tour without knowing if anyone was really interested. But the show sold out in four hours. So we realize that there was been a bit of interest from some people.
GR: Yeah I saw it passed around the Internet for a day basically then it sold out.
DA: I tour a lot but this was pretty fast.
GR: It's been a long time and I don't remember. Who is KutMasta Kurt?
DA: He was dude who was around years ago. He always was working with Keith. He worked with me on a little bit of stuff and he had helped Keith make a beat. One of the beats for a song, he said it would be something you'd be into. I was like, "Yeah, I think I could run with it." He ended up doing beats for two songs on that record.
GR: I kind of haven't heard from him since. I guess there was no more collaboration later?
DA: Not to get really into it, but he burned some bridges.
GR: I see Dr. Octagon often labeled as Kool Keith. He is Dr. Octagon. Then I hear people say, "No, Dr. Octagon is Dan the Automator."
DA: Basically, it is a group. People call Keith Dr. Octagon because he plays The Octagon character but Dr. Octagon is the three of us. We’re the battery of work. The three of us not playing together, it's not a Dr. Octogan thing. It's a persona based on a band.
GR: Was it something Keith just brought in?
DA: He bought in the character and I developed the world. I develop the backdrop of what you hear in terms of a lot of skits that makes you see a little closer into the doctor's head.
GR: So that period of hip hop, what do you call it? There's a romanticizing of late '80s and maybe early '90s hip-hop. Then this was '96. What is this era called?
DA: I don't know if there's a name for this era. The era you're talking about is a true era. Native Tongues era, but that era ended when Wu-Tang came in. We're probably more of that wave. I don't know what that wave is because Wu-Tang is well known for the clan Kung-F and all that stuff. But I don't think their sound is the sound of the era. There are other bands that did a lot. In our case, we were kind of the first true alt-hip-hop group.
I like to think of it more as… OK this won't make any sense, but it will, and also it's the first Dr Dre solo album. We came out with the same period of Björk records, the Portishead record, and The Chronic record which is not a hip hop run. But I think it’s a very innovative, interesting alternative choices to records. It also includes Shadow as well. But I think is a period where like people were pushing their own personal boundaries of music as opposed to making same records, like A Tribe Called Quest doesn't sound like a De La Soul record, but at the same time they might be shopping at the same record stores with the same kind of jazz records. Whereas Dr. Octagon record is probably not coming from the same mental place.
For me, that was a lively period of music with interesting stuff coming out. To that extent, you can include Handsome Boy Modeling School record that Prince Paul and me did where we're bending genres and putting people from different genres on to the same record but still trying to create a somewhat cohesive work.
GR: How does it feel to play music that's 20 years old?
DA: It's a challenge. Not that it’s old or new, but we're trying to make it really dynamic and exciting. They were trying a bunch of new, different things to push along the experience. It's liberating for me because I just came off of three or four years of doing Deltron touring. Although it's another rap record, it's a different set up. Qbert is a totally different DJ than Kid Koala. So we're going to utilize his skill set in a totally different way.
GR: You're not beaming back to '96 or '97, you're actually trying to modernize it? Or are you trying to retain some of the classic aspects?
DA: I'm not a throwback man but we are going to play songs that have drifted so there's a bit of reverence for the past. We respect it but at the same time we're going to push it technologically. I'm actually building one-off gear. It's like a multi-track machine that does all sorts of stuff. You know The Doc is from the year 3000 anyway. So it's a futuristic thing.
GR: Are you going to play violin live?
DA: I haven't thought about that yet but I could play that line. It's possible. I'm not sure I'm going to because this show is a lot of banging out the electronics and keyboards and being a sinuous group. You know the Deltron record, we did a lot of string sections and maybe we're going to go a little away from that this time.
GR: Did you see the documentary Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix? What do you think of that?
DA: I thought it was a really good documentary. Most of the people there were legit people and most of the stories I had already heard.
GR: I feel like he missed kind of your entire genre.
DA: Yeah totally. But I've always felt we've been a stepchild in that respect. Then again, I feel like that about my whole career in terms of when you don't do something that's up the middle, people have a hard time classifying the scene where it fits. It's been like that so long in my career that I don't really find insult. It's more interesting to be non-categorizable. It's perhaps a bit of an excuse to not worry about that. I kind of do feel that way. When you are a party of one in terms of style, there's not a big arc you can do with that particular record within all the other records of time because this is a pretty big deviation. They're not going to say, "Dr, Octagon is much like the Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest." It doesn't fit the narrative very easily.
GR: I hear you but it was influential.
DA: I think it's a pretty influential record because it really brought the skateboarder kids together with black kids. The black kids are skateboarders now. I think it was the precursor to every Odd Future kind of kid. You can take a pretty good look at Bad Brains or Fishbone but those guys aren't urban rap music.
GR: I agree. The only thing might be the Beastie Boys, right?
DA: Oh very much so. They brought the skate. And they even made big pants popular for rave popular culture. I mean cultural icons. But at the same time yeah we brought alternative skate. We brought skate to black in a way that Bad Brains brought punk to black. They were before us, but ours is more an urban rap thing so it hits a slightly different chord with people.