Dan the Automator on Kool Keith and resurrecting Dr. Octagon

Written by Joseph Earp on 8th May, 2018
Dan the Automator on Kool Keith and resurrecting Dr. Octagon

It may have taken 22 years, but there’s finally a follow-up to Dr. Octagonecologyst, one of hip-hop’s most stubbornly weird albums. And the new Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation certainly ticks all the boxes when it comes to cartoonish perversion and free association. But why did it take two full decades for rapper Kool Keith, producer Dan the Automator and turntablist DJ Qbert to dream up a rightful successor to the freaky ’90s classic?

“Keith is a bit of loose cannon,” admits Automator (a.k.a. Dan Nakamura) by phone from the San Francisco Bay Area, his voice thickened by what he describes as a “crazy cold”. “We’d talked about doing it [a decade ago] and it didn’t end up coming together. A couple years ago he came to me and said, ‘I’m ready to go.’” Despite a crowded schedule that saw him helm another cult-classic sequel via his Deltron 3030 reunion with Del the Funky Homosapien, Automator slipped right back into Dr. Octagon mode despite the considerable stretch between albums.

The follow-up came together easily, despite Kool Keith’s famously idiosyncratic wordplay, which resists collaborative restructuring. “With [Keith],” Automator explains, “all the tracks are what they are. Either they work or they don’t. In the actual verses, once you start correcting things, it loses its balance. It’s a free flow of ideas. It works when it works, and it really doesn’t work when it doesn’t.”

Luckily, then, Moosebumps works. What’s more, Automator’s dank, low-slung production is every bit as fun it was in the mid-’90s, while Kool Keith throws himself vividly back into the madcap character of a libidinous science-fiction surgeon cutting loose in the year 3000. The pop culture references may have been updated for the new millennium, but otherwise it plays like vintage Octagon – right down to those askew, cobwebby strings and synths.

But that doesn’t mean Automator felt compelled to bring back every sonic signature. “I had 20 years of making records [in between],” he says, “so I have a different mentality when it comes to making music. That being said, I wanna be sure it fits into the Dr. Octagon world. It’s not about a formula. There are just certain tones and an ominous nature that I want Octagon records to have.”

Dan the Automator is a world-class collaborator, having struck upon enduring success not just with Dr. Octagon and Deltron 3030 but with Handsome Boy Modeling School – his celebrity-heavy team-up with Prince Paul, which has been back in the studio this year – and the first Gorillaz album with Damon Albarn. He’s also produced Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Cornershop, Primal Scream and even Ben Lee, and joined actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) in the duo Got a Girl, among other genre-jumping pursuits.

And lo and behold, none other than Slayer guitarist Gary Holt shows up on the new album’s ‘Power of the World (S Curls)’, while Interpol’s Paul Banks lends a crooning cameo to ‘Flying Waterbed’. Like all of his collaborators over the years, they were simply part of Automator’s talented pool of friends. Holt’s bad-ass contribution harks back to the first album’s metal-shaded ‘I’m Destructive’, a track that Automator says was “done in a punk kind of way.” He elaborates: “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was the naiveté that allowed that to happen. On this record, my approach was less random. I knew what I was looking for.”

Other highlights on the new album include ‘Operation Zero’, which calls back to the first album’s spooky calling card ‘Blue Flowers’, and the Deltron crossover ‘3030 Meets the Doc, Pt. 1’. “Considering that Deltron is in [the year] 3030 and Dr. Octagon is 3000, it was too close to not do it,” notes Automator.

Moosebumps arrives on the heels of last year’s three-LP vinyl reissue of Dr. Octagonecologyst, released in an octagonal box set and priced at $69.69, naturally. Kool Keith used the Octagon name twice between the two albums, but Automator dismisses those unofficial outings as cash grabs on the part of a start-up label. Still, he adds, “I’m not one to keep Keith from making money.” As for live shows, they’ve done a couple dozen so far and might eventually get down to Australia, where Automator last toured with Deltron 3030 three years ago.

If there’s an elephant in the room with Dr. Octagon, it’s how Kool Keith’s explicit sexual fantasies might come across today. But Automator defends the character’s decidedly un-PC bent: “He’s not pushing people against their will; he’s just a freak. There’s a lot of metaphors and comedy.”

He points out Keith’s odd lyrical fixation on animals and how the MC routinely blurs the line between reality and fantasy. “Where Keith begins and the character ends is always tough to ascertain,” he admits. Automator himself is just starting to grasp certain lyrics, like when he found out from Keith’s brother that a random-sounding line in ‘Black Hole Sun’ about Clinton and governors was actually a specific mention of Keith’s own high-school football team. Yes, one of the most out-there rappers in the game has been smuggling some straight autobiography into one of his most conceptual and outlandish characters.

“That’s part of the genius,” muses Automator. “I used to think he was connecting two thoughts but maybe missing the connecting thought. What’s really going is that he’s connecting on all cylinders, but we don’t necessarily know it.”

Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation is out now through Bulk/Inertia.

The article was originally published on Brag Magazine