Office Hours - An Interview With Dr. Octagon
Keith Thornton is a hip-hop legend. Breaking out with Ultramagnetic MC's in the '80s, he later hooked up with Dan "The Automator" Nakamura under the Dr. Octagon guise, which led to a DreamWorks signing and 1999's intergalactic gem Black Elvis/Lost in Space (under simply Kool Keith). The Octagon persona was put to rest for nearly a decade but was resurrected (unbeknownst to Keith) earlier this year with Return Of Dr. Octagon. He's released dozens of records as Kool Keith, Dr. Dooom, Mr. Nogatco (Octagon spelled backward), Diesel Truckers (with Kutmasta Kurt), Analog Brothers (with Ice-T) and countless others. The interview took place at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City.
Dusted: What are you up to?
Kool Keith: Working on more albums. I got Ultramagnetic coming. We got the Octagon thing that just popped out of nowhere. But it was done awhile ago, so you know sometimes a lot of my songs catch up to my time. You know.
D: So this is the second Dr. Octagon record?
KK: Supposedly, yeah.
D: Why’d you want to bring Octagon back?
KK: Well. I didn’t at the time. The record just kind of popped out of nowhere. I wrote it five years ago.
D: So this has already been in the can for awhile?
KK: It was done five years ago, lyrically it was. Musically it was remixed and refixed and other stuff. I didn’t have nothing to do with the production.
D: How do you write your stuff? Are you just writing rhymes every day?
KK: I write every day. I write a song a day, two songs, sometimes three. On the plane I write three or four. I think I’m a write-aholic. Sometimes I write until I get headaches. But I stopped that. I think I’m a writer because the thoughts just fly at me. You know, walking in New York, they’re coming at me.
D: Where did you grow up in New York?
KK: The Bronx. All my life in the Bronx … I love the Bronx.
D: You still live in the Bronx?
KK: Yeah. I went back to hangout. I stay uptown now. Futher up now.
D: So did you see people like Bambaataa perform?
KK: I went to some shows of course. I went to a lot of gigs because I was dancing back then I used to dance with this group. Before I even had my career I was dancing. I used to go to a lot of clubs and shows and dance at those jams. But I met different people I went up to Ecstasy Garage, T-Connection you know got off the train at Boston Road. I was a dancer so I would go to The Roxy. That’s way before I was rapping.
D: When did you start rapping?
KK: After I got out of dancing and my friends stopped dancing.
D: Were you breakdancing?
KK: No I was popping. Electric boogie.
D: Then you just picked up a mic?
KK: I was writing a lot. I was writing a lot first. That’s why when I came out on “Ego Tripping” we had a very sci-fi sound style. I was writing a lot, I didn’t go rapping at first. I was afraid. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. So I took awhile before I came out. You know, I was writing more on paper first. I didn’t do all of that pre-battlling stuff, but I went through that. But I wrote a lot. I was a writer at first. I was writing a lot of lyrics. That’s why I became a prestige MC. I think I took time to craft what I was saying and writing. I came out with an advanced style as a rapper instead of saying something wack and then trying to change later. Like some other rappers came out with styles and then they changed later in their careers. I pretty much was set on what I was doing.
D: What was your connection to Red Alert back then? I always remember him saying “Ultramagnetic”on KISS-FM?
KK: I knew Red from awhile ago because we took the 12-inch to Marley’s house and then took the 12-inch over to Red’s and we just handed it over. I knew Red from the past. I used to see him with Jazzy Jay when they was DJing and he used to have a red afro and he was really slim and skinny. I used to joke with Red all the time. So I knew Red for a long time. Everybody in the Zulu Nation I pretty much knew for a long time anyway. I knew a lot of these people in the Bronx before I was rapping. So when my career did get moving these people already knew me. They knew me from dancing though.
D: When was that, the late '80s?
KK: Yeah. Like '85. '86. '84. '87-88. I started rhyming. But I knew them people for a long time.
D: Did you stop recording for a while or were you just always writing and recording?
KK: I was writing, but my aim was always to do a solo record, because Ced wasn’t writing no more. He was more into basketball. After the third album, he went back to playing ball so his focus was a little bit not on making records anymore. But I still wanted to make records, so I hooked up with Kurt and went back to California to keep my whole chops up. At one point I was begging people to do beats and then I started learning how to program and loop and different things and I got the hang of it and I started asking people to go in the studio and I pretty much stayed in the mix.
D: Then you started doing your own beats?
KK: Yeah. Then I got into my production stage. Critics were shocked at that point in my career, me doing my own music. They couldn’t believe it. The press gave Black Elvis a lot of publicity.
D: I liked that one.
KK: But it was funny, I physically changed my name and hid behind the production and they liked it. But when I went straight … some people felt that the rappers shouldn’t produce their own music. The thing with me was when I write a song, I have such tension that I want behind the music. People say “yeah why don’t you get with a producer.” Through my career the beats of all these producers they just don’t have enough grit to what I’m saying. It’s like the music is too soft to what I really want to say and it won’t come across so when I go make what I really want to make for the rhymes to be on top of ... people get mad. People feel like “wow.”
You might have a lyric that you’ve written about something else that you like, I want the beat behind this to be so dimensional and dark and creepy you know this shit sounds really powerful. You know I want the theme behind this to really kick. This is some Blacula shit. The beats from other producers they didn’t have that, they was really making a beat for another MC or a singer or something. They try to hand you that beat they made for a singer or another person and it doesn’t fit and so they like “yeah check out some of these beats” but I’m like, people do you understand I’m trying to capture this soundtrack, I wrote this song about whatever’s on my mind, the song could be called anything, you know, like I’m the champ. I’m thinking of the music [making brass-like sound effects] “da-da-da onn, Champ, I’m Champ, da-da-da Champ”. It’s like they don’t have the music behind what I’m trying to say. It totally degrades what I’m trying to say and brings my lyrics down a notch.
D: That must affect your delivery too, right?
KK: Yeah well it takes the purity out. How rugged the rhyme was. It’s like when I did “Matthew,” it was so hard and people was like you're mad. It’s just that some people don’t really reach the meter level of what I’m saying. Like I could have a song that I wrote and I’m like this shit got to be on some hard shit like piano scary sounding like thunderstorm nighttime its raining somebody’s walking behind you late at night mystical like [makes more sound effects] dr-dr-dr-dn, like really theatrical cinematic. Some people don’t have that beat for what I wrote so I’m like wasting these three verses because this song this is some Deathwish 2 shit but you ain’t got the music to go with it so I go make it myself and I know what I need so I go in the studio and I'm like [more sound effects] br-br-br dn dn br-br-br dn-dn and I know automatically, wow this is what I needed, this mystical sound like [slide guitar sound effects] bween-bween. And the critics can’t really capture that and they feel that you just have a whole universe of producers out there just throwing you beats that they made for anybody. Fucking Scarface could have rapped on it. The Neptunes guy Pharrell could have rapped on it.
D: Are there any producers you liked working with?
KK: I like the Memphis stuff. I had a tape from a guy in Paris. They got a lot of beats that was rugged, a lot of the beats were very [makes guitar sounds], remind you of rock. They're not rock beats, but they are country dark beats [more vocal noises]. A lot of the beats were very ... sound like engine, very engine a lot ingenuity and machinery to them [makes train-like sound]. It's like [starts rapping] 'I can say what the fuck I want' and the beat is like more engine sounds and a lot of guys don’t have them beats like that.
But somebody else will have a beat that is like [makes sunny beatbox type sound] so you know, that beat don’t really match my vibe at all. And you have millions of people who make instead of play beats, but what I wrote it like 'I’m Jason at Crystal Lake' and they don’t have the Jason at Crystal Lake soundtrack. It’s like when you have James Brown ... have you ever seen Black Caesar?
KK: The music matched the movie so perfect, like the songs match everything. James Brown made the best soundtrack to a movie. Everybody else to me can’t really do that no more. For one artist to match a whole movie. Nobody can do that no more. These rappers don’t know about synchronization, like the lyrics with the artists. It doesn’t happen no more.
D: That brings me to something I wanted to ask. How do feel about coming up in hip-hop’s golden age and still being relevant today? I mean if you look around most of the other rappers who came up around the same time don’t rap anymore or have fallen off.
KK: Yeah they are fat. They’ve gained weight. Hey man, you know, sometimes I look at people in general even on a New York individual level. You look at people who went to school with me or people that came up that went to the clubs, I mean the women, to the guys, I mean some of the people blew up. They weigh 300 pounds. I mean, some of the guys they look like they eat a cow everyday. Their whole look is out of proportion and says, I let myself go from the '88 time. Me, I still stay slim and current clothing-wise. Some people are lost. I mean they still got an old Kangol. Some people still got an afro. Some people still walk around with a box. Some people are stuck or they just fat or they like “yeah man I got six kids.” They gone.
And then here I am. I mean some of the rappers that are out now don’t even look as young as me. I mean you look at some of the current rappers and they look old but they on BET. They on TV shows, but they look old, but they suppose to be the new rappers. They don’t have baby faces.
D: What do think about current hip-hop scene?
KK: I listen to modern hip-hop. I like the cadences. They’re real updated and they’re real clever. See, my rhyme style always has adjusted. It evolved. Like they can’t say “Keith, you was yes yes y’all, to the beat y’all, you don’t stop.” They can’t say that my lyrics started as “choosing scientific matter.” Now all the kids wordplay is “I got my glock, I move my rock, I hit the spot, I shake and shock, I break and rock, you know I flipped a kilo I tapped a rock.” I still can get with all the stuff that they saying. And they still know my cadences is up to date. It’s like they might have the Phantom, but I still have the regular Rolls Royce that still look fly also. It’s not the Phantom, but it’s still like the 2002 Bentley and still looks as good as the Phantom. It's not like you driving a 1942 Rudebaker or something and that’s how a lot of the other guys' rap styles are. People got too many spaces in they flows so they can’t flow with these young kids. These kids is more like "I know it’s the words. I know it’s the herds.” And they just flow nice and take they time whereas other people back in that time they might have trouble rapping right now. You know a guy from that time might have trouble adjusting. I stayed up so much that I kind of conformed. The only three people who could probably rap with these kids, you know, Kool G. Rap always had an updated style. You know I did. Very few can still adjust. You can jam up. A lot of people jam up they like [mocking an old-timer] “I try to flow and I’m mad and I stand.”
My vocal wordplay is still adaptable. You know I can go in the studio with most of the new people and still be current, where some people can’t get in a booth. You might put five guys on a record in a lineup and you can pick out the old-school guy and you like “get him off the track.” You know you might put Fabolous on a song, put Jadakiss on, but they wouldn’t be able to detect the texture of my lyrics. You got to adapt and roll right in. (These other guys) they are sticking out like a sore thumb. These guys now, they playing the harp when they rap. And some people are a little off and that comes from a lack of observing. They are like “fuck those guys I ain’t trying to hear them.” But sometimes you got to, really. You know, it’s like baseball. You got to watch the new rookies. You got to watch the Washington Wizards.
D: One of my favorite things you do is reference obscure sports players in your rhymes.
KK: You mean like ones that are not around any more like Artis Gilmore, Marvin Webster or something?
KK: You got to watch the farm club guys. Whose coming up and that’s what people never did, never really opening themselves to listening to the mix tapes and current stuff and saying “Oh, wow, you rap like that, so this is the competition I’m working with.” People aren’t scouts they just feel that “I’m a legend from this time, I’m good.” But, hey man, these new kids is nice and I’m giving them that credit. They are nice, but you’ve got to still maintain your rap style and say hey yeah this is my rap style but my shit is timeless. And those kids even know that. Look at when they meet me, they ain’t like “Oh, my dad is going to rap with me” when I go in the studio with them. They like “this guy is going to say some shit.”
By Jake O'Connell