By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The announcement in early February that storied, San Francisco sci-fi hip-hop group Dr. Octagon would be making it’s live debut at the Independent over two decades after the collaboration between Bronx-raised founder of the Ultramagnetic MCs “Kool Keith” Thornton, producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura and turntable sensei Richard “DJ Qbert” Quitevis produced its sole album was met with shock and disbelief. But the trio’s long absence from activity didn’t discourage their fans, who snapped up tickets to the March 6 San Francisco show and a second concert in Los Angeles the following night in the space of minutes when they became available.
Hailed as a psychedelic hip-hop masterpiece when it came out in 1996, Dr. Octagonecologyst found Thornton taking on the persona of the titular intergalactic (and homicidal) surgeon from Jupiter. Weaving his surreal, non sequitur-filled tales of sex, violence and space travel over the Automator’s futuristic, cinematic beats that drew equally on horror-film soundtracks and classical music, Kool Keith touched a nerve that reached across musical borders. The album was hailed by critics and embraced by fans that ranged from hip-hop heads looking for something outside of the gangsta norm to alternative-rock enthusiasts who found appeal in the album’s twisted humor and unique sonic vistas.
But despite the album’s commercial success, plans for a tour to promote Dr. Octagonecologyst dissolved when Thornton pulled a disappearing act. While the three principles have been involved in a myriad of solo albums and group projects during the intervening years — the Automator’s group Deltron 3030 with Del the Funky and Canadian turntablist Kid Koala essentially used Dr. Octagon as a template — Monday night marked the first time they would take the stage together in public. Beyond the question of whether the trio would be able to conjure the magic of the album live, Thornton’s reputation for unpredictable behavior only added to the mystery of what exactly the first ever Dr. Octagon concert experience would be.
An hour after the doors to the Divisadero Street club had opened Monday night, the line of hyped-up Dr. Octagon disciples thrilled at the chance to hear favorites like “Blue Flowers” and “Earth People” in person still stretched almost around the corner onto Grove Street. Inside, the crowd packed every space of the intimate venue, with revelers lining up eight people deep at the back bar as a DJ spun a mix of golden-era tunes, gems from local artists and more modern tracks.
But the fans weren’t there to boogie before the main event, not that there was much room to dance. They concentrated on getting their drink on and producing a thick haze of weed smoke that filled the room until the sound of DJ Shadow’s “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” boomed over the sound system and the house lights finally dimmed.
The first figures to take the stage were not the main attraction, but instead auxiliary players Juan Alderete (bass, formerly with the Mars Volta) and Alex Swain (synth/percussion) walked out sporting surgical masks. They played along with a recorded intro that brought the lab coat clad Automator and Qbert out to their respective turntable stations that flanked the stage. When Kool Keith — Dr. Octagon himself — at last took center stage in his blood-spattered hoodie and apron, San Francisco Giants knit hat and mirrored aviator shades, the audience erupted before he said a word.
The first song, an unfamiliar new track, left some uncertainty as to what direction the show would go. The rapper spat a litany of Dr. Octagon branded products, name checking Octagon soap, baby wipes, condoms and gasoline in the first 30 seconds alone over a dubby bassline and stately choral samples. As images of soft-core porn and burlesque pin-up girls were projected on the band and the screen behind them, Kool Keith indulged in some standard hip-hop exhortation to get the crowd to wave their hands in the air and scream. Standard or not, the audience responded with enthusiasm, obliging the MC and ecstatic just to be in the building as the historic show unfolded.
The spacious vibraphone opening of “Intro” from Dr. Octagonecologyst gave DJ Qbert the first of numerous scratch spotlights he would take over the course of the evening before segueing into “3000” to the crowd’s howl of delight. Kool Keith quickly put to bed any concerns that he’d be occupying too much time with cliched hip-hop hype maneuvers. Tearing into the dense wordplay of the ode to pushing hip-hop into the future, Keith showed his was game to replicate his original lyrical gymnastics (even if his timing occasionally slipped).
The audience exploded again as the crew burst into “Earth People,” pumping their fists to the menacing piano-driven beat and shouting along with the chorus “New York and California/I was born in Jupiter” before Qbert brought the song home with a flurry of R2-D2 sound effect manipulation. While the DJ frequently added some fresh twists to the material, the group clearly took to heart that fans who had waited 20 years to hear the songs from Dr. Octagonecologyst would want them to stay fairly faithful to the prototype.
The couple of new tracks unveiled during the show also gave the group a chance to venture into new territory. One of the highlights was the song “I’m in Orbit” that featured Qbert wildly scratching a tabla beat over a chunky synth bass part that recalled the Masta Ace tune “Born To Roll.” Still, Keith was confident enough to change at least one of the original songs, throwing a completely different verse into “Wild and Crazy.”
As entertaining as it was to hear the beloved tunes from the classic album, there were a few hiccups over the course of the night. When the rest of the group stepped offstage for Qbert’s scratching spotlight “Bear Witness,” Automator accidentally triggered the growling synth from “Blue Flowers” before realizing the mistake and pulling it out of the mix. Qbert managed to put on a scratch clinic despite the issues, but unfortunately his solo was the one point during the show where the sound kind of fell apart.
If the audience even noticed or cared about the problems, it was hard to say. If they did, all they had to hear was the aforementioned opening to “Blue Flowers” to forget about the mix-up. But some unsure footing was to be expected for a group’s first ever performance so long after recording a landmark album.
After a galvanizing take on “I’m Destructive,” Dr. Octagon delivered another solid new track with “Operation Zero” that found Keith coming “hard like Picasso” while referencing actor Ernest Borgnine, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Lynn Swann and leprechauns over hard drums and spacey keyboard atmospheres.
The band made another odd choice when it decided to kick off its encore by playing the remixed version of “Blue Flowers” which, to their credit, at least had completely different lyrics to go with a revamped version of the original beat. The crowd would doubtless have lost it’s collective mind if they’d pulled out something more obscure like “Halfsharkalligatorhalfman” instead.
However, the Automator had one last wildcard up his sleeve to play. After introducing the band, he asked the audince if they’d noticed that since Dr. Octagon lived in, as the song notes, the year “3000,” it made perfect sense that he would know fellow intergalactic figure Deltron 3030. The audience lost it’s collective mind for real as Del came onstage and the augmented crew performed “Octagon Deltron” to a sea of screaming fans holding their cell phones aloft.
The two heavyweight MCs traded verses on the final jam of the evening before sending the crowd home sweaty and happy. With the promise of the new songs and a deluxe 3 LP box set reissue of Dr. Octagonecologyst set for release, here’s hoping the trio continues this revival of Dr. Octagon indefinitely.
Do the Octagon (new song)
I Got To Tell You
I’m In Orbit (new song)
Girl Let Me Touch You
Wild and Crazy
Bear Witness/Holy Calamity (DJ Qbert solo)
Operation Zero (new song)
Blue Flowers (remix)
Octagon Deltron (new song with guest Del the Funky Homosapien)