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“Automator started talking to Keith right at the time that things started going bad with Capitol,” Matlin says. “So Keith said, ‘Okay, you want to do some crazy record, Dan, over your weird beats. I’ll come up to San Francisco for a weekend and do an album with you, fuck it.’ Keith went up there for three or four days, recorded the album and came back and was like, ‘Okay, I did it.’ And I’m like, ‘Did he pay you some money?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’” Nakamura took two months to finish producing the record and got the renowned Bay Area turntablist DJ Qbert to scratch on it.
Released as Dr. Octagonecologyst at the end of 1996 on a one-off label called Bulk, within months the hip-hop intelligentsia had started to buzz over the record’s futuristic vision of rap in the year 3000. It was a mutant strain of hip-hop, as sonically abstruse as anything from the “alternative” rap movement trumpeted in the early ’90s by groups such as Arrested Development and P.M. Dawn, and as surrealistic as the lyrical bricolage then being served up by Beck. (Beck and Keith are currently recording a handful of tracks together that await release.)
“Halfsharkalligatorhalfman,” Keith rapped, in one of his more notable logorrheic flows:
With my white eyes, gray hair, face is sky blue, yellow sideburns react my skin is colored lilac. My skin turn orange and GREEN in the lim-oh-zine, people think I’m mixed with shark, drinking gasoline. Underwater I breathe with lizards on my sleeve walking down Hollywood Boulevard, room for credit card . . . LAPD through gray clouds couldn’t see me, I first turned rainbow, closed my eyes, watched my brain glow. People got scared and ran away they think I’m weird. I was born this way, halfsharkalligator . . . In my real world orangutans dance for Thanksgiving with skeleton bones and skunk tails, is my mission. Holding backward in raps on my power pack baboons clap and girl horses want to hit the sack with two bowls of ocean water monkeys sniffing ice contactjupiterfools Martians bring my rice . . .
Picked up in the U.S. by DreamWorks and in the U.K. by the hipster electronica label Mo’ Wax, the record sold well over 100,000 copies. Demands for Dr. Octagon to tour began to mount, but, unimpressed by the audiences responding to the project, Keith disappeared.
“Dr. Octagon hadn’t blown up, but it started to go,” says Nakamura. “We signed on to do Lollapalooza, and all of a sudden Keith decided he didn’t want to be that alternativey. One day, he got a check — it was practically a six-figure check — from DreamWorks, and we never heard from him again.”
Winning Keith an entirely new fan base among critics, college-radio DJs and fans of alternative rock, Dr. Octagon in large part spawned what has come to be known as underground hip-hop. Keith dismisses this new audience as “corny white guys,” “alternative hippies” or “skateboard kids,” despite the fact that this fan base has helped his post-Octagon records consistently sell upward of 50,000 copies.
But fame in the context of a hip-hop underground defined by middle-class, well-educated whites and blacks is not what Keith is striving for. What he wants is an audience among the same underground, the same “urban children,” he played to when he was back in the Bronx. He wants the type of audience that has propelled a number of regional hip-hop artists to success in the late ’90s: Detroit’s Esham and DJ Assault, Houston’s recently deceased DJ Screw, Tennessee’s Three 6 Mafia and Eightball & MJG, and the musicians on New Orleans’ No Limit and Cash Money labels, both of which have made it onto the national album charts with quick, cheap records made assembly-line-style by house producers such as Beats by the Pound and Mannie Fresh.
It remains to be seen, though, how much Keith is willing to alter his idiosyncratic style to satisfy any audience. Case in point is his Dooom album. While the record’s cover was designed by Pen & Pixel Graphics — a firm that designed many of No Limit’s gaudy diamond- and female-studded covers — for his album he had them parody their signature style: Keith is pictured next to a cockroach, rubbing his chin and holding a rat sandwich on a sesame seed bun.
One thing is certain: He’d rather not eat at Denny’s.
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Keith tells me to head south on Fairfax. “I need to go on and get me some Golden Bird,” he says, taking us to a fast-food fried-chicken restaurant in Crenshaw. “You’ll like Golden Bird. It’s really good chicken.
“Other rappers are fake,” says Keith. “They’ll come out here, stay in their Ramada Inn hotel rooms and smoke weed, and that’s it. They’ll be staying at the Mondrian Hotel, scared to death, and send messengers to run out and get them some sandwiches. You know, a lot of guys are mouses. I can’t live like a mouse. I can’t make a record to be a mouse.