One of the most gratifying aspects of hip-hop’s relentless growth and expansion has been variety — the genre no longer has a true conceptual or geographic center, which means the rules are constantly up for debate and reinvention, and a host of unusual ideas manage to find a home under what’s become a big umbrella.
And yet that has been something of a setback for those making hip-hop indebted to the idiosyncracies of the mid-to-late 1990s hip-hop underground. In that era, that scene served as a quasi-moral counterweight — sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit — to the mainstream wing of the genre, just then arriving into the pop klieg lights. It was proposed as an alternative (even if there were more consonances than were openly discussed at the time), and was bolstered by being the opposition to something too grand.
As hip-hop’s growth steps have become more micro, though, truly resistant rap countermovements have been shunted even further to the fringes. It is perhaps tougher than ever to be truly outré. That makes a pair of impressive new albums by veterans of the 1990s underground even more refreshing.
“Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation” is the proper follow-up, 22 years later, to the fantastically screwy Dr. Octagon debut album, “Dr. Octagonecologyst.” It restores the original lineup: Kool Keith, one of the great non sequitur rappers of all time (Dr. Octagon is one of his many aliases); the lavish producer Dan the Automator; and the turntablist innovator DJ Qbert.
Like some amalgam of science fiction fabulist and pornographer, Kool Keith — a 1980s innovator turned ’90s eccentric turned 2000s mystery — pinballs among topics, sentiments and scenes. His tone is amelodic, declarative and a touch absent-minded, as if starting fresh with each rhyme. A random sample of touchstones: Lynn Swann, Tyrannosaurus rex, laundry detergent, onion rings. He finds magic in the absurd and the minute. It is a style almost impossible to emulate.
That it sounds natural over Dan the Automator’s production is a real feat. He is a meticulous pastiche artist, playing with the lusciousness of 1970s orchestral soul, the boom-bap of late-80s and early-90s hip-hop, and the left-field ambience of library records and film scores. His drums and strings are intermingled with roars and squeaks and bleeps, all orderly and not cacophonous. Qbert, when given room, is ferocious, an aggressor who understands his place as part of the symphony.