"Trust no one," Special Agent Mulder used to say as he pursued aliens on TV's The X-Files. The same maxim applies to the latest album by spacey, mysterious East Coast rap legend Kool Keith. For what is arguably the most audacious music industry scam this year goes by the brand name The Return of Dr. Octagon.
Fueled by music-label avarice and professional incompetence, the scenario involves a front label, three no-name producers, highly deceptive marketing, and lazy music reporting. Worst of all, seasoned producers say this kind of thing now happens all the time.
On June 25, previously unknown music label OCD International released The Return of Dr. Octagon across America, touting it as the sequel to Dr. Octagon from the prolific, profane rapper Kool Keith.
This came as news to Kool Keith. The 42-year-old Manhattan-based rapper, né Keith Thornton, has as many as fifty identities on twenty releases over the last ten years. Notable releases have included 1996's Dr. Octagon; 1997's Sex Style; 1999's First Come, First Served by Dr. Dooom, another alter ego; and 2001's Spankmaster.
Incidentally, Dr. Dooom killed off Dr. Octagon on First Come, First Served, and yet here comes World's Fair, a significant industry player, marketing the OCD release as Doc Oc's reincarnation. The LA Weekly was among the first to fall for the ruse in early June, praising the album with no questions asked. After Newsweek issued a glowing review June 27, the disc gathered momentum.
At last count, The Washington Post, the UK Guardian, Remix Magazine, MySpace, and MTV2 had all endorsed what amounts to a creative consumer fraud. The Return even made the cover of The Wire in September, and videos for the album's singles have appeared, albeit mysteriously devoid of any footage of Kool Keith red flag, anyone?
The day after OCD released its album, however, a parallel story emerged quietly on an Internet usergroup. A disgruntled small-time Los Angeles producer by the name of Fanatik J said he and Kool Keith had worked on a similar album four years before. He claimed the disc OCD released wasn't their creation, but an evil sibling. "I guess OCD is sowing lies everywhere, huh?" he wrote.
The true story serves as a cautionary tale. Fanatik J says he and Keith shopped around some Return of Doc Oc demos in 2002, and Keith subsequently signed a recording contract with country label CMH Records of Los Angeles without fully understanding what he was doing its catalogue is full of hokey bluegrass and country covers of pop songs. Keith's contract, furthermore, gave CMH the right to remix his new album.
Fanatik wrote that he balked at the possibility of losing artistic control over remixes, and got into a two-year legal battle with the label to halt the record's release. Keith, meanwhile, gave them "some old vocal material" to fulfill his contract obligations, Fanatik wrote, whereupon CMH farmed out production to people who made "the fruity stuff they are using to run their scam."
Two weeks after his tirade appeared, this paper ran what was apparently the first print reference to Fanatik J's allegations, amid what amounted to a generally positive review of The Return by yours truly. Kool Keith, meanwhile, remained elusive, and OCD International seemed to exist only as a Los Angeles PO box.
Press Play ultimately tracked down the album's marketing manager, Andrew Nelson of World's Fair. He said OCD had intended to ship 50,000 units of The Return the first year, just like the original Doc Oc. But that was before an online marketing campaign had various DJs releasing eight remixes over eight weeks, along with comic-book art. Since the start of that campaign, Nelson said, Kool Keith fans had downloaded 100,000 copies of the multimedia remixes. The eager marketer gladly provided OCD's e-mail address and phone number in ... Barcelona.
OCD International, it turns out, consisted of three unknowns hired to turn a smattering of Kool Keith's vocal tracks into something salable. They now call themselves One Watt Sun.
This is a convoluted tale, so let's recap: Country label CMH creates OCD International, which now calls itself One Watt Sun, and consists of three nobodies assembled in Spain to fabricate a record that can pass as the work of a famous American rapper. The country label then hires a publicity firm to deceptively market it as such.
The no-name producers in Barcelona do, in fact, have names. They are John Lindland of San Francisco, and Simon Walbrook and Ben Green, both of Melbourne, Australia. Prior to The Return, their biggest claim to fame was Walbrook's having toured with Australian one-hit wonders the Avalanches, a sample-heavy electronica band.
CMH contacted the three in 2004 and gave them some two-year-old vocal tracks of Kool Keith rapping and goofing off. The producers never once met with or spoke to Keith until after the CD was complete even then, only Walbrook talked to him, and that was just once.
Using ProTools audio software, the trio cobbled together the album over more than a year in places as varied as Berlin, Prague, Melbourne, and Byron Bay, Australia. "There isn't one second of music on the entire Doc Oc thing that we didn't do," Lindland says.
The only semblance of a collaboration came after they sent CMH some rough sonic themes and Kool Keith rapped over them. Those themes were to become the only decent tracks on The Return, "Trees," "Ants," and "Aliens."
"People say it's a fake," Lindland says. "We don't have that feeling. We think that those are great tracks. It wasn't about remixing anything. They were our ideas, and Keith went on grooves that we sent to LA."
As for Fanatik J, the three call him a disgruntled producer who is pissed off he didn't get his tracks on the record. "If we were him, we'd have [a] beef too," Lindland says.
Fanatik did not respond to numerous attempts to clarify his end of the story, but Press Play finally tracked down the elusive Kool Keith on his cell phone after six weeks of trying. We wasted no time. "Should your fans spend money on this new record or not?"
"Who is this?" asked a deep, drawling, near-stoned voice.
Press Play offered name, rank, and serial number, then repeated the question: "Should people drop cheddar on the new Doc Oc?"
Kool Keith laughed like Cee-Lo. He did do some vocals that would become the tracks "Trees," "Ants," and "Aliens," he confirmed, but added, "I did the record four or five years ago and haven't spoken to them for, like, three years. ... It's been a total shock to me. It was one of the most craziest things in my musical career."
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