Whatever Happened To: Dan the Automator

I was first introduced to Dan the Automator through Handsome Boy Modeling School, his 1999 project with celebrated hip-hop producer Prince Paul. But it was his next project, Deltron 3030, that made me love what the Automator did. The cinematic landscapes and intricate beat structures; the melding of string sections with electronics; and the collaborations with some of the best and most creative independent artists all contributed to creating the unique sound that served as his signature. The slow steady hip-hop/trip-hop blend is so common today that it is almost taken for granted. Not so in 1996. From his first major release in 1996 (Dr. Octagon) through the Gorillaz project in 2001, Dan the Automator had his hand in a little bit of everything. And anything he did was worth listening to. After the turn of the millennium, he tended to hover in the background more, almost to the point of fading away if you weren’t paying attention. For a time he was one of the most prolific, inventive, and original producers in the game. Whatever happened to Dan the Automator?

Daniel M. Nakamura is the name on his bills, but he’s better known to the world as Dan the Automator. A hip-hop producer extraordinaire, the Automator was instrumental in many releases during what could only be described as a hip-hop renaissance during the mid-to-late ’90s. From his early involvement with the SoleSides collective and his production on two of hip-hop’s modern-day classics, Dr. Octagon and Deltron 3030, Automator went on to become one of the most desired and sought after producers, crossing genres from hip-hop through rock and all the way to French vocalist Anais Croze.

Nakamura began his career in hip-hop via the tables. While still a teenager, Nakamura was DJing a party. Midway through the party, a mini DJ battle was orchestrated, and a couple of would-be DJs stepped up. Shredding the tables between the two of them, the future DJs Q-Bert and Mixmaster Mike effectively ended the career of Automator the DJ. Despite his initial discouragement, Nakamura simply refocused his aim and proceeded to develop his own projects and productions.

Released in 1989, Music To Be Murdered By was Automator’s first solo release. Effectively a coming of age project for the aspiring artist, the EP is a strong mix of hip underground sounds and the styles Nakamura was into at the time. In an interview with Bomb Hip-Hop he claims, “If you listen carefully you can hear shades of Octagon in there, maybe in its infancy.” If so, it was one hell of a gestation period considering Automator remained rather quiet for the next six years.

During that time, Nakamura was introduced to fellow Bay Area musicians Josh Davis (DJ Shadow), Xavier Mosely (Chief Xcel of Blackalicious), and Tom Shimura (Lyrics Born) through a mutual friend who was interning with MCA (the label not the rapper). At the introduction, Davis recognized Nakamura as the Automator. By the end of the meeting, Automator had agreed to let what would become the SoleSides collective (and eventually Quannum) record in his studio, a small room in his parents’ basement.  Automator did not produce any of the early records. The artists did most of that themselves; rather his role involved programming, mixing, and offering creative decisions.

When Nakamura was heard from again, it was on A Better Tomorrow, his 1996 EP. Released on San Francisco acid jazz imprint Ubiquity, A Better Tomorrow was a six-song release with three being versions of the title track. It also featured former Ultramagnetic MC “Kool” Keith Thornton (as Sinister 6000) freestyling over half the tracks. Listening to “King of NY” and Keith’s lyrics, it is hard to fathom that much of it is pure off-the-cuff stream of consciousness and not preplanned. This session served as rehearsal for the duo’s Dr. Octagon project, which was recorded later in the same year. Despite an occasional similarity in sound via a choice of samples, A Better Tomorrow and Dr. Octagon sound markedly different (and the Sinister 6000 persona is far less perverse than Dr. Octagon). The noted differences can mark the beginnings of Automator’s signature style.

Much of Automator’s production sound can be heard in artists that followed A Better Tommorow (Darc Mind’s Symptomatic of a Greater Ill comes to mind). While listening to the song “Sleep”, Nakamura’s arrangement of strings to create a surreal yet soothing atmosphere hints at future masterpieces like “Mastermind” from Deltron 3030. In 2000, Nakamura added seven more tracks, expanding the release to a full-length and renaming it A Much Better Tomorrow.

Nakamura first hooked up with “Kool” Keith on a demo Keith was trying to record. While at MCA, the A&R reps kept stalling on the release to the point that Nakamura and Thornton threw in the towel and gave up on recording. Keith went on to release Sex Style, which Automator assisted on, but it was far from where they wanted to be. Sick of the way they were being treated and seeking to avoid the labels, the two decided to pursue a project on their own. Keith had conceived of the Dr. Octagon concept about an extraterrestrial surgeon who pretends to be a female gynecologist and goes about molesting his patients and staff. With this idea in hand, the two ran with it and produced what would go on to be Dr. Octagonacologyst.

Dr. Octagonacologyst, with both Keith’s bizarre, free-associative rhymes and Automator’s futuristic horror style of production bridging hip-hop with trip-hop elements, invigorated non-mainstream hip-hop and represented the first true alternative to mainstream hip-hop like gangsta rap. With Keith’s bizarre content and lyrics bordering on pornographic, the album was at times both humorous and obscene.

After its initial release on Bulk Recordings, the U.K. label Mo’ Wax picked it up for distribution. The following year, Dreamworks released it again in the US.  It certainly didn’t save the genre, but it did bring attention to many neglected or ignored artists (such as Keith) and introduced a mass audience to DJ Q-Bert and his art of the scratch. It also opened the door for future artists like Company Flow and Jurassic 5. Automator’s first full-length production would essentially make his career and establish him as a name to remember.

The next few years saw Automator doing contributory production on Cornershop’s When I Was Born For the 7th Time, an amazing pop record that was actually named Spin Magazine’s Album of the Year (if that means anything to you). Cornershop’s sound is a blend of Brit Pop, dance pop, and traditional Indian music. The hybrid of these sounds, with a bit of hip-hop flavor under Automator’s hand, served as a perfect bridge to Automator’s next project, Bombay the Hard Way: Guns, Cars and Sitars. Collaborating with DJ Shadow and world musician Nana Simopoulos, the idea was to take music from the soundtracks of films by legendary Indian masala film director Anadji V. Shah and his brother, Kalyanji, and add contemporary nu-groove sounds and additional instruments (sitars in particular) to not so much update it as celebrate what was already happening in the music.

During production work on the Dr.Octagon project, Prince Paul worked on a remix of the “Blue Flowers” 12”. Apparently a friend of his had given him a cassette of the album. Liking what he heard, Prince Paul called up the Automator. Eventually, the two would create what would be Handsome Boy Modeling School. Assuming the role of Nathaniel Merriweather to counter Prince Paul’s Chest Rockwell, the two producers provided amazing production catered to a cavalcade of performers such as Del, Alec Empire, Sean Lennon, and Miho Hatori along with snippets from the television show Get A Life from which the project got its name.

The two would get together in 2004 to release a sequel, White People. This forgettable album was a pasty follow-up that fell far short of the original. The same concept was applied; however, where the guest spots on the first album were a bit more underground or indie-oriented, the sequel’s roster featured more recognized artists like Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda, Jack Johnson, Jamie Cullum, and yes, believe it or not, John Oates. The track “Rock & Roll (Could Never Hip-Hop Like This) pt 2” featuring Chester Bennington is obviously meant to be a follow-up to the original song on So…How’s Your Girl; however, the way it is produced, the final product comes off more as Linkin Park bastardizing the original (which itself carried over the theme of Funkadelic’s “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock”). Yes, I will admit that I enjoyed the Jack Johnson piece, but it is just a different arrangement of one of his own songs (“Breakdown”), and sure there were some decent rappers present (Dres of Black Sheep) but sadly no Del.

Automator and Del tha Funkee Homosapien both came up in the Bay Area. They began a working relationship that started with Handsome Boy and led into Automator’s next big project. This next production pushed Automator over the top. Alongside Kid Koala on turntables and Del on lyrics, the three of them formed the supergroup Deltron 3030. The self-titled album is riddled with crazy guest appearances from the likes of Sean Lennon, Damon Albarn, Prince Paul, and others. Set in a bleak, futuristic landscape, the album tells the story of Deltron Zero, an intergalactic rapper who is fighting a corrupt planetary government and corporations while simultaneously engaged in rap battles to become Galactic Rhyme Federation Champion. The dark, cinematic soundscape style that Automator had been working on since before A Better Tomorrow came to a head on Deltron 3030.  Combined with Koala’s fierce tablework (he would work again with Automator on the Lovage project) and Del’s amazing abstract techno-speak rapping, Deltron 3030 has become a modern-day classic. Allmusic’s Steve Huey described it as “the closest hip-hop will ever come to an equivalent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.”

Regardless of how heralded Deltron 3030 was within the alternative rap/hip-hop world or how much praise was heaped upon it by critics across the board, the album did not do for the Automator what his next project did. The project that he (and Del for that matter) took part in next was by far his largest, most commercial, and certainly most successful. The Gorillaz project was the brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Tank Girl comic creator Jamie Hewlett. Albarn’s appearance on the Deltron single “Time Keeps On Slipping” is often credited as the impetus behind the direction and sound that the Gorillaz project developed into. The blend of styles and genres including hip-hop, dub, rock, Latin, and reggae, and the overall mix of the final product was a refreshing treat in 2001, and to this day, Gorillaz can stand on its own in both pop and rap communities.

The self-titled debut album went on to sell over seven million copies and, in my opinion, is the best of the three so far released (each album had a different producer – Danger Mouse on Demon Days and Albarn himself on Plastic Beach). When asked why he wasn’t involved with Demon Days, Automator responded, “You got me actually. I don’t really know. We didn’t have a falling out or anything…it just didn’t end up happening.” Despite harboring no ill will, Nakamura was also careful to mention that it was both Albarn and himself that were responsible for the sound of Gorillaz/Gorillaz. “Maybe he was just trying to take it and try new things, ‘cause I think the third he did by himself. Although, we did put the foundation together. It’s kind of based on that.”

On the success of Gorillaz, Automator resumed the role of Nathaniel Merriweather for his most recent major production project (remember, the Handsome Boy sequel doesn’t count), Lovage –Music To Make Love To Your Old Lady By. The main cast of musicians included Mike Patton, Jennifer Charles (Elysian Fields), Kid Koala, and Automator. Vocals were performed by the former two, and Koala’s minimalist technique on the turntables helped add an extra nuance to Automator’s experiment. Some critics lashed out at it saying it was too far out and incoherent-that Patton’s vocals bordered on aggravating and distracting and at times the whole thing is unlistenable. I do not know what the hell they were listening to, but I found Lovage to be an enjoyable listening experience, albeit a bit repetitive at times. This album can rest comfortably in the background as opposed to Deltron or Dr. Octagon, which demand to be heard.

Lovage also has Nakamura revisiting his nod to Hitchcock via his song titles. Automator’s first release, Music To Be Murdered By, is also the title to the theme song to the television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and on the Lovage release, three songs, “To Catch a Thief”, “Lifeboat”, and “Strangers On a Train”, are all Hitchcock film titles. The treatment of 80’s new wave pop outfit Berlin’s song “Sex (I’m a…)” removes any cheap slutty feel that original vocalist Terry Nunn added (which wasn’t a bad thing) and instead turns the song into a sexy, yet almost creepy, cry of co-dependency.

The rest of the 2000s saw Automator more in the role of a traditional producer. In 2001, he shut down his “75Ark” label that he had been releasing material through since the Dr. Octagon days (as a result many titles such as Deltron 3030 went out of print).  He put out a “solo” album mix disc, So You Wanna Buy a Monkey (a title taken from the uncredited line spoken by David Letterman in Chris Elliot’s farce Cabin Boy), and a couple soundtracks to videogames. But the majority of the time he was behind the boards, producing albums for Ben Lee and Men Without Pants. He contributed to Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom project and was instrumental in the development of the band Head Automatica (in its original concept) with Daryl Palumbo. His most recent productions were for French singer Anais Croze and Charlatans UK clone (how come no one sees that but me?) Kasabian.

But what about more big conceptual projects?  Is Dan the Automator happy just sitting behind the boards of various bands and artists, or will he ever step back out from behind the console and unleash a new experiment for us to fawn over? Will the constant taunting surrounding a Deltron sequel ever become an actual end product? The answer to all these questions is a resounding “Yes!” according to all involved with the Deltron project.

Working with Prince Paul and Mike Simpson of the Dust Brothers, Automator formed The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. With 24 songs completed, the group planned to utilize half of them. Automator had already lined up various vocalists for the project, including Jon Spencer, De La Soul, RZA, and Beck among others. The holdup was waiting on a label, as the group was set on releasing it on a major label.

As recently as February 2010, Nakamura was deep into a new project working with eccentric violinist Emily Wells, Gavin Hayes of Dredg, and rapper Lateef. The project has not yet been officially named due to an ongoing trademark search. As for the concept, Automator claims to have been on a “whole romance thing” and considers the record to be a kind of romantic record. Another holdup on the project is funding. With the state of the industry as it is today, Nakamura says, “The issue is it’s really difficult to sell records right now…so if it is released independently, it has to be with a good backing of something that will at least pay for all the publicity.”

The sequel to Deltron 3030, called Deltron Event II, started initial production in 2006. By the fall of that year, Del had confirmed that four songs had been written and that the album’s lyrical theme had been planned out. Automator claimed the album would be finished by December 2006 with a 2007 release. Delayed until 2008, Del revealed that Automator and Kid Koala had completed production of the album, and it was up to Del to write the lyrics, saying he had written six so far.  Three years is a far cry from the two weeks required to write all the lyrics on the first album!  The latest news from Prefix Magazine indicated a release later in 2010. But with all the hope and desire to have a Deltron sequel, if it is anywhere near as weak as the Handsome Boy sequel, then I hope they all do the world a favor and shelve it. Just put it up there with the never-to-be-released Dr. Dre and Prince albums. It will be far better to dream of a follow-up in my imagination than to have my hopes shattered by the reality of a shitty album.

So to answer the big question: “Where Is Dan the Automator?”

I hope the answer is “Lighting a fire under someone’s ass and getting this album out!”


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