Dan the Automator is a musical Merlin
by David Ma
While many musicians excel in an underground setting only to have their careers fatally mishandled upon moving to a major label, Dan the Automator has managed to turn such setbacks to his advantage. As the mastermind behind such revered projects as Dr. Octagon, A Better Tomorrow, Deltron 3030, the Gorillaz, and a slew of eclectic remix projects, Automator has been patient and unyielding at what he does best: produce solid records.
As a producer, few have had the luxury—or skills—to work with the names Dan Nakamura has worked with. Yet what is more atypical is the consistently high quality of the output he garners from his collaborators. Starting as a bedroom DJ, Automator went on to craft beats for Kool Keith, Grand Puba, Del, RZA, and other respected rappers, while sharing co-producing credits with the likes of DJ Shadow and Prince Paul. Further illustrating his versatility, he has also remixed material by Cornershop, Air, INXS, Depeche Mode, and even Charlie Parker.
From picking up a violin at age three to becoming a world-renowned music producer—Automator humbly shares with Wax Poetics tales of his musical upbringing, the story behind his fallout with MCA, memories of a young Solesides crew, and the details behind some of his most heralded projects.
What did you grow up listening to?
Dan the Automator: Well, it’s across the board. My parents got me involved in the violin when I was real young, so I listened to classical music all the time. When I started getting real hip to the rap stuff at the time, it was a little after it blew up because I was on the West Coast, and it would take a while for the East Coast stuff to find its way to me. In terms of hip-hop, I would have to say I listened to a lot of Mantronix, Doug E. Fresh, and Boogie Down Productions.
So you’re classically trained?
Yeah. Before producing or DJing, I began with the violin.
What made make the switch from DJing to producing?
Well, when I was younger, I didn’t even know what a producer was until I was in high school and started DJing. There were a lot of kids getting into it at that point, one of them being a longtime friend, DJ Q-Bert. Anyways, I definitely think DJing got me closer to music. I mean, I always loved hip-hop, and DJing is a big part of it. After a couple years of playing with turntables, I wanted to make my own music. That’s when I got a drum machine and it all sort of began at that point.
So how many instruments did you go on to playing?
I can’t play anything too well. [laughs] But I can play the violin, bass, and keyboard. I usually just play sections and chop them up. For most of my records’ string arrangements, I just use a violin and a keyboard to tie things together.
Many people don’t know of your early involvement with Solesides. How did that come about?
It’s all due to a radio rep for MCA, who was a friend of mine. He told me about these guys from Davis, which is about ninety miles from San Francisco, and he said these guys were doing their thing. It turns out that he had to meet up with them that day, so he wanted to know if it was cool if we all met up and got dinner or something. I said sure, and I don’t know why I remember, but we went to a pizza place. Then Shadow looked at me and said, “Aren’t you the Automator or something?” I laughed and said yeah, and we talked records and music. I eventually agreed to let them use my studio. At the time, the studio wasn’t professional or elaborate, but we would meet up all the time and ended up growing together. That’s how I met all those Solesides cats.
How much input did you have on those early Solesides records?
Well, creatively speaking, Josh does his own thing. I didn’t produce those records or anything, but I programmed them, mixed them, and gave some creative decisions on a lot of those records. Specifically, Blackalicious’s The Melodica EP, I probably programmed all of that record. If I look back now, I guess you could say that I played the co-producer role for that record. At the time, we were just trying to help each other get on, so we didn’t worry about who did what.
Was DJ Shadow producing at that point?
He had no equipment yet. He was just messing around with turntables and was just getting into programming. But he always had an ear for things. I’ve known Josh forever now. Whether we’re getting a burrito or working together, it’s all the same. It’s never work, and it’s always a good time. He’s a great guy, in addition to being the best fucking programmer around.
How was working with Shadow on Bombay the Hard Way: Guns, Cars and Sitars?
Like I said, it never seems like work. We both dug the Shah Brothers work on some old records we had, took it and ran with it. It was a real smooth process. Some love that record some hate it. We had fun making it, so I guess it was worth it.
At that point, was your musical taste eclectic to begin with, or has you style evolved with time?
I love music in general. The difference between these hip-hop cats nowadays and me, is that I listen to all kinds of music. I guess you can say I have a wider taste, which doesn’t make me special, but I think it shows in my own records. Just from the beat digging aspect, I’d come across a lot of obscure shit, just from digging for breaks alone. I mean, I’ve always liked the weird shit as well as the classical stuff. I love Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind and Fire, just as much as I love old jazz. I think, in that sense, I get ideas from a lot of places. So I guess my taste has always been eclectic.
What are some of your favorite artists outside of hip-hop?
I love the first three Bjork albums. Prince is the man. Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Massive Attack, Serge Gainsbourg, Blur; too many to name. Like I said, I dig all kinds of stuff. From all the classics to weird records, I usually find something I enjoy.
Dr. Octagon was considered a weird record when it first came out. Can you tell us about that record?
Well, it’s a common story, but the A&R guy fucked us with that record. Me and Keith were working on some stuff for MCA, and they basically stalled and stalled. Eventually, Keith ended up just releasing Sex Style, which I helped on. But after that, Keith came to me and said I got this Dr. Octagon idea, and we just ran with it. At that point in my life, I just wanted to do whatever, so we both just said fuck it. Fuck A&Rs and fuck the radio; let’s do our own record. That’s how that came about.
What was it about Kool Keith that struck you at the time?
I’ve always been a fan of the Ultramagnetic MC’s. People didn’t give those guys enough credit at the time. I mean, Keith was one of the first guys to rap off beat, and I think that’s an important part of hip-hop today. The other thing is, they programmed and was very involved in a lot of the first Boogie Down Productions album, so in terms of Keith, I was already a big fan. I mean, he’s responsible for ushering in a lot of the sound that people touch on today.
It was around this time where you met Prince Paul right?
Yeah. Paul actually ended up doing the “Blue Flowers” 12-inch remix. What happened was, after we had made Octagon, it was by no means a hit. But, we did pass it out to people and writers, and it definitely had a little buzz going. Well, this one writer named Skiz Fernando, who also had a label at the time called Word Sound, and he gave the Octagon cassette to Paul. Paul thought it was dope, got my info, and called me up. I was fucking dumbfounded because Prince Paul is like an idol of mine. I mean, the man behind fucking 3 Feet High, I just already had mad respect for him.
Did you guys click right away?
Yeah. Well, it turned out that aesthetically, the way we thought of music and stuff, was really similar. I mean, Paul’s definitely more rap, and my shit has some rock and classical overtones. But beyond that subtle distinction, we feel the same about music. Paul is a lot like me, except he has more experience. I mean, look at Paul’s history. He fucking made the records that heads reference to this day. Paul formed that shit.
When you listen to any of the Handsome Boy records, you get the feeling that it you guys had fun making it. Is that a true reflection?
That is definitely true. Too true in fact! We have a great time. I mean, it’s just Paul and I, and a bunch of our friends, getting together and doing shit. Both records were a blast to make. Plus, Paul and I have a similar sense of humor as well, so yeah, it was a blast. It never felt like work.
Another friend of yours that you collaborate a lot with is Del. What are your thoughts on him as a rapper?
Oh man, Del’s my boy. I mean, Solesides, Del, and myself, we’re all Bay Area cats, so we all go way back. To me, Del’s one of the best MCs of all time. I mean, not to knock anyone else, but I don’t think he gets the props he deserves. I mean, “Sleeping on my Couch” and “Catch a Bad One” were done in like ’93. Fast-forward to 2001 or 2002, we bust out with “Clint Eastwood” and Del’s as viable now as he was then. Take LL Cool J for example. He came out in ’85 or something, and by 1990, people weren’t checking that hard. I’m not saying anything about his skills or records, but I can’t think of many people that have had the stint Del’s had.
People love the Deltron 3030 record. When are you and Del teaming up again?
We’re in the middle of another Deltron project right now.
How is working with a rapper like Del or Kool Keith, different than working with a vocalist like Mike Patton? Tell us about producing Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By.
Well, the Lovage project is something I always wanted to make. I would always make these beats that I felt didn’t belong on my other records because they were too mellow, or romantic or whatever. But I wanted to make a slow record that was weird, sleazy, and cool. I became good friends with Mike while doing that. He’s super focused. A lot of other records, there’s a goal, but it ends up where it ends up. With Mike, everything was already predetermined. With Keith and Del, some stuff is planned, but some of it, they just jump into the studio and go from there.
Besides Mike Patton, you’ve worked with another high profile singer, Damon Albarn. How did the Gorillaz project come about?
Damon is such a rock star over there, you wouldn’t believe. Anyways, I was in Europe, and Damon had called up to tell me about some cartoon project he was working on. Well, we met up and I checked it out. Keep in mind that in Europe, I’ve had a good track record, with the Cornershop remixes and things like that. Not that I’m super popular over there or anything, but I have more chart influence. Well, he asked me if I was interested in doing this Gorillaz thing and I said yeah. I then brought in people like Del, Cibba Mato, Kid Koala, basically my friends, and that’s how that project formed. It was fun and different.
Speaking of Kid Koala, how does he compare to Q-Bert? What are the distinctions that you’ve noticed between the two?
That’s a very hard question, because there is such a distinction. I’ll tell you this—Q-Bert is the best DJ in the world. Technically, the guy’s fucking untouchable. If you’re going into a scratch competition or something like that, Q-Bert is who you want on your side. I’ve known him since 8th grade and he did stuff on the Octagon project. He is seriously the best there is. Koala, does his own thing. I think other DJs are starting to catch onto his methods now. He has an amazing musical touch. Q-Bert is technical, but Koala’s musical. He knows how to drop shit in and work the musical keys unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen a lot of DJs, and Koala’s acrobatics are amazing. When it comes to musical touches, there’s no one I’d rather have touch up my records than Koala. He’s insanely good.
Do you still DJ?
Occasionally. I can cut, scratch and match beats, the basics. I mean, I can rock a party too. I just don’t play that much anymore because I don’t have time to devote to records. Being a real DJ, I mean a real DJ, is a full time job. Plus, I can’t claim to be a real DJ anymore with Q-Bert and Kid Koala running shit. I can’t front. [laughs]
Name two of your favorite all time hip-hop records:
Mantronix: Music Madness, Boogie Down Productions: Criminal Minded.
At this point, is each album still a learning curve for you, or do you know how to get the exact sound you want out of your equipment?
A little of both. When I started, I just did the best I could. When you’re younger, you’re more arrogant. Then as you get older, you realize you don’t know anything. Now, every time I walk into the studio, I know what I’m doing. I know how to creatively get what I want, but there’s always that next step where you can learn more.
You’ve remixed so many different recordings. From Beck, John Spencer, Mix Master Mike, to Cibbo Matto. What’s your approach to the art of the remix?
Well, for me, if it’s a recording I like, I’m gonna try my best not to butcher it. [laughs] For every remix, I try to completely disassemble each track, and put the pieces back together again. You want to get a completely new feel, but have the charm of the original intact.
Of all your projects, were there any in which you felt the chemistry was perfect? Which projects were particularly smooth?
Honestly, working with Prince Paul is always enjoyable. With him, I don’t have to look over my shoulder. It takes a lot of pressure off of me, knowing that someone is there along the way. I mean, also, Paul’s a funny guy, so it’s always enjoyable. Take working with Del for another example. That guy’s brilliant. The concepts and lyrics he comes up with are amazing and the sessions we have are always productive. My point is, with Del and Paul, there’s always chemistry. Things are just easy with them.
Well, after all these collaborations and projects—will there ever be a Dan the Automator solo project like A Better Tomorrow?
Ha! There already is. I was unfortunately signed to MCA, who signed me to a solo deal. But then they pulled because the label was being ran by someone who didn’t know what the fuck he was doing. I think it’s a solid record, but now it’s a little out dated. There are a lot of great guests and surprises on it too. Everyone’s gonna have to wait. I’ve been fucking waiting forever. I have the basic foundations, but now I have to touch it up more. It’s frustrating, but it’ll have its time one day.
You seem to have had some pitfalls with MCA and other label troubles. If you could go back in time and give yourself advice about the music industry, what would it be?
Don’t get involved in the industry side of things. It’s hard, but don’t play into it. Don’t fucking play into it! Don’t get involved in selling yourself. You still have to hustle, but just keep yourself in mind. Don’t think you have to wait for something to happen, because when you get there, you’ll realize you probably didn’t have to wait in the first place. Don’t think a label is the answer. Just do your thing, and be patient.
On Deltron 3030, Del calls you a “Musical Merlin.” You’re a humble guy, but how does your success since Dr. Octagon strike you?
Musical Merlin. [laughs] I’m just fucking thankful. Really.
Well, it seems that artists and fans that seek out your work agree. Enough with the modesty.
[laughs] I work my ass off. I think that’s what Del really means by calling me names. [laughs] Really though, Octagon, Deltron, Lovage, A Better Tomorrow, and even parts of Handsome Boy, we had to do on our own. Believe me while you’re doing it, it’s a fucking pain in the ass. But by doing it on your own, it’s more tailored in the end. In retrospect I got to work with friends, and have made great friends in the process. I’ve just really enjoyed it all. You really can’t ask for more than that. Like I said, I’ve gotten to work with some of the best rappers, DJs, programmers, and producers ever. Musical Merlin’s cool, it’s flattering and I’ll take it. But let’s just say I’m fortunate.
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