DJ-cum-producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura finds his musical niche

Dec 15, 1999 at 4:00 am
Dan "The Automator" Nakamura laughs when he recalls how his DJ career ended before it really began. The memory's probably funnier now than it was then, especially given that his latest album, So ... How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy) -- a partnership with another reformed DJ, Prince Paul, under the name Handsome Boy Modeling School -- just hit stores. About 15 years ago, being a DJ was all Nakamura wanted to do. He wasn't even out of high school yet when he was learning how to spin records and make his own pause tapes and drum-machine beats, the kind all fledgling hip-hop producers begin with. Born and raised in San Francisco, he had already fallen in love with hip-hop, especially after hearing the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the record that served as the gateway into hip-hop for everyone around Nakamura's age. "It wasn't the only thing in my world," he remembers. "I just thought that was the coolest thing going on."

Once the Sugarhill Gang started the courtship, it was only a matter of time before "Scratchin'" -- a collaboration between the World Famous Supreme Team and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren that prominently featured turntables -- put a ring on his finger in 1984. He began collecting 12-inch singles by UTFO, Whodini, Doug E. Fresh and later, Run-DMC and LL Cool J. From that moment on, Nakamura was committed to being involved with hip-hop. And until he reached high school a few years later, he thought his involvement would revolve around his own set of turntables.

But while Nakamura was in high school, he noticed that some of the other kids in his mostly Asian-American neighborhood, much younger than he was, were also playing around with turntables. And they were good, much better than he was. Much better, in fact, than he thought he could ever be. Nakamura couldn't have known at the time that the kids he was envying would become some of the most talented DJs (now, apparently, they're called turntablists) ever to scratch a record, collectively known as the Invisbl Skratch Piklz: Mix Master Mike, D-Styles, Yogafrog, Shortkut and Q-Bert. Two of its members, Mix Master Mike (erstwhile DJ for the Beastie Boys) and Q-Bert, were inducted into the Disco Mix Club (DMC) Hall of Fame last year. Nakamura had every reason to feel inferior to them, even if he was better than most.

"I was a pretty good DJ," Nakamura remembers, on the phone from his San Francisco home. "Maybe not the best in the world, but, you know, pretty good, right? I thought I was going to be a really good DJ/editor/remixer guy or something maybe. But when I was coming up, becoming a good DJ -- it was the same period when Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, all these other people were coming up in my neighborhood." He laughs. "I'm in high school, and I see this kid in junior high school, Q, and I'm like, "I'll never be able to do that.'"

He laughs again, barely finishing his sentence. "At some point, Q-Bert really inspired me to not DJ," Nakamura continues. "All of a sudden, these guys around me are light-years beyond me, and they're years younger than me. It was inspiration by discouragement."

But Nakamura stayed involved with hip-hop, shifting his attention away from cutting other people's records together with his turntables and focusing on coming up with his own sounds. He took on production gigs throughout the early 1990s, slowly building his reputation around the Bay Area while he picked up the skills to take on the rest of the world. It finally paid off in 1995 when he teamed up with former Ultramagnetic MC "Kool" Keith Thornton and Q-Bert to record the self-titled debut and finale by one of Thornton's many alter egos, Dr. Octagon.

Originally released on the tiny Bay Area-based Bulk Recordings -- DreamWorks would essentially release the same album a year later as Dr. Octagonecologyst -- the record became an underground sensation, as Nakamura's dirty, arty beats saw and raised Thornton's wacked-out sensibility. Around the same time, Nakamura released an EP as the Automator, A Better Tomorrow, which was also met with acclaim, based on its John Woo-inspired, operatic take on hip-hop. When DreamWorks released Dr. Octagonecologyst, it was accompanied in stores by a separate disc, Instrumentalyst, that proved Nakamura had as much, if not more, to do with the success of Dr. Octagon as anyone else.

But just as the project was about to take off on an even grander scale -- the DreamWorks reissue had exposed the group to a new audience, and the band's slot on Lollapalooza seemed as if it would do more of the same -- Thornton disappeared. Dr. Octagon was forced to drop off the bill, and shortly thereafter, the group disbanded. Nakamura understands why Thornton did it, and in a way, he's thankful.

"We were about to start embarking on tours and stuff, and Keith didn't really want to do that," Nakamura explains. "He kind of wanted to get out of it and go on and do his solo record. Basically, Keith is a real cool guy, and we're cool and everything. But he didn't want to have a full alternative audience; he wanted to have a rap audience. He's a New York rap guy from the Heavy D/LL Cool J period of time. To have no rap audience at all and more like a bored alternative audience, he didn't really think that's where he wanted to be ultimately. He wanted to do his own stuff. He's pretty much a free spirit. You know, a few things came out that sound negative, but, essentially, what it was was just him trying to get out of touring.

"And you know what, I can't blame him," he continues. "The truth of the matter is, I like to make records. I don't want to do shows as much as I want to make records. It wasn't like the end of the world for me. Instead of touring, I got to go produce a bunch of records."

Thornton may not have appreciated his newfound alternative audience, but Nakamura was more than happy to take on a different style of music. His work with Dr. Octagon led to production gigs with Cornershop and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, among others. After years of working with hip-hop artists, Nakamura found that rock bands were more amenable to trying new things, working with new sounds. Hip-hop, for Nakamura, will always be his first love. But that doesn't mean he doesn't want to see other people.

"They're like, "Let's see how far we can take it. Let's try this. Let's try that,'" Nakamura says, referring to his recent work with rock groups. "To me, that just makes it a lot more fun. The truth of the matter is, I love making hip-hop records. I would make them all the time. But there isn't a lot of bands willing to go that route, so I find myself making more alternative records. I'm doing an album now with Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and he's willing to go out there, and we're having fun. But, you know, at the same time, when I'm producing Jon Spencer or Cornershop or something, they'll let you go out there from the beginning."

Nakamura's willingness to go out there, as well as his eclectic circle of friends, is obvious on So ... How's Your Girl? Featuring contributions by Mike D, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, Sean Lennon, Money Mark, DJ Shadow, Alec Empire, Spain's Josh Haden and Father Guido Sarducci, among many others, the disc is a beautiful garbage heap of 40 years of music, piled high with everything from old-school hip-hop (the duo liberally samples from Paul's former band, Stetsasonic) and blaxploitation horns ("Holy Calamity [Bear Witness II]," easily the best of a good bunch) to gauzy trip-hop (the lush "The Truth") and prolonged bursts of static (Empire's unwelcome intrusion on "Megaton B-Boy 2000").

Like most of the projects Prince Paul and Nakamura have worked on, it's hard to take in all at once. Familiar samples are toppled by unrecognizable sounds, and it's all covered by more layers than old Bomb Squad productions, complete with wailing sirens and a Flavor Flav sample. More than anything else, it's a tribute to the early days of hip-hop, when there were no record deals, only mix tapes made by DJs. Nakamura cringes when he thinks of those early days, how something so revolutionary could sound so ordinary 20 years later. But he agrees that Prince Paul is the perfect person with whom to reinvent that time. After all, Paul was in one of the few early hip-hop groups Nakamura can still listen to and enjoy, without benefit of nostalgia.

"You listen to those records now, and you go, "Whodini? You know what, they're not really that great,'" Nakamura says, laughing. "I don't mean to say that in a mean way. The reason I had such high reverence for them at the time was because they were one of three rap records out. On the other hand, I'll listen to an old Stet record -- like "Sally' and some of that stuff -- and I'll be like, "That's pretty darn good. It's not amazing, but it's pretty darn good.' They were kind of onto something."

It's not hard to tell what Nakamura is onto, once you figure out the concept behind the Handsome Boy Modeling School project. And perhaps the most intriguing part of So ... How's Your Girl? is that the disc is more or less a tribute to the comedy of Chris Elliott. The pair borrowed their name from an episode of Elliott's late, great Fox-TV sitcom Get a Life, and that show, along with Elliott's underappreciated film Cabin Boy, appears in one form or another throughout. Nakamura even uses a Cabin Boy reference as the name of his publishing company, Sharkman Music.

"The third season (of Get a Life) didn't even run on the West Coast, and it was probably one of the best shows on television," Nakamura says, grousing about it almost a decade later. "Maybe he was too advanced for his time. Maybe it was never meant to be. It was just a little too much for people."

Of course, the same could be said of Nakamura and his music. He doesn't really have much of an explanation for his music, only that he knows what he's looking for when he hears it. At the moment, he's working with Prince Paul again, as well as Dust Brother Mike Simpson on a collaboration called the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He knows that the result will be affected by the fact that all three live in different cities, and he's excited by that prospect. That's what inspires him about music. Simple as that.

"I'll tell you something," he says conspiratorially. "I'm not like the programming master. I mean, I've worked with Shadow, and he's the programming master." He laughs. "But, you know, I learned how to do what I need to do several years ago, and now it's more about making the cool sounds. Inspiration is where you find it. If you spend a lot of time on the beach, you'll probably come out with the beach in your music. Or if you're in New York and it's really hectic, you come up with more hectic music or angry or something. Music is where you find it."