I Just Love Hip Hop
An e-mail conversation with Gorillaz producer and alternative rap icon Dan "the Automator" Nakamura
By Jayson Whitehead

A cult hero since his work with Kool Keith on 1996's Dr. Octagonecologyst, producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura is a prominent figure in the alternative hip hop scene, and an integral part of some of its most revered albums including those released by Handsome Boy Modeling School and Deltron 3030. Last year, Nakamura gained mainstream visibility with the success of Gorillaz and its single "Clint Eastwood." The Automator followed with Lovage—Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By (75 Ark Records 2001) last fall, a Serge Gainsbourg-inspired affair featuring the vocals of Jennifer Charles and Faith No More's Mike Patton. In February, he released Wanna Buy a Monkey?: a Mixtape Session, a collection of songs Automator has produced or just happens to like. With a solo LP slated for sometime this year, two projects he has recently worked on are poised to make him one of the more celebrated producers in music—ex-Rage against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha's solo debut and some tracks for Beck's new album. I spoke with Dan the Automator earlier this year via e-mail to talk about alternative rap and more of his musical ambitions.

Gadfly: You’re considered one of the more celebrated members of the alternative hip hop scene. Does it bother you that you’re not as accepted in traditional rap circles?

Automator: I think that the state of hip hop is pretty boring right now, so what I do is a little different from that. Because of this, my stuff doesn’t always fit with what’s current. That being said, most of the cutting edge artists will work with me and a lot of the other interesting artists have told me they are into it. I mean as far as traditional artists, I’ve worked with some of the most traditional, like Brand Nubian, Del, Bambaata, De la Soul, Redman, Black Rob, J live, Beasties, etc.

Kool Keith

Kool Keith disavowed Dr. Octagon reportedly for the reason that it was not "straightforward rap" and Del tha Funkee Homosapien has made similar comments. Does it bother you at all that the rap world seems to resist innovation? Or that it is so hard for your production to be accepted in the mainstream rap world, especially when what you are doing is of higher quality than most of what is called hip hop, like say Nelly or Ja Rule?

Keith is Keith. As recent as last year, he was still calling to see if I would do another Octagon. I think the sudden exposure to the alternative crowd shocked him. I have an ongoing relationship with Del and we fully expect to do another Deltron record in a year or two when we’ve built up more things to say. I’d like to think that rap is actually interesting, when looked at in smaller sections. The biggest hits by Jay Z, DMX, Wu, Eminem, even the new P. Diddy, are all topping the charts with some really innovative ideas. I don’t want to just dismiss them because they are popular—remember we used to have Hammer topping the charts. As far as success vs. people like Nelly, it’s not like their audiences would suddenly be buying my records if they didn’t exist; so instead I think that maybe even though it isn’t my type of hip hop, it is exposing someone to hip hop who may eventually grow into other types of hip hop

What does "straightforward rap" mean? Does Kool Keith mean in a commercial sense? Does that bother you at all? Any great artistic change has been anything but straightforward.

I guess commercial to him is represented by his current records like… Spankmaster. I do what I do. I mean "Clint Eastwood" could have been on the Deltron record. All of a sudden it’s a hit; who knows why?

In that regard, do you feel vindicated by the commercial success of the Gorillaz at all?

I’m glad it was successful. I’ve been doing the same type of music for my whole career and to achieve commercial success wasn’t as important to me as making great records (and selling enough to at least make a living). I am glad though.

There isn’t quite the history, but the disparity between quality and the mainstream in hip hop reminds me of the divide in country music—Nashville and the underground. Would you agree?

I don’t follow modern country, so I wouldn’t know, but I do see the parallels with older county, when it was outlaw vs. the more commercial stuff that followed.

Do you consciously seek to make a connection to the original sources of rap?

I have had many people inspire me over the years and I have a sort of reverence for them. When given the opportunity, I enjoy meeting them and sometimes working with them.

Who, what do you like to listen to? Who do you consider your peers? Who would you pay money to see?

Everything but modern jazz and modern country. Everyone making music is a peer and I would pay money to see anyone new and interesting—currently Sigur Ros and Zero 7.

How does your classical training affect your music?

I don’t know exactly, but classical music is more linear where pop is more recurrent. I started with classical really early, so I’m sure it affects my sensibilities, but to what extent, I don’t know.

What, who made you want to make hip hop?

I just love hip hop. Pretty much since "Rapper's Delight." Turntables and DJing were my first loves in music as I was forced to play violin and it wasn’t my own choice to do that (I’m thankful I did though).

Is the producer in hip hop more influential or more involved in a respective artist's music than in other types of music like say rock? When you work on something like Dr. Octagon, how much are you contributing? Do you draw from a lot of sources? Your music certainly sounds multi-dimensional. Most of what is called hip hop seems so inclusive and incestuous. As a producer, how responsible are you for the finished product. The little touches like the guitar on "3030" or the harpsichord on "Memory Loss" seem to make all the difference. Is that the type of thing you come up with?

Yes, typically I do all the music or at least collaborate throughout the whole process. In Octagon and Deltron for example, I do virtually all the music.

Do you draw inspiration from great producers of the past like Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, or George Martin?

Pet Sounds is very important to me—more than Sgt. Pepper’s. But Joe Meek, Martin, Wilson, James Brown, Phil Spector, Ike Turner, Allen Toussaint, and a whole host of others are all very inspiring to me.

Your recent release Nathaniel Merriweather presents… Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By sets the vocals of Mike Patton (previously of Faith No More) and Jennifer Charles against jazz beats, horns and piano. How did you hook up with Patton and Charles for the album? Did you have them both in mind from the onset?

I just wanted to make a love record. Mike and Jennifer came later, but I was really happy with the combo, and tailored things to make a good fit with their styles.

I was listening to an interview you did on where you mentioned the importance of Serge Gainsbourg. What role does his music play in this album?

Serge Gainsbourg had a great sense of music and humor when he made his records. He had a certain wit that we tried to follow when we made this record.

Both Lovage and Handsome Boy Modeling School explore "the player" motif while also poking fun at it. Do you think much of hip-hop lacks a sense of humor about itself?


Traditionally, your albums have featured MCs (Del, Kool Keith). How was this album different for you as a writer/producer?

I am pretty used to producing singers at this point (Cornershop, Jon Spencer, Damon Albarn, Roisin Murphy [moloko], Cibo Matto, Sean Lennon, Josh Hayden [Spain], MoneyMark, etc.).

What challenges have you met featuring vocalists as opposed to MC’s?

Everything is an adventure and I learn a lot from each experience. It’s all just music, except for the fact that it’s more important to keep it more in key when working with singers.

Gorillaz has been a commercially successful album. What doors has that project opened up for you as a producer? Have you been approached with any projects as a result of your work on that album?

It seems like there’s a project for everyone. What I mean by that is that different people approach me after each record. Oddly enough one of the first after this one was Redman.

You’ve worked with a diverse group of artists. Is there anybody you will be working with again? If you had a choice to work with anybody right now, who would it be?

Hopefully everyone. I like ongoing relationships. As far as new people, there are lots and lots of talented people I enjoy, but I think there are chemistry issues that have to be resolved before just blindly going into a project.