Dan the Automator

The Complete Package Concept

BY Thomas QuinlanPublished Nov 17, 2016

"I like to make records that you can put on and listen to from beginning to end," says Dan the Automator, the producer behind such full-fledged concept albums as Dr. Octagon, Deltron 3030, and one-half of Handsome Boy Modeling School with Prince Paul. "Not like everything's a big hit or something, but you can enjoy it. And sometimes when you get these kinds of records, you delve into the world as a listener."

The Automator has prepared another world for listeners to delve into, and this time it's getting a little wacky. His partners in crime are Blur front-man Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett. But here's where it gets weird. They are, according to Dan, "a band that appears live in animated form, kinda like [the original] Josie and the Pussycats." The Gorillaz are composed of fictional band members Murdoc (bass), 2D (vocals), Russel (skins), and Noodle (licks). Drawn by Hewlett is his recognisable Tank Girl style, apparently live performances occur behind a screen onto which the cartoon band is projected.

That said, image is only part of a band's appeal. There is, of course, the music, being handled by Dan the Automator, who creates an odd blend of different styles, going beyond the attempts made by DJ Shadow and James Lavelle with their U.N.K.L.E. album Psyence Fiction. Says Dan of the Gorillaz project: "We tried to make a record that combines a lot of different elements of music. It has a little bit of a dub influence, and also a little bit of the early punk influence like the Specials or the Clash, but also mixed in with some soul and urban hip-hop-type things." Basically, it runs the gambit from dub ("Starshine") to hip-hop ("Clint Eastwood"), from punk ("Punk," what else?) to trip-hop ("Tomorrow Comes Today"), and almost always with a candy-coated pop sunshine. It's dark, but there's always that ray of light. "It's a really fun record," he stresses. "There's a complete package, though, cuz there's a whole world that the Gorillaz live in."
Automator was able to create a very diverse album. But with this Gorillaz world being drawn by Hewlett, the album comes together as more of a package, which helps to maintain some form of continuity. Another thing that helped was the contribution to this project by Damon Albarn. While there are a number of guests on the album, such as Del the Funky Homosapien, Miho Hatori, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Kid Koala, the Gorillaz succeed where U.N.K.L.E. failed by gluing the album together with one consistent voice — and the ethereal voice of Albarn impresses as it never has on a Blur album, when he sings so soothingly on the bluesy trip-hop of "Tomorrow Comes Today" and the haunting near hip-hop of "Sound Check (Gravity)." The vocal effects and occasional guest accompaniment helps bring it up another notch. And, of course, there's the consistent sound that the Automator creates despite his success at obtaining a varied record.

"I totally have a production style," Automator admits. "I couldn't describe it to you because I don't really know what it is. I just know everyone tells me I have a certain sound and they can recognise it." He even goes so far as to say that he's had friends who know very little about music who recognise his work on songs he hasn't even produced, just engineered. "The big secret for me is I have a certain knack for taste," Dan says humbly. "I kind of figure what works well with other things. I just have a knack for picking things I think will sound good together and making them fit together. I think that's kind of my speciality." It's no surprise he has this knack considering Dan has studied the violin from the ages of three to 15. "Classical music has flats and sharps in every other measure and it creates different moods," the Automator says in his bio, "it's more linear, heading some place. I like to think of music as heading some place." In other words, Dan wants his music to evolve from beginning to end, much like his interest in production.

As a fifth grade student, Dan Nakamura heard the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" — "the first rhyme song I had ever heard," he says. After a few more albums and with a growing interest in films like Wildstyle and Beat Street, the young Dan found something he could relate to: "I was just really into the whole music thing in the first place," Automator reminisces. "To like turntables and DJing was just really interesting to me. And that's kinda like where I delved into [hip-hop]." From DJing high school dances to producing tracks was a logical evolution for Dan. "Turntables, for me, were more of a stopover point [to production]," Dan explains. "Turntables got me closer to music and scratching got me closer to adjusting music. And then from there, drum machines and samplers got me even more into adjusting music until it's like, why just adjust it — just make your own!"

Now after several years of success as a hip-hop producer, Automator is venturing outside the norm with the Gorillaz. Will there be any backlash? "In [hip-hop's] current state, I find much more freedom and ability to do what I want to do in the bridging-the-gap world."

Dan's always been somewhat outside of the hip-hop norm. "My first hip-hop experience in the real public eye [was] Dr Octagon," he says of his 1996 sci-fi project with Kool Keith and Q-Bert, "and I don't think anyone really thought Dr. Octagon was an up-the-middle hip hop record — although to me it was. It was grounded in a lot of traditional aesthetic, it was just a lot of the traditional hip-hop from the ‘80s."

The records that followed were hardly "up-the-middle hip-hop" records, either: a Bollywood tribute soundtrack album Bombay the Hardway; Handsome Boy Modeling School's So… How's Your Girl?, where Automator plays Nathaniel Merriweather and Prince Paul is Chester Rockwell, his partner at the very prestigious modelling school; nor Deltron 3030, another sci-fi epic, this time with Del and Kid Koala. What you will notice between those albums, the Gorillaz, and projects he is working on in the future (aside from the fact that they all rely heavily on concepts) is that the Automator has a tendency to work with many of the same people.

"I just amble through life as best as I can," he admits, slackly, "and as I'm doing it I meet different people who are doing interesting things, and I try to incorporate the stuff that I [am doing] with [them]." He says that while many people may find themselves surprised by the guests on some of his releases, whether it be Handsome Boy or Gorillaz, it's not so surprising once you know the "lineage."
Integral to this lineage is meeting Prince Paul, a member of legendary hip-hop group Stetsasonic and producer for classic albums by De La Soul. Of meeting Paul, Dan says: "We're the same age, but I kinda grew up on Stetsa and De La, you know?" When Paul heard an advance copy of Dr. Octagon, handed to him by Rolling Stone writer and Wordsound head honcho Skiz, he called Dan and a relationship was born. It was cemented by a cult TV show from Chris Elliott: "On the independent version of the Octagon, I had used this piece off this movie Cabin Boy," says Dan. "[Paul] was like, ‘Is that Get A Life?' I was like, ‘Naw, but I actually have every episode on tape.' He was like, ‘I've been looking for that,' and I gave him a copy. It was just meant to work out, you know."
From there, Prince Paul went on to remix the Dr. Octagon track "Blue Flowers" while Dan helped out on the mixing of Paul's psychological concept album, Psychoanalysis – What is It? Eventually, it led to the creation of Handsome Boy Modeling School, and a future, experimental hip-hop project, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a trio with Mike Simpson of the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys, Beck).
"We decided that we would only work with people that we knew," Dan says of the guests that appear throughout Handsome Boy's So… How's Your Girl? "We would only go into our own phone books; we wouldn't call up labels and managers. Only friends and peers. So, we had a lot of fun working with everybody because we knew everybody." It's a pattern that Dan the Automator has followed pretty consistently since then. Except for Ibrahim Ferrer, every other guest on the Gorillaz album makes sense once you know the lineage. For Dan, it's a matter of logistics more than anything else. "As producers, some people thrive on maybe acrimonious-type relationships," he explains, "but for me, I think it's better when everyone can relate. You don't have to worry about stepping on egos because you're all friends."

Handsome Boy Modeling School was the first chance Automator had to work with Del, and from there Del approached Dan with an idea for another project: Deltron 3030. Similar to Dr. Octagon, this was to be a "loose story" about the future, but where Deltron differed is that it would be from the point of view of everyday people instead of from a rappin' doctor from the year 3000. The production also became more majestic. "I made some beats that complemented what [Del] would sound like in my mind," Dan laughs.

"He mumbles," Dan says of Ice Cube's little cousin, "he has his own slang, you know. Then he'll turn onto the mic and he'll turn on. He'll be clear as a bell, the most articulate guy. And then, when you get to know him better you realise he's very well read. He reads all the time. He thinks a lot, and he's a pro. I think he's one of the best, maybe, ten MCs ever. People just don't really understand him sometimes." So, of course, when it came time to find an MC for Gorillaz, Del was picked. "They needed some rhyming," explains Dan of their MC choice, "so I figured the best one to use would be Del because with the cartoon aspect he would be really cool." Del's appearance on "Rock the House" is a great old school nod, while his other contribution, the first single "Clint Eastwood," has many people believing that Del is actually a member of the Gorillaz group. Imagine being named "the Funky Homosapien" and getting down with the Gorillaz?

Another Handsome Boy graduate was also tapped for Deltron 3030 and Gorillaz. This time he was someone that Dan the Automator knew quite well before he attended the Modeling School: Eric San, aka Montreal DJ Kid Koala. "We were in New York together and some people were mutual friends," Dan says of first meeting Eric. "We started hanging out. We'd go out to eat. He's a big fan of sushi, as am I. We immediately started going to sushi restaurants." Dan helped Koala mix down his Scratch Happy Land record, and Kid Koala lent his good looks to Handsome Boy Modeling School. And then it came time for Deltron 3030. "When I was talking to Del about doing this Deltron record, I was like, well, the DJ that's the most musical and most interesting would be Eric and that's who we wanted to have on it."

Without Kid Koala, Deltron 3030 would probably not be as good as it was. But ironically, he was sometimes overlooked. "Some people actually just got all accusing on me when the record came out," says Automator. "They were like, ‘Kid Koala's on there, how come there's no scratching?' I mean, cuz it's everywhere!" And that's what makes Kid Koala Dan the Automator's favourite DJ. Or, in Dan's words: "A lot of his stuff is so subtle and so in there that you don't even realise he's doing it, that's what's so great about it," he proclaims. As Automator's DJ of choice, Kid Koala also makes appearances on cuts throughout the Gorillaz album. If you're doubtful of Automator's praise about the Kid's talents, check his heavy cuts on "Sound Check (Gravity)" or his more subtle work on "Man Research (Clapper)." Koala will also be featured heavily on the upcoming Automator project, Music To Make Love To Your Old Lady. "It's not like an Automator record," stresses Dan. "It's more like a record you wanna put on when you're getting busy. You know, mellow, Serge Gainsburg 2010."
And those are just three of the more important individuals that Dan the Automator has worked with while on his "amble through life." He, along with Prince Paul, has gone a long way in pushing the unity of a hip-hop album as a complete package through the use of concept. To record these albums, the Automator has found a few willing cohorts that have helped him to shape these worlds for us listeners to "delve into." Not only is he pushing the boundaries of hip-hop with his "bridging the gap" experimentation, but he is also creating a better listening experience for the fans by creating an alternative to the collection of songs/filler albums that currently clutter shelves. Perhaps more people will take up the idea of the concept album, or at the very least decide that it can't hurt to experiment on projects with a mixture of personalities. The Automator certainly understands that. Upcoming projects include Sammy's Romanians, "a heavy beat record" with Company Flow's El-P. "It's more of an assault on the eardrums in the Bomb Squad, but 2001, style," says Dan of the project. Sounds interesting. And if nothing else, Dan the Automator can always promise to be interesting.

Selected Discography

The Automator, Music to be Murdered By (Independent, 1988)

Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagon (Bulk, 1996)
The Automator, A Better Tomorrow (Ubiquity, 1996)

Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst (Dreamworks, 1997)

Dr. Octagon, Instrumentalyst (Dreamworks, 1997)

The Automator, Bombay the Hard Way (Motel, 1998)

Handsome Boy Modeling School, So… How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy, 1999)

The Automator, A Much Better Tomorrow (75 Ark, 2000)

Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030 (75 Ark, 2000)

Gorillaz, Gorillaz (Parlophone/EMI, 2001)


Dan the Automator, Music To Make Love To Your Old Lady

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (Dan the Automator with Prince Paul & Mike Simpson)

Sammy's Romanians (Dan the Automator & El-P)

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