Rock star redefined

Dan the Automator’s fresh produce

In simpler times, there lived a class of entertainers we knew as rock stars. They were a kindly folk, content with sex, drugs, rock, roll or some combination thereof. Rock stars served as an unmistakable landmark that helped draw out the boundaries of our cultural landscape. Where modern civility ended and visceral emotion (not to mention hotel-wrecking) began — this was the rock star’s terrain.
In our current tech-heavy, less-than-visceral age, however, rock stardom has been co-opted by its longtime intellectual foil: the producer. You could even say producers have become our new rock stars. It’s a world where Moby has swallowed Great White and Armand Van Helden gets more action than Eddie Van Halen. It’s a world where furious seconds of amplifier destruction have given way to methodical hours of record crate-digging and sequence programming. It’s a producer’s world — a world made for folks like Dan the Automator.
“Being a producer isn’t great in itself,” says Dan Nakamura, the Automator himself. “Having a love of music and the ability to then output it is [what’s great]. It’s a combination. You really have to love music. If you love music, being a producer is as good as it gets, because you get to delve into all these different musical instruments and tell people how you want to make sounds and music and create projects. In that respect, there’s no place I’d rather be, you know.”
Apparently, there’s also no place many influential artists in underground hip-hop and beyond would rather Nakamura be. He created the soundtrack to Kool Keith’s madness on their 1997 Dr. Octagon project and, partnering with fellow avant hip-hop producer Prince Paul in Handsome Boy Modeling School, helped concoct 1999’s much acclaimed So ... How’s Your Girl. Last year, Dan teamed with veteran Bay Area indie rhymer Del tha Funky Homosapien and Ninja Tune turntablist Kid Koala, plus an impressive cast of guests — MC Paul Barman, Sean Lennon, Blur’s Damon Albarn — for Deltron 3030. And working with a veritable landslide of alternative artists — Depeche Mode and the Prodigy among many others — Dan has solidified a reputation as one of the most adept production collaborators. This talent is a highly sought-after commodity, particularly in the intense symbiosis between the rap lyricist and his beat creator.
“It’s kind of like being a psychiatrist or something,” Dan explains. “You find out what people need to motivate them and that’s what you do. You think about how to plug in to bring out their creative side. That’s how it all happens.”
While Dan’s collaborative production style might be one part psychology, the rest is pure creative musicianship — proof that it takes more than a big record collection to be a relevant force in cutting-edge hip-hop.
“It’s musical — your musical theories have to work with theirs,” explains Dan. “There has to be some rhyme or reason between them. But ultimately, it really depends on you getting into a mind-state that enables them to trickle out what’s in their heads. Sometimes people work best under coddling, sometimes its adversarial, sometimes it’s challenges. You don’t know until you work with them — you have to figure it out.”
Dan the Automator’s penchant for hop-scotching among various artists is yet another indicator of the production culture in which he thrives. Nakamura samples and incorporates other artists into his greater body of work the same way he would sample a riff or hook in one of his hip-hop cuts. Though this practice has sometimes pinned him as a musical nomad, Dan believes otherwise.
“I have a musical home, it’s just not a home that anyone else is used to,” he explains. “I see everything as a natural progression of sorts. It obviously dips and goes in different places, but I can look at what I do and for the most part think it’s pretty consistent. But that’s because I’m in my own head.”
Indeed, if the rock stars of yesteryear were more concerned with a sense of brute physicality — the proverbial “armadillo in the trousers” referred to by Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins — the producers of Dan the Automator’s generation are a more cerebrally inclined batch.
“My head is like a big sieve, and everything just sinks in there,” says Dan, explaining his tactic for incorporating sampled material. “Some of the stuff I don’t ever remember again — it just disappears. Some of the stuff sticks out, so I try to place it somewhere. More often, though, I’ll be working on a song and I’m like, ‘You know, I need something here,’ and either something will jump to my head or it won’t. When it does, it means that it was something that was in the forefront of my mind that I had just been saving up somewhere for this moment.”
Though the producer consistently refers to his musical ideas in terms of his head, the thing that makes an Automator production stand out is its attention to the soul. For proof, look at his most recent release, the futuristic “hip-hopera” Deltron 3030. Underscoring the techno-apocalyptic lyricism of Del tha Funkee Homosapien is Dan’s equally haunting yet enjoyable musical movement. The combined result is an effect both intellectual and groovin’.
“I go into a project with an idea of what I am going to make. Like with Del, I knew we were going to do a futuristic record commenting on society today. So then I go, ‘OK, I’m going to make some music that has that kind of flavor.’ Del tells me the kind of lyric ideas he has, so I go, ‘OK, I’m gonna write music that kind of complements that.’”
In the end, maybe Dan the Automator stands for a more enlightened and deserving breed of rock star, one who simultaneously skirts glamour, exercises intellectual creativity and embraces labor.
“I think you can have a lot of raw talent, but you’re only going to be as good as the combination of the talent and the work ethic,” Dan says. “I’ve known people who are much more talented than me, who just didn’t work that hard.”
Rock on.
Dan the Automator appears at the Masquerade’s “Downtempo Lounge,” Wed., Feb. 28. Tickets are $10. For more information call 404-577-2007.