Automator for the People

Why does everyone from Beck to Ibrahim Ferrer want a piece of Dan Nakamura?

For someone who looks more like your old lab partner than a rock star, Dan Nakamura has had a remarkably conspicuous five years. Since the mid-’90s, Nakamura—aka the Automator––has become one of the most-dropped names in beat music. He’s been producer, DJ, and mastermind to marquee-name rappers (Beastie Boys, De La Soul), second-run New Wavers (Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz), jet-set hepcats (Cornershop, Cibo Matto), washed-up comics (Father Guido Sarducci), outsider-rap wack jobs (Kool Keith), and college-radio staples (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). He’s played matchmaker to a whole host of collaborations; one typically oddball combo matched the Brit pop star Damon Albarn with Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club. Gorillaz, the eponymous debut CD from a “virtual band” he produced, sold more than 3.5 million copies last year and was nominated for a Grammy and Britain’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. And last month he entered the studio to produce Beck’s next album. The Automator’s name, once heard only in vinyl boutiques, is rather suddenly all over MTV News.

It’s the kind of run that Phil Spector had in the ‘60s, that Brian Eno had in the ‘70s and ‘80s, that Butch Vig, the Dust Brothers, or Steve Albini had during the ‘90s. Like these auteur-producers, the Automator has used a trademark style to redirect old acts and launch new ones. The smart money says he’ll have a hand in deciding which MP3s the cool kids will be downloading for the next few years. So, how has he done it?

Before 1996, Nakamura’s work was known only to a handful of beat junkies. The product of a vibrant Bay Area DJ scene, he had remixed tracks for well-known acts like Depeche Mode and Herbie Hancock but had released only an EP under his own name. He began to make his mark when he produced a record for underground hip-hopper Kool Keith, who rapped as a futuristic, perverted paramedic named Dr. Octagon.

The disc, Dr. Octagonecologyst, established the sound that became the Automator’s signature. His rhythm tracks weren’t really revolutionary; they were built around syncopated drum rhythms lifted from the same funk and break-beat records that DJs had been sampling for years. But the bass lines loped and brooded through a drowsy and discreetly menacing noir atmosphere that owed much to the trip-hop stylings of contemporary acts like Portishead. At the same time, the Automator was incorporating other influences from outside the rap world, such as those permeating more avant-garde electronica: The spacey effects and thick reverb washes that cloud his melodies, for instance, come right out of dub music. (Ditto his occasional use of the melodica, a wind-powered keyboard instrument redeemed from obscurity by dub legend Augustus Pablo.) On later albums he would dip into fusion, sampling such landmark records as Miles Davis’Bitches Brew.

But the Automator also started adding his own touch. On recent albums like 2000’s Deltron 3030, which he takes credit for “arranging,” he tosses in bits of classical music. (Nakamura started studying violin when he was 4. Everything changed, he says, the first time he heard “Rapper’s Delight.”) Distorted choral samples make eerie overtures while horns and strings often come out of nowhere to offset a DJ’s scratching over stand-up bass, human beatbox, or even theremin (an early electronic instrument you’ve most likely heard in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”). Several of the Deltron tracks deploy the harpsichord––but before you start comparing the Automator’s hip-hop to chamber music, keep in mind that Pachelbel’s “Canon” never sounded like this.

Since the Dr. Octagon disc, the Automator’s work has been popping up with the frequency and unpredictability of a whack-a-mole. He’s released an album, Bombay the Hard Way, that remixed cuts from the soundtracks of Indian cinema’s “brownsploitation” era. His ongoing group Handsome Boy Modeling School (based on an idea boosted from the short-lived Chris Elliot comedy Get a Life) purports to be a kind of correspondence course for aspiring male models and would-be macks. That’s to say nothing of Gorillaz, which has unexpectedly mushroomed from an industry in-joke to a legitimate pop phenomenon.

Part of what makes these disparate projects stand out is that they’re all … projects. Nakamura likes to organize his albums around a central character or theme. This alone is enough to make them an anomaly in an industry whose standard procedure is to pad out a hit single with a bunch of stoned skits and throwaway cuts. Headphone-ready discs like Deltron—a sort of post-apocalyptic space opera in which the tracks are supposed to be transmissions from the black box of a stranded spacecraft––are practically concept albums, a far cry from hip-hop’s beginnings as singles-based party music.

But what really makes these albums unique is the Automator’s use of live musicians. Rap producers have seldom done more than lay down beats and loops, and musicians on the few attempts at live rap recordings did little more than replay those backing tracks. The Automator is as much Duke Ellington as he is DJ, a band leader picking and choosing which “soloists” he wants to hear on a given track. Often he’ll highlight one aspect of a musician’s sound so much that he essentially samples her. Sometimes this change of context produces a kind of cross-cultural chic, like when Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori drops a rap that sounds alternately like some stoned cyberpunk manifesto and an inadvertently hilarious mistranslation. It can also redeem inconsistent performers like Sean Lennon, whose needy shy-boy sound could never carry an entire album but holds up as part of a chorus.

You could argue that such choices are simply what any good producer would do to keep things fresh. But they also speak to an increasingly common problem among musicians. Given the omnipresence of machine-made sounds in pop music, what’s to keep songs from sounding like conversations between a couple of light switches? If you’re Moby, you rent some soul by sampling archival recordings of spirituals and work songs. If you’re Björk, you get your friends to build music boxes and play harp. If you’re the Automator, you put Damon Albarn and Ibrahim Ferrer together in a room with a bottle of rum and a DAT machine. While the duo won’t exactly be bumping Buena Vista Social Club off the charts, their track grounds the cheekiness of the Gorillaz record in a more roots-based sound.

Don’t panic if you’re having trouble keeping track of all of these projects: The Automator is incredibly prolific. In fact, maybe too prolific. Wanna Buy A Monkey?, one of the two discs he has released so far this year, might make decent sonic wallpaper at a party, but it doesn’t stand up to close listening. It sounds like it could have been put together over a long weekend. Lovage: Music To Make Love to Your Old Lady By, the Automator’s other venture, is a reasonably funny spoof of the boudoir chic popularized by Lotharios like the French hipster Serge Gainsbourg. (The Automator’s even broken down the fourth wall by appearing at shows and doing interviews as a Courvoisier-sipping smooth talker.) But Gainsbourg and company were engaged in their share of self-parody to begin with. And while a singer like Lovage’s Jennifer Charles could make the Saudi civil code sound sexy, on the record she’s too often boxed out by Mike Patton’s troglodyte voice grunting out ham-fisted lyrics like, “Use me like Listerine, keeping your breath fresher.”

Happily, these stumbles haven’t hurt the Automator’s reputation, which is why Beck tapped him to succeed his previous producers, the Dust Brothers and Nigel Godrich (who also produced Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kid A). It’s no surprise that the two are in the studio together. Both seem to have a direct line to the alternapop Zeitgeist. Like Beck, the Automator is past master at the art of using screwball samples as one-liners. And both share a rare talent for making records that are internally consistent yet have little in common with one another. Looking at Beck’s recent albums, which encompass superfreaky Prince homages, doleful takes on Brazilian Tropicalia, and cut-and-paste slacker-folk, there’s no telling where these two whack-a-moles will pop up––except, of course, on all the right headphones.