DAN NAKAMURA'S HIP-HOP CRUSADE
Automator, defy the laws of nature,
Electronic monolith, throw a jam upon the disc,
The futuristic looper with the quickness…
Man, he all in the mix, nuclear physicist,
Genetically tailored every bit of this stimulus…
Automator's on the planet Earth,
And he's going to stop the war of the worlds…
— “Mastermind,” from Deltron 3030 (lyrics by Del the Funky Homosapien)
Half of Earth is a lifeless desert, devastated by global conflict and environmental catastrophe. Giant corporate conglomerates rule everything and everyone; the people are powerless. The only relief is music, especially intergalactic rap battles in which the saviors of tomorrow vie for bragging rights and the opportunity to lead the people back to primacy.
Some millennial prophecy by Zechariah Sitchen? An apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster starring John Travolta? Nope. It's the premise and setting for Dan the Automator's latest production tour de force, Deltron 3030, a funny and intense dystopian space-age hip-hop teleplay with lyrics by Del the Funky Homosapien, turntables by Kid Koala, and cameos from De La Soul's Prince Paul, Blur's Damon Albarn, Sean Lennon, and others. If the Orwellian scenario reminds you of the helplessness and anger you feel every time you look at a high phone bill or consider the size of the ozone hole, that's no accident: the concept sprang from the collaborators' own very real concerns about the state of the planet in 2001.
“Multinational conglomerates like CNN, Disney, and Microsoft are taking over entire industries worldwide,” says the Automator, aka Dan Nakamura, as he sits in his studio, fondly named the Glue Factory. “What's the impact of that going to be down the line?” Don't get him wrong. Nakamura — the fader-instigator behind Kool Keith's Dr. Octagonecologyst; last year's Handsome Boy Modeling School release Hey… Where's Your Girl; and tracks and remixes for Cornershop, Primal Scream, Cibo Matto, the Beastie Boys, Herbie Hancock, and Rob Swift — is assuredly not antibusiness.
An entrepreneur in his own right, the 34-year-old San Francisco native has parlayed his successful career as an underground hip-hop producer and remixer — some call him the “king of alternative hip-hop” — into 75 Ark, an independent record label that just released Deltron 3030 and the Automator's specially priced retrospective A Much Better Tomorrow. The imprint is gearing up for full-length releases by the Bay Area band the Coup, the U.K.-based Unsung Heroes, Executive Lounge (featuring Encore, Architect, Persevere, and Grand the Visitor), Sammy's Romanians (with the Automator and Company Flow's El-P), and singles by Encore and the Nextmen.
So Nakamura is no bleeding heart, and his sense of humor and earthiness disguise his darker side. But he doesn't take lightly either environmental suicide or the specter of encroaching monoculture: in other words, the McDonald's-ization of the entire globe. He brings that same resistance against homogeneity to his ambitious and multilayered productions. Steering well clear of slick, commercial production formulas, the Automator, who is also a classically trained violinist, weaves classical themes and dissonant airs through riffs and figures absorbed from years of DJing and digging soul, R&B, orchestrated ’60s pop, early rap, and good ol' fatback funk. And he achieves maximum sonic punch by compressing and EQing his performances and samples with a smorgasbord of vintage tube equipment.
Scratch the surface, and you'll find that Nakamura possesses a healthy respect for George Martin and Brian Wilson, has roots in Mantronix and Hank Shocklee, and admires Nellee Hooper, DJ Premier, Portishead, and Timbaland. Nakamura's wide historical and stylistic perspective shouldn't come as a surprise. From his days spent DJing at San Francisco State University's KPOO in the mid-’80s, to hanging with the Digital Underground, to mixing DJ Shadow's Endtroducing in the mid-’90s, to cutting tracks for the millennium with Kool Keith, Mike D., and Q-Bert, Nakamura has stayed at the center of hip-hop for more than a decade. But he's really just getting started.
Why do you gravitate toward making conceptual hip-hop operas?
It's all those years of show tunes! [Laughs.] I buy a lot of records, and I'm a big fan of music. I tend to be really disappointed by records with only one or two good songs or eight different producers and no continuity through the album. Sometimes one producer gels really well with the artist and you wonder, “Why didn't this guy do the whole album?” When I set out to do an album, I want to anchor it to something so you can listen from beginning to end and really enjoy the whole thing. That's what I would want. I like being drawn into an album. I've come to terms with the idea that my records aren't ever going to play side by side with Britney Spears or other Top 40 artists. I make records for a different audience and purpose. I want to bring people into another world where they can get into a whole atmosphere and vibe, which is hard enough to do on a 3-minute song, let alone a whole record.
Hip-hop is the easiest medium in which to give a lot of information in a short period of time, and I like to take advantage of that. Producing hip-hop is very different from producing other kinds of music. The producer in hip-hop generally brings the beats but doesn't guide the lyricist through the material like in pop. MCs get tapes of these ten beats and say, “Okay, I want that one,” but it's not a truly collaborative effort. In hip-hop the producer generally writes the music, which doesn't always happen in rock. But in hip-hop the music and lyrics tend to be done separately. I don't like that approach. I like to first give the vocalist an idea of where I'm going, get their feedback, talk about it, and add to what I've done to make something that really fits them, rather than just accept the “I like that beat” approach.
Give me an example of how that sort of collaboration might work.
For the Handsome Boy Modeling School album, Prince Paul and I started at my house, doing a little pre-production on a drum machine, a little programmed bass line, and in some cases just the main recurrent sample. We had an idea of what we wanted to do — to use hip-hop as the starting point but to let it go other places. Paul likes to be conceptual — you can tell from the De La Soul records that he likes stories. We wanted to show the whimsical side of hip-hop, and we wanted to keep it open stylistically. So we made beats and parts of tunes and melodies, and we wrote out a list of people we wanted on the record. We'd work on a song until we thought it would be appropriate for a particular person to guest on. We'd talk about it with the artist, they'd show us what they'd written, and we'd bring it back into the studio and fit new parts around our original ideas to complement what was going on with their story line. It's a twofold process — very different from the usual hip-hop method, where the producer gives the MC a tape that already has the main groove and chorus, and the MC just rhymes over it. When you do it like that, the creative interaction is very low. But when you really work together, you come up with that third idea that neither one of you would have come up with separately. Hopefully, that's the good idea!
A lot of different styles clearly inform your work. Tell me a little about your musical background.
I started out being really mad at my mom for making me practice violin when I was three years old. You don't want to practice when you're that young. I had a somewhat acrimonious relationship with classical music, because I had to practice a lot when I didn't really want to. I was taught the Suzuki Method in preschool — some Suzuki people came by our nursery school and convinced a lot of our parents to use the method. It really is like learning a language. I had a very hard time learning about chords later on, because as a string player you don't play a lot of chords. I was three years old, learning stuff by memory, and the Suzuki Method really does instill a lot in you. I played classical violin daily until I was about 15 or 16 years old. I'm an okay sight-reader; I could play the notes, but I had a harder time with the timing. Once I heard it I could play it, but the meters were a little hard for me to grasp as a sight-reader. I did recitals and orchestra concerts. I was by no means a prodigy, but I was good for my age.
How did you get involved with producing?
“The first few singers I worked with said to me, ‘Where are you going?’”
The beginning of my producing career was a bit confusing because the structure of pop music is a lot different from classical music. Usually in pop the structures follow this “ABABC” sort of form, and everything loops back around and recurs. Generally, you don't flat or sharp little bits along the way. It's very cyclical. Classical music is more linear; you start in one place but end up someplace else. Coming from that classical background, I had some trouble adjusting to those different relationships. By the same token, ever since I was a kid buying records, I loved a lot of different kinds of music, so I had plenty of exposure to pop and soul. But I was enjoying that music just as a listener, without analyzing the mechanics of it the way I did with classical. I hadn't realized how cyclical it really is. Also, pop music is so orchestrated that it's easy to overlook the underlying structure. In one sense, it was a bit of a regression going into pop music, but it didn't seem any simpler to create. There were proper keys to go to after the bridge, chords you wouldn't resolve to, and notes you wouldn't sharp or flat within a section. There were even more rules than I was used to from classical music. The first few singers I worked with said to me, “Where are you going?”
So how did your approach develop?
It's funny — I tried to figure out the right way to produce pop, and I realized I didn't like the right way that much. That's just not the way I write. With most pop songs, you can play the whole thing on the piano — it's 3-chord music if you really break it down. Again, I don't think in terms of chords; I think about individual lines, because that's what the violin is based on. My production is about lines — like in free jazz, where they're running up and down lines. I'm not trying to get all pretentious, but I do think in those terms. There are lots of ways to anchor a song besides chords. You can still come back around to a recurrent chorus, but you can go where you want to go as well. Sure, chords will happen as things overlap, but you don't have to think about a song in terms of chord structure — it's just a different philosophy of writing.
Once I accepted that as my way of working, everything was okay. Also, dissonance is a lot more accepted in hip-hop than in pop, and the beats are so prominent that no one's worried about the notes under the beat — they just want it to sound good. That solid backbone allows me to do whatever I want over it, and the beat will always bring people back even from very long excursions. The bass, the beat, and the hook are home base. They anchor everything, and the more solid they can be, the better. Then you can take everything else further because people have something to come back to.
So is drums-first always your approach?
No. My approach is… nothing! I start with whatever strikes me at the moment. I may start a production by programming the drums on my MPC-2000, but chances are I already have the piece's melody, hook, and mood in mind. If I'm making sample-based music, I'll usually start with the sample and work around that. I tend to program in minor keys — slightly dark, even though I'm not a dark or unhappy person. That's a weird thing. My personal feelings don't necessarily have as much to do with it as the feel I have for music at the time, which is more about what's around me. If I'm in New York, it might be more intense; back here in San Francisco, it might be more laid back. On the Handsome Boy Modeling School album, we were doing a song called “Sunshine,” and the feeling I wanted was like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. I didn't copy Pet Sounds, and I knew it wasn't going to end up like that. But I wanted some of that spirit, particularly the intimacy of the vocals. I take a seed of an idea and it grows into something different.
Could you give me an example of that?
I could start with a sample. For example, on Handsome Boy's “The Truth,” we were using a sample by Galt McDermott — a great songwriter whose crowning achievement was Hair — from a song called “Coffee Cold.” It was kind of a jazzy, soul vibe, a little loose, so my goal was to chop it up so that it had the 4/4 drive. We chopped it up and added the beats, and it sounded torchy, like something a jazz lounge singer would sing. I picked the person I wanted to sing on it — Roisin Murphy — and let her know we were going for a sort of Billie Holiday — Etta James thing, and she started working on the lyrics. When we finally took it into the studio, I looked for the equipment that would tailor the whole production around the original sound of the sample. In that case, that meant using tube mics, old Neve preamps, and 2254 compressors to get that edgy popping-through sound. At the same time, I wanted the fidelity of modern recording. I didn't want the thin bandwidth a song of an older era would have, but by the same token, I didn't want it perfectly clean and lush like it would be today. That's the way I've always worked with samples.
Unfortunately, nowadays it's not as feasible for me to sample a lot of things. It's just too expensive. So I do a lot less audio collaging than I used to do. I come from the era — the late ’80s and early ’90s — when you had groups like Eric B. & Rakim, Beastie Boys, Coldcut, De La Soul, and Public Enemy, who were collaging a lot of music together with samples. That's not financially possible today. You can do it on a very low-key level, but my records are released widely enough that it's not a viable possibility. I could submerge the samples, but when I'm working with samples I want to go all out. I'd rather use 1 sample and pay for it than use 20 and hope I'm going to get away with it. In the old days I'd try to get different pieces of music from different periods to work together, whereas now I'm more interested in getting different styles to fit together while sticking to one production value throughout a track.
But there are still many kinds of samples in your productions.
What you might be hearing is the prominent sample along with other things made to sound like samples. That's been a long time developing. About 1992, I started working with Soulsides — DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, all those guys — and we did a lot of those records at my parents' house. We'd go out digging for beats and buying records together. I realized then that although I loved the music, beats, and cool samples, I didn't have the same vintage appreciation that Josh [Davis, aka DJ Shadow] had. He was really into the music for collector's reasons. He would spend months digging for records; my thing was looking for old equipment like synths and tape echoes. So now he helps me with beats and samples, but I'll show him how to do the stuff for real with my Mellotron or Space Echo — they sound like samples! For instance, sometimes I'll sample string notes, but mostly I'll use the Kurzweil K2000 to play string sounds and then play violin on top of that, so it sounds like it's real — you get the mistuning and the bow attacks. I always sample drums. I really believe in the sound of sampled drums.
But I'll play the strings, or I'll get real guitar or keyboard players. Since releasing more records, I've met more people who can play the parts I need — guys like [keyboardists] Jon Medeski and Money Mark. It makes it easier to get the performances I'm looking for. Sometimes I'll try to get someone to play an idea inspired by a sample, but often I just think about James Brown. I don't want to sample James Brown because so many people have, but a lot of his rhythmic and musical ideas are so great that I'll steer in that direction, even if I'm not explicitly thinking about a certain James Brown part.
But your records have more of a sampled-loop feel than a live feel.
In some ways, everything is a sample for me. Even when people play live, I put it into Pro Tools and chop it up. A lot of times I'll make the beats on the MPC, but after I make it I do all the fine adjustments in Pro Tools. I like to program on the MPC because I like the feel of the pads, but I don't like the quantizing, so I'll move the beats into Pro Tools and make them a little bit late usually. I'll just record to Pro Tools in analog; I won't make sure everything's digital. I'm not such a stickler for keeping everything in the digital domain; I like what inputs and outputs do, so I just let them do it. If I don't like the way it sounds, I do it again until it sounds the way I want it.
One more thing: why do people call you the Automator?
I've been the Automator since around 1986, and I don't even remember how I got the name. I wasn't making records at the time; I was just trying to DJ. It's a pretty hard name, and I'm not really like that. That's why I've changed it to Dan the Automator — it's much friendlier. [Laughs.] A kinder, gentler Automator.
James Rotondi (aka Roto) plays keyboards, guitar, and other instruments for Mr. Bungle, the Grassy Knoll, and Trilon (with Michael Shrieve). He regularly writes for Spin, CMJ New Music Monthly, Guitar World, and other publications.
Automator on the Fader: Sniffing Out the Glue Factory
“The Roland Space Echo — that's a great piece,” gushes Dan Nakamura, sitting comfortably in his home studio, dubbed the Glue Factory, and eyeing his vintage Roland RE-150 and RE-201 tape echo units. “The 201 has EQ and the 150 doesn't, but in terms of sound quality the 150 is better.” Nakamura has a well-informed opinion on just about every piece of gear in his extensively equipped studio, and he has a particular fascination with older, more eccentric devices, like the Memory Moog Plus or the Maestro Rhythm ’N Sound for Guitar, which automatically adds rhythmic accompaniment to every pick stroke. But Dan the Automator deems a few devices indispensable — namely, the Urei 1176 compressor (his chief drum compressor), a pair of Avalon M-5s (“the very best mic preamp in the world, in my opinion”), and a trio of Sequential Circuits Studio 440 sampling drum machines. “Those are my absolute favorites,” he says of the 440s, “and they're on practically every single song on all my records.”
The brain center of his studio is a Macintosh G4 running a Pro Tools/24 Mixplus system with an Apogee AD-8000 interface, which Nakamura describes as “a Pro Tools interface with a much better A/D/A converter.” Though the Pro Tools/24 Mixplus is configurable for up to 64 voices, Nakamura sets it up for just 32. He rarely uses MIDI to trigger his samples, instead preferring to import all samples into Pro Tools before the final mix, which he likes to burn to an Alesis Masterlink: “It's a CD burner that records 24-bit, 96 kHz audio,” explains Nakamura, “so you can do your 2-track mixes to it — almost your whole album — in 24-bit, burn it to CD, save it in 24- or 16-bit, and even burn backup copies. And it's only $1,200, the same price as a DAT machine, but DATs break or get dirty.” Favorite plug-ins? You guessed it: “Opcode's Vinyl; I love that fucking thing. I use it to make recordings sound like I sampled them from vinyl. I'm glad my copy still works, since Opcode is gone now. I also use the stock Digidesign compressor a lot, but not as my main compressor. It's really good for reining in sounds and keeping levels consistent.”
The Glue Factory's main console is an Otari 54, an early ’90s SSL knockoff with fader automation and ten sends, monitored through a pair of Genelec 1030s. “The Otari is better than the SSL,” Nakamura says, “a really good board. It doesn't have all the compressors in it like the SSLs, but it has some of the best gain staging of any console ever made.” The sends go out to an impressive array of outboard gear, in particular the many preamps and compressors that lend Automator records their distinctively warm, punchy sound. Nakamura's arsenal includes a pair of Neve 1074s — “the mastering Neves with a click for every position” — which he uses on all his drum recordings; Urei 1176s; a T.C. Electronic Finalizer 9600; an Aphex Dominator II Precision Multiband peak limiter, model 720 (which Nakamura admits is “not the best limiter in the world, but if you use it lightly it brings a nice sheen to your top end”); a Joemeek compressor for “clean electric guitars because it adds a nice midrange punch”; an Empirical Lab Distressor; and a Summit Audio TLA-100A tube leveling amplifier, which he uses often as a “vocal compressor for a nice thick sound and good presence.” One of his favorite compressors is the Focusrite Red: “I use this on a lot of my 2-track mixes going out to tape. It gives a nice warm bass.”
Nakamura's rack boasts a pair of Neve 2254A compressors salvaged from an old console for “the quintessential Neve sound,” he says. “I use them on vocals that need to really cut through.” He also has a DBX 163 compressor for bass; a Tube Tech LCA-2C stereo tube compressor for a “round bass sound”; a Drawmer 1961 tube equalizer that “I run a lot of programmed material through”; a Manley Variable MU, “a tube compressor that's very clean — best on stuff where you want to smooth out and clarify the top end in a very subtle manner”; an Altec 1567 mic mixer, which he uses to process “a lot of hi-hats and top-end stuff for a nice sheen”; and four Audix multiband EQs and preamps, “roughly the equivalent of the 33114 Neve EQs.”
He racks vintage and modern effects together as well: a Digitech Talker talk box that he used on a Herbie Hancock remix (“I took the horns and talked over them. It doesn't matter what you say into it — it just makes it seem like something's happening”); an H&H Multi-Echo that allows for echo, repeats, or both at the same time; Lexicon PCM-90 and PCM-80 reverbs; a T.C. Electronic M2000 reverb delay; a Roland VP-9000 Vari-Phrase; a Digitech TSR-24 multi-effector (“especially for autopanning”); an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer used on vocals “to thicken up the bottom a little”; an ancient DeltaLab Effectron “for basic analog delay”; an old MXR Pitch Transposer; a Biamp spring reverb; a rack-mount SansAmp for “whenever I want things to sound a little more ill”; and a Roland SVC-350, “the best vocoder for the early ’80s sound — it shows up on the Dr. Octagon album a lot, and the hook for ‘Magnetizing’ from Handsome Boy went through one of these.”
This is just the beginning of the Automator's effects madness: Nakamura also uses a plethora of pedals, including the Z-Vex Fuzz Factory and Seek Wah boxes, the Electro-Harmonix Octave MultiPlexer, and the Dunlop Buddha Wah. The latter is “not the best wah pedal,” he says, “but the quiet-est ever. You don't hear the opening and closing; it's really smooth; and it's what I reach for when I want something more discreet than a conventional wah. When you run something through an old guitar pedal, it's like nothing else.” Some of his favorite filters are the Sherman Filter Bank, Moogerfooger's Ring Modulator and Lo-Pass Filter, and the Waldorf Miniworks 4-pole VCF, which he extols as “good for taking out bottom and doing weird effects.”
As he has reduced his dependence on source sampling, Nakamura has expanded his collection of instruments and tone generators. His keyboards and sound-module collection include a Roland Juno 106, Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, Wurlitzer electric piano, Sequential Circuits Six-Trak, Roland JP-8000, Kurzweil K2000, Rhodes VK-1000 organ, and a Roland XV-3080 sound module, which Nakamura uses for its “hundreds and hundreds of great sounds,” he says. “I use it all the time now — horns, orchestra brass, strings, you name it. For what it does and what I paid for it, I'm fully impressed.” Besides using the Sequential Circuits 440s, he also programs beats on a Minisyncussion — “an 808 kick in a box” — and an Akai MPC-2000. And though his Vestax PMC-06 DJ mixer and Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables reinforce his hip-hop cred, there is something eerily Brian Wilson — esque about the way Nakamura raises his hand over his vintage theremin. For microphones, Nakamura believes in options: Neumann KM-254 tube overheads, a B&K 4006 for guitars — “very clear sounding” — Telefunken V-72s, and a Neumann TLM-170 solid-state microphone that he calls “my new favorite mic.”
But as fond as Nakamura's become of his many “friends,” two pieces in particular really send him. “The Microcon Technosaurus,” he sighs. “It's just a little 1-note synth, similar to a Roland SH-101, and all the rest of it is filters. But it's incredible what you can do with it.” But even the cute, diminutive Technosaurus is second in Nakamura's heart to his plastic Liberace Learn ’N’ Play Electronic Keyboard: “It's a very special keyboard to me,” the producer says. “It hasn't made its way onto a record yet, but oh, it will!”