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Date: Tue Mar 19 2002 - 23:26:39 CET

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    Automator for the People
    Why does everyone from Beck to Ibrahim Ferrer want a piece of Dan
    By Andrew Weiner
    Posted Monday, March 18, 2002, at 1:53 PM PT

    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 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 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 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 .

    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 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 .

    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 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

    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 .
    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.

    cool article on the Automator.

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