The unassuming young man in our San Francisco home studio, admiring the view and wearing the basketball clinic t-shirt, was none other than Dan The Automator Nakamura, possibly the coolest and most creative hip hop producer around today. Nakamura is simply responsible for the most surreal, humorous, eclectic, sci-fi, beat-driven music being produced these days. Some compare his contemporary position to the place Brian Eno held for so many of us in the 1970s and '80s, and the comparison is deserved although, as he tells us, he's still working on and refining his technique.
He produced The Gorillaz' first album, and he was the driving force behind Dr. Octagon with Kool Keith; Del Tha Funkee Homosapien; and he produced Cibo Matto's Stereo Type A — that's just for starters.
It was Fleet Week in San Francisco (yes, America's most un-American city does celebrate our military at least once a year), and The Blue Angels tried to shock and awe us with their aerobatics, buzzing MondoGlobo's hilltop studio and nearly strangling the sound repeatedly as we recorded the show. But after a while, we just thought of it as part of the mix.
Lisa Rein joined me as co-host for the show, and got Dan The Automator to talk about his participation in the Creative Commons; and Producer Jeff Diehl also contributed to that discussion.
To listen the the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: As somebody who watches some MTV, I've been wondering: Why do you think Damon Albarn is so happy about having sunshine in a bag?
DAN THE AUTOMATOR: You know, I'm not really sure exactly. That was an interesting one. With that particular song, we had gone through a whole slew of various lyrics to get there. The way we would work is, we'd create melodics and timing, and then words would come last. He's a really brilliant songwriter.
RU: And Del is a brilliant rapper.
DAN: Absolutely, Del's my favorite. Actually, there's a new Deltron record coming. We're probably gonna be done recording it by the end of December... So some time next year.
RU: All along you've been working with almost infinite options, in terms of the sounds that you might use; like you might have some really corny bit of advertising and you mix in avant garde jazz and classical and hard rock and everything else. Is there some method that you have for figuring out what's appropriate to a particular artist or a particular song? Is it entirely intuitive?
DAN: I'm a big fan of all the types of music you've mentioned. I'm not so much into modern R&B and modern country and modern jazz, but everything else — old country, old R&B, old jazz and even pop music from the old days through now — I'm a big fan of all that stuff. And I've followed people that don't pay much attention to categorizing music, who are eclectic about their influences. So when it comes to making records for myself, I don't look at it so much as "This is a jazz kind of thing," or "This is rock," or whatever. I just go, "This'll sound good."
RU: You were in some ways right on the forefront of this change. Before, everybody was oriented towards genres. Everything had to fit a genre. And at a certain point, people started mixing them all up, which was a great relief, because it gets tiresome.
DAN: I agree. I was influenced by the early stages of hip-hop. In hip hop, you have guys like Run DMC rhyming over rock beats or really electronic beats. Or you have another group like A Tribe Called Quest rhyming over jazz beats. That's how hip hop was, originally.
RU: It's really true that hip hop was sort of the first form that was very liberal about its use of all kinds of other things and putting it into the mix.
DAN: Just with Run-DMC, they had stuff over old Monkees records, over The Knack, Aerosmith...
LISA REIN: You donated a track to the Creative Commons — Relaxation Spa Treatment.
DAN: First of all, the Creative Commons thing — the whole idea was to give music that people could freely use and license. Part of what's going on right now in music, sampling — taking little bits of songs — it's become a very expensive endeavor. I don't mind the fact that it's expensive because if you're using someone else's work, you should pay for it. That's my personal opinion. If they don't want you to use it, that's their business. That's okay.
But on the other side, I worked with (DJ) Shadow — we made really interesting recordings. And it's like Musique Concrete, which you could never do at this juncture in time because it's too expensive. It can't exist. You're losing a form of music. So I felt like I would like to at least contribute to the side of things where — if people do want to use something, or chop it up, they can do that. The thought that goes into that kind of stuff can bring out new ideas. And that will bring about more different kinds of music. I'd hate to see that whole thing go away.
JEFF DIEHL: Don't most artists sympathize with that view? Isn't the copyright law now mostly protecting the record companies or labels; isn't it the corporations who want to protect this stuff?
DAN: Well, it's a little bit of everything. Ultimately, like I said, if you made it and you didn't want someone else using it, that's your business. You know what I mean? It's a very fundamental principle to me. I respect that.
JEFF: But that's kind of an old school mentality, right?
RU: I would say, as a writer, if somebody quotes a couple of paragraphs of mine in the context of something larger, then I don't really have the right to say anything about it. All literature and all writing is built on that.
LISA: But you might want attribution for it.
RU: If they pretended it was their own? I suppose you could have a point.
DAN: When it's a recording, it could be the guy's voice. Maybe he doesn't want to lend his voice to this project, so I respect that side of it. I have to say that I regret that you won't see records introduced like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, because it's become too expensive to do. I'd like to see people contribute with things that people can use, chop up and change around.
When people sample me, sometimes I can't just clear it myself because it's through a label. But I always clear my side of it, because I feel like it's the same thing if you're using music in advertising. I don't really want to, say, advertise cigarettes or something like that, but pretty much anything else, I feel like it's okay because they're still bringing music out. And I feel the same way about someone using the music in a song. In general, I want people to have the ability to do something like that.
RU: In this context, what do you think about mashups? Have you had any of your songs used in mashups?
DAN: I've heard a few things hear and there. I come from a DJ background. Before we were making records, we were doing that all the time. I'm from San Francisco. We've been mixing all sorts of different music for years. It was part of the background that allowed me to get familiar with different kinds of music. So I don't find it to be refreshingly new, if you understand what I'm saying. But I'm glad people do it. But I also think the way some people do it; it's more for the idea of doing it than the sound... what comes out of it. I don't really enjoy those so much.
JEFF: The gimmick of taking two song titles that have the same word and then mashing them together...
RU: You seem to work entirely in terms of projects. Have you ever thought of trying to develop a solo career or forming a band?
DAN: There's one big flaw in that theory. I can't sing, I can't rhyme, and I like vocals.
RU: Do you relate yourself in any way to the idea of the great producer? There was Phil Spector and then Brian Eno.
DAN: I think they're operating on a higher level than I am, so far.
RU: Do you have trouble listening to the stuff that you've done in the past because you feel like it could've been better?
DAN: Well, I always feel like everything could've been better, but there's another thing involved — the ability to let go. I feel like records, movies, whatever — they're a snapshot in your development and in your life. I could still be working on Doctor Octogon right now. But some time, it has to go out there and live its life.
JEFF: Because theoretically, you could just continue to work on a project forever...
JEFF: Like software, you could release versions.
DAN: That's a little strange, but yeah. I feel like the edges are what make things interesting. If you listen to some of these bigger budget bands, it gets more polished as time goes on. And maybe you like the more polished version, but maybe you like the rawer versions.
RU: You choose some great surrealistic lyricists. Did you always have an affinity towards that?
DAN: I work with a lot of people who have, I should say, "alternate ways of thinking." And they find the most profound and most interesting ways of putting together lyrics. That's really enjoyable to me.
RU: You list your influences on your Myspace page. I wanted to just throw out a couple of them, because they were amusing and interesting. The BeeGees! Say what you love about the BeeGees.
DAN: Well, I was a little young when Saturday Night Fever came out. People kind of looked down on them for a couple of reasons — it was disco and there's a lot of falsetto involved. (Laughter all around.) I'm telling it like it is. But as far as songwriting goes, they put a stamp on the whole seventies partly because they were great songs that just keep going time after time.
DAN: The Wu Tang Clan is just really brilliant. I'm a fan of people who take their whole thing and put it into a concept. I love the music, but even more I just like them conceptually, and the attitude it takes to go make that.
RU: It's like people who develop mythologies around their band and have a whole cosmology, and that sort of started with P-Funk.
DAN: RZA is also an organizer. With Wu Tang Clan, there wasn't actually a group — it was a bunch of different people that he kind of brought together to be a group. And if you understand, you get nine ghetto cats together and you can organize and make that happen, you're on some shit. You've really got a focus there, you know? I give him credit for the whole concept, the strength of it.
RU: Tell us about the CD you brought with you.
DAN: NBA 2k7 is a soundtrack for the NBA's new videogame. And what I did with this was I picked various artists that represent various styles of hip hop and various styles of regional rap to do this — everything from Pop New York to underground New York: to the South; the Midwest; West Coast, Backpack, Real Flossy. I wanted to show the variation, the eclectic nature of the United States.