By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Dan "The Automator" Nakamura laughs when he recalls how his DJ career ended before it really began. The memory's probably funnier now than it was then, especially since his latest album So...How's Your Girl? -- a partnership with another reformed DJ, Prince Paul, under the name Handsome Boy Modeling School --just hit stores. About 15 years ago, being a DJ was all Nakamura wanted to do. He wasn't even out of high school yet when he was learning how to spin records and make his own pause tapes and drum-machine beats, the kind all fledgling hip-hop producers begin with. Born and raised in San Francisco, he had already fallen in love with hip-hop, especially after hearing the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the record that served as the gateway into hip-hop for everyone around Nakamura's age. "It wasn't the only thing in my world," he remembers. "I just thought that was the coolest thing going on."
Once the Sugarhill Gang started the courtship, it was only a matter of time before "Scratchin'" -- a collaboration between the World Famous Supreme Team and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren that prominently featured turntables -- put a ring on his finger in 1984. He began collecting 12-inch singles by UTFO, Whodini, Doug E. Fresh, and later, Run-DMC and LL Cool J. From that moment on, Nakamura was committed to being involved with hip-hop. And until he reached high school a few years later, he thought his involvement would revolve around his own set of turntables.
But while Nakamura was in high school, he noticed that some of the other kids in his mostly Asian-American neighborhood, much younger than he was, were also playing around with turntables. And they were good, much better than he was. Much better, in fact, than he thought he could ever be. Nakamura couldn't have known at the time that the kids he was envying would become some of the most talented DJs (now, apparently, they're called turntablists) ever to scratch a record, collectively known as the Invisbl Skratch Piklz: Mix Master Mike, D-Styles, Yogafrog, Shortkut, and Q-Bert. Two of its members, Mix Master Mike (erstwhile DJ for the Beastie Boys) and Q-Bert, were inducted into the Disco Mix Club (DMC) Hall of Fame last year. Nakamura had every reason to feel inferior to them, even if he was better than most.
"I was a pretty good DJ," Nakamura remembers, on the phone from his San Francisco home. "Maybe not the best in the world, but you know, pretty good, right? I thought I was going to be a really good DJ-editor-remixer guy or something maybe. But when I was coming up, becoming a good DJ, it was the same period when Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, all these other people were coming up in my neighborhood." He laughs. "I'm in high school, and I see this kid in junior high school, Q, and I'm like, 'I'll never be able to do that.'"
He laughs again, barely finishing his sentence. "At some point, Q-Bert really inspired me to not DJ," Nakamura continues. "All of a sudden, these guys around me are light years beyond me, and they're years younger than me. It was inspiration by discouragement."
But Nakamura stayed involved with hip-hop, shifting his attention away from cutting other people's records together with his turntables and focusing on coming up with his own sounds. He took on production gigs throughout the early 1990s, slowly building his reputation around the Bay Area while he picked up the skills to take on the rest of the world. It finally paid off in 1995 when he teamed up with former Ultramagnetic MC "Kool" Keith Thornton and Q-Bert to record the self-titled debut and finale by one of Thornton's many alter-egos, Dr. Octagon.
Originally released on the tiny Bay Area-based Bulk Recordings -- DreamWorks would essentially release the same album a year later as Dr. Octagonecologyst -- the record became an underground sensation, as Nakamura's dirty, arty beats saw and raised Thornton's wacked-out sensibility. Around the same time, Nakamura released an EP as The Automator, A Better Tomorrow, which was also met with acclaim, based on its John Woo-inspired, operatic take on hip-hop. When DreamWorks released Dr. Octagonecologyst, it was accompanied in stores by a separate disc, Instrumentalyst, that proved Nakamura had as much, if not more, to do with the success of Dr. Octagon as anyone else.
But just as the project was about to take off on an even grander scale -- the DreamWorks reissue had exposed the group to a new audience, and the band's slot on Lollapalooza seemed as if it would do more of the same -- Thornton disappeared. Dr. Octagon was forced to drop off the bill, and shortly thereafter, the group disbanded. Nakamura understands why Thornton did it, and in a way, he's thankful.
"We were about to start embarking on tours and stuff, and Keith didn't really want to do that," Nakamura explains. "He kind of wanted to get out of it and go on and do his solo record. Basically, Keith is a real cool guy, and we're cool and everything. But he didn't want to have a full alternative audience; he wanted to have a rap audience. He's a New York rap guy from the Heavy D-LL Cool J period of time. To have no rap audience at all and more like a bored, alternative audience, he didn't really think that's where he wanted to be ultimately. He wanted to do his own stuff. He's pretty much a free spirit. You know, a few things came out that sound negative, but essentially, what it was was just him trying to get out of touring.