Alchemist of Alternative Rap

Dan Nakamura is one of the planet’s few platinum-selling artists who can patronize a busy West Hollywood hotel and go unrecognized. Hanging out in the lobby of the Mondrian, the quiet, unassuming San Franciscan is just another guest talking about his passion for hip-hop and hip-huggers. Not that he’s exactly angling for attention. Nakamura, as easygoing as they come, is a man who likes to work under cover.

Cooking up myriad projects with friends and other collaborators from the worlds of rock and rap, the DJ and producer known in underground hip-hop circles as Dan the Automator is dance music’s great alchemist of the moment. A prolific idea man who can weave social criticism into party-time hip-hop or make non-ironic love songs co-exist with sharp-tongued humor, Nakamura is one of the leaders of the current alternative rap movement, a subgenre in which craven materialism and casual sexism are ditched in favor of playful experimentation.

An album fan who likes to create CDs that coalesce as themes, Nakamura has had a hand in some of the most venturesome hip-hop records of the last few years, including “Dr. Octagonecologyst,” a collaboration with rapper Kool Keith; “Handsome Boy Modeling School,” an album in which Nakamura and fellow producer Prince Paul play the owners of a male modeling academy; “Deltron 3030,” a dystopian manifesto with the rapper Del Tha Funkee Homosapien; and “Lovage,” a meditation on love and sex in which the heavy-petting bedroom imprecations come oozing out of the grooves.

His latest, a set of remixes of tracks from such artists as Zero 7, Tortoise, the Doves and De la Soul called “Wanna Buy a Monkey?” comes out Tuesday.

All of these albums contain a palimpsest of imaginative samples, polished lyrics that play tricks with language and pop culture and lots of dexterous turntable maneuvers. “Lovage,” which is subtitled “Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By,” strays further from hip-hop than any previous Nakamura project and spotlights his songwriting deftness.


“The reason I make concept records is because I buy a lot of records where there are only two or three good tracks,” says Nakamura, who speaks in a rushed torrent of words, as if his thoughts are outrunning his mouth. “I just think that’s a rip-off, and so I wanna give people their money’s worth.

“When you listen to something like Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ it takes you through thoughts and moods. I want to have a little bit of that going on.”

Nakamura’s most successful project thus far has been Gorillaz, a “fake” hip-hop band whose 2001 self-titled album has sold more than a million copies in the U.S. and landed on many critics’ best-of-the-year lists. A collaboration of Nakamura, Del and Damon Albarn, singer of the English rock band Blur, Gorillaz is a cartoon band whose “members” were drawn by Jamie Hewitt, best known as the creator of the “Tank Girl” comic book.

“Sometimes the fates smile on you,” Nakamura says of the success of the album. “I loved the record when I was making it, but you can’t predict what the public is gonna buy.”

Perhaps, Nakamura suggests, it has something to do with the fact that Gorillaz was “the new version of the Archies!”

Nakamura, who will be part of the live Gorillaz show that comes to the Hollywood Palladium on March 8 and 9, is short-changing the music, an amiable blend of acoustic exotica, Albarn’s floating vocals and Nakamura’s gently knotty beats. It’s not something he likes to dwell on too much.

“Music is not an analytical thing,” he says. “People all have different quirks and artistic sensibilities, and I just get a lot of enjoyment working with all the people I work with.”

Given the current state of so much rock and rap, with singers declaiming stridently with scowls and furrowed brows, Nakamura’s use of comedy is a curious anomaly. But it’s become a trademark of sorts, from the proto-"Zoolander” skits on “Handsome Boy ... " to the tumescent posturing of “Lovage,” which Nakamura calls his tribute to “the love album of the kind that Marvin Gaye used to make.” His use of humor to communicate earnest messages is very effective.

“Handsome Boy Modeling School,” for example, is an album about the artificiality of gangsta rap.

“It was all about rappers who pick out alter egos,” says Nakamura. “We just took it to the extreme. I mean, why do [rappers] name themselves after drug dealers and talk about all this money they’re making? What’s to love about that? I’m not making a great message, but I think social issues are relevant to what I’m doing. Humor is a good way to get into people’s heads.”

Nakamura, the son of a civil engineer and an educator, was trained as a classical violinist from ages 3 to 15. But he chafed at the rigors of his formal musical education and gravitated to rock and hip-hop, eventually becoming a club DJ in San Francisco.

“Malcolm McLaren’s World Famous Supreme Team brought it all together for me,” says Nakamura, citing the music impresario’s 1983 hip-hop record “Duck Rock.” “My love of record collecting, hip-hop, turntables: It all kind of converged at once, and I thought, ‘Yeah, I see now.’”

Nakamura’s first record, a 1989 EP called “Music to Be Murdered By,” was, according to the artist, the first record to include sound effects specifically for DJ turntable battling. He eventually hooked up with the hip-hop label Solesides and worked on a number of records, including DJ Shadow’s seminal 1996 album “Endtroducing ... ,” which was recorded at Nakamura’s studio, the Glue Factory.

Nakamura’s modus operandi from the start of his hip-hop career has been to work on projects that strike his fancy and maybe sell some records in the process. The fact that “Gorillaz” has performed as well as it has is just a bonus, not validation.

The album’s Grammy nomination for best rap performance by a duo or group, for the single “Clint Eastwood,” has been a kick, however.

“My mother knows what the Grammys are,” he says. “And there’s something good about that.”


Marc Weingarten is a regular contributor to Calendar.