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Dan "The Automator" Nakamura laughs when he recalls how his DJ career ended before it really began. Fifteen years ago, as a high school student, DJing was all Nakamura wanted to do. 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. The San Francisco native had already fallen in love with hip-hop, a passion ignited by the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." "It wasn't the only thing in my world," he remembers. "I just thought that was the coolest thing going on."
The Sugarhill Gang started the courtship, but 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 twelve-inch singles by UTFO, Whodini, Doug E. Fresh, and later, Run-DMC and LL Cool J. From that moment on, Nakamura was committed to hip-hop.
While Nakamura was still a teenager, he noticed that some of the younger kids in his mostly Asian-American neighborhood were also playing around with turntables. And they were good, much better than he was. Much better, in fact, than he thought he could everbe. Nakamura couldn't have known at the time that the kids he was envying would become some of the most talented DJs ever to scratch a record, collectively known as the Invisibl 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.
"I was a pretty good DJ," Nakamura reflects 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 adds, "I'm in high school, and I see this kid in junior high school, Q-Bert, and I'm like, 'I'll never be able to do that.'"
He laughs, 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 from sampling others to 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 picking up the skills to take on the rest of the world. It finally paid off in 1995, when he teamed with former Ultramagnetic MC "Kool" Keith Thornton and Q-Bert to record the self-titled debut by one of Thornton's many alter egos, Dr. Octagon.
Originally released on the tiny Bay Area-based Bulk Recordings (DreamWorks released the same album a year later as Dr. Octagonecologyst), the record became an underground sensation, as Nakamura's dirty, arty beats raised Thornton's wacked-out sensibility. Around the same time, Nakamura released an EP as The Automator, A Better Tomorrow, which also was 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 instrumental disc, Instrumentalyst, which 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 aimed to capitalize on that), 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.
"And you know what, I can't blame him," he continues. "The truth of the matter is, I like to make records. I don't want to do shows as much as I want to make records. It wasn't like the end of the world for me. Instead of touring I got to go produce a bunch of records."