Dan The Automator
Dan “The Automator” Nakamura has never waited for approval or applause. For over two decades, he has created progressive, genre-warping music on his terms. Whether collaborating with like-minded artists such as Del the Funky Homosapien and Damon Albarn or scoring films (e.g., 2019’s Booksmart), he has disregarded accepted convention and fleeting trends. A producer, composer, engineer, and DJ, Nakamura remains in constant motion, performing on stages around the world and lending his singular artistic vision to one endeavor after another.
Raised in San Francisco’s Sunset District neighborhood, Nakamura began playing music at just three years old, when his mother enrolled him in violin lessons. Once he absorbed the pop and soul music of the late ’70s, he became enamored with rap groups like Run-DMC. In high school, he traded the violin for turntables, bought a drum machine, and built a studio in his parents’ basement. When the foam that he glued to the studio walls didn’t reduce the sound level upstairs, Nakamura wryly dubbed the noxious-smelling room the Glue Factory.
The Glue Factory became home base for countless rappers and producers in the ’90s. In addition to providing a space for artists from Bay Area label/crew Solesides to record, Nakamura assisted on records like DJ Shadow’s seminal 1996 debut Endtroducing….. At the same time, he and New York rap legend Kool Keith were working on the groundbreaking Dr. Octagonecologyst.
A sci-fi space odyssey narrated by Keith’s alter-ego Dr. Octagon—an intergalactic gynecologist and homicidal surgeon from Jupiter—Dr. Octagonecologyst recalibrated the parameters of rap. While other producers sampled the same jazz and James Brown records, Nakamura went left, using eerie string arrangements, grinding guitars, skull-cracking drums, and scratches from world-renowned turntablist DJ Qbert to score Octagon’s lurid tales of rectal rebuilding and facial rearrangements. Originally released independently on Nakamura’s label Bulk Recordings, the album sold by the thousands at record shops in the Bay Area before Mo’ Wax and Dreamworks re-released it in the UK and the US respectively.
In the wake of Dr. Octagonecologyst’s success, Nakamura made a series of unpredictable turns. First, he produced When I Was Born for the 7th Time, the raga-meets-indie-rock masterpiece from British band Cornershop, which was certified gold in the UK and ranked the number one album of 1997 by Spin. Then, Nakamura formed Handsome Boy Modeling School with Prince Paul, the producer behind iconic De La Soul albums like 3 Feet High and Rising. Handsome Boy Modeling School’s debut album So… How’s Your Girl? was hip-hop’s answer to the Chemical Brothers, a comical but banging and musically complex album that featured elite rappers like Del the Funky Homosapien and El-P while mining the intersection of rap and trip-hop. After his work with Prince Paul, Nakamura collaborated on two of the most influential records of the 2000s: Deltron 3030 and Gorillaz.
Set in the year 3030 (of course), Deltron 3030 is a dystopian rap opera scored by Nakamura’s brilliant amalgam of dark, lush string arrangements, thunderous drums, and spaced-out synths. Backed by these suites, Del the Funky Homosapien became Deltron, an aggrieved activist penning anti-capitalist screeds with the same fervor as the unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Released to widespread critical acclaim, the album remains a vivid and arresting epic unlike any the genre has produced. It is perhaps the closest rap will ever come to Orwell’s 1984.
The product of an organic and dynamic partnership between Blur lead singer Damon Albarn and Nakamura, Gorillaz is still timeless, a strange yet somehow harmonious fusion of alternative rock, rap, trip-hop, dub, and electronic music. The album also marked the beginning of creatively and commercially successful run for Nakamura. Featuring the haunting yet funky lead single “Clint Eastwood,” Gorillaz went platinum in both the US and Europe and currently boasts mover 500 million streams between all platforms. In the the span of three years, Nakamura produced two multi-platinum albums for lauded space rock band Kasabian, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum (2009) and Velociraptor! (2011). Event 2, the celebrated Deltron 3030 sequel, peaked at #6 on the Rap Album charts in 2013.
All while producing pioneering and high-charting albums, Nakamura has quietly made a name for himself as a film composer, crafting songs for films like Edgar Wright’s witty, manga-meets-video-game action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and the Jodie Foster directed crime-drama Money Monster (2016). In 2019, he was the sole composer for Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. Nakamura’s unique ability to create music that deftly juggles disparate moods set the tone for the hysterical coming-of-age comedy, which debuted to rave reviews at the SXSW Film Festival.
Today, Nakamura continues his balancing act, creating inspired music in every medium. In addition to scoring Broken Bread, the Roy Choi-hosted show on PBS/ Tastemade, he composed several songs for the forthcoming Netflix original film Always Be My Maybe starring Keanu Reeves, Ali Wong, and Randall Park. While there will undoubtedly be more albums from Nakamura and phenomenal collaborators on Bulk Recordings, there’s no telling where his artistic passions will lead him next.