A Hip-Hop Element: Dan the Automator Launches Audio Alchemy Deejay Series at Yoshi’s San Francisco

Dan Nakamura — better known in the music industry as Dan the Automator — has enjoyed phenomenal success as a producer in hip-hop and beyond, putting together such notable albums as the eponymous debut for Gorillaz, a pair of Handsome Boy Modeling School collaborations with Prince Paul, and the high-concept “Deltron 3030” record. He’s also the man behind Audio Alchemy, a new late-night performance series at Yoshi’s San Francisco showcasing some of the most heralded names in deejaying (such as DJ Qbert, DJ Shortkut, Kid Koala and Mix Master Mike) in tandem with musicians, rappers and visual artists. The bi-monthly Saturday series kicked off on Feb. 25; the next show will be March 13, when Nakamura will unveil his latest project, featuring Emily Wells. He sat down with the Nichi Bei Weekly to talk about Audio Alchemy, among other things.

Dan Nakamura photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald/Nichi Bei Weekly

Nichi Bei Weekly: So tell me about this series you’re curating at Yoshi’s — how did it come into being?

Dan the Automator: Sho [Kamio], the executive chef at Yoshi’s, is a good friend of mine, and he’s been asking me over the years if I would do something or play there.

I have a big interest in music and the development of the music that not only I have done, but all the people around me have done. All these people are friends of mine, and I have a big interest in that whole side of the world. At the same time, a lot of people don’t really understand the relationship between the whole deejay culture and the creation of modern music. I thought it would be nice to do something where you could connect some of the synapses. For example, like with Qbert, he’s the greatest scratch deejay around and influenced every record that has a scratch on it — and he’s also a friend of mine for 20 years. So it’s like, boom, let’s do something.

In my mind, I thought it would be really cool to have a world class deejay, Shortkut, who’s been with the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and do a party with him; have a lounge where you can get drinks, sit down and relax; and have this jazz club where people can go and see a little performance. Somewhat impromptu, like a jam as opposed to a concert, on Saturday night for twenty bucks.

NBW: For the next show on March 13, you’re going to bring in Terence Yin and Daniel Wu from alivenotdead.com, right?

DTA: They’re more hosting with me because they’re friends of mine, and it helps bring in the whole vibe. My cousin Eric Nakamura, who owns Giant Robot, they’re all going to help. So we’re all bringing that in, connecting the dots of the communities of all the people that we deal with. They’re more on the party end, having a good time, and a little more on the art end; alivenotdead is basically an Asian networking thing for various artists and painters and what not, and as you know Giant Robot has always been a big proponent of the arts.

NBW: On the subject of connecting the dots, can you talk about your connection to Qbert?

DTA: We’ve known each other since high school, before any of us were well known. I actually met him in Stockton. We were doing a deejay party, and in the middle of it, he came out and did this deejay scratching thing; it was a battle with Mix Master Mike. I met him and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m never going to deejay again.’

NBW: Because he was just so good?

DTA: Yeah, you think these two local kids come out of nowhere, so you’re like, ‘I’m not going to be that good, these local kids are incredible.’

We’ve been friends ever since then. We’re all from the Bay Area, we all deejayed in the same scene for a long time. That’s where we all know each other from, Shortkut as well.

NBW: Now you’re famous — how would you say life has changed for you since the time when you first met those guys?

DTA: Two things happen when you have a little bit of notoriety. You get a little bit of ability to do things that you might not have been able to do before. And other people who appreciate what you do are more accessible, so you can meet different people you might want to collaborate with… That’s the biggest perk — if you’re musically validated in a scene, you get the ability to do some things with other people that are kind of special.

NBW: In recent years, have you been branching out beyond hip-hop?

DTA: To be honest, it’s not a transition… I don’t really make that many hip-hop records, I’ve never made that many. But, that being said, that’s the culture I come from.

I love music — straight up. My techniques, a lot of them come from hip-hop. But I’ve played musical instruments since I was three years old.

NBW: What instruments did you play growing up?

DTA: I played violins for like 12 years. I actually stopped because my fingers would dry up and bleed. I wasn’t great, either. I was perfectly adequate, [but] I wasn’t going to have a career in orchestra… It did really teach me about the way music is structured, but I’ve always liked to listen to and do music. The evolution from deejaying to making beats on top of that stuff, to keyboards, to just records — it happened pretty fast. Like I said, Qbert discouraged my deejay career pretty early.

NBW: What encouraged it before you met him, and put you on that path?

DTA: I think when hip-hop was coming out and Run DMC and all these guys were scratching, I was already buying records because I liked music, and I was like, ‘Oh, you can do stuff with records and music.’ The whole hip-hop culture is very immersive. It just became very interesting to me from a very early age and I knew that’s what I wanted to do… That would be the genesis and the evolution, and yes, I do come from a hip-hop feeling, but I’ve always loved a lot of different types of music.

NBW: Can you speak in general about how Asian Americans are making waves in hip-hop or the larger music industry? Because these guys that you’re showcasing are huge.

DTA: Yeah, they’re huge, but also, the thing is, they’re not making waves in hip-hop. They’re blazing their own trail. Qbert blazes his own trail, puts out his own records, does his own thing. Koala makes his own records. I don’t think the inroads are there. I’ve had inroads that I can’t really explain. Well, I can tell you why: you deliver the hits, then that happens.

It’s funny, because some of us get together once in a while. There’s a few of us: Chad [Hugo] from Neptunes, he’s Filipino; Mike [Shinoda] from Linkin Park, he’s Asian. But we joke about that stuff sometimes. We’ve been talking about how we should be the Asian Public Enemy, because we’re the only ones there — but no one’s angry enough to follow it.

Generally speaking, the music industry doesn’t help anyone out, so it’s not a racial thing. Maybe at the pop star level it is: ‘We want the teeny bopper blonde girl.’ But as far as artistry goes, you just got to deliver. The problem with Asians making inroads is there’s a much higher regard [in the Asian American community] placed on other things besides the arts. And this affects Asians not in music specifically, but all over the arts.

Versus another minority voice speaking, the [Asian] community doesn’t actively [speak out], so that goes to the level of, is there any interest, is there sponsor interest?

I have a theory — which my parents told me is totally not true, you have to preface it with that — but internment camps, some of my family was born in them, my parents. You get out, you’re all American citizens, and they come out, and my theory is, they grow up going, ‘Let’s not rock the boat.’ They aspire for positions that don’t [force you to] stick your neck out. This is my theory; no one else seems to believe me. Or, other people do believe me, but I’ve heard other people say otherwise. I think it created an environment, especially with Japanese Americans, where they shoot for not rocking the boat. I don’t know if that carries over in other [Asian communities], but that’s just my feeling. I’m not claiming to have a lot of knowledge, that’s just my opinion seeing my family.

NBW: Your folks were in camp, but they shot the theory down?

DTA: They were like, ‘No, no, no.’ But then again, they had very respectable jobs. Not that they would try to be a rock star. Or, [they might say,] ‘Why don’t you pursue that after you get your masters and your Ph.D.?’

NBW: So do you personally stick your neck out?

DTA: I do what I do. I don’t feel the need to pound on my own chest. I feel like the work should speak for itself. I’m willing to take a chance. I’m not going to tell anyone about me, I’m not going to say, ‘Check me out,’ but I will definitely take a chance and make a product and make a move. That’s something I’m totally comfortable with, sticking it out there creatively.

NBW: What’s on the horizon for you?

DTA: Not to reinvent the wheel, but with this next record I’m doing, I’d really like to get it out there, really get it happening, in this environment of no sales. I take it as a sort of an outlaw time, everything is in chaos, no record label can shut you out… Maybe now that the record labels don’t have this monopoly, maybe there will be a way, and I’d like to be a part of seeing that happen.

If the record doesn’t sell that much, but still does its thing where you’re like, ‘We got it out there,’ that to me would be really amazing. I’m not going to say it’s my goal to sell x amount of records, because who knows, it may not sell any records at all. But, if it doesn’t sell any records but somehow has enough downloads, enough fame that it becomes part of a listening minority’s consciousness somewhere, I’d be pretty happy. I have some advantages obviously, some people know me, so I can go through a couple doors, but we don’t have the financing or the backing. So we’ll see — it’s kind of like starting from scratch.

NBW: Anything else people should know?

DTA: Come out on March 13. I’m bringing out a new band; it’s going to be good. No joke, this woman Emily Wells is fantastic. It’s going to be amazing.

Read more about Dan the Automator at www.myspace.com/dantheautomator. For Audio Alchemy show times and details, call Yoshi’s San Francisco at (415) 655-5600 or visit www.yoshis.com

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